Intersections: Inspiration and Creativity

A Look at Famous Artists and Their Debts to Their Colleagues

Stephen Sondheim

Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim says his musical Sweeney Todd was very much inspired by the work of legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann. Library of Congress hide caption

itoggle caption Library of Congress

Detail of Vincent Van Gogh's Japonaiserie: Bridge in Rain, an 1887 painting fashioned after a 1857 woodcut by Japanese printmaker Hiroshige. Van Gogh copied Japanese prints to hone his technique. Courtesy Jeffery Howe/ Boston College Digital Archive of Art hide caption

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itoggle caption Courtesy Jeffery Howe/ Boston College Digital Archive of Art

Sondheim and Herrmann

Herrmann's influence on Sondheim can be heard in the latter's musical Sweeney Todd. Listen to samples of each man's work:

audio icon 'Prelude' -- from Sweeney Todd

audio icon 'Concerto Macabre' -- from Herrmann's score for Hangover Square

The public often thinks of artistic inspiration arriving in a sort of thunderbolt moment of creativity. The truth is, almost nothing is created out of thin air.

"Great works of art set a standard, set the bar," says Clint Brown, author of Artist to Artist: Inspiration and Advice from Artists Past and Present. "Although they can be humiliating in a certain sense because they're powerful… they can give you new ideas and help things connect in your own work."

View Bridge at Ohashi: Sudden Rain at Atake, the Hiroshige woodcut that inspired Van Gogh, at the Web site of The Whitworth Art Gallery.

Morning Edition begins Intersections, a six-month-long series looking at artists and their artistic sources of inspiration.

As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports in the first story in the series, many famous artists admit to drawing creative inspiration from the work of others. Take, for example, Stephen Sondheim, the prolific Broadway composer and lyricist. A few years ago, he told Library of Congress music specialist Mark Horowitz one such inspiring moment came while watching the 1945 movie Hangover Square at age 15. He saw the movie twice to memorize the score, composed by the legendary Bernard Herrmann.

"When Sondheim wrote Sweeney Todd, he — at least to some degree — was trying to imagine, 'What would Bernard Herrmann do?'" Horowitz says. "And he talks about how there are certain Bernard Herrmann chords that he uses that are inspired aspects of the score."

Edie Pistolesi, an art professor at California State University, notes that some of the best painters — including Vincent Van Gogh — literally copied the art that inspired them in order to learn technique. And the copying isn't limited to the visual arts. The Beatles learned to play rock 'n' roll by listening to American records. In fact, the opening guitar riff off a somewhat obscure 1961 R&B song called "Watch Your Step," by Bobby Parker, is echoed in the Beatles' song "I Feel Fine."

Sometimes, this type of borrowing results in legal action. But for the most part, it reflects the recognition among artists of the need for a common language of expression.