There are times when music and visual art mix as well as oil and water


Niagara, 1857, by Frederick Church.

Behold the first definitively masterful painting of Niagara Falls, created in 1857 by American Frederick Church (1826-1900) from the same spot on the Canadian side that every visitor still aspires to stand on, camera in hand.

What sort of musical soundtrack would you imagine for this painting?

Time-appropriate symphonic music would be by someone like Robert Schumann, who had died the year before, or Hector Berlioz, who would live for a dozen more years.

Or should it be chamber music?

Anyone who has gazed at the Falls from Church’s vantage point has not only head but felt the roar of that water. Imagine how loud that sound would have been to people accustomed to hearing only horses’ hooves and human voices on the streets.

Hearing Schubert’s A-Major Piano Quintet (in memory of all the fish tossed daily into the Niagara Gorge) does justice to the impeccable technique and beautiful light in the painting — but can’t address the sheer physical punch of the actual place.

Perhaps the soundtrack should be total silence, forcing us to confront Church’s masterpiece full-on?

These thoughts come from reading blogger Joe Horowitz’s open letter to the owner of Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery, where Niagara resides.

Horowitz took advantage of a Washington visit to commune with the painting. When he arrived at the gallery, a cellist was playing  Bach suites in the atrium.

Horowitz was taken aback:

A painting summons thought and feeling. It can also (in my experience) summon music. Music can equally silence the experience of a painting – Bach’s Bourees, Sarabandes, and Gigues were played (and also practiced) over and over. In between, the instrument was raucously tuned. Only during a brief respite could I discover the seething energy of Church’s rendering of Niagara Falls, unshackled by Bach.

Horowitz’s frustration inspired me to confront my own need for silence not only when confronting visual art — but also when confronting music itself. I desperately need to have a clear, unbroken pathway between brushtrokes or bowstrokes and my brain.

I totally understand how difficult this might be for people whose brains are daily fractured into three or four segments as they check email, microwave dinner and catch up on the TV news at the same time.

So much of what we do is mixed or mediated, from listening to music through earbuds on the subway, to wandering through a gallery accompanied by a chattering audio guide.

Music presenters and museum curators constantly look for ways in which to stimulate the senses on multiple levels, deducing through serious thought and scholarship that a John Constable painting might be an ideal companion to Beethoven’s Sixth.

In recent Toronto seasons, classical music audiences have had several opportunities to see visual art, either in video or being created live on stage, alongside music. The most prominent and successful of these efforts have come from Tafelmusik. These have been gorgeous experiences widely loved by everyone who experienced them.

But it’s not for everyone all the time, because one medium can, at times, not enhance but diminish the impact of the other.

Are we, on some level, perhaps afraid of confronting music or a painting exclusively on its own terms?

John Terauds

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