One of the pieces on LACO’s opening concert next weekend is inspired by a sculpture. Andrew Norman’sThe Great Swiftness is a musical response to Alexander Calder’s sculpture, La Grande Vitesse, a work created for the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Using music to respond to non-musical things is not a new phenomenon. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and has always been a part of human culture, telling stories and teaching history and even imitating real life (birdsong leaps to mind). But music as a response to a painting or a sculpture is a little bit different.

Leaving aside music with words (because that kind of thing doesn’t necessarily have to reflect ideas in a musical way), let’s look at an example of music that responds to a narrative, in this case, a play. In Tchaikovsky’s Overture-Fantasy, Romeo and Juliet—a one-movement, orchestral work—the composer used musical themes to represent love and the vendetta between the two families. These two themes collide in the music as they do in the play, and the musical structure easily “makes sense” in terms of the story. But how can that be done for a work of visual art?

How can you decide what a painting “sounds” like? What element of a sculpture would you attempt to translate into sound? The color? The shape? One of the first musical pieces that made a serious effort to represent specific visual artwork in music was Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874 piano piece Pictures at an Exhibition. (It was beautifully orchestrated by Ravel in 1922, although there are many other arrangements of the piece.) Mussorgsky met artist Viktor Hartmann around 1870. The two men became fast friends, sharing the ideal of making art that was, at its heart, “Russian”: true to Russian ideals and inspired by Russian traditions. Hartmann died suddenly from an aneurysm at the age of thirty-nine, leaving his friends absolutely devastated. As a memorial, hundreds of Hartmann’s works were given a show at the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. In attendance were many of Hartmann’s friends, including Mussorgsky, who was truly motivated by what he saw.

In just a month and a half, Mussorgsky composedPictures at an Exhibition, a multi-movement work, with each movement taking inspiration from one of Hartmann’s paintings or drawings—with the exception of Promenade, which recurs as connective musical tissue, as if the art-lover were walking from one work of art to another. Although many of Hartmann’s pieces were subsequently lost, a musicologist by the name of Alfred Frankenstein identified the likely pieces that influenced Mussorgsky. The final movement of Pictures at an Exhibition, “The Bogatyr Gates” (in the capital in Kiev), sometimes translated, “The Great Gate of Kiev”, is certainly based on a drawing Hartmann had done as a design for a city gate. The drawing won a competition, although plans for the actual building of the gate were scrapped.

So, the question is, how did Mussorgsky represent this majestic gate, a monument to Czar Alexander II? Well, first of all, the music is majestic. The Promenade appears, transformed into an exalted march, as if we are approaching this piece of art slowly and respectfully. As the drawing comes gradually into focus, the grand, sweeping gestures of the music grow as well. As a secondary theme, Mussorgsky uses a hymn from the Russian Orthodox liturgy.

Mussorgsky was just one composer who responded to visual art with music. Sergei Rachmaninoff did something similar with the artwork of Swiss painter, Arnold Böcklin. Böcklin painted the first version of Isle of the Dead in 1880. Numerous works of art, literature, film, and music have taken some kind of inspiration from Böcklin’s various versions of this painting. It depicts a figure being rowed to a mysterious island. Walls of rock jut up on either side of the island, and in the center is a stand of cypress trees. The rower of the boat is thought to be Charon, the oarsman of Greek mythology who brought souls to the underworld. A figure stands upright in the boat as it approaches the seawall. Salvador Dali, for example, painted a work calledThe True Picture of the Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin at the Hour of the Angelus.

In 1909, Sergei Rachmaninoff composed a symphonic poem called The Island of the Dead after seeing a black and white print of the painting. It is considered the apex of Rachmaninoff’s work in this genre. But how did he meet the challenge of representing a visual image in sound? Well, for one thing, there is a 5/8 meter that perhaps suggests the movement of Charon’s oars. In addition, Rachmaninoff quotes the Dies Irae chant, a potent sonic symbol of death, one that Rachmaninoff quoted in numerous pieces. At the end of the symphonic poem, the composer depicts a musical conflict between the Dies Irae and Rachmaninoff’s so-called “life” theme. The orchestral colors he used are as dark and mysterious as Böcklin’s painting.

These are just two examples of composers responding to visual art. There are many more. The Great Swiftness, although quite new, is part of a grand tradition. As an experiment, perhaps you can look at pictures of Calder’sLa Grande Vitesse online before the concert. When you hear Andrew Norman’s work, see if it makes you think of the boldness of Calder’s sculpture or the curve of its lines. Or wait until the piece is played at the concert and just imagine the sculpture’s shape, color, or size as you listen. Music is an incredible art form, and its power to convey ideas, stories, and yes, even physical objects, may not always be shown in a specifically representative manner, but somehow or other, we understand.