“Vesuvius in Eruption” by Joseph Wright of Derby

Vesuvius in Eruption, 1777-1780. (Image taken from barber.org.uk)

Programme notes

Joseph Wright of Derby seems to have been very interested in Vesuvius. Around 1774, he actually visited Naples and was “lucky” enough to witness a minor eruption. From this trip, he got inspired to paint a collection of 30 artworks, including this one. This painting was created a few years later back in Britain and was created by memory, depicting his idea of how a much more catastrophic (and visually stunning) eruption would look like, also imagining how different it would be compared to the one he experienced. As the painting was created from memory it is not easy to know the exact time of the year it depicts, so I assumed everything was accurately placed, especially the moon.

For my response to this painting I followed a holistic approach and starting with the explosion, I try to explore what would follow it.


Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples c.1776-80 Joseph Wright of Derby 1734-1797 Purchased with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund, Friends of the Tate Gallery, and Mr John Ritblat 1990
Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples c.1776-80. (Image taken from tate.org.uk)
Vesuvius in eruption, viewed from Posillipo 1789. Joseph Wright of Derby 1734-1797.
Vesuvius in eruption, viewed from Posillipo 1789. (Image taken from wikimedia.org)

Extended notes

My piece can be divided into three thematic sections: the explosion (0:00-0:45), the small town on the left (0:45-2:53) and the nature in the foreground (2:53-4:30). The explosion sounds were made in SuperCollider and edited in Reaper to resemble the sound/feeling of a strong earthquake and a volcanic eruption. The explosion sound takes 37.17 seconds from the beginning to reach the listener, which is the exact time it would take given its distance – this is done in part to emphasize that distance.

As mentioned above, through this piece I wanted to explore what would follow the eruption, thus I did not want to spend too much time with the explosion itself. I focus on the town, which is directly affected by the volcano, but at the same time natural sounds are introduced, like the sea or the forest, with animals that are far away from all the destruction. The human sounds (voices and bells) stop abruptly, as the lava has reached the town and everyone there has died, while sounds of nature remain intact, as the forest is not affected at all due to its distance. The music then becomes more static for a while symbolising that, in a bigger scale, this event is quite natural and life goes on normally, without caring about it. I have tried to create a contrast with the painting there, which we, as humans, consider to be very intense.

The idea is that what we may see as a tragic incident, costing numerous lives (not just human ones – animals also live in the town), is quite subjective and natural “observers”, like the sea, the trees or the birds on a shore far away from all that (about 13km in fact), will not be very bothered. The bird singing at the end followed by a wing flapping before closing, is meant to convey the idea that life will continue, like the bird will fly away from the disaster. This can be interpreted in various ways (optimistic, pessimistic, nihilistic), but I would prefer to let the listener decide instead of stating my own interpretation of it.

To create this piece, I have collected a various sounds from many different places of Greece. I have generally tried to keep the natural sounds as accurate as possible, so I went to a forest with the same flora as in the painting. I also recorded the sea at a gulf about the size of the one in Naples on a night with a full moon, birds that can naturally be found there too and bells from a Greek church which are very similar to the ones used in Italy back then.

By measuring the position and angle of the moon and knowing the year the painting is supposed to depict (1774), it is safe to say that the month is either May or June. The aforementioned sounds are all recorded and edited to fit this time of the year in the Mediterranean. The wind that appears throughout the piece is also very common early in the nights of these months and the full moon being so close to the horizon in the east, means that the sun has just set and it is indeed early in the night.

Heavy winds would be caused by the explosion as well.


Some Interesting Resources

https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/wright-vesuvius-in-eruption-with-a-view-over-the-islands-in-the-bay-of-naples-t05846

https://www.carterart.art/article/all-about-vesuvius-in-eruption-by-joseph-wright

https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-6327273

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