The Colours of Music – II

Chagall’s Murals at the Metropolitan

The Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center with Chagall’s two monumental tributes to the power of music.

In a comment on Thursday’s post my ether friend Walter at Inquietudes spoke of the Chagall murals that greet you as enter the Metropolitan Opera from the Josie Robertson Plaza.  During the intermission on his visits to the MET he said “I’d stare at the colors and swirls and lose myself in them.”  And he has not been alone in that – for over fifty years they have drawn people in from the Plaza and invited them to celebrate the Source and Triumph of Music.

Chagall painting the “To Russian Music” figures on The Triumph of Music mural.

Chagall painted the two allegories in his Paris studio and had them shipped to New York.  Each canvas is 9.15 metres by 11 metres (30 by 36 feet) and is ripe with figures and symbols familiar from many of his previous works amidst those swirls of colours that captivate Walter and so many of the rest of us.  Chagall was often criticized for overusing many of those fantastical floating figures and beasts.  His defence was simple:  A poet always uses the same vocabulary but he still writes new poems.  And they are indeed poems to music, the arts and artists it has and continues to inspire; to the music of the city of New York and to the city itself.  And Chagall wasn’t shy about including tributes to his good friend Rudolf Bing as well as portraits of himself and his beloved wife Vava.

The Source of Music – with the central King David/Orpheus figure surrounded by figures representing Beethoven, Fidelio, Bach and Sacred Music, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, an Homage to Verdi, New York and the Angel of Mozart bearing figures from the Magic Flute.

Chagall had consulted with architect Wallace Harrison and the design committee and they had decided that yellow would be the dominant colour for the south panel and red for the north.  The artist felt that “Source” should then lead to “Triumph” with eye travelling from left to right – the source of music would flow into the opera house and the triumph of music would go out into the world.  When he arrived from Paris to oversee the installation he was astounded, and angered, to see that “Triumph” had already been mounted in the wrong location.  The artist maintained that his screams could be heard all over Lincoln Center.  However the ever persuasive Bing was use to handling all manner of prima donnas and resolved the issue by convincing Chagall that the new arrangement was an equally effective message.  “Why,” he asked, “do you want the music to go out of the theatre and into the world?  Perhaps destiny was behind the error, and the heralding angels should play for the people who have come to the opera house, because they do love music.”   Chagall eventually agreed that Bing had a point and perhaps the error had indeed been serendipity.

The Triumph of Music – Surrounded by musicians, singers, and dancers the Angel heralds The Song of the Peoples.  Chagall slips in sly little tributes to Rudolf Bing (the Essex House were Bing and his wife Nina lived) and to himself and his wife Vera.

Chagall was also concerned that there would never be a good vantage point to take in a complete mural – the view from the Plazas is broken up by the panes of the archway windows and the Grand Tier Promenade is too narrow to allow viewing from an adequate distance.  And though seeing them as Chagall envisioned them is next to impossible it has been suggested that the two works are the most seen – if not the most observed – pieces of modern 20th century art in New York City.  And they have become one of the enduring symbols of the Metropolitan Opera House along with the iconic starburst ceiling fixtures and the great gold curtain.  When the Met celebrated its 125th anniversary on March 15, 2009 the Triumph of Music was prominently featured in a stunning piece of animation set to the music of Chagall’s favourite composer and opera – the Overture to Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.

Using many of Chagall’s initial sketches as well as the finish work the animators at 59 Productions reconstructed not only the mural but also the activity behind the scenes as sets from various productions are assembled (including a brief reference to the David Hockney Zauberflöte that replaced Chagall’s).  Lincoln Center, Harrison’s opera house, those ascending starbursts, the great gold curtain and finally the iconic proscenium at the old Met form and reform.  Surely much of the applause at the end is for Chagall’s great tribute to the magic of flutes, drums, sopranos, basses, composers, artists and everything under the sun that creates music.

Though I have embeded the video in this post I would suggest that for a closer look that you follow the link below for a larger version.

This animation was directed by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer
The lead animator was Peter Stenhouse

The Magic Flute – Chagall Animation from 59 Productions on Vimeo.

On this day in 1941: February strike: In occupied Amsterdam, a general strike is declared in response to increasing anti-Jewish measures instituted by the Nazis.

Lunedi Lunacy

At table the other evening conversation briefly turned to an early musical here inthe first years of the Charlottetown Festival:  Sunshine Town.  It was based on Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town – a book familiar to every Canadian school child of the 40s and 50s.  Certainly when I was growing up Stephen Leacock’s short stories were required reading on our school curricula.  One of my favourites was My Financial Career   – it certainly mirrored my early fear of banks.  As with all of Leacock’s stories the humour is a gentle with a wry dig at the figures of authority that intimidated so many of us.


On this day in 1957:  On the Road, a novel by American writer Jack Kerouac, is published.

Dilly Dalí

Surely one of the strangest collaborations in annals of the cinema has to be this short  created by Walt Disney’s brilliant animators and Salvador DalíDestino was begun in 1945 but financial woes at the studio put the project on hold.  When the Studio got on more stable footing it was not longer seen as a viable project; the short footage and storyboards by John Hench and Dalí paintings were put in storage.  In 1999 Disney’s nephew Roy unearthed the originals and set the project back on track.


Perhaps this unusual marriage of Disney and Dalí could best be summed up by each man’s view of the plot of the film:

Dalí: A magical display of the problem of life in the labyrinth of time.
Disney: A simple story about a young girl in search of true love.

Many thanks to Kathleen for reminding me of this strangely beautiful piece of film.


On this day in 1583: Sir Humphrey Gilbert establishes the first English colony in North America, at what is now St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.

Lunedi Lunacy

I know that many of my friends miss their Sunday evening dose of English Soap Opera cleverly presented – and those Brits can be clever despite what the recent polls suggest – as high brow entertainment.  So in an effort to give them a taste of classy scenery, posh accents and incredible special effects – okay the effects the English really aren’t that good at – I present the following tale of Edwardian dalliances, passion, and drama.


And I’m sorry but it appears that Maggie Smith was busy polishing her “bon mots” when this was created so she couldn’t take part.

On this day in 1981: MTV begins broadcasting in the United States and airs its first video, “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles.



Lunedi Lunacy

Well I could pretty much relate to this when the alarm went off at 0630 this morning!

Another piece of brilliance from the National Film Board of Canada, that despite cuts still manages to chug along and give us documentaries, animations and shorts that delight, give rise to thought, and cause controversy.


On this day in 1287:  King Wareru founds the Ramanya Kingdom, and proclaims independence from the Pagan Kingdom.