Painters throughout history have depicted beautiful women = the subject seems to have fascinated most artists – including those who are gay or who are themselves women, suggesting that this fascination it is not only sexual. Women often inspire classical music as well.
In the past when my radio show coincided with Valentine’s Day I sometimes did romance shows, which is not quite the same thing. This week, focusing more specifically on the depiction of women, with or without a love plot, we can ask ourselves if there is any running musical characteristic, the way music about the sea tends to behave as waves do.
Kara Karayev (1918-1982), a Soviet composer from Azerbaijan, wrote in 1953 a ballet called “The Seven Beauties.” The poem that inspired it is more about political intrigue than pulchritude but Karayev wisely focused on the idea of seven forms of sinuous music for a ballet company to dance to.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) supplies a more famous form of the beautiful woman in music with his “Scheherazade,” and especially the slow movement, “The Prince and Princess.” We also get romance in this piece, but the violin motto that runs through all four movements of this has always seemed to me a depiction of physical allure.
Briefer examples of dancing women include the “Dance of the Sylphs,” from “Damnation of Faust,” by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) and “Dance of the Miller’s Wife” from “The Three-Cornered Hat,” by Manuel de Falla (1876-1946). We also get from Berlioz the idex fixe of “Symphonie fantastique” inspired by actress Harriott Smithson, by whom he was smitten.
I can’t tell you if Maurice Ravel had a physical inspiration for his “Habanera,” but in the case of an earlier work of the same name by Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894) we may reasonably assume it, because, Chabrier, who had actually visited Spain, wrote his publisher from there and expressly referred to voluptuous Spanish women whose charms are barely contained by their blouses. “Carmen” has a habanera to which the heroine dances, so I think we’re clear on what Georges Bizet (1838-1875) intended.
In “Venus,” from “The Planets,” we know what Gustav Holst (1874-1934) had in mind, because we know he was interested in astrology and intended the suite to depict the astrological meaning of the planets. In astrology Venus the planet controls love – as opposed to physical desire, which is more the kuleana of Mars – as well as art, music, diplomacy, sociability, and other aspects of what we used to call the feminine side of all people, male and female. But “Venus” has acquired a post-Holst association with female beauty, mostly because the original “Star Trek” series always featured similar music when a lovely huminoid entered the scene and caught Captain Kirk’s eye.
Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) gave us the musical depiction of sinuous beauty that has most throroughly entered our collective consciousness, in the bacchanale scene from “Samson & Delilah.”
Camargo Guarnieri (1907-1993) offered a more contemporary view in his “Flower of Tremembe.” Since Tremembe is a neighborhood, the flower of Tremembe is, I think, the neighborhood’s most beautiful woman, akin to the line in Steely Dan’s “When Josie Comes Home,” when Donald Fagen sings, “She’s the pride of the neighborhood.”
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