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Music Inspired by Art: A guide to recordings
By Gary Evans
Pub. Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2002
ISBN 0-8108-4509-1 [317 pages, hard cover]


There are many possibilities open to writers when dealing with the influence of the visual arts (2D and 3D), as well as the built environment, upon musical composition.  This book is more compiled than written in the conventional sense, as it lists visual artists by name and then the musical composers and works they inspired, giving minimal elaboration upon the relationship between the two. The majority of the listing is straightforwardly A-Z by artist surname, irrespective of art form, media, or dimensionality.

The key to one aspect of the book lies in the subtitle: A guide to recordings.  From this you can infer that the book is aimed largely at archivists, librarians and the like who deal on a regular basis with requests for obscure works and have to track down recordings. Similarly too musicologists and students might find it of use. But I would envisage a body of employers larger than just the academic community. Anyone sufficiently interested in the wider arts, and wanting to trace influences through available recordings will find this invaluable. Imagine working in the museum world, having to maybe programme or outline a varied series of events to accompany an exhibition. A book of this kind would be a useful reference.

Then of course there’s always the stunned silence you’ll get when calling your trusty second-hand dealer saying, “If you get a copy of Leonid Grabovsky’s “Ukranian Frescoes” on Melodiya LP CM 03833-34, let me know”…  I picked the work at random, but it could be a useful and authorative source book in the right hands.

Take an artist, Bramante (Italian painter, 1444-1514), one of whose Resurrections inspired Edmund Rubbra’s Symphony no. 9.  The next listed, Constantin Brancusi (Romanian sculptor, 1876-1957) has inspired eleven composers from five countries: Antheil, Mazurek, Perera, Patti Smith, Ward-Steinman (USA), Terenyi, Stroe, Olah (Romania), Baley (Ukraine), Holt (England) and Ligeti (Hungary). 

More provoking perhaps is the short index listing composers alphabetically: Hindemith is listed against Giotto, Grunewald and Raphael; Poulenc against Benozzo, Braque, Chagall, Gris, Klee, Miro, Picasso, Villon and Watteau. There is no index for individual artworks or compositions: to do this would have doubled the work in length.

This book is impressive in its coverage in terms of artists, composers, geographical spread, timeframe, recorded media (LP, cassette and CD) and musical genres (jazz, punk and rock co-habit cordially with the classical). 

If there are shortcomings, one is that it only lists recording released up to and including 1999, making this already a reference work over five years behind the times. Perhaps not a major worry should you be researching details of a long deleted item, but useless for anything remotely recent. (I overheard a dealer last week seriously refer to a 2002 CD release as ‘ancient’ – if so, where does that place LPs?)  It’s not as if I can see regular updates to this being published, this is the product of painstaking research as it is.

The other shortcoming might be in the listings of common repertory works, such as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, inspired by Viktor Hartman as we in the West call him. The book lists him under Gartman, his birth name, and refers you to this if you look up Hartman. But the crux of the matter is made obvious when it comes to the listed recordings (the book’s raison d’être):

“Many recordings in all formats. Numerous orchestrations are recorded.”

Might it have been an idea to list, say, one or two mainstream recommendations in cases such as this? And the listing of ‘many recordings’ occurs quite frequently. This at least would give students, researchers, discographers, etc. some starting point for their activities. That said it is interesting to note the various recorded arrangements of Mussorgsky’s work for wind band, wind quintet, organ, rock band, brass quintet, guitar, synthesizer and jazz ensemble that exist, should one ever need them.

The natural home for this book would on balance be the performance library or research-centred institution rather than the individual, a point underlined by the cost of £46.00.

Still, it is remarkable that a book founded on inspiration should reduce it all to a list. The more I delved into this book I became fascinated by the questions it plainly doesn’t attempt at answering: the whys and wherefores of inspiration. Why might it be that some composers respond more to artists and works of another time and place, while others remain responsive essentially to their contemporaries and the places they know?  Something far more inspired in itself, fitting an altogether different purpose, is required for that task.

Evan Dickerson







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