Great Artworks That Inspired Classical Music Masterpieces

Art and music have always had a harmonious relationship between them. Some of the world’s greatest artworks have been inspired by music, while some of the world’s greatest musical masterpieces have been inspired by art. Check out the following paintings that inspired classical music masterpieces:

1. “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Hokusai

Inspired Claude Debussy’s “La Mer”

the great wave off kanagawa

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” is perhaps the most iconic Japanese artwork. It is a woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai, more popularly known as simply Hokusai. He was one of the leading names of the Japanese art genre ukiyo-e during the Edo era (from 17th to 19th century).

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” is part of a series of paintings titled Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (created around 1829 to 1832). In this particular work, the ocean waves are featured on the forefront while Mount Fuji is relegated to the background.

French composer Claude Debussy was known to incorporate Eastern influences into some of his works. “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” is said to have inspired him to compose the orchestral work La Mer (written between 1903 and 1905). Even the 1905 edition of La Mer’s score features a cover art inspired by Hokusai’s “Wave.” Listen to La Mer’s first movement below:


2. “Die Toteninsel” (“Isle of the Dead”) by Arnold Böcklin

Inspired Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead”

isle of the dead, third version, 1883

Arnold Böcklin was a Swiss painter and one of the leading names of the Symbolist art movement during the late 19th century. Probably his most popular work is the “Die Toteninsel” (“Isle of the Dead”).

While the image of “Die Toteninsel” you see here is the most recognizable, Böcklin actually produced five versions of this painting between 1880 from 1886. All of these five versions feature generally the same scene: a desolate rocky islet with a grove of cypress trees and a small rowboat carrying a coffin and a mourning figure clad in white.

“Die Toteninsel”  has inspired several other paintings (such as a painting by Salvador Dali), literary works, plays, films, television series and episodes, and music. Perhaps the most famous work inspired by “Die Toteninsel” is Sergei Rachmaninoff’s brooding and ominous symphonic poem “Isle of the Dead.” Rachmaninoff composed the piece after he saw a black-and-white reproduction of the painting in France in 1907. When the great Russian pianist-composer-conductor later saw the original color painting, he was utterly disappointed. He remarked that if he had seen the original color of the painting, he probably wouldn’t have written the music.

Listen to “Isle of the Dead” below (with Rachmaninoff himself as the conductor):


3. Viktor Hartmann’s paintings displayed at an exhibition in Saint Petersburg in 1874

Inspired Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”

ballet of the unhatched chicks by viktor hartmann

“Pictures at an Exhibition” is a suite of ten piano pieces (plus the recurring and varied “Promenade”) composed by Modest Mussorgsky in 1874. It is one of Mussorgsky’s famous works that demonstrates the virtuosity of the pianist. This suite was inspired by the artistic works of Viktor Hartmann, who was also Mussorgsky’s friend.

The music depicts the tour of an art exhibition, with each of the ten suites serving as a musical illustration of Hartmann’s individual artworks. These artworks were mostly drawings and watercolors that Hartmann produced during his travels abroad. Sadly, some of Hartmann’s works that inspired Mussorgsky’s music have been lost, but his other works survived, including “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” (pictured), “Samuel Goldenberg,” “Schmuyle,” and the “Bogatyr Gates.”

Listen to Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (with an arrangement by French composer Maurice Ravel) below:


4. “Primavera” (“Spring” or “Allegory of Spring”) by Sandro Botticelli

Inspired Ottorino Respighi’s “Trittico Botticelliano”

primavera botticelli

“Primavera” is a painting by Sandro Botticelli, an Italian Renaissance painter best known for his work “The Birth of Venus,” one of the most iconic paintings in Western art.

“Primavera” is a large panel artwork in tempera paint that Botticelli produced in the late 1470s or early 1480s. It features mythological figures such as Venus, Cupid, Flora, and Mercury. The overriding themes of this painting are marriage and fertility.

This painting inspired Italian composer Ottorino Respighi to compose “Trittico Botticelliano” (“Botticelli Tryptich”) in 1927. It is an orchestral piece in three movements, which he dedicated to American pianist Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who was the patron for the work. Listen to the “Botticelli Tryptich,” first movement:


5. “A Rake’s Progress” by William Hogarth

Inspired Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”

the arrest from a rake’s progress by william hogarth

“The Rake’s Progress” is an English-language opera by the Russian-born composer, pianist and conductor Igor Stravinsky. Consisting of three acts and an epilogue, the opera premiered in 1951 in Venice.

The idea for the opera’s libretto came from the eight engravings and drawings entitled “A Rake’s Progress” by 18th-century English artist William Hogarth. Stravinsky saw the artworks in a Chicago exhibition in 1947. Watch “The Rake’s Progress” below: