Mendelssohn took a trip to Scotland and wrote the opening measures to the Hebrides Overture. In the second movement of his Fifth Piano Concerto, Camille Saint-Saëns borrowed an Egyptian melody he heard while sailing on the Nile. After the death of his friend, Viktor Hartmann, Modest Mussorgsky penned Pictures at an Exhibition, a piano piece inspired by Hartmann’s visual art. Music history is filled with the stories of compositions that arose from varied sources of inspiration. Olivier Messiaen and Ottorino Respighi drew upon the songs of the birds. Maurice Ravel dedicated each movement of Le Tombeau de Couperin to a friend or friends he had lost in World War I. In my years as a program annotator, I’ve done a lot of research, and in addition to figuring out when a piece was written and what was going on in a composer’s life at the time, I like to see if there is an underlying inspiration for a work of music. Some of the things I’ve uncovered over the years have been truly surprising, and I am constantly fascinated by these stories.
Some sources of inspiration are timeless. Of course it makes sense that the weather would inspire more composers than just Vivaldi. Weather is a constant presence in our lives (although my east coast friends would probably argue that sunny and 70 degrees is barely “weather”). From Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (1723) to Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons (1801) to the thunderstorm in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (1808) to Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (1964-1970) to the Santa Ana winds in Gernot Wolfgang’s Desert Winds, the quirks of the seasons are fertile ground for musical exploration. There have also been the works that took visual art as a point of departure. In 1927, Ottorino Respighi was planning to dedicate a new work to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, a notable patron of the arts who sponsored the composer’s American tour. On a visit to the Uffizi Gallery after the tour, Respighi came upon three paintings by Botticelli, La Primavera (Spring), L’Adorazione dei Magi (Adoration of the Magi), and La nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus). He composed the Trittico Botticelliano, or Botticelli Triptych based on these paintings. Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff composed a symphonic poem in 1909 called The Island of the Dead after seeing a black and white print of Arnold Böcklin’s 1880 painting The Isle of the Dead.
But now that we’re in the twenty-first century, it’s interesting to think of the kinds of things that might be inspiring composers now and in the future. Might there be an orchestral piece based on an “app?” Or a symphony based on a ringtone (and not the other way around)? Of course, people will always inspire music; that will hardly change with time. But what other kinds of things will excite the creative mind? LACO’s composer-in-residence, Andrew Norman, has shown that his creative mind is open to many possibilities. A couple of seasons ago, LACO played Norman’s The Great Swiftness, a work inspired by Alexander Calder’s public sculpture La Grande Vitesse in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This weekend, LACO will present Andrew Norman’s fascinating work, Gran Turismo (2004). The musical ideas in this piece took shape and direction from two main places: the influence of Futurist art, especially that of Giacomo Balla, and a video game called Gran Turismo.
Gran Turismo the game debuted in 1997 for the Playstation gaming system. Over time, it has evolved with the technology, with Gran Turismo 6 coming out in 2013. Norman composed his piece in 2004 or before, so he had access to the versions up to Gran Turismo 3. Isn’t it interesting to think that music historians in the future—perhaps someone writing the definitive biography of composer Andrew Norman—might attempt to play this game to gain insight into the composer’s thought process?
In addition to Norman’s Gran Turismo, LACO will also present three other pieces with interesting backstories. We don’t know exactly why Haydn gave his 64th Symphony the nickname “Times Change,” but I bet it was a good reason. Mozart received a commission from a flute soloist to write his First Flute Concerto, which will feature LACO’s own David Shostac. Prokofiev likewise received a commission to write his Second Violin Concerto. LACO welcomes Joseph Swensen as the soloist for this beautiful work.
It makes me very happy to see that composers writing music today are embracing the things that make them think and feel, and the things that inspire them to create. A few years ago, I wrote a program note for a piece of music by John Harbison that was inspired by the printed chords inside a music notebook he bought in Italy. Some of the most wonderful pieces come from the seemingly simplest things. Music continues to endure, and composers continue to find creative genius in things we non-composers take for granted. It doesn’t matter if that inspirational thing is as ephemeral as the song of a bird, or as new as a video game.