Initiated by Isidore Isou (born Jean-Isidore Goldstein), a young refugee from Romania, lettrism was a multidisciplinary creative movement that began in Paris in 1946 but soon expanded by attracting numerous creative people. Lettrist work was inspired by calligraphy, initially for books but also for visual art. In the age of print, it was quite innovative, although it may not have fared as well in preprint times. One recurring device is letters that resemble verses, even though they are devoid of words. Prominent writers and artists based in France such as Jean-Louis Brau, Gil J. Wolman, Maurice Lemaître, Roberto Altmann, Roland Sabatier, and Jean-Paul Curtay were among those associated with the group at various times.
The movement was named Lettrism because historically it was first and foremost interested in rethinking poetry, which at the time was judged to be exhausted when conveyed simply through words and concepts. Poetic lettrism clearly and systematically for the first time (taking inspiration from Dada) proposed a new conception of poetry entirely reduced to letters and eliminating all semantics. Not unlike other self-conscious agglomerations, lettrism was particularly skilled at producing manifestos which can be read with varying degrees of sense. By discounting semantic and syntactical coherence for language art, some lettrist works are considered the precursors of concrete poetry. Among the alumni are Guy Debord (1931–94), who is commonly credited with initiating the Situationist International (1958–72), which, according to some, represents art’s most profound, courageous, and successful involvement in radical politics. While Situationist writings have been translated into English, lettrist texts largely have been left out.
Find out more about lettrism in A dictionary of the avant-gardes. Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias (RME).
The first image above was created by Roberto Altmann, and the second by Maurice Lemaître–both were artists associated with the lettrist movement.
Below is a video of Orson Welles interviewing Isidore Isou about lettrism and sound poetry in 1955. Be sure to turn up your volume when watching it.
Having once considered himself “one of the staunchest opponents of classical music”, Charles Schultz discovered the symphonies of Beethoven in 1946 and became an avid fan of classical music with a prodigious record collection. He also created the piano-playing Schroeder, a Beethoven fanatic, for his comic strip Peanuts.
A well-worn 1951 LP in Schultz’s collection by the pianist Friedrich Gulda of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata may have inspired a series of strips from the early 1950s in which Schroeder is seen playing this work. The one reproduced above is the only one in which the piece is named, though it still relies on the reader to read music—and German!—for a full identification. Note Schultz’s imitation of German Fraktur script for both the work title and his signature.
This according to “Michaelis’ Schulz, Schulz’s Beethoven, and the construction of biography” by William Meredith (The Beethoven journal XXV/2 [winter 2008], pp. 79–91; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2008-8914).
Today is Schultz’s 100th birthday! Below, Gulda performs the Hammerklavier sonata in 1970.
A five-note motive in Rahmaninov’s Ostrov mërtvyh (The isle of the dead, op. 29), which evokes the opening of the Dies irae melody used by Berlioz and Liszt, is strikingly similar to what Bernard Herrmann referred to as the motive of power or fate in his score for Citizen Kane.
Rahmaninov’s work was inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s painting Die Toteninsel (above; click to enlarge), and Herrmann’s statements about his creative process suggest that the opening images of the film might have unconsciously reminded him of the painting, which in turn could have aroused an association with Rahmaninov’s work.
This according to “The Dies irae in Citizen Kane: Musical hermeneutics applied to film music” by William H. Rosar, an essay included in Film music: Critical approaches (New York: Continuum, 2001, pp. 103–116). Below, the first minutes of Citizen Kane, followed by Rahmaninov’s symphonic poem.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Job: A masque for dancing is based on William Blake’s cycle of illustrations of the biblical tale; but a study of the scenario and of preserved correspondence indicates disparate theological and philosophical arguments and conflicts.
The composer put his own stamp on the story, while accepting the symbolism of Blake’s drawings, and effectively deconstructed the illustrations in favor of his own intentions. Job: A masque for dancing is no ordinary theater piece—it reveals a personal view as individual as that present in Blake’s original illustrations.
This according to “A deconstruction of William Blake’s vision: Vaughan Williams and Job” by Alison Sanders McFarland (International journal of musicology III , 339–371; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1995-4362).
Today is Vaughan Williams’s 150th birthday!
Above, Blake’s depiction of Job and his family restored to prosperity; below, a complete recording of Vaughan Williams’s ballet.
William Hogarth explicitly positioned his aesthetic theory in opposition to those of his contemporaries.
He disagreed both with philosophical treatments that viewed beauty and taste in moral terms and with art treatises that relied on exemplification and lacked causal explanation; further, he attacked the mystification of the concept of grace in both approaches.
He argued that understanding beauty did not require initiation into a new body of knowledge: It simply involved exercising a natural reflective vision that finds pleasure in the forms of the human body and related designs and ornamentations.
It was natural, therefore, that—unlike other aestheticians of his time—he drew extensively on dance examples in his treatise The analysis of beauty: Dance, particularly in its use in deportment training, belonged to a sphere of relatively everyday polite culture, as opposed to the rarefied and mystifying culture of art appreciation. Anyone open to dance and deportment could learn how to appreciate them, just as anyone open to Hogarth’s theory could apply its illuminations to their everyday lives.
The 1623 printing of François de Lauze’s Apologie de la danse et la parfaicte méthode de l’enseigner tant aux cavaliers qu’aux dames was not motivated solely by artistic concerns.
Some of the introductory materials—a letter to the author’s patron the Duke of Buckingham (George Villiers, 1592–1628), three curiously attributed dedicatory poems, and a mythologically inspired frontispiece (above)—appear to contain coded messages referring to the political and amatory activities of Buckingham and others; they may even have been tools of espionage.
This according to “Deciphering de Lauze” by Martha Schwieters (Proceedings: Society of Dance History Scholars [Riverside: Society of Dance History Scholars, 1999] pp. 69–78; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1999-35200).
Below, a gavotte of the type described by de Lauze.
More articles about early dance treatises are here.
Stravinsky’s Svadebka/Les noces—an assault of nonsense syllables, snatches of conversation, and ritual fragments—is a cubist reconstruction of a Russian peasant wedding. Despite its invocation of Christian saints, the work might be Neolithic or even Australopithicine, so backward-looking is its range of auditory allusion.
All of the action is accompanied by chatter, out of which a whoop or intelligible phrase may emerge—we hear pet names, silly games, much commentary on the wine and beer, and some veiled sexual talk; it is the auditory equivalent of the strips of newsprint that Picasso glued to some of his canvases.
This according to Stravinsky: The music box and the nightingale by Daniel Albright (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1989; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1989-12654).
Today is Stravinsky’s 140th birthday! Above and below, Bronislava Nijinska’s original choreography for the work.
Plans for the publication of a bibliography of writings concerning art history were announced in the summer of 1974. The project’s vision was born much earlier, in large part influenced by the publication of RILM Abstracts of Music Literature in early 1967.
RILA (Répertoire International de la Littérature de l’Art) borrowed the model for its name from RILM, as well as the concept of international cooperation first proposed at the conference held in Paris under the auspices of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in 1969 and then confirmed in Washington, D.C., under the sponsorship of the College Art Association of America in October 1971. RILA was conceived to provide substantial abstracts and detailed subject indexes of art-historical scholarship concerning post-classical European art and post-conquest American art published in periodicals, books, Festschriften, congress reports, exhibition and museum catalogues, and dissertations.
The project took off in 1973 as the bibliographic pilot project of the American Council of Learned Societies, with the RILM office at the CUNY Graduate Center initially providing editorial and technological support. RILA was intended to be the first addition to a proposed interdisciplinary group of bibliographies in the humanities, initiated with RILM. In the Demonstration issue (above) , which tested RILM’s bibliographic models applied to art-historical literature, the editor Michael Rinehart wrote “Continued regular publication of RILA will depend on response to this issue, and particularly on two factors essential to its long-range success: the willingness of authors to contribute abstracts of their work, and the extension of international participation through a free exchange of materials among existing and future organizations and publications.”
The artist’s meticulous attention to detail shows clearly that the recorder is a flûte à neuf trous (drilled to give the player a choice of left or right little finger, the unused hole to be filled with wax).
In the bath, singing is probably more widely practiced than instrumental playing, and indeed, wooden instruments might not take too kindly to the humidity; some people might be more attracted to drinking while bathing, like the gentleman to the musicians’ left.
This according to “Musical ablutions” by Herbert Hersom (The recorder magazine X/1 [March 1990] 20–21; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1990-30337).
Today is Dürer’s 550th birthday! Below, music by Ludwig Senfl, who worked at the court of Maximillian I around the time that Dürer was employed there.
The harp in its winged-maiden form was the standard symbol of Ireland in the eighteenth century, and with the rise of Romantic nationalism the harp was increasingly personified as a female symbol of Ireland and her struggle for political independence.
The iconography of the harp in the context of the United Irishmen of the 1790s formed the basis for the Romanticization of the harp symbol and the female personification of Erin (Ireland) in the poetry of Thomas Moore. While more realistic forms of the Irish harp emerge in nationalist iconography of the nineteenth century, Moore’s imagery inspired paintings and other illustrations of the harp as a woman by artists including Robert Fagan and Daniel Maclise.
This according to “The female harp: The Irish harp in 18th- and early–19th-century Romantic nationalism” By Barra Boydell (RIdIM/RCMI newsletterXX/1 [spring 1995] 10–17; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1995-5656).
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Above, Maclise’s The origin of the harp (1842), inspired by Moore’s poem of the same name. Below, Michelle Mulcahy plays The mountains of Pomeroy, Martin Hardiman’s jig, and The lark on the strand on the Irish harp.
The main entrance to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’s exhibition Lou Reed: Caught between the twisted stars opens up on Lincoln Plaza, directly adjacent to the The Metropolitan Opera house. On a sunny day, the Met’s … Continue reading →
Seven strings/Сім струн (dedicated to Uncle Michael)* For thee, O Ukraine, O our mother unfortunate, bound, The first string I touch is for thee. The string will vibrate with a quiet yet deep solemn sound, The song from my heart … Continue reading →
Introduction: Dr. Philip Ewell, Associate Professor of Music at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, posted a series of daily tweets during Black History Month (February 2021) providing information on some under-researched Black … Continue reading →
For it [the Walkman] permits the possibility…of imposing your soundscape on the surrounding aural environment and thereby domesticating the external world: for a moment, it can all be brought under the STOP/START, FAST FOWARD, PAUSE and REWIND buttons. –Iain Chambers, “The … Continue reading →