William Morris Hunt’s (1824-1879) The Rapids, Sister Island, Niagara (1878) is paired with Elgar’s (1857-1934) Variation XI “G.R.S.”, Allegro di molto from the Enigma Variations (1898–99).
This art-music pairing and commentary are by Jason Wade.
George Hurst conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, September 1995 at the Wessex Hall in the Poole Arts Centre. Naxos 8.553564. Used by permission.
Where does a composer get their inspiration? Edward Elgar composed his “Enigma” Variations by dedicating the piece to his “friends pictured within.” Elgar’s fellow musician and friend George Robertson Sinclair inspired the eleventh variation. However, the idea behind the music truly comes from Sinclair’s bulldog, Dan. The entire variation depicts Dan falling into a river after chasing a stick thrown by Sinclair.
When listening to Elgar’s Variation XI while viewing the painting The Rapids, Sister Island, Niagara, one can imagine Dan plunging into the water. The music begins with a fleeting figure that is quickly and loudly passed between most of the string family; and so begins Dan’s adventure after the stick. Take a listen to see what the music and the rapids have in store for Dan.
A Bulldog and the Rapids
William Morris Hunt’s painting The Rapids, Sister Island, Niagara shares a number of enticing elements with the eleventh variation of Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Both artists worked during the end of the Romantic period, at a time when new styles were already beginning to evolve. Hunt, an American, has been associated with a French group, known as the Barbizon school of painters, that began to move towards realism in art. In contrast, Elgar was British and not associated with realism. So, given these differences, how can we take our own past experiences and knowledge to compare and contrast Elgar’s music to Hunt’s painting?
Elgar had a unique idea for his composition. The work has fourteen variations, each based on a theme, which he titled the Enigma. The word enigma means something that is unknown. Each of the variations corresponds to a particular person that Elgar knew. He found his inspiration for the eleventh, or G.R.S., variation from George Robertson Sinclair, an organist, who was the only professional musician amongst the people who inspired the variations. However, the idea behind this variation actually comes from Sinclair’s bulldog, Dan. The variation depicts Dan falling into the Wye River after chasing a stick thrown by Sinclair. In the program notes for the piece, Elgar states that Dan fell down the steep bank, and paddled vigorously after the stick. Sinclair challenged Elgar to set that event to music.
The topic of the painting The Rapids, Sister Island, Niagara has a direct correlation to Elgar’s G.R.S. variation. The painting illustrates the rapids of the Niagara River in New York. Ironically enough, Hunt drowned in rapids at the Isles of Shoals in New Hampshire, with some sources even stating that it was suicide. While looking at the painting, a spectator could place the vivacious bulldog, Dan, into the scene. The tempo, or speed, of the music is Allegro di molto. This is a rather brisk tempo, and jumpstarts the imagery of the rapids barreling down the bank. The music begins with a fleeting figure that is passed between several members of the string family: the first and second violins, viola, and cello. The passing of this idea happens very loudly and quickly; in the same way as the rapids plummet down the stream. Directly after this short idea, the bassoon and double basses play a theme, in a quiet manner. This low-voiced theme is accompanied by staccato markings, which indicate to the player that each note is to be played in a short manner. The fact that instruments with low voices are playing each note in a detached manner suggests to me the image of the portly bulldog scampering towards the rapids after the stick. This theme can be heard throughout the variation, not only in the bassoon and double basses, but in several other instruments as well. For instance, this motive can be heard shortly after in the same instruments, but now the cello joins in as well. Adding instruments to this theme produces a more intense sound, making the music, in a sense, more dramatic. Could the bulldog be experiencing troubles paddling upstream? He suddenly hits some rapids. Is the bulldog falling behind in the rapids? It is up to the viewer and listener to decide.
Various colors are visible in the painting and in the music. Overall, the painting has dull but realistic colors. The rapids and the respective forest surrounding them, present various earth tones. As you cast your eye over the painting, observe the objects that would typically be associated with a forest, or an exterior landscape. Beginning from the top, there is a small portion of sky, covered with clouds and trees. Near the middle of the painting, the rapids start to rush to the far left-hand corner. There are three main ideas here: the sky, ground, and water. Therefore, the main colors that can be seen are blue, brown, green, and white. Even though some might think of blue and white as vibrant colors, the artist utilizes them in a dull hue.
Color in music refers to the quality or character of the sound; for instance a flute has a different color than a trombone. Different combinations of instruments also produce different colors. Elgar’s variation presents colors that are, in some respects, different from the painting. For instance, the oboe is paired with the French horns to play a different theme that can be heard directly after the first two themes, which were noted earlier. The high range and tone of both of these instruments conveys to the listener a majestic, or bright sound. Later, this same theme is heard in the brass family, creating an even bigger and more majestic sound. These vivacious tone colors could be Dan the dog having a moment of triumph in his journey. After several seconds of roaring sound, the orchestra becomes very quiet and repeats a variation of the same idea from the beginning. Some viewers and listeners might consider this the most intense part. The sound is hushed, but still fierce. Half of the orchestra is playing rapidly, while the other half plays the low, bouncing theme that the bassoons and bass had in the beginning.
When viewing The Rapids at the same time as listening to Elgar’s variation, the muted colors of the painting seem to dance to life as the music takes over the mind of the viewer. The bright sounds of the flute, oboe, and high brass, such as the trumpets, pierce the silence that one would expect in an empty forest. In a way, the dark colors of the painting and the music’s bright tone colors complement one another. While viewing the painting and listening to the composition, the music seems to bring Hunt’s forest and the rapids to life.
The lines that can be found throughout the painting vary. Diagonal, curvilinear, and broken lines can be found when looking closely at the landscape. Diagonal lines can be seen flowing through the rapids, and several trees are slanted, creating other diagonals. The trees in the background, starting on the top right corner, fall in a diagonal that almost meets the rapids in the center of the painting. Curvilinear lines are found in several objects: the trees on the right are curved, and the rock in the bottom center also has curved lines. In some instances, these various lines interrupt each other. For instance, the tree constructed of curvilinear lines in the left-hand corner intersects, or interrupts, the diagonal line that the rapids create.
At the very beginning of the music, a diagonal line is immediately created. The swift motive discussed before in the strings starts on a high note, then falls through the violins, violas, and cellos to end on a low note. If we connected the dots, or notes, it would create a diagonal. The idea reoccurs near the middle and at the very end of the variation. At the start of the variation, this figuration is interrupted, much like the line in the painting, by the bassoon and bass theme. This low, detached motive might be understood as curvilinear because the notes jump around, curving up and down. The curvilinear theme can also be found in the violins. Then, yet again a few seconds after the detached theme, the flute, first violins, violas, and cellos create a line that starts in a high range and quickly descends in a downward motion that interrupts the musical line. This happens again, with nearly the same voicing. While this downward diagonal line is occurring, the second violin has a diagonal line that moves upward. Could this, in a sense, be an interruption of a line? It may only be a contrast to some of us, but the listener must decide. The ending of the piece is similar, only in the opposite direction. A few seconds before the end of the piece, the flute, oboes, and clarinets have a line that starts on a low note and, with each new sound, climbs to a higher one. While this is happening the first and second violins and viola are playing a passage that descends and then ascends several times in a short period. If one took a pencil and traced this line, it could be considered a jagged line. If this is happening while the upward diagonal line is occurring, is it an interruption?
The idea of light in the painting does not match the music in a direct way. In a forest scene, one would think that the light comes from above, assuming the sun is out. Here, however, this is not happening. The main light source seems to be the rapids. This is where all of the brightest colors are placed. The main color that is illuminating light is white. Therefore, the light is dim and dull. This could be from the choice of colors that the artist used. At the beginning, it was noted that the music is not dull given the instrumental voicing, chords, and dynamic markings. It is very vibrant and changing. This might mean that the painting and music complement one another. If the music is played while looking at the painting, it brings light to the painting, and brings the rapids to life.
Today, snapping a photo, recording music, or even the act of listening to music is at our fingertips. For our painter and composer it was not always that simple. Drawing on today’s technology, we can easily combine these two art forms in ways the original artists did not foresee. These combinations broaden our understanding of the past; they provoke our imaginations, and lead us to new interpretations of both kinds of artistic expression.