19 October 2007

matching composers & writers

I’ve always thought it would be fun to try to match up writers and composers who share similar technical approaches, aesthetic philosophy, etc. This would be an attempt to find correspondences in the vision, skill, content, or “Kappa element” between them. Here are some of my suggestions. What would you add?

1. Bach & Dante. Both evinced extraordinary technical skill, including manipulation of numerical elements as symbolism. Bach wrote his name into pieces of music and composed canons that play the same forwards and backwards. Dante used the significance of 3 at every level of his Divine Comedy, from the consonant-vowel-consonant word-endings of Italian through the treza rima rhyme scheme to the 33 cantos (+ 1 to make 100) in his three volumes. Both reached mystical heights of religious sublimity, Bach with the B minor Mass, Dante with Paradiso.

2. Byron & Berlioz. OK, this one is a little too easy, because it's just based on "Harold in Italy." And I don't know enough about Berlioz's life to know if they are comparable. As far as the heroic, humanistic vision, maybe Richard Strauss would be a better match for Byron. Or maybe Franz Liszt?

3. Chopin & Novalis. Two poetic, dreamy, lyrical souls who both died young of consumption. Both wrote short, dream-like, mysterious, achingly beautiful pieces. Each had a limited range of expression, but created works of delicate perfection within that range.

4. Schoenberg & e e cummings. Each tried to invent new ways to use notes/words, and invented a new tonal system/syntax. But although each is well applauded, studied, and appreciated, neither completely caught on. Schoenberg thought that in the next generation children would be whistling 12-tone rows in the street. They're not. And I'm sure I hear phrases in iambic pentameter quoted far more often than "in its box of lavender sky the moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy."

5. Hildegaard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich. OK, maybe this one is cheating, too, because it's so superficial and easy. Two Medieval ladies who wrote works of visionary ecstasy. Maybe too simple. But try reading the one while listening to the other! Maybe you'll go into a visionary ecstasy, too!

6. Wagner & ... hum. The late C. S. Lewis? To me, Till We Have Faces and part of Perelandra are like the overture to Tristan & Isolde or Parsifal or Tannhauser--big, grand, mythological, mythic, spiritual. But maybe that's just my perspective.

Please add to the list!

It might also be interesting to try to include visual artists. How about:

Wagner—?—Caspar David Friedrich


Rosie Perera said...

What a fun idea! It reminds me of Douglas Hofstadter's wonderfully intricate and playful tome Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which you ought to read if you haven't yet; you'd love it! I like what this reviewer on says about it: "Douglas Hofstadter uses the art of M.C. Escher, the music of J.S. Bach, and Kurt Goedel's mathematics as the centerpieces for a magnificent inquiry into the nature of the mind. Along the way you will encounter Bertrand Russel, Carroll Lewis, particle physics, molecular biology, Magritte's paintings, and Zen koans. These are all used to probe recursion and the mystery of how we form thoughts. But the list of topics alone is not what makes this book great, it's the playful, joyful sense that characterizes Hofstadter's treatment of this. This sense of wonder is critical, as without it this highly challenging book would be very frustrating. The book's style itself is based on Bach's canons, and the chapters are interspersed with dialogues between the Tortoise and the Hare, in the style of Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. The result is an artistic as well as scientific or philosophical masterpiece. I am currently a triple-major in molecular biology, physics, and philosophy, and much of my curriculum has been influenced by the beauty of Hofstadter's book. This will go down as one of the 20th Century's bests books." [a couple of typos corrected]

Here are some other ideas for pairings:

1. P.D.Q. Bach (Peter Schickele) & Max Ernst. Both are masters of whimsy and both borrowed bits and snatches of their work from other places.

2. Aaron Copland & William Carlos Williams. Both forged a distinctively American style, both were pioneers in meter, and both had a predilection for the local and the ordinary.

3. Percy Grainger (composer) & John Constable (painter). Both were British and dealt with basically pastoral themes.

And if we're allowing visual art, why not film:

4. Georges Rouault (French painter) & Federico Fellini (filmmaker). Both got at deep issues of brokenness, and both used clown imagery in some of their works.

This is hard. I haven't done as much thinking and studying about music from a philosophical or theological perspective as I have literature and art. I'd love to find matches for the following, and was thinking their characteristics were recognizable enough to do so, but I'm stumped:

Arvo Pärt - holy minimalist
Hildegard of Bingen
Thomas Tallis

Walter Wangerin
Charles Williams
George MacDonald
G.M. Hopkins
George Herbert

Leonardo da Vinci
Jackson Pollock

This is kind of like wine pairing, too. It doesn't need to be an entire oeuvre. One could find a particularly appropriate piece of music to go with a given work of visual or literary art. I'd match Carl Orff's Carmina Burana with Bocaccio's (The Decameron). Both celebrate the debauched pleasures of untrammeled sensuality.

Thinking about all of this has made me realize how little I know of music history, so I just signed up for an account on and ordered some audio courses on the history of classical music and opera. I've recently discovered the whole world of podcast learning and I'm going a bit over the top. I found some free seminary courses on iTunes U yesterday. There's also a ton of free educational material on I'm in hog heaven!

Iambic Admonit said...

Yup, I've read a good bit of Hofstadter's amazing book, and it blew me away. It's kind of my mental standard from then on for sheer brilliance.

Another typo: "Carroll Lewis" should read "Lewis Carroll."

Let's see if I can pair any more of these:

Beethoven & Titian (painter) and/or Michelangelo & Wordsworth

Dostoyevsky & Mussorgsky

Charles Williams & Mozart (that sounds weird, but think of “Don Giovanni” and of the Masonic imagery in “The Magic Flute”)

I’ll keep thinking about the others.