Instrumental Music with Literary or Pictorial Associations

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Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


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Music and the Literary Imagination

Music has long been associated with the literary imagination, often appearing in works of fiction as a character in its own right. In some cases, the connection between music and literature is so strong that the two together create a more powerful effect than either one could alone. This is especially true when the music is itself based on literary or pictorial associations.

The role of music in the literary imagination

Imagination, in general, is the power to form images, ideas, and sensations in the mind without any immediate input of the senses. It is a mental faculty that enables humans to perceive the world differently from the way it is, to think abstractly, and to create. It can be said that imagination is what makes us human.

Music plays an important role in the literary imagination by stimulating emotions and memories that may be difficult to verbalize. For example, a piece of music can evoke a particular time or place; it can conjure up images of characters or events; it can express feelings that are difficult to put into words. In this way, music can be used as a tool for exploring the inner life of a character or for deepening our understanding of a work of literature.

There is a long tradition of associating certain pieces of music with particular works of literature. For instance, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” has been associated with Romeo and Juliet, while Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz” often brings to mind images of Vienna in the early 20th century. Similarly, there are many pieces of music that have been written specifically to accompany literary works, such as Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” or Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.”

Instrumental music can also be used to create a particular atmosphere or mood in a work of literature. For example, suspenseful music might be used to heighten the tension in a mystery novel, while romantic music could be used to create an aura of love and passion in a love story. Music can also be used as a way to contrast different scenes or emotions within a work—for instance, happy music might be juxtaposed with sadder scenes in order to emphasize the contrast between them.

Ultimately, the use of music in the literary imagination is limited only by the writer’s own creativity. By choosing carefully selected pieces of music and using them skillfully within their writing, writers can add another layer of meaning and emotion to their work—and enrich our experience of reading Literature as well.

The influence of music on the literary imagination

It is not surprising that many writers should have been attracted by music, and that they should have expressed their feeling for it in their work. Music has, after all, a unique capacity to evoke emotion, whether it be the pathos of a love story or the excitement of abattle. In the hands of a skilled composer, an orchestra can create an atmosphere of great subtlety and power, which can be a potent influence on the emotions of those who hear it.

There have been many examples of this in literature. Shakespeare, for instance, was very fond of music, and made use of it in many ways in his plays. In “The Tempest”, he has Prospero conjure up a storm with music, while in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” he uses it to create an atmosphere of magic and romance. And in “Macbeth”, as we all know, the sound of drums helps to intensify the sense of drama and foreboding.

More recently, too, composers have written works which have been inspired by literary texts. Rachmaninov’s “Isle of the Dead”, for example, was inspired by a painting by Arnold Boecklin; while Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” takes its name from a poem by George Meredith. And Benjamin Britten’s operas are often based on literary works, such as “Peter Grimes” (based on a poem by George Crabbe) and “Billy Budd” (based on a short story by Herman Melville).

So there is no doubt that music can be a powerful influence on the literary imagination. It is not always easy to say how this happens; but it is certainly true that many writers have found inspiration in music, and that their work has been enriched as a result.

The interplay between music and the literary imagination

There is a long tradition of associating music with the literary imagination, whether it be in the form of operas based on literary works, such as Verdi’s La traviata (1853) (based on Alexandre Dumas’s La Dame aux camélias [1848]), or musical compositions that have been inspired by literary works, such as Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (1874). In some cases, the link between music and literature is less direct, but no less important, as in the case of Richard Wagner’s operas, which are often said to be indebted to the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer.

It is not just opera composers who have been inspired by literature; many instrumental pieces have also been written with literary or pictorial associations in mind. For example, Franz Liszt’s piano work Les préludes (1854) was inspired by a poem by Alphonse de Lamartine, while Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) was inspired by a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. Pictures at an Exhibition is perhaps the most famous example of an instrumental work with literary or pictorial associations; however, there are many other examples, including Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain (1867), Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite No. 2 (1935) and Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Age of Gold Suite (1930).

Music and the Pictorial Imagination

All sorts of music have been inspired by paintings, and in many cases the relationship is reciprocal: a painting may be inspired by a particular piece of music, or by the composer of that piece. In some cases the relationship is fairly direct: a composer may set out to ‘paint a picture’ in music, or a painter may use a well-known piece of music as the starting-point for a work.

The role of music in the pictorial imagination

Music plays an important role in the pictorial imagination, often serving as a source of inspiration for artists. In some cases, musical compositions are specifically written to accompany a particular work of art, such as Sergei Prokofiev’s score for the Sergey Eisenstein film “Alexander Nevsky.” In other cases, a piece of music may come to be associated with a particular work of art through popular culture, such as the use of Johann Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” in the film “Ordinary People.” And in still other cases, a painting or other work of art may evoke a particular piece of music without any specific connection between the two.

The influence of music on the pictorial imagination

Instrumental music has often been associated with certain images or stories, either because the music was written to accompany them, or because the listener imagines them while listening to the music. This connection between music and the pictorial imagination can be a powerful one, evoking emotions and mental images that linger long after the music has stopped.

One of the most famous examples of this is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite,” which was written to accompany a ballet of the same name. The suite is full of memorable melodies, and many people who have never seen the ballet can still picture the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Nutcracker Prince, and other characters dancing in their minds when they hear the music.

Interestingly, Tchaikovsky did not intend for “The Nutcracker Suite” to be a standalone work; it was only after the ballet failed to find an audience that he arranged some of the pieces for orchestra and released them as a concert suite. It is this suite that has become one of his most popular and best-loved works, and which continues to inspire listeners’ imaginations more than a century later.

The interplay between music and the pictorial imagination

Instrumental music with literary or pictorial associations has been a part of Western concert life since the early eighteenth century. The interplay between music and the pictorial imagination, whether in the form of descriptive titles given to individual pieces or entire concert programs, has offered audiences new ways of listening and new insights into both the music and the extra-musical sources of inspiration. In some cases, as with Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (1830) or Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (1874), the connection between music and visual stimulus is relatively direct; in others, such as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1865) or Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 (1904), it is more abstract and allusive. This category also includes works that make use of popular prints or well-known paintings (as in Liszt’s La lugubre gondola [1882] and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet [1868-69]), as well as those with a programmatic element that is primarily literary in origin (such as Schumann’s Manfred [1852]).

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