Musical compositions complement Andrew Wyeth’s art

“His paintings are just bristling with sound,” said Van Stiefel, the composer of a three-song cycle based on paintings by Andrew Wyeth.

“For example, in ‘Roasted Chestnuts,’ the texture of the paintings — he has these little tiny splatters of color that feel, to me, like the pops and crackles of the stove,” Stiefel says.


The iconic painting of a lanky young man tending a drum of hot chestnuts on the side of a dirt road evokes innocence, isolation, winter — signature Wyeth themes — rendered in deeply textured egg tempera.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Stiefel attempts to do the same with sound.

“There’s always the hint of the fragility of life,” said Stiefel. “His father was tragically killed by a train … When the accident occurred, the train whistle got stuck, and kept blowing for, like, 30 minutes.”

A sustained whistle blows during a long, pensive moment in Stiefel’s 17-minute song cycle.

The music is written for percussion, guitar, electronic projection, and the Kennett Symphony Children’s Chorus, who sing the words written by New Jersey poet David Livewell. In 2010, Livewell published a book of poems based on Wyeth’s paintings.

Stiefel, a professor of music composition at West Chester University, is known as an experimental electronic musician. His performances usually rely heavily on computer software and electric guitars. For “Wyeth Songs,” funded by the American Composers Grant Forum, Stiefel says he reined in the avant-garde electronics in favor of simple melodies and natural sound effects.

“I wanted this piece to be something closer to sound design in theater, rather than true electro-acoustic music,” he said.

Andrew Wyeth, who died in 2009 at age 91, was a great lover of classical music. While “Wyeth Songs” quotes Beethoven and Schubert, “I had to make the music sound like the kind of music I want to write. It couldn’t be a monument to Wyeth,” said Stiefel. “It’s almost like Renaissance music meets Fleet Foxes. Those are my sounds.”

The premiere of “Wyeth Songs,” on Satuday night at West Chester University, will feature baritone Randall Scarlata with the children’s chorus. Stiefel wanted echo the cross-generational tension Wyeth often put in his canvases, gathering youth and age in one gesture.

“There is a sad hue in the piece that is more poignant when its heard from the voices of children,” said Stiefel. “I didn’t want to write a kid piece. I wanted children to be singing something of some weight.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal