The thrill of being a composer's muse

Madeleine MitchellThu 19th October 2017

Violinist Madeleine Mitchell describes her collaborative process with leading composers

I’ve always been interested in art and often go to galleries on concert tours. Collecting cards of violin paintings, including Le Violon Rouge by Pougny, is what inspired my Red Violin festival (Founder Patron Yehudi Menuhin). My artistic friendship with the painter Gerald Marks (b1921) led to the 14 abstract expressionist works comprising ‘The Madeleine Series’ (1990), inspired by my performances of passionate works by Brahms and others. The catalogue introduction describes the paintings as lyrical and this is the quality present in the five works written for me on my new album 'Violin Muse', which features seven world premiere recordings of music by UK composers. The composer Guto Puw refers to my ‘expressive playing’ in the programme note for the Violin Concerto he wrote for me, recorded with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and David Matthews readily agreed to my suggestions when I commissioned him to write a Romanza (2012).

I’ve enjoyed the collaborative process - composers sending you the first draft, working on it, making a few practical suggestions and the insightful descriptions they offer for character which are not marked in the score. I’ve felt flattered and privileged to be described as a ‘muse’ - it’s also a responsibility to bring music to life and I myself am inspired, having my favourite of the large Marks paintings in my studio. It’s helpful to ask living composers questions you wish you could ask those no longer with us and, in the case of Geoffrey Poole, to perform the work he wrote for me - Rhapsody 2015 - with the composer as pianist.

Some works have arrived as gifts from composers I’ve known for many years, such as Michael Nyman who wrote a little piece called Taking it as Read for the opening of my festival. Some of the composers, such as Sadie Harrison, play the violin, so write from a different perspective and in rehearsals for her piece Aurea Luce we tried out different ways of playing the simulated bell sounds she’s incorporated. Sadie referenced James MacMillan’s Kiss on Wood, also written for me, by including a similar technique of leaving the piano pedal down, to give a cathedral resonance.

I find it interesting to work with living composers and incorporate recent works to programmes with standard repertoire. Recording and performing contemporary music helps to expand the violin repertoire and establish these works in the classical canon. I have had over 30 pieces written for me, including works with percussion and with voices, and several of my albums have been devoted to recording them.

Performing at Dartington International Festival last year, when Judith Weir was composer-in-residence, led to me looking for something of hers to include in my recital and discovering her wonderful violin duos Atlantic Drift. Previously unrecorded, it was helpful to be able to send Judith the first edit and hear her comments about exactly how much time she wanted between the four short individual movements comprising the third part, called 'Rain and Mist are on the Mountain I’d Better Buy Some Shoes'. I was delighted when she told me these are some of her favourite music she’s composed and that I’m able to take them on tour soon to the USA.

Madeleine Mitchell's album 'Violin Muse' is released on October 20 on Divine Art Records. Get your free ticket for her album launch at the Royal College of Music on Wednesday, October 25 (2-4pm) here: performancescience.org

Madeleine Mitchell

Madeleine Mitchell has been described by The Times as ‘one of Britain's liveliest musical forces (and) foremost violinists'. Her performances in some 50 countries as soloist and chamber musician in a wide repertoire are frequently broadcast for television and radio including the BBC Proms, ABC (Australia), Bayerisher Rundfunk, S4C and Italian TV when she won the Palmo d’Oro, praised both for her vibrant lyrical intensity and pioneering creativity.

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