"Starry Night" variations by McLean and Dutilleux

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Thursday, November 7, 2019

In 1971, after reading a book about the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, the American pop singer Don McLean wrote a song he titled “Vincent,” which became a big hit the following year. The song is better known by its opening line, “Starry, starry night,” a reference to one of Van Gogh’s best-known paintings, entitled “The Starry Night.”

But McLean wasn’t the only composer inspired by that painting. On today’s date in 1978, a new orchestral work by the French composer Henri Dutilleux was premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., by the National Symphony Orchestra under Mstislav Rostropovich.

Dutilleux titled his new work “Timbre, space, movement,” but added a subtitle, “The Starry Night,” in acknowledgement of the painting’s influence, and said he wanted to translate into music the (quote) "almost cosmic whirling effect which [the painting] produces".

Now, painting and music are very different art forms, but the energy, pulsation, and whirling qualities of Van Gogh’s masterpiece do find vivid expression, both visually and musical, in Dutilleux’s work.

As a kind of frame, Dutilleux placed the cellos in a half circle around the conductor, omitted violins and violas from his instrumentation, and alternated static episodes and whirling wind and percussion solos to evoke illusion of motion in the Van Gogh painting.