“When Matisse dies,” Pablo Picasso remarked in the 1950s, “Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is.” The work of this pioneer of modernism and master of color is the inspiration for “Chagall,” the sixth movement of Portrait in Seven Shades, a suite of music based on seven artists in MoMA’s collection. This piece is inspired by two of Chagall’s iconic works—I and the Village (1911) and Calvary (1912)—and by costume designs and renderings Chagall created for the character of Zemphira, a gypsy from the ballet Aleko.
Marc Chagall‘s paintings are very musical, and they incorporate a lot of fantasy—violinists float in the air, animals dance. His works deal with family and social gatherings, and you get a strong sense of his theatrical nature (he was also a costume and set designer). Raised in a Jewish ghetto in Russia, Chagall was the eldest of nine children in a close-knit family, and for this movement I wanted to capture this sense of neighborhood, of people gathering in the streets. To help achieve this sound I invited members of my group Odeon to join the Lincoln Center Orchestra. “Chagall” begins with accordion on a short cadenza. The accordion is an instrument found in many Eastern European cultures, and it is the perfect sound to bring us to the streets. The theme is played by the clarinet and by the violin—an instrument that Chagall loved so much that it often appeared as a subject in his paintings, like a muse—suggesting a place somewhere between France and Russia, a place we may not have visited in the past, but where we feel at home. The movement ends with a klezmer-styled romp in celebration of the artist and his heritage.