Composers from Schumann to Stravinsky have been visited by the muse in their sleeping hours.
On February 17, 1854, a choir of angels sang to Robert Schumann as he slept. In the middle of the night he woke from the dream and rushed to his desk to write down what he had heard. The angels’ ethereal music would become the basis of his Ghost Variations, a work which seems to wander between waking and dreaming states.
It was also the last piece Schumann ever wrote. Just a few days later, while copying the variations out, he ran from the house and threw himself in the River Rhine. A group of fisherman rescued him, but his creative life was over, and his final years were spent in an asylum. Syphilis was the cause of his mental decline, and it may have caused his vivid dreams as well.
Even so, Schumann’s experience fits into a long tradition of composers hearing music as they sleep. The mysterious forces of musical inspiration seem to find liberation in dreams, when creativity is freed from the constraints of everyday life. Dreams that inspire music tend to have a visual or even narrative dimension. Typically, somebody appears in the dream and suggests a musical idea, either singing it or playing it on an instrument.
This article appeared in the May, 2012 issue of Limelight Magazine.
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