The Music of Painting by Peter Vergo; Phaidon, 367 pages ($75). A rich and fascinating subject to be sure, as every lover of both music and art knows. The number of musical compositions alone that are based on paintings and spring effortlessly to mind is large and varied, everything from Rachmaninoff's tonal evocation of Bocklin's "Isle of the Dead," and Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" to Morton Feldman's "Rothko Chapel" and Gunther Schuller's "Seven Studies on Themes by Paul Klee."
The subtitle of Peter Vergo's book is "Music, Modernism and the Visual Arts From the Romantics to John Cage," and there's no question that it is modernism itself that presided over the increasing marital frequency of two of the arts that had usually been content to flirt and envy one another at a distance until the Romantics came along.
Vergo is a British professor of art history and theory and a German and Austrian art specialist. What he discovers and illuminates here, though, goes far beyond the usual subjects -- Cezanne titling a painting "Overture to 'Tannhauser' " after Wagner, Georges Seurat of all people as a "standard for Wagnerian painting," the friendship of Delacroix and Chopin, the kinship of the ultra-painterly Debussy's "Nocturnes" with those of Whistler, the relationship of Brahms and Max Klinger, Georges Braque's Cubist "Hommage a J.S. Bach," etc.
Indeed, as modernism proceeded, other arts provided answers to both painters and musicians. Though he's not mentioned by Vergo, proto-abstractionist Larry Rivers was also a functioning Greenwich Village jazz saxophonist (in truth, he neglects jazz in its pure form rather shamefully) and Morton Feldman -- like his onetime University at Buffalo colleague Donald Barthelme -- often said he felt closer to painters than those in his own art.
As academic and textual as it is, it's a rich and sometimes startling book.-- Jeff Simon