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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Composer's Muse

The idea of "inspiration" is one we use a lot in music. Without thinking much about it, we often say a piece or a composer was inspired by something or someone. This leads to ideas - usually completely false - that composers sit around waiting for inspiration to strike, after which a piece comes pouring out of them with ease. In reality the act of creating a piece of art - musical, visual, literary, whatever - is generally a matter of hard work. It's more akin to the work of a sculptor, taking a block of raw material and chiselling away until the artwork hidden within is revealed.

Composers have musical ideas but putting these ideas into their final form as a work of musical art takes sheer hard work, tenacity and creative energy, all of which must be based on a sound technique and understanding of things like instruments, voices, structure and much else.

But the hard work and effort need an impulse to start. Sometimes it's a commission, sometimes it's the need to eat or pay the rent. And sometimes it's a person who stirs up new ideas and feelings in the creative artist which then act as a springboard to the creation of a work of art and all the effort that requires.

The nine muses, carved on a Roman sarcophagus (2nd century CE)

In Ancient Greek mythology the nine muses were goddesses who inspired (there's that word again) the arts, literature and science. Earlier traditions named three, or even four, but the nine muses established by the late Hellenic period are the ones which have come down to us today. They - and their areas of influence - are:

Calliope (epic poetry)

Clio (history)

Euterpe (flutes and music)

Thalia (comedy and pastoral poetry)

Melpomene (tragedy)

Terpsichore (dance)

Erato (love poetry and lyric poetry)

Polyhymnia (sacred poetry)

Urania (astronomy)

By extension, in general parlance a "muse" has come to mean a person who acts as an impetus or source of inspiration for a creative artist.

In this post I want explore a few muse/composer relationships. Right away we're tempted to fall into the trap of romanticising these connections, but in most cases romance was in fact at the heart of the matter. Composers in love are just like anyone else in love: it affects the way they think and the way they live. To what degree the muses I'll mention actually "inspired" the pieces I've chosen is probably a matter of semantics, but the results of these muse/composer connections are all fascinating.

Clara Wieck was already an internationally famous pianist when she married Robert Schumann in September 1840. She remained one of the century's leading pianists for the rest of her life, and her name was commonly grouped with virtuosos like Franz Liszt and Sigismond Thalberg. She was also a fine composer, something acknowledged by her husband. For their first Christmas together as husband and wife, Clara gave her husband some songs she'd composed, setting texts by Burns and Heine. He was so impressed with these that he suggested they publish a joint collection of songs, a plan which was realised the following year. The result was a set of twelve songs setting poetry by Rückert, with nine of them by Robert and three by Clara. It was published as his Op 37 and her Op 12, and it's a testament to each, in a way, being the other's muse. Here are two songs from the collection: Clara's Liebst du um Schönheit [listen] and Robert's Ich hab in mich gesogen [listen].

Clara Wieck (1838)

Robert Schumann's descent into debilitating mental illness led to him being incarcerated for the last two years of his life, with Clara not permitted to see him until only two days before he died in 1856. During their marriage, the couple had been supportive of a young composer who was starting to make an impression; his name was Johannes Brahms. By the time of Schumann's removal to the sanatorium, Brahms, in his early 20s, was close to both of them, and with Clara left alone to care for her large family (she had five surviving children and was expecting her seventh child at the time), Brahms moved to Düsseldorf to help. He assisted with the running of the household as well as with business dealings concerning Robert's music, and he looked after things at home while Clara resumed her performing career.

Brahms developed a strong romantic attachment to Clara, who was 14 years his senior. Her feelings for him are less well documented, and the question of whether they actually had an affair has never been conclusively answered. Regardless of this, Brahms's devotion to both the Schumanns - and especially Clara - was one of the driving forces behind his early piano work, the Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann, which he dedicated to Clara.

After Robert's death in 1856 Clara and Brahms travelled along the Rhine to Switzerland together. At the end of this they decided to remain the closest of friends but nothing more, and so they remained until Clara's death 40 years later in 1896, one year before Brahms himself died.

The early variations on her husband's theme is undoubtedly a testament to Brahms's feelings for her and a reaction to the dreadful situation of Robert's incarceration. [listen]

When thinking of composers of the Romantic period - that is, most of the 19th century - it isn't long before we think of Frédéric Chopin. Renowned for his gifts as a pianist, Chopin's life is the stuff of romantic (with a small "r") fiction. But he was a real person whose life was certainly full of passion, illness and love, and which ended when he was only 39.

From the age of 21 until his death he lived in Paris, and it was there in the late 1830s that he met and fell in love with the novelist Amantine Lucile Dupin, better known as George Sand. Like most of Sand's relationships - and she had many highly publicised affairs - their liaison was turbulent, but it did last some ten years.

George Sand (1838)

Early in the affair they spent a winter in Majorca, a difficult time during which Chopin became extremely ill. Sand looked after him and made the most of this difficult situation, but he was still able to compose. That winter in Majorca led to the composition of one of his most important works, the 24 Préludes, Op 28. To what extent Sand was actually a "muse" to Chopin when he wrote these Preludes is open to question, but her vital presence in his life at the time of their creation can't be ignored. [listen]

Paris was the setting for another great infatuation between a composer and a woman in the early 19th century. Hector Berlioz was struggling to make his mark in the French musical establishment when in September 1827 he saw a touring English theatrical troupe perform Hamlet. Despite not speaking English at all, he found the experience shattering, and in particular the performance of the Ophelia in the cast, the Irish-born Harriet Smithson, left a lasting impression.

Dubufe: Harriet Smithson

From this moment he developed two simultaneous obsessions. One was for Shakespeare, a passion which led to the creation of three major works: the Roméo et Juliette symphony, the opera Béatrice et Bénédict (based on Much Ado About Nothing) and the King Lear overture. The other obsession was for Smithson herself. Although he had yet to meet her, Berlioz referred to her as his Ophelia, his Juliet, his Desdemona, and he seemed unable (or unwilling) to separate her stage persona from reality. He admitted to being deranged with passion for her, a passion which turned sour in 1830 and directly led to the creation of arguably his most important and radical work, the Symphonie Fantastique. This charts the course of an artist's obsessive, opium-fuelled love for an ideal and unattainable woman, ending in dreams of murder, execution and torment. [listen]

Three years later Berlioz did manage to meet Smithson and court her. They eventually married, but it was doomed from the start. They had a son together, but after a few years they drifted apart.

At more or less the same time - in 1832 - the famous pianist and composer Franz Liszt met the Countess Marie d'Agoult. He was 22 and already had a reputation as a brilliant pianist. She was 28 and unhappily married. Once their liaison became public knowledge it created an enormous scandal, but despite this they remained together for twelve years and had three children. In the later 1830s they travelled throughout Europe, years which became known as their "years of pilgrimage". Their travels are reflected in a number of Liszt's collections of piano pieces from this time, published in a number of volumes called the Traveller's Album. This piece describes the lake of Wallenstadt in Switzerland. [listen]

Lehmann: Marie d'Agoult (1843)

One of the three children Liszt and Marie d'Agoult had together was a daughter, Cosima. In adult life she was in her own way a muse to Richard Wagner, eventually becoming his second wife.

But before Cosima, Wagner celebrated another consuming passion in the creation of one of his most overwhelming works. Sadly, this passion was not directed towards his first wife, Minna, who patiently and doggedly stayed with her husband despite his infidelities and instability. In the early 1850s Wagner made the acquaintance of a retired silk Merchant, Otto Wesendonck, who supplied him with much-needed funds in order to work and mount performances.

Wesendonck even provided a house for Wagner and Minna to use near Zurich, right next to the house he had built for himself and his wife Mathilde. Wagner and Mathilde developed a passionate love for each other but it's thought that this was never consummated. Their love was celebrated and idealised in Tristan und Isolde, which the composer worked on in the late 1850s in Venice and in Lucerne after his marriage to Minna, not surprisingly, deteriorated. [listen]

Sohn: Mathilde Wesendonck (1850)

Minna Wagner, the composer's first wife, died in January 1866, but by that time he had already begun his relationship with Cosima Liszt, now Cosima von Bülow, wife of the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow. The first child from this relationship, a daughter, was born in August 1865; she was called Isolde.

The tangled situation with Wagner, Cosima and her husband is too complicated to detail here. Cosima and von Bülow eventually divorced and she married Wagner in 1870. By this stage they had three children; in addition to Isolde there was a daughter Eva (the name of the leading female character in The Mastersingers of Nuremburg) and a son Siegfried (named after the hero of the Ring).

Lenbach: Cosima Wagner (1879)

On Christmas morning 1870, the day after Cosima's birthday, she was woken up by a small ensemble of musicians playing on the staircase outside her bedroom. This music was based on themes from the third opera of the Ring cycle, Siegfried (at that stage, still unfinished). Wagner's devotion to Cosima was as strong as hers to him, and the Siegfried Idyll as the piece is known today, reflects this extraordinary bond. [listen]

The traditional use of the word "muse" in the context I'm using it in this article implies that the muse, like the muses of ancient mythology, is female. Closer to our own times, I want to cite two examples of the inspirer, the muse, being male.

Peggy Glanville-Hicks was born in Melbourne in 1912 and died in Sydney in 1990, but the bulk of her life was spent outside Australia. She studied in England (under Vaughan Williams and others) and made her name not only as a composer but as a writer and critic in the United States in the 40s and 50s. She later lived in Greece for 20 years before returning to Australia in the late 70s.

PG-H, as she was known, was a formidable woman. She had a number of close male friends, many of whom (including her first husband, Stanley Bate) were, at the very least, fluid in their sexuality. The American composer and writer Paul Bowles was especially close, and Bowles, who lived in Morocco for the last 52 years of his life, was possibly as close as anyone came to being PG-H's "muse". Over 40 years, separated by half the world, they corresponded, with their communication only ending with her death.

Paul Bowles

It's perhaps not surprising that PG-H decided to set some of Bowles's letters to music. Not only was their friendship very close, but he was a gifted writer as well as composer. Letters from Morocco comprises seven extracts from his correspondence to her, the first six set to music and the last, described as "too beautiful" by PGH, left to be read or recited at the end. It was premiered in New York in 1953 in a concert conducted by Leopold Stokowski. [listen]

Perhaps the most famous male muse for a composer in the 20th century was the tenor Peter Pears, whose almost 40 year relationship with the composer Benjamin Britten brought about the creation of some of the greatest works for the tenor voice in the repertoire. All of Britten's operas have roles for Pears, from Peter Grimes in 1945 to Death in Venice in 1973. All the church parables have roles for him, all the major song cycles were written for him (such as the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, The Holy Sonnets of John Donne and Winter Words), and all the major choral works have his voice in mind for the tenor solos (from Saint Nicolas to the War Requiem and the Cantata misericordium). Then there are the works for tenor and orchestra such as the Serenade and the Noctune. It's a stunning reflection of their love.

Peter Pears

To call Pears Britten's "muse" is perhaps an understatement; theirs was a relationship clearly based on mutual devotion. In 1974, less than two years before Britten's death from heart disease, Pears was in New York performing Death in Venice. Their letters to each other seem to be borne of the knowledge that their time together was limited. Britten wrote to Pears:

My darling heart (perhaps an unfortunate phrase, but I can't use any other) ... I do love you so terribly, not only glorious you, but your singing. ... What have I done to deserve such an artist and man to write for? ... I love you, I love you, I love you.

Pears's response was just as beautiful:

You know love is blind, and what your dear eyes do not see is that it is you who have given me everything right from the beginning. ... I am here as your mouthpiece and I live in your music.

I'll end with three examples of Britten's writing for Pears, from their vast recorded legacy. First, the sixth movement of the Serenade, composed in 1943. This 1963 recording features Pears singing and Britten conducting; Barry Tuckwell is the horn soloist. [listen]

Written three years earlier, the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo was the first set of songs Britten wrote specifically for Pears's voice, setting the famous painter's poetry in the original Italian. Britten was a gifted pianist, too, so the cycle was certainly intended for them to perform together, and they recorded it in 1954. [listen]

Britten's final opera, the work he was determined to finish before undergoing heart surgery, was his rawest and most honest exploration of themes he'd explored his entire life, and in Death in Venice he created a staggering, moving masterpiece with which Pears could begin to bring down the curtain on his singing career. The work would have been unthinkable without Pears in Britten's life, and it's perhaps the most perfect expression of the muse/composer relationship that I know. We'll conclude with the final minutes of the first act of Death in Venice, in the 1974 recording featuring Pears as Aschenbach. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in February, 2016.

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