Childe Hassam’s (1859–1935) Reflection (c. 1917) is paired with the Nocturne et Allegro, Scherzando (c. 1906) by Philippe Gaubert (1879–1941).
This art-music pairing and commentary are by Jacqueline Berndt.
Click here for a recording of Gaubert’s Nocturne et Allegro, Scherzando
Performed by Nicola Guidetti, flute, and Mark Ricciarelli, piano. http://www.nicolaguidetti.com/jml/en/ This recording is available at soundcloud.com. Used by permission of Nicola Guidetti.
What could possibly be luring Kitty to gaze out the window? Could it be memories of the past, dreams of the future or fearful regrets? This question has been puzzling art critics and museum goers for almost a century. Frederick Childe Hassam’s Impressionistic painting, Reflection, may lead one to wonder: what lurks beyond the curtains. Philippe Gaubert’s composition for flute and piano, Nocturne et Allegro Scherzando seems to possess two worlds at play: that of the dream world and that of reality. Contemplating these two works at the same time can lead to locating other imaginative analogies that may shed light on the possible meanings of each work.
Kitty Hughes Dreams to a Flute Melody
After my first encounter viewing Frederick Childe Hassam’s Impressionistic painting Reflection, I was inspired to contemplate the characteristics it shared with Philippe Gaubert’s composition for flute and piano, Nocturne et Allegro Scherzando. I pondered the meaning and emotions expressed in both works. Listening to the music while looking at the painting may lead the viewer to contemplate the thoughts of Kitty Hughes, the young woman depicted in the painting. Kitty’s downcast gaze out of the window is a strong point of interest; it is emphasized by the sliver of light cast from her gaze past the blinds. The listener may imagine correlations between certain motives in the music and to this tender moment in time. Hassam seems to depict Kitty as a seductive young mistress, seeking freedom from the confines of her upper-class society. The vibrant red colors suggest that she possesses a free spirit and vivid imagination; perhaps she dreams of a life beyond the confines of her small elitist circle. Passionate love is another theme the painting employs through the great use of the color red and Kitty’s attractive negligee. My comparison of Hassam’s Reflection, and Gaubert’s Nocturne et Allegro Scherzando highlights the emotions of love and passion, which may have dominated Kitty’s thoughts.
The American Impressionist painting, Reflection, was created using oil on canvas. The Impressionist style of this work demonstrates Hassam’s American sense of realism combined with the painting technique of short, broken brushstrokes that emphasize the effects of light and shadow to highlight subtle contrasts of color, known as optical blending. This painting contains the subject of upper class leisure, which was a popular topic at the beginning of the 20th-century. The main figure in this painting, Katherine “Kitty” Hughes, was one of Hassam’s favorite models that he used in his Window series. Hassam created this series of paintings in New York between 1909 and 1922; each depicts a contemplative female before a curtained or open window (Ulrich 141).
The French composer Gaubert, wrote Nocturne et Allegro Scherzando during the beginning of the 20th-century. A nocturne is a moderately slow piece with a dreamy and reflective character. Allegro Scherzando is Italian for a musical piece whose character is playful and lively. This piece creates a musical aesthetic using unusual scales and harmonies, which is a quality of Impressionist music. The languid first section Nocturne transitions after a brief pause to the swift Allegro Scherzando section. The Allegro Scherzando section is interrupted by a broader third section with shifting tempos to usher a glorious conclusion. Gaubert dedicated Nocturne et Allegro Scherzando to his teacher, Paul Taffanel, and used it as the test piece for the 1906 Paris Conservatoire Flute Concours, the same year of its composition. The Flute Concours was the most highly regarded flute contest in Paris, where students would perform a new work before a panel of judges.
On the surface of this painting, one can see that Kitty possesses an upper class status by the gold and yellow decorated curtains that lace the windows, and the wonderful array of succulent apples for the centerpiece of the table. Her informal negligee would also have been something worn by wealthier women. The opening of the Nocturne creates a grand atmosphere that is similar to Hassam’s depiction of Kitty’s upper class status. Gaubert orchestrates the opening chords in a foreboding, pristine fashion, which is likewise similar to the painting’s references to Kitty’s luxurious quality of life. In the flute’s first entrance at the beginning of the piece, we are presented with the first theme, which repeats directly after the first unaccompanied flute solo. There are two unaccompanied flute solos in the Nocturne, which seem to draw the listener’s focus to Kitty’s negligee and the ornate table. In the first solo, Gaubert twists and weaves the flute line back to a return of the main melody, just as Hassam uses twisting and wispy paintbrush strokes for Kitty’s clothing and the translucent table. The sunlight that streams in from the window illuminates Kitty’s appearance, which is the focal point of the painting. Hassam portrays Kitty looking distantly out of her windowsill, possibly longing to be free from the confines of her bedroom in search of knowledge for the world around her.
In its first solo, the flute appears to be drifting from the main melody but eventually it meanders back to the principle theme. When the main theme returns a second time, it contains larger leaps and a greater range of loudness and softness. Gaubert instructs the flutist to play this repeated theme an octave higher and the flutist may instinctively play this section with greater passion, possibly to represent zealous desire and love, drawing the viewer’s focus to the reds of the painting. This section seems to match Hassam’s juicy red apples, which perhaps can give the viewer a vision for the richness of flavor they hold. The bowl of vibrant red apples in the forefront can metaphorically present Kitty as a modern day Eve. One interpretation drawn from this allusion may be to view Kitty as a sensuous and promiscuous woman. Hassam uses thicker layers of paint for the brighter bluish whites of the table, and thinner coatings for the darker portions of the table. The listener may be able to hear analogous moments of contrast in the music through the flute’s greater use of dynamics and vibrato in the second theme, contrasted with the hazy and wandering closing flute solo.
Kitty’s disheveled dress and hair, which she has wrapped in a bun, might suggest she has had an affair or lover tend to her. The right strap of her dress hangs loosely off her arm and her hair would be messy if allowed to fall. Her rosy cheeks burn pinkish red, which may well imply her romantic interests from the previous night. She gazes outside, possibly catching sight of her departing lover. The phrasing and dynamics of the music’s opening legato melodies create similarly sensuous gestures. The rolling chords provided by the piano enhance the intimate atmosphere of the flute melody. The flute’s lyrical melody seems to possess a dream-like quality, correlating to Kitty’s dream-like expression of passion and lust. The final note of the Nocturne section fades, like memories and visions recede into a dream world. This is an example of the musical Impressionist aesthetic of dreaming and the far away (Pasler).
While the first section Nocturne may suggest the sad, outward expression of Kitty’s status in her society, the faster second section, Allegro Scherzando, may reveal her inner desires to break free from this upper class world. The sharp elements of juxtaposition in this movement are similar to the divided emotions that Kitty perhaps feels. Throughout the first section of the Scherzando, there are two worlds at play: that of the dream world and that of reality. There are moments when the flute entangles itself in dramatic ascending and descending streams of notes, which interrupt the clipped, two-note lines, possibly drawing the viewer to ponder if Kitty’s mind is whirling with ideas about life beyond her petite room. Her angled pose in this painting can lead one to wonder if there are multiple realities of her external world and if she possesses dual realities in her mind. Her mentality seems to be trapped between the fantasy world of her imagination and the reality of the world around her, which she seems to find disinteresting. In the quick, meandering passages of the flute and piano, the music appears to be questioning or leaving the listener to desire more, which is comparable to Kitty’s expression, questioning her multiple realities.
After hearing the rapid opening of the Allegro Scherzando, one can hear a contrasting third section where the flute plays virtuosic passages and the tempo broadens. This third section contains a reminiscent motive taken from the first and second themes of the Nocturne, where the flute played more passionately. This may correlate to Kitty’s inner flame for life. At these moments, the key switches from a gloomy minor, to a brighter major mode and the flute soars in its glorious high register. These moments also support the theme of Kitty seeking to break free from the social bonds of her society through the passionate flute line and the transition from minor to major mode. The viewer is lead by the flute’s beguiling melodies to wonder about Kitty’s thoughts and what could be attracting her attention out of the window. The luscious flute melody also possesses a sense of freedom that may correspond to Kitty’s inner desires.
The theme of “reflections” plays a strong role in the painting as well as the music. Two examples of the “reflections” theme are first, the title of the painting is Reflection; and second, one can see reflections from the table, the mirror and the windowsill. These objects imply that Kitty is reflecting upon her past. The theme of “reflection” also enhances the idea of the two worlds or possibly multiple worlds at play in Kitty’s mind. There is the surface world of material objects, which you can see such as the table, and there is the inner world, illuminated by the exaggerated reflection that Hassam paints into the table. The subtle inferences of longing suggested by Kitty’s downcast glance and her passions, illustrated by the color red, may support the idea of dual realities.
The wonder and awe of discovering what Kitty is looking towards is the most enticing element in Reflection. The painting suggests she is lost in her thoughts, looking down to a departing lover or maybe simply humming the melody of the Nocturne et Allegro Scherzando to herself. Hassam seems to suggest there are multiple topics she is mulling over, which are left for the viewer to interpret. The title of the painting and the reflections in both the mirror and table may be symbolic of Kitty looking to her past memories. Considering her forlorn eyes, perhaps she is longing for freedom from the social confines of her world. The vibrant colors and techniques that Hassam incorporates into his painting as well as the variety of moods and musical aesthetics that Gaubert uses in his music entice the viewer to inquire more into Kitty’s thoughts and gaze.
Heisinger, Ulrich, W. Childe Hassam: American Impressionist. New York: Prestel Verlag, 1994.
Pasler, Jann. “Impressionism.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed March 29, 2014.