Design and culture17.07.2018

Composers and their surprising secret muses

Forget about gorgeous sunsets and moonlit landscapes: creative types get their inspiration from some truly unlikely sources…  

Alexandra Traykova Alexandra Traykova
+2 imagesComposers and their surprising secret muses

Which of your experiences and sensations, past or present, would you draw on if you were an artistic genius looking for inspiration for your next masterpiece? A lovely view from your office window, a star-filled sky, an exciting novel or play, the memory of your first love? Sure. But just like everything else in life, there will always be quirkier, more adventurous or more macabre paths toward it. Here are 7 of them:

1. Glaciers
Parts of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold were inspired during his long walks in the mountains. Wagner, who resided in Zurich, loved going for hikes in the Swiss Alps. It was there, among the raw beauty of their glaciers, that he found the inspiration for the first of the four music dramas comprising his famous saga Der Ring des Nibelungen.

2. The end of days
Composer and multi-instrumentalist wonder Andrew Lipke’s 2011 album The Plague relies on the Christian notion of Judgment Day for its chilling theme. In 2016 the album was famously re-packaged and expanded into a full-blown Oratorio by Lipke. The awe-inspiring storyline and lyrics were based on a series of religious texts by Rev. J. M. Gates, united under the rather grim title “Judgment Day is Coming”.

3. Tuberculosis
Back in the old days and at least until the mid-nineteenth century, tuberculosis was associated with a very special type of intellectual and emotional energy referred to as spes phthisica. The psychological and physical fragility of consumptives was regarded as romantic, and very much a desirable trait for female opera heroines, from Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata to Leonora in Donizetti’s La Favorita.

4. Suicide
Puccini’s 1904 opera Madame Butterfly was based on a short story written by John Luther Long, which had also spawned a successful one-act play by David Belasco a few years beforehand. The storyline – now among the most well-known opera plots in history – features a young wife who takes her own life after she realizes that her estranged husband has replaced her and intends to raise their son with another woman. According to Burton D. Fisher (2001), it was exactly the tragic heroine’s suicide that mesmerized Puccini.

5. Death
Franz Schubert, regarded by many as the founding figure of Western Romanticism, had often proclaimed that he felt like the most miserable person in the world, and that thinking about the future filled him with despair. His alleged depression was only made worse by the inadequate treatment he received following a syphilis diagnosis – a treatment that would eventually lead to his untimely demise at the age of just 31. However, even in his earliest years he was obsessed with death and sadness, leading to works such as the rather grim Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden) and Winterreise (Winter Journey).

6. Drug overdose
Hector Berlioz was no stranger to drugs. In fact, the entire plot of Symphonie Fantastique revolves around the opium-induced hallucinations of a troubled young man suffering from unrequited love. The hero’s dreams, ranging anywhere from the beautiful to the frightening and grotesque, are likely to have been experienced by Berlioz, himself a passionate opium user.

7. Hashish
Today it’s no longer unusual to come across songs and videos praising the qualities of this substance. However, that wasn’t exactly the case during Sergei Lyapunov’s time. The Russian composer, a student of Balakirev and of Tchaikovsky himself, wrote Hashish, an Oriental Symphonic Poem – a fun piece for a big orchestra, dedicated to marijuana and available on Youtube.


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