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Week 15: Light and Timbre

We come now to the close of our study which, in the main, has dwelled upon formal arrangements in musical works of art and processes used to create them. But also we have pondered phenomena underpinning such designs and not the private property of musicians. Painters, sculptors, dancers, poets and actors also use line, color, timbre, dynamic, texture, frequency, foreground, background, contrast, ostinato, rhythm, motion...and the list goes on. Claude Monet's poplars have illustrated, often in this course, phenomena uniting the visual and musical arts. These may be reduced to half a dozen or so qualities essential to the human experience and manifesting themselves in many ways depending upon the artist, epoch, and medium. The formal designs and processes of this study can be seen in such a light as having evolved not by accident, but rooted in the human psyche and experience.

Light. With effects of color, hue, tone, shading, and brilliance, the language of light has permeated theoretical discourse in the arts for centuries. Light in the visual arts is analogous, in music, to orchestration and timbre--the most important "coloristic" brush on the composer's palette. In the words of Michael Sadler, describing Wassilly Kandinsky's abstract expressionism: "the lines and colours have the same effect as harmony and rhythm in music." We conclude this study with a phenomenological and philosophical analysis of the function of light in Monet's Cathedral series and third movement of Vaughan Williams's Fifth Symphony.

But first some history. Monet belonged to a group who, at the turn of the century, became fascinated with the facility of light to transform painting in ways that formal arrangement, design, and composition alone could not. He and his contemporaries observed that a landscape begun in the morning would inspire different impressions as lighting conditions changed throughout the day and in various types of weather. The school we know as Impressionism was born of an attempt to capture feelings evoked, in large part, by fleeting moments of light, color, and motion. This effort culminated in what are called "series paintings," of which Monet's poplars are one. Consider now the function of light in another of Monet's serial works.

Nôtre Dame Cathedral in Rouen
Animated gif from Rouen Revisited, an interactive art installation by Golan Levin and Paul Debevec. ©1996 Interval Research Corporation and University of California, Berkeley. Used with permission.
The most famous Monet series is that of the Nôtre Dame Cathedral in Rouen, the capital city of Normandy. The spires of this magnificent structure took two centuries to build and can be seen from any point in the city. In Rouen Revisited, Golan Levin and Paul Debevec have created a time-lapsed photograph showing the effects of light upon the cathedral. For the purposes of this study, it shall be helpful to distinguish between the formal object of their photograph--the cathedral itself--and the manner in which it is transformed by light and shadow. Formally, the spires and doors may be likened, from left to right, to a ternary structure in stone: statement, digression, and return. While the Gothic edifice has a certain aesthetic appeal, without light it is massive, cold, and immovable. But with light, it fairly dances.

Between 1892-1894, Monet used the cathedral as model for some two dozen paintings. Working quickly, in the open air, the artist used pure colors rather than tones to record subjective responses to moments in time. When the light changed, Monet would pack his easel and go home. While he painted different facades from varying perspectives, the formal object of the series is static: a mute and unyielding monolith. By capturing the effects of light upon form, Monet persuades it to exchange sedimentation for fluidity of style, and, more importantly, of feeling. Monet's series tells as much about Monet in relation to the cathedral as it does about the cathedral. Levin and Debevec show this by superimposing, from the same perspective, twenty-four of Monet's cathedral paintings upon their photograph. Click the time-lapse photo to see Monet's chronological impressions of the cathedral. You may also wish to view the Rouen Cathedral in Full Sunlight at the top of this page. Next...


  • Wassily Kandinsky, "Concerning the Spiritual in Art," trans. M.T.H. Sadler (New York: Dover Publications, 1977), xix.

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