Sound itinerary for the exhibition “Turner. Light is colour”


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Turner. Light is Colour is the first exhibition that the Museu Nacional dedicates to the extraordinary work of the British artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). The exhibition is a journey through the most atmospheric landscapes of the artist, and brings together more than a hundred paintings, watercolours, drawings and notebooks from the Tate collection. 

Based on a selection of musical themes inspired by the thematic areas of the exhibition, Joaquim Rabasseda, head of research, quality and innovation at the Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya (ESMUC) proposes a sound itinerary to accompany the visit as part of the collaboration between the Museu Nacional and the ESMUC.

Memory, imagination and synthesis

Turner’s adventures through Great Britain and continental Europe were a major source of inspiration for his landscape paintings. Although he preferred to paint in his studio, the drawings, sketches and watercolours that he did outdoors were a source of preserved memories. He used them as notes for creative compositions, which became elements of the landscape in the final image.

Fingal’s cave on the Isle of Staffa. Engraving based on the 18th century work by John Cleveley, published in T. Pennant, A tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides 1772, London, 1774

In the summer of 1829, Felix Mendelssohn visited Fingal’s Cave on Staffa Island. The composer documented the trip with different sketches, even with some drawings. The experience and his memory ended up forming a symphonic composition premiered in London in May 1832.

Note from a scene by Felix Mendelssohn in a letter to his sister, Fanny dated 1st August, 1829. (New York Public Library, image Koosbot).

Creating the scene

The landscapes that form the backdrop for Turner’s historical painting often play as important a role as the figures depicted in the scene. Inspired by theatre, Turner created a series of “backdrops” that spanned from turbulent seas and storms to golden peaks and serene plains

In 1811, Ludwig van Beethoven put August von Kotzebue’s play to music for the inauguration of the new theatre of Pest. Beyond the propagandistic and imperial purposes of the commission, Beethoven’s music evoked the awakening of Athena in the midst of ruined monuments and gave voice to the dream of linking her present with the classical past.

The Parthenon of Athens, engraving by William Miller, published in Select Views in Greece with Classical Illustrations. Williams, Hugh William. London: Longman Rees Orme Brown and Green; and Adam Black. 1829

Face to face with nature

Turner loved to observe nature first-hand, and often did field research to try to capture the atmosphere of the setting.

Hector Berlioz composed the Harold Symphony in Italy in 1834 from a poem by Lord Byron and with the intention of constructing scenes that were halfway between literature and personal memory. In the first movement he describes Harold-Berlioz’s melancholy in the middle of the mountains.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage – Italy, prior to 1832. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856.

Lights and atmospheres

Turner claimed that he was once tied to the mast of a ship during a severe storm to better paint the phenomenon of memory. Although this story may be an invention of the artist, it illustrates very well his commitment to his work, as Turner knew better than anyone how to capture extraordinary atmospheric effects on canvas. 

Premiered in 1843, Die fliegende Höllander is based on a legend shared by Heinrich Heine but also with the experience of a boat trip that composer Richard Wagner made between Riga and London, during which he suffered a storm.

First performance of “The Flying Dutchman” (Der fliegendeHolländer) in Dresden in 1843 (Leipziger Illustrierte Zeitung, 3rd January, 1843).

Luminous sublimity

As his career progressed, Turner’s attention to light and atmosphere became more and more important to the topographical or scenic elements of his paintings, which in the latter years were shrouded in light. Some of his most basic studies of the sea completely disregard coastal features, and become light-filled meditations on the observer’s relationship with the outside world.

Franz Liszt was a hypnotic pianist who between 1830 and 1850 seduced listeners all over Europe. Études d’exécution transcendante is one of the pieces that best portrays the author’s virtuosity, a demonstration of strength and technical mastery from gestures that can be as simple as expressive.

The darkness is visible

Turner used the colours black or white in their pure forms sparingly, and reserved them primarily for emotional and visual emphasis. A mix of colours across the spectrum, from delicate and bright to dark, gave him the effects of colour, light and darkness that he sought to achieve.

John Field was an Irish composer and pianist who accompanied Muzio Clementi to Paris, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and Moscow, where he died in 1837. He was the inventor of the nocturnes for the piano, a set of free pieces of character and form that identified the night with the delicacy and feeling of the early years of romanticism.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Buttermere Lake, with part of Cromackwater, Cumberland, a shower, exhibited in 1798. Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856.

The Sun is God

It is said that before his death, Turner claimed that “the Sun is God”.  Although its significance is unknown, the Sun no doubt occupied a central position in his work. It was his most represented and appreciated subject, the “most beautiful of beings” or “source of joy,” as he put it.

Although Chopin did not put a title to his studies, published in the 1830s, for years they have been identified with all of the names that have ended up building a romantic and descriptive imaginary of his music. The rapid brilliance of this piece led to interpreting it as the divine, radiant light of a day in full sun.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Going to the Ball (San Martino), exhibited in 1846. Tate: Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856.

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