Painting the Sea with Colour and Music

The sea - a favourite subject of painters and composers alike. © Charles Thibo
The sea – a favourite subject of painters and composers alike. © Charles Thibo

If Pyotr Tchaikovsky is my all time favourite composer, Claude Monet is my all time favourite painter. He and others of his time from the school of the “Impressionists”, who tried to render in their paintings the immediate and ephemerous effects of light: shadows, reflections by the sun, flickering of waves, distortion by fog etc. While other painters had a political or religious message or tried to express an artistic ideal (romanticism for example), Monet and his friends painted nature as they saw it and when they saw it, that is, outdoor and on the spot, a recurrent subject being the sea.

A similar ambition can be observed among certain composers. Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, representing like Franz Schubert the German romantic era, had tried to describe his mood inspired by a visit to a sea cave in Scotland with his Overture “The Hebrides” (1832). Claude Debussy went a step further in 1905 by trying to express in music not what he felt while staying at the seaside and contemplating the sea, but what he actually saw, in his piece “La Mer” (The Sea).

Another (and unfortunately forgotten) composer of that era is Gabriel Dupont, born in 1878 in Caen (Normandy, France), who wrote between 1907 and 1909 an extremely interesting and pleasant piano cycle: “La maison dans les dunes” (The house at the beach). The cycle describes different moments at the sea and different aspects of the sea with interesting contrasts. I find it fascinating to let myself being submerged by the different tunes to rediscover the aspects Dupont intended to describe. There is an excellent recording by pianist Stéphane Lemelin (much better than the samples I could find on Youtube).

It is interesting to note that another musician of that time, also inspired by the sea, went a different way. The Lithuanian composer and painter Mikalojus Ciurlionis composed between 1903 and 1907 a symphonic poem of the name of “Jūra” (The Sea) and expresses much more the dark and violent feelings that the experience of being at the seaside did release in him. Though living in Debussy’s time, this piece seems to be much more in the romantic tradition. But I will come back to Ciurlionis and both his paintings and his compositions in a later post.

Being much of an outdoor person myself and finding myself being inspired by nature in photography I am delighted to see so many composers sharing these inspirations with me. Perhaps a reminder that life is short and that we should cherish what nature can offer us in return for a little respect.

Mendelssohn-Bartholdy – The Hebrides:

Debussy – La Mer:

Dupont – La maison dans les dunes:

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.