Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Walking in Colour: Another Look at Musical Ekphrasis through Marc Chagall's Jerusalem Windows

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Walking in Colour: Another Look at Musical Ekphrasis through Marc Chagall's Jerusalem Windows

Article excerpt

"Musical ekphrasis" was recently coined as a creative and critical figure to describe compositions that represent a work of art conceived in another medium. It has since enjoyed little resonance. This essay reassesses the validity and potential of musical ekphrasis, examining a composition by Jacob Gilboa that recreates Marc Chagall's Jerusalem Windows.

Ou'ir l'indiscutable rayon--comme des traits dorent et dechirent un meandre de melodies. (1)

--Stephane Mallarme, "Crise de vers"

The reciprocal relations of word and image have long overshadowed the ways that other arts are perceived to relate to each other. Nowadays, the way that the word relates to the image is often expressed as a function of ekphrasis. Although the earliest instances of ekphrasis are usually traced to Homer's elaborate description of the shield Hephaestus makes for Achilles in The Iliad or to Vergil's description of the wall paintings in Juno's temple in The Aeneid, the term only really begins to appear in critical discourse in the late nineteenth century. (2) In 1955, the Austrian literary critic Leo Spitzer identifies John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" as an example of the "genre" of ekphrasis: "the poetic description of a pictorial or sculptural work of art, which description implies, in the words of Theophile Gautier, 'une transposition d'art,' the reproduction through the medium of words of sensuously perceptible objets d'art (utpictura poesis)" (207). It is this definition that has underwritten almost all subsequent references to the term. Three years later, Jean H. Hagstrum defined "ecphrasis" as "that special quality of giving voice and language to the otherwise mute art object" (18n34). (3) More recently, James A.W. Heffernan broadened the term to include "the verbal representation of a visual representation" (3, emph. Heffernan's). Claus Cluver broadened the term still further by casting it as "the verbal representation of a real or fictitious text composed in a non-verbal sign system" (26, emph. Cluver's).

Cluver's shift is indicative of the way that critics over the past quarter-century have employed the term "ekphrasis" increasingly loosely, a development that has not been universally welcomed. As Lydia Goehr notes, "Although many celebrate the intermedial movement that now can transpire between the sister arts, others anxiously worry that the relation has become too open" (400). One striking instance of this trend is the term "musical ekphrasis," the most persistent proponent of which has been the musicologist Siglind Bruhn. Adopting and extending Cluver's definition, Bruhn asserts that the recreating medium need not always be verbal, "but can itself be any of the art forms other than the one in which the primary 'text' is cast" (Musical 7). She posits a parallel between the way music recreates a verbal or visual work of art, and the way that language recreates a visual work of art: "I believe the creative processes that apply in the step from a painting to its poetic rendering to be analogous to that from a poem or painting to its rendering in music; in fact I maintain that they correspond to a degree that justifies adapting the terminology developed in the adjacent field" (8).

An instance of musical ekphrasis should--in Bruhn's understanding--shadow the three steps necessary for conventional literary ekphrasis. First, the presence of a real or fictitious story; second, its representation in a visual or verbal text; and third, a rendering of that representation in musical language ("Concert" 559). Bruhn proposes in conclusion a new definition of ekphrasis as "a representation in one medium of a text composed in another medium" (Musical 8), unfolding more fully the implications of what Gisbert Kranz and other major theorists of ekphrasis in the twentieth century--building on Roman Jakobson's formulation (238)--call "intersemiotic transposition" (Kranz 33-34). (4) In the 15 years since Bruhn's conception and justification of the term, musical ekphrasis has found little resonance in studies examining the relation of music to other arts. …

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