Kandinsky and Music

“The term “Composition” can imply a metaphor with music. Kandinsky was fascinated by music’s emotional power. Because music expresses itself through sound and time, it allows the listener a freedom of imagination, interpretation, and emotional response that is not based on the literal or the descriptive, but rather on the abstract quality that painting, still dependent on representing the visible world, could not provide.
“Kandinsky’s special understanding of the affinities between painting and music and his belief in the Gesamtkunstwerk, or the total work of art, came forth in his text “On Stage Composition,” his play “Yellow Sound,” and his portfolio of prose poems and prints Klange (Sounds, 1913). Music can respond and appeal directly to the artist’s “internal element” and express spiritual values, thus for Kandinsky it is a more advanced art. In his writings Kandinsky emphasizes this superiority in advancing toward what he calls the epoch of the great spiritual.

“Wagner’s Lohengrin, which had stirred Kandinsky to devote his life to art, had convinced him of the emotional powers of music. The performance conjured for him visions of a certain time in Moscow that he associated with specific colors and emotions. It inspired in him a sense of a fairy-tale hour of Moscow, which always remained the beloved city of his childhood. His recollection of the Wagner performance attests to how it had retrieved a vivid and complex network of emotions and memories from his past: “The violins, the deep tones of the basses, and especially the wind instruments at that time embodied for me all the power of that pre-nocturnal hour. I saw all my colors in my mind; they stood before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me. I did not dare use the expression that Wagnet had painted ‘my hour’ musically.”

“It was at this special moment that Kandinsky realized the tremendous power that art could exert over the spectator and that painting could develop powers equivalent to those of music. He felt special attraction to Wagner, whose music was greatly admired by the Symbolists for its idea of Gesamtkunstwerk that embraced word, music, and the visual arts and was best embodied in Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung, with its climax of global cataclysm. One can also presume that Kandinsky, philosophically a child of the German Romantic tradition, was strongly attracted to Wagner’s use of medieval Germanic myths and legends, including those of the world’s creation and destruction, as symbols that allowed for the translation of his philosophical attitudes toward the world view, religion, and love. For instance, Kandinsky was enthralled by Tristan and Isolde as an expression of undying love and spiritual transformation. But in Wagner there is also an affinity with the philosophy of Schopenhauer, who considered music to be of central importance in man’s emotional life.

“Among his musical contemporaries, Kandinsky admired the work of Aleksander Scriabin, whose innovations he found compatible with his own objectives in painting. What especially intrigued Kandinsky were Scriabin’s researches toward establishing a table of equivalencies between tones in color and music, a theory that Scriabin effectively applied in his orchestral work Prometheus: A Poem of Fire (1908). These tonal theories parallel Kandinsky’s desire to find equivalencies between colors and feelings in painting: indeed, one of the illustrations included in the essay on Scriabin published in the Blaue Reiter Almanac was a color reproduction of Composition IV.

“Kandinsky’s conviction that music is a superior art to painting due to its inherent abstract language came out forcefully in the artist’s admiration for the music of the Viennese composer Arnold Sch?nberg, with whom he initiated a longstanding friendship and correspondence and whose Theory of Harmony (1911) coincided with Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art. Kandinsky’s complex relationship to Sch?nberg’s music is central to his concept of Composition, since Sch?nberg’s most important contribution to the development of music, after all, occurred in the area of composition.

“Sch?nberg’s innovations, such as discarding chromaticism and abandoning tonal and harmonic conventions, unleashed a new future for musical explorations and formed an important turning point for compositional practice. In particular, two of the composer’s innovations radically opened musical compositional structures. Beginning with his First String Quartet in 1905, Sch?nberg introduced a chromatic structure that he defined as a “developing variation,” in which there was a continual evolution and transformation of the thematic substance of the musical piece, rejecting thematic repetition. This inspired the constant unfolding of an unbroken musical argument without recourse to the svmmetrical balances of equal phrases or sections and their corresponding thematic content. As a result of this practice, Sch?nberg achieved a musical continuum that was richly structured, densely polyphonic, and in which all parts were equally developmental.

“These new compositional structures led him toward free chromaticism, which emphasized nonharmonic tones and “emancipation of dissonance” (i.e., unresolved dissonance), one of the principal features of atonal music. Having such constant transformations, rather than the repetition of melodic pattern, endowed the work with a totally unconventional psychological depth, evocative power, and emotional strength. Sch?nberg’s innovations, which permitted any pitch configuration, ruptured traditional conventions of musical composition.

Wassily Kandinsky: the painter of sound and vision

Playing with the boundaries between the visual and the musical is an old game. The Pythagoreans were probably the first westerners at it when they declared: “The eyes are made for astronomy, the ears for harmony, and these are sister sciences.” This relatively simple proposition was taken up by medieval and later sages, who developed it into a vast intellectual undergrowth of arcane and convoluted theories of how music and the mathematical proportions of creation were one and the same.
The Romantics had their own, similar, thoughts: Goethe declared that architecture was “frozen music”, and the mid-Victorian ?ber-aesthete Walter Pater breathlessly announced that “all art aspires towards the condition of music”. By the late 19th and early 20th century, however, blurring the edges between music and the other arts had become a widespread obsession. The idea fitted with the spirit of an age when artists and commentators from Russia to America were embracing pseudo-religions, dabbling in pseudo-sciences of dreams and symbols, and gabbling with excitement about the prospects for a new synthetic experience of art where the material distinctions between word, image and sound would melt away into a kind of spiritual – though it often seems more sexual – ecstasy that would shake the body and the world. Poems and paintings became music, and music became paintings and poems.
This was when the gaudy flowers of Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings burst from their buds. Music – and the idea of music – appears everywhere in Kandinsky’s work. Take his generic titles: Compositions, Improvisations, and Impressions. His mighty 10 compositions were created over more than three decades from Composition l in 1907 to Composition X in 1939. The first three were destroyed in the second world war but enough survives in sketches and photographs to give an impression of what they were about and how they fitted into a sequence of paintings that aspires to be, in musical terms, a cycle of “symphonies”. The Improvisations are, on the whole, less monumental, more dramatic. One writer compared them to “concertos”. Kandinsky himself called them “suddenly created expressions of processes with an inner character”. And as for the Impressions, although this may seem less of an obviously musical title, we know that several of them were specifically written in response to the experience of hearing particular pieces of music.
There are also one-off titles by Kandinsky with musical intentions. In Moscow in 1903 he published 122 primitive-looking woodcuts that he called Poems Without Words, clearly having in mind the old musical genre of “songs without words”. In 1913 he created a book of linked poems and woodcuts called Kl?nge – “Sounds”. During this same prewar period he wrote several play scripts – more like opera librettos or film scripts – to which he gave titles like The Yellow Sound, The Green Sound and Black and White. Though hardly stageable, these
pieces were intriguing experiments in the synthesising of drama, words, colour and music into a single seamless whole.
Also at this time Kandinsky wrote his famous theoretical work On the Spiritual in Art. This classic text of early modernism brims with the “spiritual” enthusiasms of the age. But it is also remarkably precise about what Kandinsky considers the practical stuff of his art, and especially about colour, ascribing particular emotional (“spiritual”) qualities to each shade, grouping them into families of like and unlike, and proposing complex ways in which contrasted colours could be balanced with one another. As is dazzlingly evident from the art he produced at this period, Kandinsky’s fundamental idea of a unifying colour-theory, however outr? or whimsical it might appear, played a big part in enabling his astonishing imaginative leap into abstraction.
To support his colour theories, Kandinsky appealed in his manifesto to the evidence of synaesthesia, the scientific name for the condition in which the senses are confused with one another (as when someone hears the ring of a doorbell as tasting of chicken or whatever). He wrote enthusiastically of how “a certain Dresden doctor tells how one of his patients, whom he describes as ‘spiritually, unusually highly developed’, invariably found that a certain sauce had a ‘blue’ taste”. This touching medical support for the idea that a spiritually superior person will naturally perceive the significance of the kinds of colour connections that he is talking about leads Kandinsky on to a grandiloquent cascade of musical metaphor: “Our hearing of colours is so precise … Colour is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul. Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposely sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key. Thus it is clear that the harmony of colours can only be based upon the principle of purposefully touching the human soul.”
The heart of Kandinsky’s connection to music, of course, is found not in his titles or theoretical self-justifications but in his works of art. And here it is clear that however arbitrary his scaffolding of theory, he had genuinely arrived at a way of playing on the canvas with the tensions and relationships between pure colours. In an eloquent essay in the catalogue to the Tate Modern’s forthcoming exhibition, Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction 1908-1922, the German artist Bruno Haas speaks of the clarity of Kandinsky’s painterly “syntax” and describes how Kandinsky’s families of colours resonate with one another to produce visual “chords”. As if aware that we might not believe him, Haas suggests ways in which we can prove to ourselves the existence of these “chords” by taking a colour print of one of Kandinsky’s pictures and holding down our hands over this bit or that to see how the colours (and shapes) change in relation to one another. He quotes a vivid line from Kandinsky describing the experience of painting in this way and once again using a musical metaphor: “I had little thought for houses and trees, drawing coloured lines and blobs on the canvas with my palette knife, and making them sing just as powerfully as I knew how.”

In Kandinsky’s view

“In Kandinsky’s view, melodic compositions were revitalized by Paul C?zanne and later by the Swiss Symbolist Ferdinand Hodler. As an example of melodic composition, Kandinsky illustrated C?zanne’s Large Bathers within the text of On the Spiritual in Art, stating that the picture represents “an example of this clearly laid out, melodic composition with open rhythms.” Indeed, one observes a clear rhythm in the arrangement of trees and the figures gathered under the triangular canopy of rhythmically leaning trees. As in a musical composition, the rhythms add vitality to the pictorial composition, inviting the eye to travel from one form to the next according to a regularly determined motion.

“The section on rhythm in his conclusion to On the Spiritual in Art reveals much about Kandinsky’s philosophical approach, whereby every phenomenon in nature, not only in music but also in painting, has its own structural rhythm. He felt that numerous pictures, especially woodcuts and miniatures from earlier periods, represented excellent examples of “complex ‘rhythmic’ composition with a strong intimation of the symphonic principle. Among these types he included the work of old German masters, of the Persians and the Japanese, Russian icons, and particularly Russian folk prints. But he observed that in most of these early works the symphonic composition is very closely tied to the melodic one, where principally the objective element underlies the structure.

“For Kandinsky, if that objective element of a painting were taken away, the building blocks of the composition would reveal themselves to cause a feeling of repose and tranquil repetition, of well-balanced parts. A similar feeling is evoked by diverse modes of musical expression, for instance early choral music or the music of Mozart or Beethoven . However, when the objective element is in place, especially beginning with Composition IV, all of the juxtapositions, conflicts, and dissonances are arranged in a manner that parallels Sch?nberg’s own innovations.”