One of the things we’re all going to miss for some time to come is the concert. Whether it’s an ad hoc group of musicians performing in the street, a rock concert, or the Last Night of the Proms, it may be next year before we can enjoy much live music. This weekend – in this article and tomorrow’s – I offer the curious compensation of a selection of paintings which try to give us what is normally a thoroughly auditory experience.
Synaesthetes apart, visual art is a strange and challenging way to celebrate music. As composers and performers alike try to evoke visual images in music, perhaps it’s only fair for painters to return the complement.
In the Renaissance, music was strongly associated with the church. Even there, many, including Hieronymus Bosch, associated it with sin and the devil. One acceptable route for music festivals and more secular concerts was through Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music and musicians. Although many paintings associate her with organs and musical instruments, few show her in concert with others. In 1569, just before the first written record of a musical festival in her honour, Michiel Coxie painted her, in Saint Cecilia, playing a harpsichord, with voice parts being read by children as a young angel sings his wings out.
Another acceptable association was with the Muses. Lavinia Fontana’s unusual painting of Apollo and the Muses from 1598-1600 sets this fairly standard mythological scene at night, as an al fresco music concert complete with Pegasus and (at the top left) a flying nude. The explanation lies in it having originally been the painted panel cover of a spinet. It was later removed from the instrument, the upper right added, and was put on display above a door.
Hendrick van Balen’s Minerva and the Nine Muses (c 1610) shows the nine Muses seated, forming a small orchestra with their contemporary rather than classical instruments. Minerva, at the left, is being engaged by a tenth woman, whose identity isn’t clear. In the far distance, just beyond a waterfall, Pegasus is about to take off from a high cliff. Above there are two magpies, implying the imminent arrival of the Pierides.
In the Dutch Golden Age, music broke out of seedy dens of iniquity into mainstream culture. Learning to play a musical instrument, and playing to others, was fashionable, as shown in Gerard van Honthorst’s merry Concert on a Balcony from 1624.
In the past, it was much more likely that middle- and upper-class people – those more likely to see a painting – would play at least one musical instrument. Jan Miense Molenaer’s delightful portrait of his own family in about 1635 makes that point clearly, and unusually many of them are actually playing their instrument in the painting, rather than just posing with it.
Music features in several of Vermeer’s paintings, in The Concert (c 1663-66) more particularly than any other. Tragically, on 18 March 1990 this and a dozen other works were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA, and it remains unrecovered.
There was even an anthropomorphic fad for paintings showing gatherings of birds ‘singing’ together, and I think Melchior d’Hondecoeter’s Concert of the Birds from 1670 is probably the best example of these entertaining paintings.
While better-off families could muster small musical ensembles, to stretch to professionals and orchestras took the far greater resources of royalty.
When you’re King Friedrich II of Prussia (Frederick the Great) and you want to play your flute to your court, why not get the composer CPE Bach to accompany you on the harpsichord, and your flute teacher, Johann Joachim Quantz, to listen at the far right? Adolph Menzel’s Concert for Flute with Frederick the Great in Sanssouci (1850-52) re-imagines this royal concert, which must have taken place about a century earlier. The artist’s attention to detail extends to the costumes and candlelight.
My final painting for today is one of Camille Corot’s most beautiful mythological paintings, Le Concert Champêtre from 1857, with its carefully finished figures clad in colourful robes, and assuming statuesque poses.