Barbara Hepworth and Music

‘Rhythms of the Stones’

Portrait of Barbara Hepworth in the garden with Curved Form (Pavan)The Hepworth Wakefield

‘in these very brief notes I seem to have omitted everything that goes to make up my usual working day. These things are immensely important to me [...] My home and my children; listening to music, and thinking about its relation to the life of forms, the need for dancing as recreation, and where dancing links with the actual physical rhythm of carving [...] all these things are daily expressions of the whole.
~Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, 1952

The Shadow Dance (1919) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

From a young age, music and dance formed important parts of Hepworth’s life. At school she excelled at the piano and won several prizes, including the Higher Certificate of the Associated Board of the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music. At Wakefield Girl’s High School Dalcroze Eurythmics also formed part of the curriculum, physical movements  pioneered by the Swiss composer Émile Jaques-Dalcroze to express the rhythmical aspects of music. 

A page from Ben Nicholson’s photograph album of the 1930s. Private collection. by Ben NicholsonThe Hepworth Wakefield

Both Hepworth's husbands were also interested in music. Nicholson produced several paintings of musical instruments, reminiscent of Picasso’s cubist guitar paintings. In photographs of their 1930s shared studio, a grand piano can be seen among the artworks. 

In 1933 Hepworth wrote an unpublished text in which she set out the parallels between music and abstract art, arguing that music and art both sought to achieve many of the same qualities:  

since music is abstract by definition, there can be no true art unless it strives for ‘perfect’ realisations of rhythm...order, composition, harmony, and above all of ‘definitive’ lines’

~ 2015 translation (from French) of Abstraction-Creation

Forms in Movement (Galliard) (1956) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

By the 1950s music had come to have an even greater presence in Hepworth’s work, as she began to title many of her sculptures after musical forms. This coincided with her meeting with the South African composer, Priaulx Rainier, who became an important friend.  

Barbara Hepworth at work on Contrapuntal Forms by floodlight, 25 October 1950 (1950)The Hepworth Wakefield

In the summer of 1950 Hepworth invited Rainier to stay with her in St Ives, establishing a pattern of Rainier splitting her time between London and St Ives. At the time of Rainier’s stay, Hepworth was working on her Festival of Britain commission Contrapuntal Forms. Rainier composed a fragment entitled Rhythms of the Stones, notating the rhythms of Hepworth and her assistants carving Contrapuntal Forms.

Curved Form (Pavan) (1956) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Rainier introduced Hepworth to early English music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which was undergoing a revival in musical circles. In her correspondence with Hepworth, Rainier would notate short fragments of music and bring scores and records when she came to visit.             

Forms in Movement (Galliard) (1956) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth’s titles make specific reference to these musical forms, as in the related 1956 works Curved Forms (Pavan) and Forms in Movement (Galliard). A pavan was a stately court dance, often paired with the more lively galliard.

Benjamin Britten (1947-01) by George RodgerLIFE Photo Collection

Through Rainier, Hepworth was introduced to the composers Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten. In 1953, Hepworth, Rainier and Tippett founded the St Ives Festival of Music and the Arts. 

Benjamin Britten (1947-01) by George RodgerLIFE Photo Collection

Partially based on the model of the Aldeburgh Festival which had been established in 1948 by Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, the St Ives Festival coincided with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and offered a celebration of the two  Elizabethan ages. Early English music was programmed alongside contemporary works, including those by Tippett, Rainier and Britten.

In the same year, Hepworth and Rainier also collaborated on a film about Hepworth’s work. Directed by Dudley Shaw Ashton, Barbara Hepworth: Figures in a Landscape was a Technicolour documentary funded by the newly established BFI Experimental Film Fund, with words by the archaeologist and poet Jacquetta Hawkes, narration by the future poet-laureate Cecil Day-Lewis and music by Rainier.

The film begins with a poetic description of the evolution of the Cornish landscape, before moving in to focus on Hepworth at work in her studio. In a remarkable undertaking, Hepworth’s sculptures were transported to nearby landmarks such as the Neolithic Mên-an-Tol and Godrevy Lighthouse, where they were filmed juxtaposed against the standing stones and the lighthouse. 

In the film, Hepworth is shown carving in the yard at Trewyn Studio. Instead of hearing the actual sound of the mallet hitting the stone, the sequence is accompanied by a percussive score by Rainier, which uses offbeat rhythms and a woodwind timbre to great effect.

Orpheus (Maquette I) (1956) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

In addition to exploring early music together, Hepworth and Rainier also shared a mutual of love of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke’s works had become popularised in Hampstead in the 1930s following new translations by J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender published by the Hogarth Press. 

In 1956,  prompted by a commission for the headquarters of the electronics firm Mullard Ltd, Hepworth began work on her Orpheus series of sculptures. She produced two Orpheus maquettes, followed by the final work Theme on Electronics (Orpheus) (1956) and the later Orpheus (Maquette 2) (Version II) of 1959. 

Like Forms in Movement (Galliard) of the same year, the Orpheus works were made using sheet metal – in this case cut brass sheets – held in tension with reddish-brown fishing line.

Orpheus (Maquette I) (1956) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

The use of the ‘Orpheus’ title marks the continuation of Greek allusions in Hepworth’s work. Orpheus, the mythical poet and musician, was said to be able to tame wild beats while playing his lyre. The myth of Orpheus also informs Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, with ‘Sonnet I’ opening:
‘A tree ascending. O pure transcension / O Orphic song!’

Orpheus (Maquette I) (1956) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

With such references to music and song, it is easy to see why the Sonnets would have appealed to both Rainier and Hepworth. Historically, the Orpheus myth has been widely used in musical settings. Rainier was working on her own setting of Sonnets to Orpheus for many years, which remained unfinished at the time of her death. 

Hepworth’s own description of her Orpheus series also seems to draw on the ideas of flight and ascension voiced in the Sonnets

‘I found the most intense pleasure in this new adventure in material – and revelled in the lightness of poise and delicacy of forms which seemed nearer to the flight of birds and their form in flight rather than to more gravity-bound rocks and humans.’

By George RodgerLIFE Photo Collection

Hepworth’s friendships with composers and musicians has led to her work being sited in a number of different musical settings. During her lifetime she lent works to be shown at the Aldeburgh Festival, including Dual Form in 1959. Today, casts of three of the figures from her Family of Man sculptures are sited at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall as a memorial to Britten and Pears. 

Single Form (Antiphon) (1953 (cast in 1969)) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth’s sculpture Single Form (Antiphon) 1969 is located at the Jack Lyons Concert Hall at the University of York. The sculpture was acquired by the University through Hepworth’s friend Margaret ‘Ludo’ Read, wife of Herbert Read and a  professional viola player in her own right. When Margaret Read was offered an honorary doctorate by the University of York, she was able to facilitate the acquisition of Single Form (Antiphon).

The sculpture’s subtitle ‘Antiphon’ refers to a call and response phrase sang by one half of the choir to the other in the Christian service. As with Ascending Form (Gloria), the association with spirituality is physically expressed through the sculpture’s elongated vertical form. Hepworth hoped that ‘it might relate to the Music Building’ where it has remained since first acquired.

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