How composers find musical inspiration in real life stories
Friday, July 21, 2023
Penelope Thwaites reflects on how the stories of real people inspire and motivate her compositional process
As composers we bring to our work the sum total of who we are, the experiences we have had, the people we have known.
In my new recording, 'Gardens, Fables, Prisons, Dreams', each work, from different phases of my life, has been fired by a particular person or event. It could be likened to the spark in an engine which begins the creative process, and the fuel in the tank as the energy required to complete the work.
My belief and inspiration has been from life itself, together with a desire to share those experiences with the widest possible audience
For someone whose efforts involve strenuous physical activity, it may seem surprising that sitting before a sheet of manuscript paper (still my preferred option) can involve tiring effort. Someone asked me recently how a piece I had written had been composed so quickly? I replied that I had been thinking about it for some time but was then overtaken by a powerful desire to get it done. That takes energy. I remember a composer friend mentioning that he would work for a spell and then take a break to look at television before returning to the task. Many will understand this need. (At the other end of the spectrum, we have Handel’s visitation, in the depths of a period of failure and despair, where he shut himself up for days - by contemporary accounts, both weeping and working without a pause - to create his great masterpiece Messiah.)
Where does this sudden focus and passion come from? There is a different answer for each work. My friend, the Russian dissident poet Irina Ratushinskaya first impacted my consciousness through her gripping book Grey is the Colour of Hope. A victim of Soviet political artistic control and still in her early twenties, she was sent to the Gulag for writing the wrong kind of poetry. Her husband Igor, on the rare permitted visits to the Siberian prison, managed to smuggle out some of her work. She became known, was finally released and, with Igor, arrived in the UK. A mutual friend introduced us and our families met. She had no self-pity. Despite the punishment her body had suffered, she had a gaiety and enjoyment of life. I also remember her gently ironic way of enlightening the theoretical left-wing views regurgitated to her by schoolgirls from comfortable UK backgrounds. Her rebellion under the Soviets was her exploration of a Christian faith. She did not discuss it, but it sustained her. When the family returned to Moscow, it was not the state, but cancer that finally killed her. When I heard the dreadful news, the only way to express my feelings was through music – and through a medium so perfectly designed for innermost thoughts: the string quartet. There is no need to explain For Irina – the music I hope speaks for itself, incorporating some of the aspects I have mentioned above. I was fortunate to have players of the Tippett Quartet who played with understanding and passion, as well as impeccable technical command.
Just as Wilfred Owen said ‘all a poet can do is warn’, so composers have the opportunity to share the full gamut of feelings – to move, to shock, to console, to inspire. Since music is a language – or perhaps a series of languages – we need constantly to expand our vocabulary and to learn how to shape – whether a single melody, or whether a short or longer work. The shaping and design must be learned, and the vocabulary steadily expanded. In my view, these means are just that – they are means to an end. Fascination with means alone has its place, and in some rarified circles becomes ever more central. But like thousands of others, my belief and inspiration has been from life itself, together with a desire to share those experiences with the widest possible audience. Some of us remember the shocking self-immolation of the Czech student Jan Palach. I wrote a theme in tribute, along with other music for a film by the Czech playwright, Jara Moserova. My love of Czech composers undoubtedly played its part in my own piece.
Dance has always moved and thrilled me, and dance underlies four of the works on the album. On this album we include a two-piano version of A Lambeth Garland written to celebrate the renovation of the Lambeth Palace Garden, led by the redoubtable Rosalind Runcie. The original version was commissioned as a companion to the Brahms Lieberslieder Waltzes. One of the singers was John Amis, an accomplished whistler, who can be heard online in his own recording of ‘The Gardener’s Song’. In Vijay’s Fable an Indian dancer friend asked for a piece to dance to. Naturally one pays tribute as a European to the sinuous sounds and beguiling rhythms – in my case, following studies of Indian music and tours through the sub-continent. Musicians of all cultures have always enjoyed borrowing each other’s ideas. The Selfish Giant is firmly in the English ballet tradition, but also provided opportunities for impressionistic writing as the fairy-tale story unfolds. A commission Au Tombeau de Chopin for The Friends of Chopin took me back to first memories of the magic of traditional ballet, as well as a pianist’s lifelong reverence for the great Polish/French composer.
My hope is that listeners to this new album will travel through many contrasting moods and traditions, and will find, in all the works, reflections of life and of memorable people who have lived it to the full.
'Gardens, Fables, Prisons, Dreams' is out now on SOMM. For further information, please visit: somm-recordings.com