Like all great art, music doesn’t exist in a vacuum and composers are constantly inspired by the rich history of their predecessors and the contributions of the individuals that surround them. Britten’s ‘Les Illuminations’ is a perfect example of this process and it acts an as inspiration to the other two works on the programme for Omnibus on the 1st December.
So many intertwining strands combine to make ‘Les Illuminations’ the remarkable piece it is: the visceral and vivid poetry of Rimbaud; Britten’s ability to engage with the archaic flavour of the texts by drawing on compositional techniques of earlier eras; the incredible vocal range of Sophie Wyss for whom the cycle was written; and the complex and taboo relationships both poet and composer embarked upon.
In turn, Héloïse and Jonathan have each written a new song cycle that takes ‘Les Illuminations’ as its genesis. Their works delve into Rimbaud’s texts, expand upon themes the piece deals with, look outwards to other poets, such as Rimbaud’s lover Verlaine, and smash apart the texts to find new meaning. Finally, both composers look inwards for new perspectives, with Héloïse exploring the specific capabilities of her own voice and Jonathan exposing the conflicts of creation and composition itself.
This list charts my top five composer/muse relationships that have resulted in some other pieces of pretty astonishing music…
Hildegard von Bingen/spirituality
O tu suavissima virga
Hildegard von Bingen was an absolutely remarkable woman. Not only was she the most prolific plainchant composer of the 12th century, but also a revered visionary, respected religious teacher and expert in the causes of disease and medicinal cures – a true polymath.
So many male composers, poets and authors have claimed divine inspiration for their creations but this is a rare and very early example of a female composer moved by devotion to write absolutely sublime music.
No collaborative pianist’s list of anything would be complete without Schubert and I’ve always considered his settings of Mayrhofer to be the most remarkably personal distillations of emotion in song.
The two men were certainly excellent friends and quite possibly lovers. Neither of them were particularly easy characters but somehow in this song, about a star that shines so beautifully yet stands apart from all the others, Schubert’s deep understanding of Mayrhofer’s poetry results in a piece of absolute crystalline beauty.
Stravinsky is probably best known for his riot-inducing Rite of Spring, but much of his music actually drew on neo-classical styles and paraphrased composers from much earlier.
Pulcinella is a completely brilliant ballet based on what Stravinsky believed was a piece by Pergolesi, though modern scholars attribute possible authorship to a number of 18th century composers. What is certain though is that Stravinsky’s avant-garde re-reading of music written 150 years previously makes for really scintillating listening…if you can get through the slightly hammy visual introduction of this version!
Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
Britten is one of my absolute favourite composers so he had to get a second mention, specifically his incredibly fruitful but illicit relationship with tenor, Peter Pears. They performed together across the globe, established a pioneering centre for the arts in Snape and created some of the most interesting and well-rounded characters of the opera stage. Pears’ voice is certainly not loved by all but it was a massive inspiration to Britten and resulted in some truly glorious works for the tenor voice.
The Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings is all wonderful, but fast-forward to 1:19 to hear Pears at his finest.
Cathy Berberian was in some ways a muse herself; she was a brilliant interpreter of avant-garde music and provided composers such as Luciano Berio, John Cage and Henry Pousseur with a voice that could master their new compositional techniques and a stage presence that could carry them off with aplomb. That said, she was also a fantastic creator herself, taking inspiration from sources as varying as Monteverdi, folk songs and comic books. Ultimately, I couldn’t decide what to choose so I’ve started with Berberian inspired by the Beatles and am slipping in an extra one at the end…the mad and wonderful, Stripsody.