Classical 91.5

Musical Mucha

Nov 8, 2019

"For me, the notions of painting, going to church, and music are so closely knit that often I cannot decide whether I like church for its music, or music for its place in the mystery which it accompanies." – Alphonse Mucha

“Mucha studied to be a musician, you know,” he said.

And I had to admit: I didn’t know that, nor a number a number of the other interesting things that an art historian friend shared with me on our wanderings through the Memorial Art Gallery yesterday.

A bit of a resemblance between museum patron and artist (Alphonse Mucha)

My guide and I met initially through correspondence over musical matters, and we have caught up occasionally in person at concerts: a difficult thing, since neither of us drives, and he lives in small town a ways away from the city.  Happily, we were able to make our schedules work, and he took the long bus ride in so that we could spend time in the Mucha exhibit that is currently on display at the MAG (through January 19th).

He has been interested in Mucha's work since his childhood in the early 1950s. His catalyst was the discovery in an abandoned house of a Whitman's tin candy box, ca. 1920, which employed a Mucha image. This had led to lots of sleuthing on his part, and he likes to think that he was a part of the first recent Mucha revival in the 1960s, initiated by Brian Reade, a curator at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. 

For more insights into Alphonse Mucha’s work and its display here in Rochester, check out Rebecca Rafferty’s exploration of the exhibit in City Newspaper

Salome by Mucha

I'm still stuck on the music.  Mucha studied music during his teen years; he studied in school and sang in the choir of the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Brno. Sources online say that he either gave up music because he of his voice changed, or just because he was more interested in pursuing the visual arts.  

Here are a few musical connections that caught our attention at the exhibit, and a few that I have come across since our visit.

Salome (1897)
The biblical bad girl Salome has been the subject of music (most notably the opera by Richard Strauss) as well as painting and poetry. Here, Mucha has her looking provocative, and she is depicted holding a musical instrument, perhaps to accompany herself in the infamous dance of the seven veils?

Ah, I thought – one of my favorite operas! But this poster is actually from a performance of the play by Sardou promoting a performance before the opera was written. That doesn’t stop publishers from using it on the cover of musical scores for Tosca. You can see just part of a verrrryyyy lonnnnggg poster up at the top of the post, and you can see it at its full height in the exhibit. 

Pageant on the Vltava

Neither the snapshots I took, nor the images available online (like the one above) do justice to this work. At the MAG, you can see both a full color version and a black and white sketch. 

And while Mucha probably wasn't thinking music here, I couldn't help but imagine the sounds of Bedrich Smetana's Vltava, better known to classical radio audiences as The Moldau: 

Mucha also depicted music as an abstract idea in his series on The Arts (The Arts: Music (1898)), created a poster for a young cellist friend: Zdeňka Černý (1903), and in 1911, he designed delightful poster for the Moravian Teachers Choir, whose repertoire included music by Leos Janack, who was one of Mucha's fellow choirboys back in Brno. Those works can all be seen at the Mucha Museum in Prague. 

Musical connections seem to follow us all over the gallery. My friend drew my attention to a gauzy painting of a woman reading a book, a part of the permanent collection, by American artist Thomas Wilmer Dewing. He mentioned that in Dewing’s paintings, women are often depicted with musical instruments.

After the Mucha show, we went upstairs, where I introduced my guide to The Battle of Carnival and Lent, aa large, boldly-designed glass panel by Judith Schaechter. Chamber ensemble fivebyfive (on whose board I serve) has commissioned four musical pieces inspired by this work.  Here are details on the concert where they will be premiered and the Meet the Composers events over the next few months. And then more of her work will be on display next year, in The Path to Paradise: Judith Schaechter’s Stained-Glass Art (at the MAG February 16-May 20). Looks like a good reason to plan another trip to the museum with a friend...

The Battle of Carnival and Lent (Judith Schaechter, Memorial Art Gallery)