‘The organ grew considerably; the pipes stretched from the heavens to the earth, and the young man felt such a powerful wind that he rose from the stones and soared into the air, between the swaying columns.’
This quote stems from a letter Escher wrote to his friend Jan in 1920. At this point he was 22 and was lodging in Haarlem. The young man is Escher himself. The emotions that the organ music in the Sint Bavo church aroused in him were so intense that he felt as though he was having an out-of-body experience and the world around him was changing. He described this experience in the third person, to prevent it from overwhelming him. It affected him too profoundly. Escher had a huge love of music, which is also visible in his work. Hence this first part of a short series on Escher and music, and the influence it had on his oeuvre.
Escher could write lyrical accounts of his experiences listening to music. Here the full quote of the young man listening to organ music:
‘But suddenly the gale rushed through the pipes of the organ and a thunderous voice proclaimed God’s glory!! Then the young man lay down on his back on the cold stones […] and right in the middle of the church too. He felt his little heart swell amidst the tempest, the stentorian howling. And the church columns were just as vulnerable to the sound as he was. The stretched themselves, as a person might stretch upon waking, so hard in fact that they were afraid they might suffer a misfortune. And the young man lay on his back on the cold stones of the church, and he stretched out his arms, as though he were to be crucified. And he gripped the large stones tightly in his fingers, and then felt that he was lying on his big Mother Earth. He felt that Mother Earth was a cannonball, and his outstretched arms could almost reach one another on the other side of the globe. And over him he saw the undulating, swaying columns. More powerful, however, more thunderous, the wind rushed through the pipes of the organ. The organ grew considerably; the pipes stretched from the heavens to the earth, and the young man felt such a powerful wind that he rose from the stones and soared into the air, between the swaying columns.’
To think that Escher wasn’t a religious person, this is just rapture and total capitulation to the emotional experience of music.
Escher played music himself as well, when he was young, he was a cellist in a string quartet. He was not particularly convinced of his own ability, but he did enjoy himself making music. During his life he was a regular visitor to concerts. The concerts in the Sint Bavo church inspired a number of his works. The ecstasy conveyed by his description of a concert is a phenomenon he visualized in a panegyric to the building and the organ. He used the chandelier in the nave for an experiment with reflection, to spectacular effect. He perfected the structure and the rhythm of the architecture in these black-and-white drawings, as a prelude to experiments with reflection and architecture in his later work.
Flight of fancy?
Now, I hear you say, particularly after that night on hallucinatory account of a concert, that is surely a youthful flight of fancy. A boy like that in a state of rapture in the Sint Bavo Church. But it’s nothing of the kind. Escher maintained an intense fascination with music later on in his life too. He even attempts to visualize it in his work. More on this in Part II of the series on Escher and music: Escher and Bach.
‘I believe that no music moves me as much. Sometimes when the organist is playing one of Bach’s fugues, for instance, the world slips away, people cease to exist, the church has crumbled, and there is nothing left but sound.’