Surrealism and Music?: The Musical World Around René Magritte

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Surrealism and Music? The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975 performed on Nov 13, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

This concert is designed to parallel the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition of the work of René Magritte. Two principles of organization are at work: First, the listener will hear works written by Belgian, French and American composers who were contemporaries of René Magritte. Magritte, unlike Giorgio de Chirico, believed that music was an ally of surrealism. He maintained a lifelong interest in music. One of the composers represented here, André Souris, was his friend. Two of the pieces , Poulenc’s Les Biches and Edgar Varése’s Arcana, were written precisely during the years when surrealism emerged from Dadaism in France and Belgium. A third work, by Charles Koechlin,, begun in the mid 1920’s and completed more than a decade later, reflects the wide influence of surrealist aesthetics. The last piece, John Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano, pays homage to the twentieth century composer whose conceptual innovations most closely parallel for music the challenge and significance of Magritte’s famous word paintings from the 1920’s and 1930’s and Magritte’s “Les Mots et les Images” (1929). In short, the listener is presented in this concert with a selection of the musical context in which Magritte worked from the mid-19920’s to the mid-1950’s.

Second, using the contemporaneity and geographic proximity of the composers on the program and their works (e.g. Brussels, Paris and New York, three cities where surrealism had a significant following) this concert seeks to explore whether there was in music a development parallel to surrealism during the first half of the twentieth century. Using Magritte as the model, can one describe and understand certain music from the same period as surrealistic in a way comparable to the way we identify surrealist writing and painting?

The irony in the hostility of French surrealism to music and André Breton’s disdain for Schopenhauer is that it would seem that music must have been a natural medium for much of surrealist ideology. Central to surrealism was the notion of an unmediated direct creative outpouring of the imagination, transcending the distinction of the conscious and the unconscious. A nearly mystical sense of unity and the belief in a higher and deeper definition of reality pervaded surrealist discourse. Surrealism sought to explode the distinction between resemblance and illusion, between the visible and the invisible. It was surrealism’s goal to transform the idea of representation and the distinction between the subjective and the objective. Surrealist artists celebrated the transcendence of apparent contradiction and sought to overcome the tyranny of reason, to unleash the atomatic and un-self-conscious dynamic of creativity. Furthermore, inspired by Freud they seized on his investigation of the unconscious within dreamwork to break out of the limitations of what appeared to be the ordinary consciousness of banal reality. The conventions of word usage, of naming perception and symbolic meaning, all underwent critical analyses and challenge.

The tradition of nineteenth-century musical aesthetics should have recommended music as an ideal vehicle for theses aspects of surrealism. As Schopenhauer and Wagner argued, music was the direct unmediated expression of the unconscious, transcending mere representation wheterh as a so-called abstract or absolute aesthetic medium, or as a programmatic vehicle as in opera, one which could accompany words and pictures. Music was alleged naturally to possess the direct creative force sought by surrealism. It surpassed the conventional limitations of speech and illustration; the distinctions between the real and the imaginary.

But it was not until 1946 when André Breton argued in an essay entitled “Silence Is Golden” that music can be a powerful force for the achievement of “incandescence”; that music could reveal an inner music of poetic language. He recognized music as “independent of the social and moral obligations that limit spoken and written language”.

As Breton’s 1946 essay makes clear, John Cage’s writing of the 1950’s possessed close similarities to surrealist rhetoric and strategies. Cage’s approach to the continuity of compositional process and his celebration of indeterminacy are conceptual parallels to the surrealist manifestoes of the 1920’s Cage’s most famous work 4’33” from the 1954 can be regarded as the moral equivalent to Magritte’s 1926 Ceci n’est pas une Pipe. Both Cage and Magritte attempted to penetrate the essence of silence in a revolutionary manner.

The difficulty, of course, is that music, unlike writing and painting–the most familiar surrealist media, was never constructed on an illusion of realism; on the imitation of nature, strictly considered. Even when musical realism became an accepted notion in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was clearly an artificial convention.

In the early days of Romanticism, in the writings of Jean Paul, Wackenroder and E.T.A. Hoffmann (despite the surrealist’ open disregard for these writers), music held the power which Max Ernst sought to achieve through surrealism, to turn “topsy-turvy the appearances and relationships” of reality and appearance and address the “crisis of consciousness.” Music became the instrument of the fantastic. Surrealism in painting, as Georges Hugnet argued in 1936, aimed to appeal “to the imagination and fancy” and to take “man out of himself”. Music always had the inherent capacity to link life and the dream. It was traditionally the closest to the “invisible forces” that surrealism sought to capture. Magritte’s recognition of music’s power made him an exception to his fellow surrealists. Musical symbols, particularly as evidence of the hidden, reappear throughout Magritte’s oeuvre.

One reason that surrealism is a more difficult concept in terms of twentieth-century music goes beyond the essential differences between music and the other arts. Music’s inherent non-representational artificiality became exaggerated during the first half of the twentieth century. The dominant forces of musical modernism celebrated the abstract potential of music. Surrealism was a revolutionary movement. It wanted to engender liberation from the political and spiritual evils most powerfully mirrored in the experience of World War I. But it used realist techniques so that the surface of the work could be readily approached. The concurrent musical revolutionary impulse was the embrace of an even more counterintuitive approach to writing music. The attack on the bourgeois conventions and on the status quo in music took the form of atonality, the emancipation of dissonance, the use of “raw” sounds, and the other innovation which made the smug audience uncomfortable.

This trend in modernism struck the surrealists as elitist and as a symptom of a hated art for art’s sake attitude. There were in the 1920’s, however, alternative modernist musical movements which defied the elitist and arrogant tendencies of what eventually became the “orthodox” modernism of Schoenberg and his followers. The composers represented in this concert were chosen because their music 1) suggests contemporary strategies and approaches comparable to the visual and literary surrealism of Magritte; and 2) mirrors a rebellion against the high-handed modernist conceits of musical modernism which claimed the existence of a progressive historical process in the development of musical style and 3) sought to achieve a revolutionary impact on the audience by permitting the listener an immediate access to the work in a manner comparable to the work of the surrealist painters. This required a self-conscious distancing from modern academicism and historical tradition.

Andrew Souris experimented with collage and simplicity to construct a nearly surrealist narrative. Poulenc juxtaposed identifiable fragments and used the history of music much as a painter uses recognizable images to change their significance and penetrate their meanings. Likewise, Koechlin mixed the literary and the musical and poked fun at twentieth-century modernism by constructing a surrealist musical narrative. In Souris, Poulenc and Koechlin bizarre contrasts pierce the surface of so-called reality to level more akin to the experience of dreaming. Varése’s Arcana was inspired, as Varése wrote in 1925 to his wife, by a dream sequence:

I was on a boat that was turning around and around–in the middle of the ocean–spinning around in great circles. In the distance I could see a lighthouse, very high–and on top an angel

–and the angel was you– a trumpet in each hand. 

Alternating projectors of different colors: red, green yellow, blue–and you were playing Fanfare No. 1, trumpet in right hand. Then suddenly the sky became incandescent–blinding– you raised your left hand to your mouth and the Fanfare 2 blared. And the boat kept turning and spinning– and the alternation of projectors and incandescence became more frequent–intensified –and the fanfares more nervous–impatient… and then–merde–I woke up. But anyway they will be in Arcanes. 

(Enclosed with this letter was the short score of Arcana.)

By use of repetition and an unusual sequence of sounds, Varése transformed musical space and obliterated the difference of musical and unmusical sound. Musical space and time became revolutionized in a way that is viscerally evident of the listener. It is as startling and unsettling as the radical canvases that Magritte painted in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Like many surrealists, Varése paid overt homage to Paracelsus and the traditions of alchemy which sought to help humankind pierce through to the ultimate unity of existence. A quote from Paracelsus stands on the head of the score of Arcana.

Last but not least, the sense of time and space and the relationship of performer and listener to the experience of music are entirely transfigured in a surrealist manner by John Cage, one of the towering figures of American Twentieth-century culture. Written when surrealism was perhaps at its peak of popularity in America, Cage’s works from the 1950’s, including the concerto, mirror the revolutionary simplicity inherent in the tradition of surrealism. The performance tonight was intended as an 80th-birthday tribute to the composer; it now must be heard as the ASO’s memorial.

It is hoped that listeners to this concert who have looked at and thought about Magritte’s paintings, can find in their response to these five works of music–spanning the time frame of most of Magritte’s career–parallels which can assist in their reflections not only on surrealism and Magritte but about twentieth-century musical modernism and the nature of music in contemporary life. Magritte and the composers on this program all sought to engender an active critical sensibility through art which ultimately could encourage a craving for unity, peacefulness, freedom, justice and creativity yet unachieved in this century.


By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Surrealism and Music? The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975 performed on Nov 13, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

Andre Souris (1890-1970) was one of this century’s most eminent Belgian musical figures. For most of his creative life he was attached to the surrealist movement. Souris was a close friend and colleague of Rene Magritte (despite periodic rifts toward the end of their careers). In 1926 Souris and a fellow Belgian, Paul Hooreman, started a quasi-surrealist journal called Musique and experimented with chance music. By 1927 both Souris and Rene Magritte collaborated with the leader of the Belgian surrealists, Paul Nouge, on the surrealist publication Adieu a Marie. As the leadership not only of Magritte and Souris but of one of Magritte’s oldest friends, the founder of the Belgian Dada and Surrealist movements, the musician E.L.T. Mesens, indicated, what distinguished the Belgian surrealists from their Persian contemporaries was a deep interest in music. Magritte’s brother Paul was a musician. The “official” photographic portrait of the Belgian Surrealists fating from 1034 included both Mesens and Souris as well as Magritte. Their main spokesman and theorist Nouge did not share Andre Breton’s more classical surrealist disregard of music which Breton himself later disavowed in 1946.

Souris worked with Nouge in the theater and set many of his poems. At a concert staged by Belgian surrealists in January 1929, Nouge introduced the works by Schoenberg, Hindemith, Milhaud, Stravinsky and Honegger (as well as Souris) on the program which Souris had selected. The hall was graced by twenty paintings by Magritte. In 1946, working with the surrealist poet Paul Eluard, Souris began his lone career as a film composer, writing the score for a film on the surrealist painter Paul Delvaux.

Souris’ concept of surrealism in music took the work of Satie as a starting point. He extended Satie’s effort to de-mystify music and simplify it. In 1925 Souris wrote “The coming of a new art hardly concerns us. Art has been demobilized elsewhere—one must rather live”. Souris’ conceptual effort to undermine the distinction between art and life places his work from 1920’s and 1930’s in a continuum which later would include Varese and Cage.

In the work on this program, parody, a Satie-like simplicity and nearly random linkages all can be heard. Like surrealist painters, the technique of collage—using found and banal elements in a radical extension of a practice first perfected by the cubist—is used by Souris to challenge the expectation of temporal art and structured form. In order to debunk the distinction between art and life, the contrast between concrete experience and aesthetic imagination—between intention and randomness—had to be challenged. In this work minimal textured and contrast occur in sequence, as if by spontaneous association. The music is stripped of the pretense of a formal coherence other than an apparently “automatic” association. This work, therefore sounds most like that quintessential surrealist game, the “”exquisite corpse”, in which a composition is made on a piece of folder paper by separate individuals each of whom has no idea of what the preceding person has done. The absurd and naïve (in the use of solo instruments and repetition) can be found in this work. They are cloaked behind a folk-like ordinariness and sparseness.

Souris, apart from his role in Belgian surrealism, was prolific as a theorist in the psychology and phenomenology of music, a historian (of lute tablature), a teacher, and a conductor. Particularly after 1945, despite a career as composer and conductor which took him regularly to London, Souris exerted considerable influence over the musical life of Belgium.

Suite from Les Biches

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Surrealism and Music? The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975 performed on Nov 13, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

Despite the fact that Andre Breton, the most prominent surrealist writer, despised Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), the great French writer and cultural personality, as a “notorious fake”, during the mid 1920’s the experimentalism of Cocteau, the composer Erik Satie and a group of young French composers who looked to Cocteau and Satie as inspirations—“Les Six” (Poulenc, Milhaud, Honegger, Auric, Durey and Tailleferre)—had much in common with the first wave of surrealist thinking of the 1920’s.

Cocteau admired Satie for his daring and simplicity. “Les Six” and the surrealists both rejected the pretensions of visual and musical impressionism, of Debussy and Renoir. Likewise the complex and mystifying surface of modernism, particularly in music, seemed to Cocteau and the surrealists as a continuation of an artificial, nearly Wagnerian elevation of the aesthetic over the everyday; the perpetuation of a dated dichotomy between experience and ordinary life on the one hand and imagination and art on the other. Furthermore, both groups were driven by a sense of generational revolt, a need to shock and pierce the surface of bourgeois respectability.

In 1920 Cocteau organized a “Spectacle-Concert” in Paris. This even imitated a music-hall evening. It was filled with dancing, clowns, acrobats, and theater. Cocteau sought to infuse the staid concert ritual with aspects of the séance and the circus. Popular and dance music was included alongside works by Poulenc and Milhaud. As Souris’ surrealist concert of 1929 later underscored, what avowed musical surrealists shared with Poulenc and Milhaud was an attraction to prepetition, circularity, spontaneity, playfulness and the rejection of essentially German notions of music development and progression in favor of techniques of abrupt juxtaposition and satire.

Throughout the 1920’s, however, the differences among “Les Six”, the modernist credos of Busoni and Schoenberg and the views of surrealism remained blurred. Despite an aversion to the Wagnerian ambitions of Schoenberg’s musical modernism, the surrealists, even the neo-classicists and the followers of Satie and Cocteau all shared the mantle of revolution and the desire to shock and overturn what was perceived as the tyranny and superficiality of received taste, rationality, convention, morality and consciousness. Underlying these artistic movements was, after all, profoundly critical political sensibility. Art needed to serve the transformation of the political system and cultural values and conceits which had resulted in the senseless carnage of World War I.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) wrote Les Biches in 1923 as a ballet for Serge Diaghilev and his “Ballet Russe”. It was premiered in 1924 with sets by Marie Laurencin. The Choreography was by Nijinska. The ballet scenario was essentially surrealist in the sense that it was, in Milhaud’s words, the result of “full fantasy” unencumbered by the usual conscious effort “to describe, to suggest, to express, to comment upon”. The blurring of the distinctions between reality and imagination and between logic and fantasy was an explicit intention of Les Biches. Even its title mirrored the inextricable unity inherent in language use. The title directly exploded the surface appearance of contradiction. It refers at one and the same time to hind, the female deer, and darling. In line with the surrealists’ defense of “automatic” writing and free association, the title came to Poulenc spontaneously in a taxi. The ballet was decidedly erotic and playful.

Les Bandar-Log

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Surrealism and Music? The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975 performed on Nov 13, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) was the grand old man of the French avant-garde and the unsung hero of the twentieth century French music. Koechlin’s longevity, extraordinary productivity, eclecticism and reputation as theorist and teacher (Poulenc studied counterpoint and composition with him from 1921-1924) all have failed to rescue his music from oblivion. Few Twentieth-century figures in music, however, present as fascinating and subtle a subject for exploration and rediscovery. In the context of a concert inspired by the work of a Belgian surrealist who spent almost all of his life in Belgium, it is ironic that perhaps Koechlin’s greatest triumph as a composer occurred in Brussels during the 1930’s.

In 1933 Koechlin wrote a ballet L’Errante for the “Ballet Russe,” choreographed by Balanchine with sets by the surrealist painter Pavel Tchelitchew. Like the surrealists, Koechlin shared sympathies with communism. In the interwar period he sought to write music for “the people”. Koechlin’s own estimate of his artistic credo revealed further similarities with surrealism. Surface style was of little concern. Rather his art was “dictated” by the interior imagination, by “intuitive power”, and by an “unpremeditated” instinct. At the same time a quite traditional sense of form emerges from his works which might be compared with the compositional and imagistic conservatism of the nearly photographic pictorialism of many surrealist painters.

As Les Bandar-Log illustrates, Koechlin possessed an uneasy relationship to musical modernism comparable to pictorial surrealism’s rejection of many modernist aesthetic strategies. It was the way in which musical elements were organized and formulated rather than the distinct originality of style which concerned Koechlin. Koechlin, like many surrealists also embraced cinema. Among his most interesting works is a work entitled Seven Stars Symphony in seven movements (entitled Douglas Fairbanks, Lillian Harvey, Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings, and Charlie Chaplin).

Les Bandar-Log is part of Koechlin’s nearly lifelong effort to set Kipling’s The Jungle Book to music. It was first sketched in 1923 and written out in 1939 and orchestrated in 1940. Subtitled “Scherzo of the Monkey’s”, it is based on “Kaals Hunting” from Volume 1 of Kipling’s book. It was premiered in 1946 in Brussels and is perhaps Koechlin’s best known work. It was recorded by Antal Dorati in the mid 1960’s and used for a ballet by Anthony Tudor.

This work shares with surrealism a sharp critical intent toward assumptions of the communication of meaning through sounds, images, and words. Koechlin utilizes nearly all the stylistic elements of twentieth-century musical modernism. Taking the idea of the monkeys making sounds in the forest as his premise, Koechlin attacked the delusions and arrogant claims of twelve-tone writing, neo-classicism, polytonality and atonality. It is as if Koechlin approached this work as a surrealist painter who generates the appearance of a narrative (much in the way Magritte did in the painting entitled The Murderer Threatened from 1927) and who then inverts meanings, time and spatial relations for the viewer. Taking the ironic subject of the “primitive” monkey, Koechlin opens the work with a depiction of the “calm of the luminous morning”. This calm is interrupted by the “procedures of modern harmony”. The monkeys are vain and seek to display their “secrets”. They lurch from romanticism to neo-classicism and “pretend” to return to Back. However within this satire “there is a genuine homage to polytonal language and even to atonality”.

Koechlin, like Magritte, toyed with different styles—photographic realism, impressionism, cubism—but in the end returned to his own virtuosic vocabulary. The orchestration is splendid. Out of distorted juxtapositions and a seemingly disjointed and allusive set of episodes comes a coherent musical reconfiguration. An underlying unity is revealed through disparate parte. Despite themselves, the monkeys manage to make the forest sing. Koechlin mixes illustration with transformation, through a sequence of musical images mediated by reaction of the listener and the plot of the score (e.g., how the monkeys act and finally flee the arrival of the lords of the jungle). Musical illustration and narrative are turned on their heads through the manipulation of the modernist strategies which depict human behavior as if humans were monkeys in a jungle. A dreamlike and almost cinematic effect is achieved.