My father and music: how Mark Rothko’s love of Mozart made his paintings sing

In an extract from his new book, Christopher Rothko explains how the master of abstraction absorbed the stylistic principles and emotional contradictions of the 18th-century genius


I became a painter because I wanted to raise painting to the level of poignancy of music and poetry." This statement is perhaps Rothko’s most quoted, and it is not difficult to understand why. Beyond its immediate aesthetic appeal, it expresses a poignancy of its own that reveals my father’s poetic engagement with his subject.

More crucially, however, this one sentence communicates directly not just Rothko’s aims, but the level on which his paintings function to realise those aims. He is on an artistic quest; one that seeks the beauty and emotive power of other art forms. He embraces them in a way that speaks not only of a pursuit of the beautiful, but also of his own dedication and sincerity in his endeavour. Painting is a mission he takes on with intentionality and a clear end in mind. And he communicates an uncompromising attitude that looks to the new in its embrace of the old.

Music was central to my father’s world—to his own aesthetic sensibilities, certainly, but also to the structure and expressive modes he found as a painter. I think it’s fair to say he was a painter who aspired to be a musician. Had he received the training and been blessed with the acumen, I have little doubt that music would have been my father’s expressive medium.

I draw this conviction, in part, from my own personal interactions with him. When people ask me what my father shared with me, what I received from him, I answer, without hesitation, a love of music. While I can hardly ever remember us discussing painting, from my earliest days he filled my world with music. This was typically in the form of record after record on the stereo—chamber music or opera, typically Mozart, Mozart, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert or Mozart.

If we accept that music was very close to Rothko’s heart, this still leaves us with several questions. How is his love of music reflected in his works of art? More specifically, does his gravitation towards certain types of music reveal parallel preoccupations and communicative strains in his painting? Finally, by understanding how music functions in our perceptual and emotional worlds, can we identify more precisely how Rothko paintings interact with those realms?

The alpha and the omega

I focus here on Mozart, the alpha and omega for Rothko. Certainly not the most obscure of composers, but why so lionised by my father with such an exclusive, even monogamous, zeal? What is it about Mozart’s music that so appealed to Rothko’s soul? Certainly there are few parallels in their biographies. Mozart the wunderkind burst fully formed from his father’s thigh, composed large-scale works at the age of five, toured all of Europe as a phenomenon, only to see his fame fade as he grew to manhood. This was hardly Rothko’s trajectory (not that my father read much biography anyway). It was Mozart’s compositions that moved my father and in which he found the stylistic and formal principles, and more especially the means of articulating ideas, that would influence the development of his own artistic language.

Most notably, Mozart (shameless imitator that he was) adhered to the maxim set forth by Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb in the mid-1940s: “The simple expression of the complex thought.” Ironically, the two artists made this declaration not at a time when they were painting the expansively scaled, pared-down abstractions for which they would become famous in the following decade, but during their Neo-Surrealist periods, when both were painting works of great complexity.

I have found time and again that my father’s writings on art prefigured the development of his work by several years; that he had generated and internalised the ideas before discovering how he could realise them in paint. The fact that Rothko and Gottlieb produced more readily Mozart-compliant works a decade after their manifesto does not change our understanding of the aesthetic and philosophical targets they were seeking.

Mozart, in his compositions, is the very model of how much can be wrought from the simplest of ingredients. He is the master of the short phrase; his themes invariably sing, even at their most compact. His developments then derive from those original melodies in the most natural way, rather than from extended contrapuntal machinations. The sonata form, inherited from Haydn, gave structure to the process, granting each musical phrase gestural freedom within its prescribed role in the development. Transparency of texture was a means to greater expressivity, where the relative paucity of notes permits each one to sound and register with greater import. His work is the very embodiment of economy.

Stripped back

While it is undoubtedly naive, even distorting, to suggest that classic Rothko paintings are the visual embodiment of a Mozart composition, there is a clear correspondence in the communicative means the two types of work employ. Shorn of frame or anything that would hint at the merely decorative, Rothko’s sectional paintings are simply pigment on canvas or paper. There is no varnish, no wax, no foreshortening, no linear perspective, no title. There is no story. It is merely the materials themselves, left to present the message of the work, unadorned and unobscured.

Rothko’s colours are remarkably like Mozart’s melodies, put forth without decoration, at liberty to resonate within the sonata structure of the rectangular forms. The transparency that is the hallmark of Mozart’s compositional language permeates Rothko’s as well, the artist thinning his oils and temperas to allow the “inner voices” of his paintings to radiate through. Surface simplicity admits vistas into layers that would otherwise remain concealed. That simplicity is therefore deceptive, cloaking even as it reveals something deeper, something more complex.

This realm of the seen and not-seen serves as a metaphor for another place of contact between Rothko and Mozart: the world of emotional contradiction. When asked about his feeling of kinship with Mozart, my father replied that he understood Mozart because the composer was always “smiling through tears”. This image, like a rainbow that shines while the rain is falling, captures precisely the knotty emotional world where Rothko paintings dwell. Joy is sweetened by the memory of the pain endured to reach it. Pain is intensified by the lingering taste of the cherished things that have been lost. Rothko’s work—and, he argues, Mozart’s as well—is fired by this admixture of feelings. No matter the simplicity of their means, they know no such simplicity of feeling. Feelings are always complex, tinged with the many components that combine to form them; those connected to the situation at hand and those that should have no relation to it, yet seem to demand admittance all the same.

Tragedy, ecstasy, doom

My father’s insistent, but paradoxical, focus on the tragic often manifested itself in the same manner as Mozart’s “smiles through tears”. Rothko maintained that even his most apparently sunny canvases of the 1950s spoke of the human tragedy. “Tragedy, ecstasy, doom”—that was the essential content of his work, he told the critic Selden Rodman in 1956. But note, again, the coexistence of ecstasy and doom, these incompatible conditions combining necessarily in his work to communicate sensibly with the irrational world of our psychological states.

And lest one think we have left the domain of Mozart behind in search of Rothko, a listen to the Adagio of the Divertimento in E flat major, K.563, or the first movement of Piano Concerto No.26 in D major, K.537, will assure us that Mozart belongs to this world too. The decorum of classical utterance can only barely contain the emotive content that wells up to burst forth; sadness, bitterness and passion in the former (divertimento, hardly!), and the knitted-brow seriousness that repeatedly emerges to frighten away the merriment in the concerto.

Here we come to a third point of intersection between Mozart and Rothko: their espousal of drama as an essential analogue to the human experience. We need to take care here, for we are not speaking of dramatic gesture or the empty emoting that is mistakenly labelled drama. We are speaking of the human drama, drama as understood by the Greeks, who portrayed our fundamental existential concerns through actors upon a stage. Drama, yes; flamboyance, no.

For Mozart, as it did for the Greeks, drama inherently involved narrative, story used as a vehicle for the essential ideas. For Rothko, however, who indeed spoke of his paintings as “dramas”, it is the interaction between human figures that is the primary thrust of the drama, rather than the story itself. And while Mozart was certainly adept at illustrating a story through music, we find his most profound operatic writing in the interaction between characters. He is the master of the duet, the trio and the quartet, where the musical argument and interplay are every bit as compelling as the theatrical give and take between the characters.

Through the emotional contours of Mozart’s music, these characters sing not just of their own troubles, but of the larger human dilemma. It is very tempting to see my father translating their declamation, as it echoed around his studio, into the action of the colours and shapes—his performers—upon the canvas.

Art should bring us to the realm of the chill down the spine, the longing ache in the stomach, the sweep of exhilaration that takes away our breath

What we have learned from my father’s relationship to Mozart, we can apply more generally to his interaction with music. Let us begin with the question of form. I think it is no accident that Rothko was drawn to music of the classical era, where there is indeed great clarity of form. Even composers like Beethoven and Schubert, who stretched classical structures to their limits, still worked primarily within the bounds established by Haydn. And outside the classical period, my father tended toward Brahms, the great classicist, and Mendelssohn, the champion of Bach, rather than echt-Romantics like Wagner or Liszt, whose works are structurally far looser and seldom adhere to classical models.

This espousal of classical form carries beyond the realm of music, as Rothko was also greatly inspired by the cultures of classical societies, particularly the Greeks. While we should not conflate the term classical, as used to describe the arts of the late 18th century, with the same term used to describe the pre-Common Era cultures that form the bedrock of Western civilisation, we can still appreciate that the later period was characterised as such because it hearkened so readily to the examples and styles of antiquity. Rothko looked carefully at Greek, Roman and Egyptian art and architecture, and he read Greek drama and philosophy, but he was hearing it distilled in Mozart as well.

Homage to classical style

In developing the compositional structure of his work, we must note how actively Rothko was influenced by the examples of classical architecture, particularly the temples he quipped he had been painting all his life. My sister learned the extent of our father’s preoccupation at the age of nine, when the family spent most of the summer of 1959 in Italy, exploring Greek and Roman sites or, as an antidote, discovering the ways in which the masters of the Renaissance created their own variations on the classical through their art and architecture. It is hardly a coincidence that when the time came for Rothko to build his own temples in the form of his mural projects, he clearly evoked Greek columns and colonnades in the first two, while turning to an ancient Byzantine design for the octagonal plan of the Rothko Chapel in Houston.

The simple, elemental geometry of classical architecture has been referenced, imitated and appropriated for centuries, in part because there is an intrinsically organic and harmonious rhythm to its forms and proportions. It thus lends a thoroughly grounded foundation for ornamentation and reinterpretation, a formal consistency that gives the artist of whatever stripe unalloyed freedom to improvise and recreate. This is certainly the way in which Rothko made use of classical forms—architectural, dramatic and musical—and it helped him move towards a new expressive language in painting. It was the stability of a natural form that my father sought and worked actively to develop throughout the first three decades of his career. His classic canvases do not represent, for him, a new expressivity via the language of colour, but the culmination of his efforts to structure his works in a new simplicity: a formal simplicity that sets clear parameters while permitting—almost demanding—dynamic and unequivocal declamation. His colour-field paintings are like a Mozart aria, where the purity of form and the harmonic landscape established by the sustaining strings frame the vocal line but also liberate it, making possible the most passionate communication.

Harmony and balance

The structure of Rothko paintings is also notably musical in nature. I am referring to the harmony and balance within each painting that, in works of such apparent simplicity, is absolutely essential to them sounding clearly and sonorously. As regards harmony, there is an essential verticality to the fabric of Rothko paintings, their colours and shapes layered and arranged atop one another as the notes in a musical chord. Like those notes, the painted elements exist individually but are perceived as a whole, and their impact on the viewer/listener is the result of their interaction with one another.

That visual chord, whether sweetly harmonious or peppered with dissonance, is the sensual offspring of a fundamentally musical juxtaposition. For like a musical composition, we experience Rothko paintings as gestalts: they cannot be broken down meaningfully into different figures or scenes, and to segregate by colour is an equally hollow exercise. Like musical works, they are truly more than the sum of their parts, all their diverse elements working together to produce the larger effect (and affect) of the painting.

Rothko paintings, at their most affective, do engage us in a full-body experience touching all the senses. On the most basic level, we see the paintings, but if you suspend the experience at your visual receptors, you have not really seen a Rothko. Like music, Rothko paintings offer a gateway to our inner selves. They evoke a visceral reaction that in turn sparks feelings and engages our minds, one that indeed offers great riches because all can speak it. In this way, they provide a basic level of human connection that starts between the artist and the viewer, but extends to how we speak with the world around us.

“I became a painter because I wanted to raise painting to the level of poignancy of music and poetry.” For Rothko, this was not a philosophical goal. It was not a technical challenge. It was a need to make his work speak with the greatest possible affect. Art should bring us to the realm of the chill down the spine, the longing ache in the pit of the stomach, the sweep of exhilaration that takes away our breath. This is how music and poetry touch us most powerfully. For Rothko, painting must too.

• Extract from Mark Rothko: from the Inside Out by Christopher Rothko, published by Yale University Press, 328pp, £25 (hb); reproduced by permission

• Mark Rothko: a Retrospective, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, until 24 January;