The Painter's Eye

five poems specially written by Alexander McCall Smith, set for SATB a cappella with divisi, duration 11 minutes.

"A particular strength that marks Cunningham’s settings is the way in which the music boosts rather than obstructs the understanding of the texts", Alan Cooper, Press & Journal, December 2009.

"Pleased to report an incredibly successful performance of your fantastic work...audience and choir and conductor thrilled", Hallé Youth Choir, July 2010.

Alexander McCall Smith writes:

It is always thrilling, when visiting an art gallery, to find a painting that one already knows. And it is interesting to watch the reaction of other visitors to the painting when they come into the room and see it. Do this in the Uffizi in Florence, and see the delight on people’s faces when they see The Birth of Venus for the first time, in the flesh. The Painter’s Eye is an attempt to capture the thoughts that might go through the mind on seeing these five very well-known paintings. What did the artist have in mind? What does this great image mean to us now? That is the wonderful thing about great art: its capacity to engender reflection and fantasies well beyond what is actually on the canvas.

You can see each painting by clicking on its title below.

  1. Peaceable Kingdom (1845-46) by Edward Hicks (1780-1849), American Folk painter; in The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.

  2. Tower of Babel (1563) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569), Flemish Renaissance painter; in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

  3. The Skating Minister (The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch) (1790s) by Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823), Scottish portrait painter; in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.

  4. Birth of Venus (c. 1482-86) by Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, known as Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Italian Early Renaissance painter; in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

  5. An Old Man and His Grandson (c.1490) by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494), Italian Early Renaissance painter; in the Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The musical language I have used is inspired by the poems and their contexts. Tower of Babel illustrates the transition from a single, universal language to an increasingly chaotic babble. The Skating Minister is adapted from the popular Skaters’ Waltz and is the only number where the words were written to fit the music, rather than the music to fit the words.

The first performances were on 13-15 March 2009, by Cappella Nova in Dumfries, Dundee and Glasgow.

The five songs are published and sold by Goodmusic/Roberton. You can see the whole score and hear it played on your computer on their website. A recording by Laudibus is available on Delphian Records DCD34060 where you can listen to short excerpts.

If you have Spotify, you can listen to the whole CD here.

You can see a performance by Dundee University Chamber Choir of An Old Man and his Grandson on youtube here.