Three composers. Three generations. Three women. Three Scots.

Three composers. Three generations. Three women. Three Scots.
Judith Weir, Helen Grime © Benjamin Ealovega and Thea Musgrave © Brian Sheffield

“looking at a Klee picture feels like reading music” Judith Weir
Program note, Heroic Strokes of the Bow

Even since before Mussorgsky wrote Pictures at an Exhibition, the visual arts have been inspiring composers directly or indirectly.

From a literal journey of paintings, with pictorial representation of canvases, to title and concept inspirations, all the way through to an inspiration of process and creation, the visual arts are now an intrinsic part of the music world.

Thea Musgrave, Judith Weir and Helen Grime are three talented and inspiring female Scottish composers. From three different generations, they each have played a pivotal role in the growth and revolutions of modern composition music.

Inspired by those that came before them, their contemporaries, history and literature, these three composers have also created incredible music inspired by the visual arts.

Listen to the pieces and read more about the works below

Thea Musgrave Turbulent Landscapes (2003) 26'

Turbulent Landscapes was inspired by a series of paintings by the English romantic painter William Turner. Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the work is comprised of six independent movements.

Created in a similar way to Pictures at an Exhibition, the piece travels as one would at an exhibition, from piece to piece, movement to movement. In Musgrave’s music each movement depicts and translates Turners colours and intensity, outer and internal turbulences, each characterized by a solo player from the orchestra.

In 2018, the year of her 90th birthday, Thea Musgrave was the featured composer at the Stockholm International Composer Festival. Musgrave’s most recent orchestral work is Trumpet Concerto written for Alison Balsom, which was premiered by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2019. Trumpet Concerto is another example of the visual arts inspiring music. In this case the works of Scottish painter Victoria Crowe.

Judith Weir Heroic Strokes of the Bow (1992) 15'

Heroic Strokes of the Bow was inspired by the eponymous work by Paul Klee. In her program note, Weir explains how the work was not meant as a depiction of Klee’s painting, but rather “as a literal response to the title, with its suggestions of excessive physical energy applied to a small piece of wood a literal response”.

Klee’s appeal to composers is common and easy to understand. As an accomplished violinist, Klee used music in his work both as morning preparation, inspiration and representation. Weir would even go as far as saying that looking at Klee’s work is like reading music.

Heroic Strokes of the Bow was commissioned by the Sekretariat für gemeinsame Kulturarbeit in Nordrhein-Westfalen for Chamber Orchestra, and was later played by a full orchestra, to the composer’s immense pleasure, since there are “never too many violins”.

Weir is working on a new piece for choir and string orchestra to be premiered in July 2021. And on June 5th 2021, her opera Blond Eckbert will be performed by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra at the Concertgebouw.

Woven Space installation by Laura Ellen Bacon

Helen Grime Woven Space (2017) 22'

Woven Space was inspired by Laura Ellen Bacon’s sculpture for the Gardens of Chatsworth House in the UK. Hand built, the sculpture was made on site, with curving walls of interlaced willow twigs within the spaces of an ancient yew tree.

Grime applied a similar process to the writing of this piece, intertwining different layers of music. Shaping the music into balanced strands, weaving it. A layer of percussion with woodwind and a layer of string, harp and celeste, together enfolding the listener.

For Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra, Woven Space was firstly commissioned as a fanfare for the Sir Simon Rattle’s first opening concert, with the idea that the piece would later be developed for later in the season.

Grime’s recent works include Percussion Concerto composed for Colin Currie and commissioned by Southbank Centre, London, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra; and Limina commissioned by Tanglewood and Boston Symphony Orchestra and inspired by Tarjei Vesaas’s novel The Ice Palace.

(June 2020)