By Cathy Fuller
The inspiration for this series, pairing works of visual art and music, is the art you can see at the Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston. I've searched for American music created in the same year as specific pieces in the galleries there, and it been a fascinating treasure hunt.
The year is 1788 (or thereabouts) and the composer and artist were both born in Pennsylvania (two years apart), both died in England, and both had Benjamin Franklin in their lives.
This dramatic - and romantic - painting of Shakespeare's King Lear is by Benjamin West.
West was born in Pennsylvania (where the campus of Swarthmore College is now), the tenth child of an innkeeper. With little education, he initially taught himself. In his memoirs he recalls learning to make paint from the Native Americans, mixing clay from a riverbank with bear grease in a pot. As a very young man, West worked in Pennsylvania painting portraits. It was the Provost of the College of Philadelphia who saw his work and decided to act as a patron. This was Dr. William Smith, whose offer of education and support was crucial to West's career. It brought West into contact with the wealthy and the connected, and it allowed him to meet the London-born painter John Wollaston, whose work famously captured the quality of shimmering silk and satin. West caught on to that technique and made it his own.
West also became a close friend of Benjamin Franklin's, and in fact, his second son had Ben Franklin as a godfather. Still in his twenties, West headed off to Italy where he spent time imitating the styles of the great masters like Titian and Raphael. He then settled permanently in London, becoming well known for his ancient Greek and Roman subjects, and for his portraiture. He became the history painter to King George III and served as president of the Royal Academy from 1792 until his death in 1820. Generations of American artists came to London to study with Benjamin West, and in a certain sense, his studio became the first American "school" for painters.
King Lear was created for John Boydell's popular Shakespeare Gallery in London. It takes us into Act 3, Scene 4 of Shakespeare's tragedy, where Lear leaves his daughters to wander into the raging storm. His insanity begins to take hold of him. This wonderfully wild painting marks a new stage for West - the windswept theatricality of it is far from the carefully illuminated poses of his earlier work. As happens with many artists, the collection of countless, diverse lessons have built up within, combined, and expressed themselves with an entirely new voice.
At just about the same time that West was creating King Lear, a musician, also born in Pennsylvania, was writing string trios. John Antes was one of the Moravians in America who, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, fostered musical activities of high quality and rich diversity - instrument and vocal - for worship services and for pleasure. The early Moravian settlers in America had a very rich musical culture - they are an elemental part of the musical history of our country. (Go here for a history of the Moravian church in North America.)
John Antes crafted one of the earliest violins made in America, and his Three Trios are said to be the earliest known chamber music composed by an American. They appear to have been written while Antes was in Egypt, where he'd worked as a missionary beginning in 1769, and where he was tortured and nearly killed by an official of the Ottoman Empire.
It's hard to say precisely when the trios were composed, but 1788 is a good guess. They were published in London in the early 1790's. Antes also wrote string quartets while he was in Egypt - and he sent a copy of them to Benjamin Franklin.
Antes retired to Bristol, England and died there in 1811.
Here is part of Antes’s String Trio no. 2 in D minor, played by the American Moravian Chamber Ensemble.
Antes: String Trio No. 2 in d minor, III. Presto (excerpt)
(image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts)
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