Musical Chiaroscuro
July 7, 2019

Chiaroscuro, or literally Italian for "light-dark", is a painting technique that uses the balance of light and shadow to suggest and enhance the volume of three-dimensional subjects. What does this sound like in music?


Employed by artists such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio, the technique gives a heightened sense of drama to the scenes depicted in their works, such as in The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio, above.

This idea can be carried into music. Contrast—of harmonies, textures, dynamics—is a very common musical technique, and when exaggerated to become the primary compositional element, it has a powerful impact. Here are two examples of this "musical chiaroscuro".  

The first is Scarbo from Maurice Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit. Like the other two pieces in the piano suite, it's based off a poem by Aloysius Bertrand. Scarbo depicts the "nighttime mischief of a small fiend or goblin, making pirouettes, flitting in and out of the darkness, disappearing and suddenly reappearing, and creating a nightmarish scene for the observer lying in his bed" (from Wikipedia). Ravel extensively uses contrast of all sorts to create an intense, unnerving, and thrilling piece of music. You'll understand when you hear it:  


Of Scarbo, Ravel said "I wanted to make a caricature of romanticism. Perhaps it got the better of me."  

Another great example of contrast, taken to the extreme, is the number Cool from Leonard Bernstein's musical West Side Story. The song evokes barely-restrained anger and aggression through sudden accents, changes in orchestration, and shouts contrasted with near-whispers. The choreography, camerawork, acting and lighting (very clearly influenced by paintings like the Caravaggio) add to the intensity: