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By Emily McIvor

Art Inspires Art

June 3rd, 2022

You know the feeling when you tour an art exhibit or enjoy a concert and feel inspired to create something of your own?  We often see instances in the visual arts in which one artist is inspired to create a work after seeing the work of another artist. And composers are no different—many composers have written works in response to beautiful works of art. Here’s a short list of several wonderful pieces based on artworks.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition

Modest Mussorgsky toured a posthumous exhibition of illustrations by his friend Viktor Hartmann, put on in 1873, and was inspired to write this famous piece afterward. Mussorgsky wrote it for piano, and Maurice Ravel later orchestrated it, which is the version most listeners recognize today.

More information and photos of the illustrations can be found here:

Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler

Paul Hindemith’s symphony and opera Mathis der Maler (“Mathis the Painter”) were created after Hindemith saw Mathias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, created in the 16th century. It contains several panels of artworks depicting human suffering. Religious upheaval, doubt, and uncertainty were rife in Grünewald’s time (the Reformation began a short time later). Grünewald’s vivid works became popular again in the 19th century, and when Hindemith viewed them, he saw the ruptures of his own time: the rise of the Nazi regime and the threats to life as Hindemith knew it. The symphony’s movements are based on different scenes from the altarpiece.

More information and photos of the altarpiece can be found here:

George Whitefield Chadwick’s Angel of Death

George Whitefield Chadwick, one of the members of the so-called Second New England School of composers, helped shape and propel a distinctly American voice in the world of classical music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He found himself struck by a beautiful sculpture called The Angel of Death and the Sculptor, a monument to two brothers who passed three years apart in the 1880s housed in Boston’s Forest Hill Cemetery. It’s a beautiful and evocative work, and so is Chadwick’s Angel of Death, which premiered in 1919 as part of a concert memorializing Theodore Roosevelt.

More information and photos of the artwork (and Chadwick himself) can be found here:

Respighi’s Botticelli Triptych

Botticelli’s famous painting, Primavera (Allegory of Spring), is an early Renaissance work showing mythological figures—Venus, Cupid, Mercury, etc.—with an overall theme of marriage and fertility. Respighi was inspired by this painting and two others by Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi and The Birth of Venus, to create his symphonic work Botticelli Triptych.

More information and photos of the paintings can be found here:

 Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress

Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress is based on the series of eight paintings by William Hogarth with the same name. Stravinsky saw them in an exhibition in Chicago in 1947 and collaborated with W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman on the opera shortly afterward. The scenes in Hogarth’s paintings (titles include The Levee, The Orgy, The Arrest, The Gaming House, and so on) are represented in the opera, as well as the 18th century style, depicted in the music through Stravinsky’s adept use of mannerism: borrowing musical idioms from the past while still “speaking” with one’s own voice.

More information and photos of Hogarth’s artwork can be found here:

Debussy’s La Mer

Claude Debussy wrote La Mer after seeing Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a famous example of Ukiyo-e (2-D woodblock prints) from Japan, which had become quite popular in the west by the mid-19th century. Debussy had his own copy of The Great Wave, framed in his studio, and La Mer shares similar traits, chiefly the use of motivic development and a lack of formal structure. It was even used as the cover art for the first orchestral audition, published in 1905.

More information about the painting and photos can be found here:

Liszt’s Hunnenschlacht

Wilhelm von Kaulbach’s painting The Battle of the Huns depicts the Battle of the Cautalaunian Fields between the Roman Empire and the forces of Atilla the Hun in AD 451, following the legend that, due to incredibly fierce fighting, the fallen warriors ascended to heaven and continued the battle there. This epic work inspired Franz Liszt’s symphonic poem Hunnenschlacht, Battle of the Huns.

More information on the symphonic poem and photos of the artwork can be found here:
Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead

Sergei Rachmaninoff composed his rather ominous symphonic poem Isle of the Dead after viewing Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the same name in France in 1907. Böcklin actually created multiple versions of this work; they show essentially the same scene: a lonely island with cypress trees and a small rowboat carrying a coffin and a mourning figure clothed in white.

More information and photos of the artwork can be found here:

Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George

Georges-Pierre Seurat’s famous painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of Grand Jatte is a premier example of Seurat’s technique of pointillism, using simple dots of varying color, grouped together to form a whole image. The peaceful park scene along the Seine in Paris was the inspiration for Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning musical Sunday in the Park with George.

More information and photos of the painting can be found here:

Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre

The Danse Macabre genre in art arose out of the era of the Black Death, when death became so pervasive that it became something to romanticize and even humorize in art. Humanity’s mortality was unavoidable, and it didn’t matter your station in life—death united everyone. The Danse Macabre consists of the dead, or a personification of death, summoning representatives from all walks of life to dance along to their graves: typically, a pope, emperor, king, child, and laborer. The earliest known example was a now-lost mural at Holy Innocents’ Cemetery in Paris, dating to the 1420s.

Many European artists and composers worked with the Danse Macabre idea; Camille Saint-Saens started by writing a piece for voice and piano, in which Death reappears each Halloween and calls the dead out of their graves to dance to his fiddle. Saint-Saens expanded the song into a symphonic tone poem in 1874, replacing the vocal line with a solo violin, which became the devil’s fiddle to which the dead must dance.

More information and examples of this theme in artwork can be found here:

More information about Saint-Saens’ work can be found here: