April 11, 2011
Artists are often asked where their inspiration comes from. The answers are usually as varied as the artists themselves. Everything from deep spirituality to a chance incident can urge a painter to paint or a composer to compose. On LACO’s upcoming program, one of the pieces has an interesting origin story. John Harbison wrote Gli accordi più usati because he noticed a chart of commonly used chords in a music notebook he bought in Italy. When he played the chords together, he liked the way they sounded, and inspiration was born. Throughout his career, Harbison has proven himself open to different sources inspiration; one of Harbison’s more famous touchstones has been F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby.
Some composers are open about what inspires them, while some keep that information hidden. Stravinsky was once asked about such things and he replied, in Stravinsky’s typical contrarian fashion, “If I went out and narrowly escaped being run over by a trolley car, I would not immediately rush for some music paper and try to make something out of the emotion I had just felt.” And yet we know that Stravinsky was inspired by different kinds of things. Sometimes the goal of composition is not simply personal expression, but something greater, like setting folk tunes that might otherwise be lost to history. Stravinsky’s early works, for example, immortalize Russian folk tunes. (Whether that was Stravinsky’s inspiration is not known; Stravinsky comments late in life have obfuscated his true motives.)
In the past, composers have been guns for hire, so to speak, writing commissions when asked, and working for patrons. The patronage system took inspiration for granted. Composers were treated as household staff, asked to ply their trade on cue, as carpenters or chefs would. Most of the music from the eighteenth century that we know was written within the patronage system. It is an oversimplification to say that the patronage system ended with Beethoven, although that is what many people think. Beethoven was, for the most part, a free agent, but the necessities of life forced him to write commissions now and then. Even composers in the Romantic period relied on the financial support of patrons occasionally.
Sometimes inspiration comes, but is not given voice right away. Beethoven was deeply moved by Schiller’s Ode to Joy when he was in his twenties. It was almost three decades later that he began writing the Ninth Symphony, setting Schiller’s Ode in the final movement. The Ninth Symphony was a commission, not a vanity project, but he remembered the poem that had evoked such emotion in him so many years before. That’s a long time to hang on to inspiration, but aren’t you glad he did?
In today’s world, only a small number of composers of art music can make a good living by writing just when inspired. To support themselves today, composers must apply for grants, and seek out commissions and residencies. They write for competitions or for ensembles they know will perform their work. It is a fantasy to think that composers only compose when the muse arrives at their door. Practicality makes that a little difficult.
If you look up quotes about inspiration, you’ll find many of them. I’d like to share two of the ones I found in my research for this blog. The two I chose have a touch of practicality about them. An artist cannot live on inspiration alone, if you will. The first quote is from Brahms who explains, “Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.” Very true. A good idea will remain only an idea until someone can fashion it into reality. The second is from author Jack London, famous for The Call of the Wild and White Fang. London said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” Also true. Inspiration is a wonderful thing, but it is not the only thing. You can’t wait for the muse or the hand of God to touch you on the forehead. Artists must shoulder their part of the burden, but they must always be open to that flash of divine that can strike anywhere, at any time.