The turbulence of the title represents some kind of ‘event’ that is wonderfully depicted in the various paintings of Turner that have been chosen for this work. Since music exists in time, there can be a ‘before’ and an ‘after’: so, in these movements the ‘event’ sometimes effects a major change and sometimes not. To heighten the drama, in each of the movements the protagonist is characterized by a solo player from the orchestra.
There are six quite independent movements, though they share some of the same musical material. Each movement is represented by one picture of Turner except for the second movement, which has three pictures. This work is dedicated to my friends in America.
Sunrise with Sea Monsters
circa 1845: Tate Gallery, London.
Dedicated to Roger and Ellen Golde
The calm sea of the early morning is ruffled by the arrival of a sea monster [tuba solo] in a playful mood. Eventually the sun rises [trumpets, an A major chord] and the monster swims off with a swish of the tail. The calm returns.
The first movement refers to a painting from the mid-1840s called Sunrise with Sea Monsters. The sun explodes in a golden glow on the right of the canvas, dispersing the early morning mist that fills the rest of the sky, and revealing amorphous sea creatures swimming on top of the waves. You might see a couple of fish eyes staring back at you, and maybe a hint of a tail swishing through the water. But these details add up to no known species of sea creature. Look at them for a moment or two and they might seem like whimsical fish from a children’s story. Stare at then for longer and they turn into the kind of indefinable but disturbing creatures your imagination might conjure up when you’re floating on the edge of sleep at three in the morning.
exhibited 1805: Tate Gallery, London.
Dedicated to Nina Kelly
This movement is based on three pictures: Staffa, Fingal’s Cave [1832, Yale Center for British Art] which seemed an appropriate opening for this movement. The gathering storm thus has a location, and a hint of Mendelssohn was not to be resisted! The movement builds gradually and inexorably to a violent storm depicted in the picture of the title and the ship goes down. This turbulence effects a devastating change for many lives are lost. The third picture is a very moving pencil watercolour from 1841: Dawn after the Wreck [1841, Courtauld Institute Gallery, London]. The dog howling on the deserted shore surely means an inconsolable woman mourning her husband [a solo oboe in an impassioned cadenza]. The Gregorian Chant ‘Dies irae’ tolls quietly as accompaniment.
The second movement connects two oil paintings from 1805 and 1832 with a watercolour from the early 1840s. The Shipwreck shows a number of small sailing vessels struggling to stay afloat in the middle of high seas and under a storm-dark sky, the sailors and passengers desperately fighting against uncontrollable forces of Nature. In Staffa, Fingal’s Cave a steamer, possibly one of the boats that ferried hundreds of tourists (including Mendelssohn) to the legendary island home of the sweet-voiced Gaelic warrior-hero-poet Fionn Mas Cumhail (aka Finn Mac Cool), chugs away from the basalt rocks. These monumental reminders of the ancient past are contrasted with an inglorious, but neverthe less rather wonderful manifestation of the sooty present. Times change but the seas abide. In the Dawn after the Wreck a baying hound is left on the beach, howling not at the moon, but at the empty waves that have covered all trace of any man-made craft. This remarkable watercolour - less than fifteen inches across - is a deeply poignant image of loss, and solitude, and grief.
Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps
exhibited 1812: Tate Gallery, London
Dedicated to Jon and Lillian Lovelace
A barely seen Hannibal [solo horn] urges his army [strings] forward despite the developing snow storm [percussion and flutter tongued flutes]. The journey is increasingly arduous as the snow thickens, but at last the storm clears and a distant sunny [A major] Italy is seen in the distance.
Turner’s great painting Snowstorm: Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps was probably inspired by literary descriptions of the Carthaginian general’s momentous trek into Italy, as well as by now a lost watercolour by Turner’s older contemporary, J. R. Cozens. The hero himself is only just visible: a tiny figure in the middle of the canvas, riding an Elephant across the horizon. Hannibal has to cope with more than the logistical nightmare of manoeuvring large numbers of troops and supplies up the steep mountain passes, he also has to battle with the indigenous population and truly terrible weather. Great swathes of black cloud, heavily laden with snow, sweep across the sky, dramatically at odds with the softly glowing sun that casts a muddy light over scenes of rape and pillage in the foreground. The human incidents are imagined but the weather, at least, is real. Turner witnessed a spectacular thunderstorm suggestive of this one or two years earlier while staying with a patron in Yorkshire.
War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet
exhibited 1842: Tate Gallery, London
Dedicated to Claire Brook
In a desolate landscape the exiled Napoleon stands pensive, behind him a guard stands on alert. Here the turbulence is internal. As Napoleon [solo trumpet] contemplates a rock limpet [muted horn chord always at the same pitch] he remembers some of the events of his charismatic life and downfall: like Hannibal, the joy of his successful crossing of the Alps with his army [distant sound of La Marseillaise]; later the interminable snow and the disastrous retreat from Moscow; then his thoughts turn to despair with the memory of his defeat at the battle of Trafalgar [distant sound of the British National Anthem, God Save our gracious King] and finally his exile.
Hannibal was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1812, the year in which Napoleon, at the height of his power, led his army on their disastrous march into Russia. For many Englishmen in the early years of the nineteenth century, Turner among them, the struggle between Carthage and Rome was seen as an antique parallel for the contemporary struggle between Britain and France. In the painting War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet, the elongated figure of Napoleon - a modern Hannibal - stands in not so splendid isolation on St Helena, his sole companion an armed guard, while the hot red sun sets in the centre of the painting. Like the baying hound in the Dawn after the Wreck, this image of the defeated introspective emperor is a powerful evocation of loneliness and regret for the past.
16th October, 1834
The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1834: Tate Gallery, London
The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 1834: The Philadelphia Museum
The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 1834: Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio
Dedicated to John and Irene Field
There are several paintings of this event and it must have been spectacular to behold. A quiet, peaceful night where bass clarinet, cor anglais and viola soli accompany the horns who softly intone the British National Anthem, thus setting the location. Suddenly a flame shoots up into the sky [solo piccolo]. The flames [woodwind and percussion] build to a big climax and buildings collapse. But after a moment we hear the horns very quietly resuming the National Anthem, thus we know that the buildings will be rebuilt.
In War, the intense light from the setting sun burns our eyes. The atmospheric conditions reflect the central character’s emotional state. In the two oil paintings and numerous watercolour sketches which comprise Turner’s eyewitness account of The Burning of the Houses of Parliament the sun is absent. The sky is dark but for a little cold grey moonlight. But rising into this dark void a violent red burst of flame lights up the north bank of the River Thames, engulfing the Palace of Westminster and reducing the Mother of Parliaments to a charred ruin. During the day, on October 16th 1834, workmen began gathering up and burning stacks of wooden tally-sticks, an out-dated from of tax receipt, that had been allowed to accumulate in the burning cellars. Unbeknown to anyone, the fire was still going when the buildings were locked up for the night and by 6 p.m. the whole place was ablaze. Only Westminster Hall survived due to a lucky change in the direction of the wind. Most of the inhabitants of London turned out to watch the seat of their government burning to the ground. Turner was there too, watching from the south bank and maybe also from a small boat on the river, furiously filling page after page of his sketchbooks with watercolour studies of the disaster. Turner must surely have been attracted to the subject because of its visual impact but he may also have been interested in the symbolic implications of the event. Parliament had recently passed a series of Reform Bills that finally erased some of the worst inequities of the old election process. Like many of his contemporaries, Turner might well have felt that the flames that destroyed the old Parliament buildings symbolized the end of an old and outdated political system. Whether his purpose was symbolic or purely painterly, Turner translated the fire into images of terrible beauty.
Sunrise, with a Boat between Headlands
circa 1840-45: Tate Gallery, London
Dedicated to Anthony Fogg
A thick fog [big string cluster] envelopes the landscape - the huge looming cliffs [muted brass chords] are hardly visible and a fog horn [2 horns] alerts a ship to the danger of collision. A lonely clarinet summons the morning sun which eventually appears [trumpets and woodwinds] and the fog evaporates. The ship is now fully revealed [strings] and sails between the cliffs [brass now unmuted] towards the open sea. The mood is tranquil as the ship disappears into the distance. There is a brief reminiscence of the sea monster.
The sun in Turner’s paintings is not always intense; perhaps more effectively than any other painter before or since, he could record the pale light of dawn breaking through the early morning mist. The final movement of Musgrave’s composition refers to one of Turner’s remarkable late paintings: Sunrise with a Boat between Headlands is probably unfinished, but it is nevertheless one of his mist sublime canvases. Translucent veils of grey and blue and yellow float on the painting’s surface. The turbulence of the other paintings in this selection has subsided here; in this final work the world is still and silent, the day has not yet quite begun.
Music notes by TJM, Art notes by Michael Cassin