• Judith Weir
  • Heroic Strokes of the Bow (1992)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the Sekretariat fur gemeinsame Kulturarbeit in Nordheim-Westfalen for the Westdeutsche Sinfonie

  • 2(pic).1+ca.1+bcl.1+cbn2200timpstr
  • 15 min

Programme Note

Ever since Mussorgsky wrote Pictures at an Exhibition, the idea of writing a musical composition inspired by a painting has been fairly commonplace. The work of one particular painter, the Swiss-born artist Paul Klee (1879-1940), has generated an extraordinary number of musical tributes; more than 550 to date have been catalogued by American scholar Stephen W.Ellis. Well known 'Klee pieces' by Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle and Gunther Schuller readily spring to mind.

Klee's appeal to composers is easy to understand in biographical terms. The son of a music teacher, he became an accomplished violinist, and performed professionally in Berne's Municipal Orchestra. It is said that before starting to paint each day, he would practise the violin for an hour. His large output includes many paintings and drawings with musical titles. (A random selection: Fugue in Red; Recital by a Large Tenor, Masterly Playing amidst a Bad Orchestra.)

The connection between the painting and the musical response of composers is harder to explain. My personal observation is that perhaps Klee himself was influenced in some of his work by the visual imagery of musical notation with which he was so familiar. To a musician's eye, Klee's geometrical shapes and regularly repeated simple patterns seem to release information directly into the mind; looking at a Klee picture feels like reading music.

The subject of my piece Heroic Strokes of the Bow (Klee's original title was 'Heroische Bogenstriche') is a blue and black painting on pink newspaper, dating from 1938, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Said to be a tribute to the famous violinist Adolph Busch, whom Klee knew personally, it seems to show a simple pattern of violin bows and pegs against a hypnotic blue background.

My piece is not principally meant as a depiction of the picture, but rather as a literal response to the title, with its suggestions of excessive physical energy applied to a small piece of wood. Accordingly, energetic violins predominate throughout the piece's 15-minute duration. The first part of the piece builds up a restless momentum; a twittering ensemble of lower woodwinds finally puts the brakes on, leading to a broad, spacious close.

Heroic Strokes of the Bow was commissioned by the Sekretariat für gemeinsame Kulturarbeit in Nordrhein-Westfalen, and first performed by the Westdeutsche Sinfonie and their conductor Dirk Joeres in Leverkusen, Germany in 1992.

© Judith Weir

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