Listen With Your Eyes!

Prof. Roy DeVille
Prof. Roy DeVille

For many years, I have been enamored by the music of Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741).  Perhaps this love is tied into my enthusiasm for Venice and the Venetian painters. Or, maybe I am just impressed by a guy who could compose 500 concerti (or as my wife says, one concerto 500 times!) Vivaldi’s prolific output was the result of his position as Director of Music at the Ospedale della Pietá, where he created works for the talented young ladies who were residents at this infamous orphanage for the indiscreet results of Venice’s many Casanova wannabes.

Like most Baroque composers, Vivaldi wrote in all of the popular genres. But of course, his best known work would have to be The Four Seasons. Consisting of four concerti for solo violin, they are the first four of Vivaldi’s Opus 8, Il Cimento dell’armonia e dell’ invenzione, The Contest Between Harmony and Invention. Il Cimento dell’ armonia e dell’ invenzione was published in Amsterdam in 1725. Each of the four concerti is prefaced by a descriptive Italian sonnet. Most scholars conclude that the poetry is also from Vivaldi’s own hand.


Antonio_VivaldiVivaldi’s inspiration came from a series of four landscape paintings by Venetian colleague Marco Ricci (1676-1730). Ricci was trained in the naturalistic style of landscape painting practiced in the Veneto during the middle-baroque era. En route to England, Ricci made an extended visit to the Netherlands, where he studied the Dutch style of landscape painting. In England, he worked creating stage sets for the Queen’s Theatre in Haymarket, including operas by Alessandro Scarlatti.


The result of Ricci’s travels was an alignment of the simplicity and realism of the Dutch style applied to the fantasy of the Baroque operatic stage. And from his work, a new Venetian landscape style was born. And what better place for this to take place than in Venice? In Venice, light transforms everything that is visible. Many a painter has been entranced by the changing light and color of the magic that is Venice, myself included!


Giovanni Canal (Canaletto) (1697-1768) carried Ricci’s style into the next generation of Venetian landscape painters. Canaletto is credited with bringing to Venice the Flemish style of large-scale landscape, known to the Italians as venduta. Canaletto is better known than Ricci, primarily for his paintings of Venice that speak as realistically as photographs.


CanalettoVivaldi’s Four Seasons are as descriptive musically as the Venetian landscape paintings. It is natural that one would listen to the concerti with eyes as well as ears. One can hear, and see in the mind’s eye, the natural elements of the changing seasons, the creatures of nature, even somewhat tipsy bagpipe players! The works are virtually a riot of color and movement. The images brought forth through the music are as vivid as any painting. If the sonnets are read while listening, another layer of imagery is added.


There is so much color in this music that I am reminded of the work of German painter, Gotthard Graubner (1930-2013). Graubner’s work was never influenced by the trends so prevalent in German art during the 20th century. Color was the driving force and his colors live and breathe and have strong movement.


Gotthard Graubner was a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Hamburg from 1969 to 1976. He then moved to the Kunstakademie of Düsseldorf, where he retired from teaching in 1992. As was the trend among artists retiring from the Kunstakademie, Graubner settled at the Museum-Insel Hombroich, Neuss, where he died in 2013. The Museum Island is both a park and a museum of art and architecture on 62 acres of meadowland.

Graubner’s paintings were characterized by the use of color instead of shapes. The surface of the canvas is built up by color formations with layers of varying degrees of transparency. Layering the color produced paintings of great depth, somewhat in the technique of Mark Rothko. There is no representation or theme, but what Graubner called his, “triad of color, light, and space.” The color becomes the landscape, “color is sufficient as a theme.”


Graubner was strongly influenced by music, but not in a symbolic way. His paintings often contain musical references, as a reaction to music heard while painting rather than in a programmatic way.


If I were explaining this strange idea of listening with the eyes to musicians, I would give them a comparison. German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter has made two recordings of the Vivaldi Four Seasons during her career. The earliest was recorded with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. It is heavy and solid, like a bold red wine. Recently, she has re-recorded the work with the Trondheim Soloists, a small Norwegian chamber ensemble. This is champagne! The baroque scale passages and sequences sparkle with splashes of color and energetic movement. The playfulness of the music comes through loud and clear. So, I suppose one could say that Ricci and Canaletto are von Karajan and Graubner is Trondheim. Both are Vivaldi. Take your pick!