The correlation between music and painting is one of the most interesting and long existing themes in the history of art. The paintings of all times and genres delivered an uncountable number of plots, stories and inspirations for musical genre scenes, program music, operas and songs. Different ways of expression are nourished by the same human feelings, desires and fears. The AAA Angst Festival of the Concertgebouw, Stedelijk Museum and Van Gogh Museum took a closer look at fear (angst in Dutch) and dissected this emotion with the help of musical paintings and paintings inspired by music. This anatomy of fear found its powerful symbol in The Scream by Edvard Munch, one of the most famous visual visions of fear.

Otto Tausk © Marco Borggreve
Otto Tausk
© Marco Borggreve
The compositions of Henri Dutilleux, Alphons Diepenbrock and Mark-Anthony Turnage gave an impressive fear analysis. Dutilleux’s symphonic diptych Timbres, espace, mouvement was written for the Washington National Symphony Orchestra and its chief conductor Mstislav Rostropovitch as In Memoriam for Charles Munch, the former conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the founder of the Orchestre de Paris. But there was also another artist, whose work had a direct influence on the structure and timbre colours of Timbres, espace, mouvement: Vincent van Gogh. His Nuit étoilée (Starry Night) intrigued the French composer from the very moment he saw it. He decided to ‘extend’ it musically and created a suprisingly corresponding musical space which likes to grow from and upon the colours, lines and visual rythme of Van Gogh’s night. This space is dominated by timbral variety of metal percussion, strings (which are reduced to cellos and double basses), wind and brass instruments. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conjured up clouds of fluid, silky sounds of all dynamic ranges. All these extreme contrasts in registers, tones, dark shadows and luminous lights were brought together with great precision, masterly framed by Otto Tausk. The vivid colors and a dislocated visual perspective of the painting echoed in an increasing feeling of anxciety, spreading around in sound circles.
<i>Starry Night</i> © Vincent van Gogh
Starry Night
© Vincent van Gogh

The threat of fear in Starry Night gave way to the undefinable anticipation of anxiety at twilight. The peaceful ‘mood poem’ Im grossen Schweigen is far from frightening, at least until an evening meditation on the seeshore leads to some disturbing existential thoughts about the meaninglessness of life. And this is inevitable with an unrhymed poem by Friedrich Nietzsche as text. Diepenbrock found the ideal music for the musings of the walker from the Nietzsche’s fifth book of Morgenröte. The deep, clear timbre of the German baritone Detlef Roth perfectly suited the narrative character of Diepenbrock's long melodic reflections and filled his lines with soft, quiet but nevertheless intense emotions. The orchestra was peerless, visibly enjoying Diepenbrock’s flowing lines and the depth of his sound. There was one special moment which resonated most powefully in the hall: the sound of silence. It followed the noices of the city, humming chimes, splashes of sea waves and explosions of drums. Deafening silence, enshrouding the undisturbed surface of the water, was quickly restored after every agitation.

Silence, on the contrary, was the only sound which did not occur in Turnage's Three Screaming Popes. In no time the wind instruments and percussion produced opening dissonances of all ranges and shapes, and were eagerly followed by the rest of the orchestra. A haunting, jazzy rhythm chased a chorus of high, cutting, mocking sounds. A swelling chorus of cackling, choking and shaking like the laughter hyenas, exploded in harsh screeches. This intriguing composition, played for the first time by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, had clearly indicated visual sources of inspiration: the paintings of Frances Bacon. All the three Popes were shown on screen above the stage. Pope I (1951), Pope II (1951) and Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of pope Innocent X (1953) undoubtedly contributed to the changing atmosphere in the hall after the relatively peaceful anxiety of Dutilleux and Diepenbrock. While Bacon’s popes were studies of horror and danger, Turnage makes no study of violence – he portrays it. The intertwining of furious orchestral screams with dark dissonances created total deformations which became frighteningly realistic. In music, fear may lose its colours and visualisation effect but it definitely obtains its voice and becomes really palpable.