Who were the muses that inspired the great composers?

Jessica Duchen looks at the figures who, through physical beauty or other compelling qualities, became muses for the great composers

Who were the muses who inspired the great composers?
Inspiration,’ Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky noted, ‘is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.’ The Russian composer was making the point, if laconically, that music does not write itself. Nevertheless, his words also evoke the idea that ‘inspiration’ can take a virtually human form. A ‘guest’. A muse.

What are muses?

In Greek mythology, the Nine Muses were demi-goddesses who protected the arts, sciences and learning, bringing inspiration to their creators. From then to the present day, the way that a muse-like figure can spark the subconscious into passionate expression has been a hardy perennial in the garden of artists. Here’s Plato: ‘There is also a third kind of madness, which is possession by the Muses, enters into a delicate and virgin soul, and there inspiring frenzy, awakens lyric… But he, who, not being inspired and having no touch of madness in his soul, comes to the door and thinks he will get into the temple by the help of art – he, I say, and his poetry, are not admitted…’ 

Often – though not always – this semi-madness induced by the muse is unrequited or unattainable love. Some psychologists might argue that artists can channel the energy of this parlous state into their creativity. Many muse-fixated composers cluster in the 19th century, for what idea could better embody the Romantic era’s obsessions with elusive love? That did not stop them from pursuing their muses, sometimes even marrying them.

Who inspired some of the great composers?

In 1827, Hector Berlioz went to see Charles Kemble’s English theatre company performing Shakespeare in Paris. The lead actress, Harriet Smithson, captivated him; for several years he pursued her to no avail. A flood of music followed. The Symphonie fantastique, written in 1830, consists of five mind-blowing movements centring on the most fervid (indeed, drugged) dreams of love. The theme at its heart, an ‘idée fixe’, represents the beloved, transforming her in every situation, from first love at the outset to the witches’ sabbath at the end. Berlioz finally married Harriet in 1833 – but over the years she turned to the bottle while he sought fresh muses elsewhere.

Robert Schumann had an evident muse in Clara Wieck, who was a teenaged pianist celebrated across Europe by the time he fell in love with her. Much of his piano music was not only written for her, but contains musical ciphers or themes that represent her: effectively, musical love letters expressing his passion, the anguish of their enforced separation, his fear of losing her and his dreams that some day they would be united not only in life but also in art. Oddly enough, the latter aim vanished as soon as they had children…

Unusually, this muse relationship worked both ways. Clara was equally inspired by her love for Robert. The slow movement of Clara’s Piano Concerto, written in her mid-teens, appears to transform a song by Robert, An Anna – in his Piano Sonata No. 1, he used the same quotation to address Clara. Perhaps Robert was Clara’s muse before she was his.

She became, however, a muse a second time: to Johannes Brahms. He first met the Schumanns when he was 20 in 1853; soon afterwards he wrote to Robert asking permission to dedicate his Piano Sonata No. 2 to Clara. Brahms’s (probably) unrequited love for Clara led him to extreme musical lengths. Like Robert, he filled his works with musical ciphers, quotations, references, symbols and more – long concealed from us by the handy notion, imposed with hindsight, that his music was ‘pure’, untainted by extraneous matters, unlike those scurrilous progressives Liszt and Wagner. Brahms’s Op. 8 Piano Trio in B major was so deeply bound up with Clara that he revised it years later to kick over the traces. Even in their old age, Clara provided inspiration. Brahms wrote most of his late piano pieces for her, some as a reconciliation gift after a fallout, others to provide her with repertoire when her physical abilities were waning. He termed the 1892 Three Intermezzi Op. 117 ‘lullabies of my sorrows’.

The ultimate composer-and-muse relationship, though, was probably Leos Janáček and his passion for Kamila Stösslová, an otherwise unremarkable married woman some three-and-a-half decades his junior. Although he wrote letters obsessively to her, it seems she did not return his feelings. It has even been suggested that cultivating this distant relationship was in some way deliberate on Janáček’s part, conscious that the muse syndrome brought out his best work. Kamila’s influence is felt in many of his works, including the opera Kat’a Kabanová, the song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared and the String Quartet No. 2, ‘Intimate Letters’.

And whatever Tchaikovsky said about composition being a matter of hard graft, he too was often fuelled by impossible passion. His Violin Concerto was written for a former pupil of his, a superb young violinist named Iosif Kotek, although it was neither dedicated to nor premiered by him, for fear of compromising gossip. ‘When he caresses me with his hand, when he lies with his head inclined on my breast, and I run my hand through his hair and secretly kiss it … passion rages within me with such unimaginable strength,’ the infatuated composer wrote to his brother. ‘Yet I am far from the desire for a physical bond… It would be unpleasant for me if this marvellous youth debased himself to copulation with an ageing and fat-bellied man.’

Tchaikovsky was about 36 at the time. Kotek soon left Russia to study in Berlin, where he died of tuberculosis aged 29. Was it just a coincidence that the most poignant moments in Swan Lake, written just before the concerto, were also violin solos? The ballet is the ultimate in sublimated longing as the prince pursues a woman unattainable under a spell that transforms her into a swan by day. Tchaikovsky had a major hand in shaping the ballet’s scenario, which embodies the romantic obsession with elusive love.

For some composers things became a little more attainable when the beloved was, conveniently, a fine performer. A cavalcade of such relationships gallop through the centuries. Benjamin Britten wrote many of his greatest vocal works for his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, including Peter Grimes and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.

Olivier Messiaen’s magnificent piano cycles, including Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus and the Catalogue des Oiseaux, were intended for Yvonne Loriod, the formidable piano virtuoso who became his second wife.

Not all were so lucky, though. Bela Bartók was sparked into writing his Vioin Concerto No. 1 by his passion for the youthful violinist Stefi Geyer – who never performed it. His muse transferred itself into another stunning Hungarian violinist, Jelly d’Arányi, for the Violin Sonata No. 1. D’Arányi’s virtuosity, charisma and adventurous spirit inspired new works from composers as diverse as Ravel, Holst, Smyth, Vaughan Williams and even Edward Elgar, who termed her his ‘tenth muse’, writing the Violin Sonata under her influence. The glamorous soloist was unimpressed, and disliked his sprawling Violin Concerto. Its creation, a decade earlier, involved a different muse: the composer’s close friend and confidante Alice Stuart Wortley, whom he nicknamed ‘Windflower’.

Where else do composers get their inspiration?

Not all composers find their chief inspiration in a human being, or the idealisation of one. Sometimes it’s a homeland. Fryderyk Chopin’s compositions overflow with the influence of folk music from his native Poland. Shortly after he left for Vienna, aged 20, violent revolution swept the country; he never went back. If he had a human muse, it was a short-lived matter: the singer Konstancja Gładkowska, who was the inspiration behind the operatic-style recitative episode in his early Piano Concerto No. 2. Rachmaninov, too, was fuelled by his roots: the atmosphere, scenery, language and familiarity of Russia. He wrote relatively little after going into exile after the Revolution in 1917. ‘Losing my country, I lost myself also,’ he commented once.

Today, the Venezuelan pianist and composer Gabriela Montero is following in Chopin and Rachmaninov’s footsteps. As her muse, she credits ‘My country and its people’. She is living in exile in Spain while her homeland is subsumed by disaster. Her ‘Latin’ Piano Concerto is full of South American rhythms, astringent harmonies and turbulent emotion: ‘It is not a protest work,’ she says, ‘but nevertheless paints a broad portrait of the South American continent, highlighting both its charm and seduction as well as the dark shadows and self-sabotaging elements of our nature.’

Evidently, muses work; but the question remains, to what end? What do these composers hope to achieve? It’s a very personal matter, but the composer Keith Burstein, whose music is infused with a present-day romanticism, agrees to open up. ‘On two occasions, the person I was in love with somehow came to inhabit a particular work,’ he says, ‘to such an intense degree that I can never hear that music again without these people – both of whom have exited my existence – reappearing before me.’ The second movement of his Second Symphony, he says, ‘simply is that person, and it is in a way consoling that I can conjure them back into being simply by playing or listening to it… I wonder if it’s possible that music is, in some way we don’t understand, the essence of us?

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