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Pictures of Moonlight

   Toward the end of the eighteenth century, Ludwig van Beethoven, who had been living in Vienna, was considered an important rising young composer. Beethoven was in his late 20s and the remarkable scope and breadth of his work had already included the first and second symphonies, several piano sonatas, and a duo of piano concertos. Around the year 1800 Beethoven gave piano lessons to a pupil named Countess Giulietta Guicciardi and after a few lessons the two had fallen in love. The enamored composer proceeded to propose marriage to young Giulietta, but the countess’ father forbade his daughter to marry Beethoven for the difference in their class status. In his distress Beethoven wrote the Sonata in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2, and dedicated it to the countess. The original title of the sonata was “Quasi una fantasia”(almost a fantasy) and its romantic nature echoed Beethoven’s autobiography.  In 1836, almost a decade after Beethoven’s death, German poet and music critic Ludwig Rellstab noted that the sonata reminded him of the moonlight shining over Lake Lucerne, and thus established the work’s popular name, Moonlight Sonata.
   Today, the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata is the most illustrious. The movement’s haunting character does not follow the traditional sonata arrangement and turns the beginning into its main melody, instead of the more common prelude. The second movement develops the melody and adds comic tones, while the third movement is completely different with rapid progressions from note to note that energize the sonata with an overall dynamic force. More than eighty world-renowned pianists have recorded Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, each pursuing a unique development of the score and a personal interpretation of the work’s emotional effects.
   About one hundred years after Ludwig Rellstab sensed the moonlight in Beethoven’s music, architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) built his arresting masterpiece under the spectacular moonlight of Arizona. Wright’s winter home and studio on the beautiful Sonoran desert outside of Scottsdale was named Taliesin West, where he experimented with desert living for more than two decades. In Arizona, Wright tested design innovations, structural concerns, building specifics, and together with his apprentices created a home, shop, school, and studio, that touched on the boundless desert surroundings. In 1960, a small exhibit of Wright’s early drawing opened at Taliesin West. A friend of the late architect looked closely at the drawings and mused. Later he sat on a long bench that faced the swimming pool terrace in the house’s garden. “Overhead was a bright full moon. He gestured and asked Tony Puttnam (a Taliesin fellow) to sit by him. He wanted Tony to see, from his vantage point, the moonlight filtering through the cloth awning above.” (quote is from Buckminster Fuller: Anthology for the New Millennium by Thomas T. K. Zung, St. Martin’s Press, 2001, p. 366) The friend’s name was R. Buckminster Fuller.
   One of the greatest American visionaries, Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), was both a pragmatist and a utopian. Inventor, designer, and intellectual, Buckminster (Bucky) Fuller believed in “more for less,” and saw the need for environmentally sound design that would benefit the masses while using small amounts of resources. His key invention was the geodesic dome, a strong and economical structure that enclosed a large space without supporting columns. The dome, composed of triangles (which are twice as strong as rectangles) distributed stress efficiently and withstood extremely harsh conditions. The U.S. military used the lightweight domes to cover radar stations at installations around the Arctic Circle. Bucky attributed the beauty of the geodesic dome to the way “nature builds.” He believed that great inventions possess the element of beauty, and considered Albert Einstein a remarkable poet. Today, Bucky’s influence can be seen upon generations of designers, architects, scientists and artists working to create a more sustainable planet.
    Recently, New York artist Spencer Finch (b. 1962) created an installation entitled “Lunar” on the open-air Bluhm Family Terrace at the Modern Wing of Art Institute. During the evening hours “Lunar” glows the color of moonlight, essentially the light measured and recorded from the full moon over Chicago last July. Finch created a “lunar lander module,” and on top he positioned a geodesic dome, a “buckyball” that resembles the carbon molecules named for Buckminster Fuller. He explained: “Like just about everyone, I wanted to make a picture of the moon or, more specifically, of moonlight. I have always loved nocturnes and the impossible attempts to paint near-darkness in near-darkness. I figured there were probably enough literal pictures of the moon, so I began thinking about the form of moonlight and how it is actually reflected sunlight. This led me to explore the use of solar power to generate the light of the moon. The structure of the lunar module and the buckyball followed in short order—I thought it would be fun to imagine that a lunar module returning from the moon with moonlight on board landed on top of the Art Institute” (quoted from the Art Institute  press release). “Lunar” runs through April 8, 2012.

Published: December 04, 2011
Issue: 2011 Philanthropy Issue