METAMUSIC 2 by Maggie Romanovici

How Art Inspires Music

Isabella Izzo March 15 2023


Led Zeppelin famously found inspiration in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series, but books aren’t the only art form providing musicians with inspiration. Check out this list of music inspired by the visual arts!

The art community is filled with a wide range of artists, from writers to musicians, visual artists and so much more. Artists often draw a lot of inspiration from their surroundings, as well as from each other; musicians are no different. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, one of the most popular literary trilogies of all time, has inspired musicians like Led Zeppelin, Enya, Canadian icons Rush and Joni Mitchell, and even heavy metal hard-hitters like Black Sabbath and Megadeth! But, books aren’t the only place musicians find inspiration. Here are some songs and musical compositions inspired by famous artists and paintings:

Stephen Sondheim and Georges Seurat

Georges Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" (1884) at the Art Institute of Chicago

American composer and Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim was inspired by Georges Seurat’s (French post-Impressionist artist) visual arts masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte to create his musical Sunday in the Park with George. The musical opened on Broadway in 1984 starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters.

Act 1 of Sondheim’s musical revolves around a fictionalized version of Georges Seurat, as he spends his day in the park working on his painting. Act 2 opens with the death of the titular character, and focuses on the artist’s great-grandson, also named George. Although this is not Sondheim’s most famous work, his musical inspired by Seurat won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, two Tony Awards, and has been revived several times in London’s West End and on Broadway.

Nat King Cole and Mona Lisa

Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" (c. 1503) at the Louvre in Paris

American artist and R&B icon Nat King Cole was inspired by the 1503 masterpiece by Leonardo Da Vinci, the Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, or Mona Lisa as it is more commonly known. Though written by song-writing duo Ray Evans and Jay Livingston for the crime noir film Captain Carey, U.S.A. in 1949, Nat King Cole released his cover of the song in 1950. Cole’s version spent five weeks in the top spot of the Billboard singles chart and even won an Oscar for Best Original Song in the same year. The song speculates as to the reason for Mona Lisa’s famed smile and whether its meaning is one of coyness or loneliness. Cole’s crooning vocals bring the questioning lyrics of the song to a whole other level of ethereality. Since the release of Cole’s version, the song has gone on to be covered by many artists, including Elvis Presley in 1983 (originally recorded at his home in 1958), Cole’s own daughter Natalie Cole in 1991, Seal in 2001, and Willie Nelson in 2014.

Franz Liszt and Die Hunnenschlacht

Wilhelm von Kaulbach's "Die Hunnenschlacht" (1850)

Wilhelm von Kaulbach’s Die Hunnenschlacht depicts the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. This battle occurred in 451 AD between the Roman Empire (who joined forces with the Visigoths) and the Hunnic Empire (led by Attila himself). This 1850 painting by Kaulbach, inspired Hungarian composer Franz Liszt to compose his symphonic poem with the same name seven years later. The visual artistry of Kaulbach’s painting depicts a battle that rages both on earth and in heaven; as the souls of the deceased continue their ferocious fight. The symphony is an intense medley of string and brass instruments that builds from a dark atmosphere to a battle cry, before ending in triumph. Much like the battle did for the Roman army under the supervision of Flavius Aetius.

Don McLean and Starry Night

Vincent Van Gogh' Starry Night (1889) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York

1971 saw the release of the ‘American Pie’ singer Don McLean’s song “Vincent”. As a tribute to the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, McLean’s song references the painting Starry Night and the painter’s struggles with mental illness. While ultimately understanding Van Gogh’s struggles, the song laments the artist’s suicide and posthumous rise to fame. McLean was inspired to pen the song while reading a biography about Van Gogh and wanting to create an appropriate homage to a man who he didn’t see as crazy, but someone who suffered greatly. The song is a beautiful and bittersweet melody about a troubled artist who, despite his pain, gifted the world with paintings that have impacted people so deeply worldwide. The song was also covered by English musicians James Blake in 2017, and Ellie Goulding in 2018.

Do you have any favourite songs or musical compositions inspired by famous works of art? Or maybe something you’ve created based on your favourite art piece? Comment below and let us know!

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