[Spotify] A playlist for “Monet: In The Light” by Nico Muhly
To accompany the exhibition, enjoy the music playlist on Spotify specially selected by young prodigy Nico Muhly, one of today’s most in-demand composers.
Monet lived and worked at a magical time for art and music: comparing two pieces of music made in the same year feels almost like made up information, or a test designed to fool an inexperienced listener. I have paired music composed the same year as each of the eleven paintings in this exhibition. I’ve also made a set of more abstract pairings with music which responds to, or is in harmony with, the images and paintings themselves outside of any chronology.
The third movement from Camille Saint-Saëns’s Septet, an old-fashioned piece in construction and harmony, but with shadows and hints at a more modern sensibility.
O Salutaris from Fauré’s Messe des Pêcheurs, but written by his pupil André Messager, in which the organ and violin double and imitate the voices, creating a halo around the slowly unfurling melodies. There is something inexplicably touching about the teacher sharing a mass setting with his student, and that it was written to benefit a charitable organization for fishermen.
The radically modern Black Gondola by Liszt, orchestrated by the American composer John Adams. Here, the traditional upbeat lilt of a Venetian gondolier’s song is turned on its head into something quite dark and otherworldly.
The Te Ergo section from Bruckner’s Te Deum is mysterious and feels like the 19th century is slowly shedding its skin — uncertainty is the governing force here — expected resolutions turn into strange unison notes, and shapes which feel like they should go up go down or sideways.
On the other hand, the second movement of Brahms’s 4th symphony, from the same year, has a traditional formality offset by the strange circularity of its principal theme, introduced without accompaniment at the beginning and transformed into something outrageously lush at the end.
Liszt’s strange little Bagatelle sans tonalité is a piece where the ear never quite knows where to focus. Listening to it is like watching a single bird flying: around the flight path is unclear and capricious, and it ends in absolute suspension, just out of view.
Bruckner’s Vexilla regis is an essay in stability versus flux. Each phrase itself is straightforward and moves from unison to contrapuntal writing fluently, but as a whole, we have a sense of constant searching for a home base.
Two very different pieces: Ravel’s famous Pavane pour une infante défunte, and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. As is always the case with Ravel, we have a delicious, generous melody set above a subtle clockwork of constant movement. Verklärte Nacht is one of the great transitional works of music, in which Wagnerian lineraity and harmonic sensibilities are twisted and knotted into gorgeously dense structures which welcome the 20th century. Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, on the other hand, is an extraordinary way to begin the 20th century. It’s a giant sacred piece with soloists and chorus and orchestra offset with moments of questioning intimacy.
The most contrasting works in this playlist come from this year: Ravel’s Ondine from Gaspard de la nuit. As we saw in his Pavane, Ravel is interested in mechanism and lyricism coëxisting, but here, the harmonic language is more fluid, less stable, and blurred. Ives’s The Unanswered Question shocks me every time I hear it, and shocks me again when I remember that it was written in 1908. The strings play a very slow, hymn-like progression, existing in their own sacred space. Against this, we hear a trumpet playing cryptic melodies, and woodwinds playing strange responses: blurring, obscuring and subtly antagonizing the hymn. There is nothing else like it, and if you told me it had been written the day before yesterday, I’d believe you.
II. Abstract Pairings
With the cathedral at Rouen, an Agnus Dei, from my Spiral Mass. It looks back to the 16th century, but blurs the references with halos of organ and suspended, unresolved chorus pitted against three soloists.
With the water lily pond, Haru no Umi by Michio Miyagi, from 1929. Here, France haunts the composer just as Japan haunted Monet.
With the sunset on the Seine, “Ah, Coucher du Soleil” from Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol (1914), an opera in which three Japanese emissaries come to China to offer the Emperor a mechanical nightingale. Stravinsky’s interest in the music of East Asia is quite perceptible in his works from the early part of the century, as was much French music and visual art.
Winter in Giverny is a study in white. I wrote a piece about a snowy mountain in Utah which is pale and somewhat inscrutable, with the implication of distant shapes on the horizon.
With the Haystacks at Giverny, a Sigur Rós song about haystacks, recorded outside in rural Iceland.
With the two gladiolus paintings, Stravinsky’s Akahito from Three Japanese Lyrics. “Descendons au jardin je voulais te montrer
les fleurs blanches.” About Japanese paintings, Stravinsky wrote, “"The graphic solution of problems of perspective and space shown by their art incited me to find something analogous in music.”
With the landscape at Varengeville, we hear Debussy’s Poissons d’or, from Images, book 2. Although much of Debussy’s music can be heard through the lens of Southeast Asian music, this piece was explicitly influenced by a Japanese lacquer panel Debussy owned.
With the Sunset at Étretat, a movement from Ravel’s Sonata for Violin & Cello. Here, Ravel’s interest in Japanese art expresses itself through a linearity and circularity of gesture.
In London, a bit of Purcell — a penitential, cloudy bit from his Te Deum Monet might had heard had he poked his head into Westminster Abbey in the morning, and a perfect little canticle if it had been in the evening.
In Venice, a bit of church music from the requiem of Perosi, the choirmaster at San Marco Venice around the turn of the century. I like the idea of Monet, on his trip, ducking into the basilica and hearing this music, pausing for a moment, and moving on.