Colouring the Sound

Tommaso De Meo's Visual Interpretations of Beethoven's Nine Symphonies

The Third Symphony

Third Symphony, First Movement

Regarding this composition, De Meo wanted to focus on the symphony's references to Napoleon, since Beethoven had originally planned to dedicate the piece to him. Thus, De Meo tries here to express the musician's initial admiration for the great general. A wide, blood red path stretching to the horizon divides the painting into two halves: on the right, the towering columns, reminiscent of the architecture of ancient Rome, symbolise imperial power; in contrast, the left side shows red, unhewn blocks of stone, which evoke ruined cities, conflagrations and the havoc of war. This red is in stark contrast to the cool blue of the plains on the right. The differences in colour between the contrasting architectures emphasise the distinction between power and its consequences: the initial enthusiasm for Napoleon, whom Beethoven saw as an equal to the Roman consuls of old, suddenly turns to horror and chagrin among the fires of his wars of conquest.

Third Symphony, Second Movement

The second movement of the Third Symphony - the aptly named Sinfonia Eroica - is also tied in to the overarching Napoleonic theme: the painter naturally sees the music in a larger, general human context. Hence, the great relevance that the funeral march has for De Meo, since his worldviews were shaped in large part  by his own painful memories of the time spent in a labour camp during the Second World War. Incidentally, the significance given to that funeral march matches the views of several 20th Century artists, such as those of Arthur Paunzen, who, in the wake of the Great War, let his experiences in that conflict guide his visual interpretation of the Eroica's funeral march. De Meo's vision of the 1804 composition is a prophecy of the devastating consequences of Napoleon's Russian Campaign. Accordingly, both landscape and architecture of De Meo's artistic realisation are indicative of the Grande Armée's catastrophic defeat in Russia in 1812. The long march of the innumerable nameless vanquished dominates the painting's foreground, losing itself in the remote vastness of a frigid icescape. At the same time, a barren tree's shape, reminiscent of classic representations of the goddess of victory's pose, seems to mock the routed army. However, not all hope is lost, as the solitary bright star in the dark sky would imply.

Third Symphony, Third Movement

From the upper corners of the picture, two arms reach into its centre, the steel bracelets around the wrists suggesting the manacles of a prisoner; and yet, the chains are missing. After the terreur of the Revolution - the horrors of the guillotine possibly represented by the headless figure dominating the painting - after the suffering of the Napoleonic Wars, after the oppression of foreign rule, a spirit of liberty seems to rise out of the bloody, fiery turmoil. The forlorn and insignificant triumphal arch, relegated to the background, shows how ephemeral and transient the glory of arms and the fervour of conquest truly are.

Third Symphony, Fourth Movement

The smoke of war is clearing from the battlefields of Europe - the sky, blue once more, reveals the rebuilding of cities, of nations, of civilisation itself. Beside the dead, barren trees,  green blades of grass are lushly sprouting from the ground; from the ladders and scaffolds of this new beginning, one can almost hear the sounds of the builders' and carpenters' tools.