Friday, January 18, 2019

Musical inspiration and where to find it

What spurs a new piece of music into existence? Where do composers find their inspiration? Here is a wonderful insight from someone who knows all about it. 

Stephen Johnson's extremely moving How Shostakovich Changed My Mind was one of my Books of the Year for the Sunday Times, so it was a particular joy that he wrote a couple of weeks ago to tell me about his new Clarinet Quintet, 'Angel's Arc', which receives its world premiere next Thursday. At the time I was in South Africa, cuddling lion cubs and so forth, which made writing something myself a bit tricky. Fortunately Stephen - author, journalist and composer - was only too happy to pen us a guest post. Here he reveals how the piece took shape in his imagination, with a range of vivid and varied references that mirrors his splendid book - from the literary and the biblical to the natural, the emotional and even the feline. 

Enjoy. And do go and hear his new quintet if you can - full performance listings are at the end of the article. JD

A rainbow snapped during the first rehearsal of Angel's Arc. Photo: Kate Johnson

Angel's Arc

A guest post by Stephen Johnson

It was a cat who inspired my orchestral piece Behemoth Dances: the pistol-packing, chandelier-swinging cat-demon Behemoth from Mikhail Bulgakov's wild, terrifying, utterly magical novel The Master and Margarita.And in a different, slightly more oblique way it was a cat who set my Clarinet Quintet, Angel's Arc, in motion. 

Two years ago, my wife Kate and I lost our much-loved Agatha, a tiny ginger female cat of immense character, who had a way of charming round even resolute cat-haters. Our wise vet, Amanda - who put Agatha very tenderly to sleep in her favourite spot in our garden, on a heartbreakingly beautiful summer morning - told us afterwards that in her experience the loss of a beloved pet often released feelings of grief connected with other important losses. So it was with Agatha's parting. I felt keenly the loss of my father-in-law, Harold Jones, a remarkable old-fashioned rural rector with some very un-old-fashioned views and a generous, loving heart. I'd lost my aunt, Elizabeth (Betty) Johnson, nearly twenty years earlier, but now I felt her absence more than ever, and wished terribly that she could have witnessed the emergence of Behemoth Dancesinto the light. I also realised with new intensity just how much both these two people had stood in loco parentis, and how privileged I had been to have them in my life.

Then along came Andrew Jamieson, the IMG impresario who, in a magnificent leap of faith, had arranged the Moscow and UK performances of Behemoth Dancesafter hearing just three minutes of it in a horrible computer playback version. He suggested that I might follow it up with a clarinet quintet - he already had Emma Johnson and the Carducci Quartet in mind. I leapt at the chance: I loved the clarinet, and the two glorious quintets Mozart had Brahms had written for it. But where was the seminal musical idea? 

Playing around on the piano it struck me that I could make a kind of Schumann/Shostakovich-style cipher out of the letters of Agatha's name: with Te (sol fa) representing B, plus H from German notation, it gave A-G-A-B-B-A - a chant-like motif very like the haunting plainsong phrase 'Lux aeterna' I'd used in Behemoth Dances. Suddenly a host of ideas began to flow from that tiny motif. Fascinatingly, as with Behemoth, the shape of the whole thing seemed fairly clear from the start: beginning, middle and end were quite distinct. But the title, and with it the emotional character, took a little while to emerge from the mist - almost literally, as there is something very mist-like about the hushed opening pages: lots of natural string harmonics and clarinet echo tones. 

As I worked on what was at first simply my 'Clarinet Quintet', I found that memories of the West Pennine moors, and their surrounding woodlands and lakes, were flooding into mind. As a teenager I'd loved those moors with a fierce passion, and I walked and cycled them energetically. The wildest expanse of moorland bore the striking name Anglezarke, and I remember someone (it might have been a teacher) telling me that it derived from the Flemish words 'Angel's Arc', or 'Ark' - the story was that it was given this name centuries earlier by Protestant refugees fleeing persecution in the Spanish Netherlands. Almost certainly this was nonsense: my place-name dictionary gives the derivation as from the Norse 'Anlaf's hill-pasture'. But at the time I could hardly have cared less, nor would I have been terribly interested if I'd been told that my favourite line from the Book of Psalms, 'I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills', was a mistranslation. What has dull fact to do with poetry - especially when poetic fantasy is one of the few precious things that helps you to find your way emotionally? And as this poetic idea was now helping me find my way musically, here surely was my title: Angel's Arc.  

Once I'd embraced that title, and the images that came inevitably with it, vivid memories of Harold and Betty followed. Harold's favourite line from the Anglican Communion Service, 'Lift up your hearts', along with the response, 'We lift them up to the Lord', morphed in my mind with the idea of looking up to the hills for help: both found their way into the score. 

As for Betty, I'd noted quotations from, or allusions to, symphonies I'd adored as a teenager emerging quite spontaneously as I wrote: Walton One, Bruckner Nine, Mahler Six. And then it hit me: it was Betty who'd given me the scores of all three symphonies as birthday presents. I still have them, battered, dog-eared and irreplaceable. Here then were keys to the emotional significance of this music - for me at least. There is grief in this music, but also gratitude. It's a close-run thing, but in the end I think gratitude wins: gratitude to Betty, to Harold (whom I also have to thank for Kate), to Andrew Jamieson, who made these three performances happen, to the friend-sponsors who gave their financial support, Fiona Costa, Peggy Czyzak-Dannenbaum and Irina Knaster, and to those wonderful hills - and to whoever or whatever made them. Angel's Arcis my hymn of thanks. 

Stephen Johnson

Emma Johnson, clarinet
Carducci String Quartet (based in Cheltenham)


Brahms – Clarinet Quintet (35 mins, 1891)
Johnson – Clarinet Quintet, Angel's Arc(14 – 15 mins, 2018)
Mozart – Clarinet Quintet (30 mins, 1789)