On Tones & Colors – by Liza Stepanova

stepanova cover art large.jpg

This has been a project long in the making. I have had an interest in visual art ever since traveling Europe as a child and going to the wonderful museums in Germany, France, and Italy. Later, by playing musical works that were obviously connected to art (Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Poulenc’s Work of a Painter songs), I became more interested in the intersections between art and music and went on to curate recitals exploring these connections for my then-ensemble, SongFusion, and various summer festivals. In 2010, I traveled to Germany on a Juilliard grant to study the works of the Mendelssohn siblings and became aware of the unique illustrated manuscript of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel’s piano cycle The Year, with vignettes by her husband, painter Wilhelm Hensel. One of the musical months from this cycle, "September," is featured on this recording.

stepanova back art large.jpg

The program on the disc came together organically. There were some works I wanted to feature from the start, like the Fanny Mendelssohn or Wagner’s Overture to "Tannhäuser" in the Liszt transcription. The Wagner is one of my favorite works and was broadly influential, especially with French visual artists at the time (it had an important premiere in Paris). Liszt also stands out as a musician with a wide range of interests: beyond transcriptions, he composed some of the first musical descriptions of paintings and sculptures in his collection, "Years of Pilgrimage." Sets began to arrange themselves. Going back to Enrique Granados who was famously obsessed with Francisco Goya, Spanish composers frequently embraced programmatic music, including references to art. I am fascinated with the completely opposite reflections of Goya by Granados (light, flirtatious) and the 20th-century composer Maurice Ohana, who chose one of Goya’s devastating war etchings as his inspiration. In the second set, nature provides rich subject matter for artists of all genres and disciplines. In the third set, Bach and other Baroque artists reach out across time to inspire 20th-century musicians. Bach’s profundity and sense of musical architecture stimulate Lyonel Feininger as both a painter and a talented amateur composer who spend several years learning how to write a fugue. Giotto’s spiritual fresco sparks George Crumb’s imagination in unexpected ways in his "Adoration of the Magi," which dips into extended techniques of playing the piano (plucking and muting the strings, harmonics) to describe the divine event of nativity. In my research, I was glad to come across Ligeti’s musical depiction of Brançusi’s "Infinite Column." Ligeti is one of my favorite 20th-century composers with simply boundless imagination, and his solution to express infinity on the piano (rising musical lines that are cut off by the physical boundaries of the instrument) is at once witty and awe-inspiring. Lastly, the Watteau-Godowsky pairing is a charming encore showing both visual and musical art at its most carefree. It reminds me of the epigraph Maurice Ravel chose for his collection of waltzes: "...the delicious and ageless pleasure of passing the time."

Photo by Jiyang Chen available in high resolution at    www.jensenartists.com

Photo by Jiyang Chen available in high resolution at www.jensenartists.com

Program notes by Monika Fink (translated from German by Liza Stepanova)


1.     Music: Enrique Granados (1867-1916): The Strawman, DLR II:5 (1911) 4:30

Visual Art: Francisco Goya (1746-1892): The Straw Manikin (1791-92)

Goya depicts a social game in which a group of women hurls a life-sized doll, dressed in a male costume and a mask, up in the air. For Goya, this was an ironic representation of the relationship between the sexes. Inspired by Goya’s painting, Granados’ composition employs a virtuosic, sonorous piano style, which is imbued with elements of folk rhythm, melody, and harmony. The piece also features tone painting from the very beginning, with an undeniably programmatic upward flourish.


2.     Music: Maurice Ohana (1913-1992): Bury Them And Be Silent (from Three Caprices) (1944) 5:35

Visual Art: Francisco Goya (1746-1892): Bury Them And Be Silent (from The Disasters of War) (1810-1814)

This painting depicts the most violent and undoubtedly the worst consequence of war – death. French composer Maurice Ohana wrote his piece from an autographical standpoint, having lived through World War II. Marked Lento sostenuto, this work is held together by the repetition of a particular rhythmic pattern, a slow sarabande in 6/4 time. The predominantly piano and pianissimo dynamics are interrupted by a sudden fortissimo, which is reminiscent of the saeta, a prayer chant of supplication that is heard most commonly at the annual processions during the Semana Santa, or Holy Week, in Andalucía.


3.     Music: Joaquín Turina (1882-1949): Before “The Lances” by Velazquez (from Contemplación, op. 99) (1944) 4:35

Visual Art: Diego Velazquez (1599-1660): The Surrender of Breda (1635)

Almost half of the sky in this painting is filled with the enormous, menacing weapons of the Spanish army. Commissioned to visually capture the Spaniards’ victory over the Dutch, Velázquez chose to depict the instant at which the Dutch commander, Justinus of Nassau, hands the key to the city over to the Spanish general, Ambrogio Spinola. Turina’s piece is a good example of a battaglia, a musical battle scene, in which musical gestures paint the raging battle with imitations of military trumpet calls and numerous percussive effects until its triumphant climax draws with it a moment of great musical pathos.



4.     Music: Fanny Hensel (1805-1847): September: At the River (from The Year) (1844) 3:55

Visual Art: Wilhelm Hensel (1794-1861): September (1844)

Color, drawings, and poems thus come together for a real fusion of the arts; this complete musical cycle depicting the months of the year is a Gesamtkunstwerk in miniature in which design, music, words, and images all interact. Each movement is prefaced by a short poem written by Hensel and her husband, painter Wilhelm Hensel, who also adorned the title pages of each movement with carefully designed vignettes and drawings. Further, in the original manuscript, the miniature representing each month is written on a different color of paper selected for the mood of the season. A wistful, sweeping melody in September, marked Andante con moto, paints an atmospheric landscape in the style of a song without words.


5.     Music: Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959): Butterflies in the Flowers (from Butterflies and Birds of Paradise) (1920) 4:21

Visual Art: Max Švabinský (1873-1962): Butterfly Paintings (various years)

Švabinský’s own collection of rare butterflies and birds, which he maintained in his summer house, was the source of inspiration for his paintings. Martinů, in turn, composed his impressions of the drawings in a three-movement suite, Butterflies and Birds of Paradise. The first of the three movements refers to a drawing of a flower growing at the edge of a field in front of a wide landscape with a disproportionately large butterfly hovering above it. Floating harmony, vague meter, and lack of clear contours in the piano writing correspond to the delicate coloring of the sky and the landscape of the drawing, which is only sketched. The impression of floating is amplified by the use of the pentatonic and whole-tone scales, the latter of which dominates the beginning and end of the piece. The butterfly itself is represented by a musical motif, which in its basic form consists of only four notes, so that its small figure seems to flutter through the music. In stretches of this piece, the scales and accompanying figures are polytonal, and Martinů uses this effect to separate the two worlds of butterflies and flowers while also allowing them to exist at the same time.


6.     Music: Claude Debussy (1862-1918): Goldfish (from Images, Book II) (1907) 4:00

Visual Art: Nanzhou (Japan, 19th century): Goldfish

Debussy’s Goldfish is loosely associated with a piece of black lacquer Japanese artwork decorated with mother-of-pearl and gold inlays. Debussy was not fascinated by the fish in itself but by the way in which the lacquer artwork treated form, texture, and color. Debussy conjures up a highly virtuosic, dazzling apotheosis of water which undergoes constant transformation throughout the piece, emphasizing the capricious nature of water with surprising major-minor key changes.



7.     Music: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Prelude in E-flat minor, BWV 853 (from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I) (1722) 3:41

8.     Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Fugue in E-flat minor, BWV 853 (from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I) (1722) 4:40

Visual Art: Heinrich Neugeboren (1901-1959): Sculptural Representation of a Fugue by J.S. Bach (E-flat minor, BWV 853, mm. 52-55) (1928; 1968-70)

This is undoubtedly one of the most complex fugues in Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, consisting of three main parts and six developments in which the main theme is treated with an abundance of retrogrades, inversions, and augmentations of the theme. The composer, painter, writer, and sculptor Heinrich Neugeboren (Henri Nouveau) recreated measures 52-55 of the fugue as a graphic representation (1928) which was realized posthumously as a sculpture that serves as a monument to Bach (1968-1970). Neugeboren wanted to capture the interaction of a fugue’s multiple musical voices into a pictorial system, thereby making musical space and time not only audible but also visual.  Neugeboren was fascinated by the ideas of polyphony and simultaneity, which are principles that are independent of artistic media and can be realized equally well in music and in visual art. Measure 52 begins the third-largest section of the fugue as well as the fifth development, which marks the first occurrence of a three-voice stretto, a technique in which the theme of a fugue enters in a new voice before fully being completed in the previous one. An episode, a theme-free section, follows in measure 56, so the measures that Neugeboren chose constitute a meaningful unit.


Giotto di Bondone (1266/76–1337):  Adoration of the Magi (later version, possibly 1320).  Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Giotto di Bondone (1266/76–1337): Adoration of the Magi (later version, possibly 1320). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

9.     Music: George Crumb (b. 1929): Adoration of the Magi (from A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D.1979) (1980) 2:01

Visual Art: Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337): Adoration of the Magi (1303-1305)

Crumb’s musical language is radical both in its sound world and in its pianistic writing, yet he succeeds in conveying the atmosphere of Giotto di Bondone’s fresco (located in the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padua) with a combination of playing on the keys and playing on the strings of the piano. With the resulting sound, there is no lack of tone painting: The chords in the bass suggest the weight of the royal visitors; the dance-like fragments could be an allusion to ritualized actions; and the calm, steadily flowing patterns can be interpreted as an expression of dignified joy.


10.  Music: Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956): Fugue in E-flat minor (1921) 6:14

Visual Art: Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956): General output (various years)

The painter Lyonel Feininger began to compose his fugue in D-sharp (E-flat) minor in 1921, one day after his 50th birthday, the year when he first held the only accepted authoritative edition of The Art of the Fugue in his hands. The Leipzig-based Edition-Peters was given to him as a gift by his composer friend Hans Brönner. Upon discovering The Art of the Fugue, Feininger was so overwhelmed that he dedicated the next few years of his life to an intensive study of Bach. From 1921 to 1928, he composed his only surviving musical works: 13 fugues for the piano, including this fugue in D-sharp minor. As with his other fugues, the theme is fairly undefined, but the contrapuntal procedures are explicitly indebted to Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier.


Henri Fantin-Latour (France, Grenoble, 1836-1904): Tannhäuser on the Venusberg. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Henri Fantin-Latour (France, Grenoble, 1836-1904): Tannhäuser on the Venusberg. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art


11.  Music: Franz Liszt (1811-1886): Overture to “Tannhäuser” by Richard Wagner, a concert paraphrase, S442 (1849) 16:31

Visual Art: Paul Cézanne (1839-1906): Girl at the Piano (Overture to Tannhäuser) (1869) and Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904): Tannhauser on the Venusberg (1864)

Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser (1845) and Liszt’s transcription of its overture (1849) inspired reflections by numerous visual artists, including Henri Fantin-Latour’s Venus-Mountain paintings and Paul Cézanne’s Girl at the Piano (Overture to Tannhäuser).


12.  Music: György Ligeti (1923-2006): Etude No. 14, “Infinite Column” (1993) 2:04

Visual Art: Constantin Brâncuşi (1876-1957): Infinite Column (1938)

Since 1917, Constantin Brâncuşi had been engaged with the motif of an endless column. His resulting gilded brass column, Infinite Column, is nearly 100 feet tall and made out of 15 rhombic elements built on a base of an emerging half-rhombus and topped with an unfinished half-rhombus. Analogous to this visual design, Ligeti composed a piece comprising 16 modules and a half-module ascending in an “endless” spiral as a rhythmically overlapping canon climbs from the deepest bass regions of the piano to its highest register.


Antoine Watteau (1684-1721):  Mezzetin         (1733). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Antoine Watteau (1684-1721): Mezzetin (1733). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

13.  Music: Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938): Watteau-Paysage No. 8 (from Triakontameron) (1919-1920) 1:48

Visual Art: Antoine Watteau (1684-1721): Mezzetin (1733)

Leopold Godowsky’s Watteau-Paysage No. 8 from his Triakontameron (Thirty Moods and Scenes in Triple Measure) is a musical homage to the French rococo painter Antoine Watteau. The title takes additional inspiration from Boccaccio’s Decameron, and where in the Decameron, each of the 10 stories is told in a day, each of the 30 miniatures in the Triakontameron, was composed in a single day. Without referencing a particular painting by Watteau, Godowsky’s short, three-part Watteau-Paysage, marked Allegretto amabile, perfectly depicts the elegant, galant rococo atmosphere of the painter’s works with their refined, airy landscapes.