Van Gogh’s ear for music: a playlist

How would you put together a playlist that captured something of Vincent Van Gogh for a major Australian exhibition? With great care, of course. 

By Dr Rachel Orzech, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.

Van Gogh and the Seasons is the current Winter Masterpieces exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (until 9 July). Since 2015, I have been commissioned to create playlists for these annual exhibitions, each one focused around a major collection of significant artworks that would not normally be exhibited in Australia.

For a musicologist specialising in 19th- and 20th-century Western classical music, these assignments are a dream. Each year, I study the list of artworks to be exhibited, talk to the curators at the NGV, and undertake some research into the lives and work of the featured artists.

I then make a shortlist of related musical works and try to figure out how they might best work together as a soundtrack for the exhibition. In the process, I’ve discovered many wonderful (and sometimes obscure) pieces of music that I hadn’t previously been familiar with.

Visual artists are frequently part of much broader cultural networks that encompass music, theatre and dance, so it’s usually easy to find clear connections between artworks in a gallery and musical works. Sometimes those connections are made because the artist knew the composer, or was inspired by the music, or because the artist and composer shared similar ideologies or philosophies.

In 2016, the NGV’s Winter Masterpieces exhibition centred on the work of Edgar Degas, who painted a number of works featuring ballet and opera scenes in Paris; the link between music and painting in that instance was clear.

In 2015, the NGV exhibited items from the collection of Catherine the Great, and I created a playlist using music composed at Catherine’s court, and pieces that complemented artworks in her impressive and diverse collection.

But Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890) presented a unique challenge. Relatively isolated during his brief career as a painter, he did not form important connections with any musicians or composers, as far as we know. Nor did he show a great interest in any particular musical genres.

I began by trawling through his letters, which have all been digitised and translated into English. I found very few references to music; the exceptions were some mentions of Richard Wagner, and a reference to Charles Gounod’s 1864 opera Mireille.

As a Wagner scholar, I could not resist the temptation to include a few excerpts from his operas, particularly those which were performed frequently in concerts in Paris at the time. The playlist opens with the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Lohengrin, first performed in 1850 – a perfect beginning:

The second item on the list is an aria from Mireille – a work I had never heard before undertaking this research:

In reading Van Gogh’s letters, I also came across a mention of the World Exhibition which was to be held in Paris in 1889; we don’t know whether Van Gogh attended, but he was certainly aware that it would be taking place.

These exhibitions were an opportunity for nations around the world to exhibit their national culture and for France to promote its own national culture to visiting nations. Musicologist Annegret Fauser’s fascinating 2005 book Musical Encounters at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair revealed the musical life that flourished at the Exhibition, and gave me some ideas for items to add to the playlist.

Camille Saint-Saëns’ opera Ascanio (1890) was to be the centrepiece of the Paris Opéra’s contribution to the Exhibition, and although things didn’t quite work out that way (it wasn’t premiered until the following year), I included one of its “Airs de ballet” in the playlist.

More successful at the Exhibition (this time from the Opéra-Comique) was Massenet’s Esclarmonde (1889). Australia’s Joan Sutherland sang the title role in one of the work’s few revivals in the 1970s, so it seemed fitting to include it on the playlist.

The aria I chose, however, is sung by the character Roland, a knight who loves Esclarmonde, the Empress of Byzantium:

The final playlist betrays a heavy bias towards French opera and Wagner, which of course does not encompass or reflect all aspects of Van Gogh’s life and work. Yet the lack of direct connections between Van Gogh and music provided me with the opportunity to expose listeners to the music that interests me and informs my work, as well as the chance for me to discover works such as Esclarmonde that I had never heard.

Image: Sophie Duran.

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