Leonardo's dream

for alto saxophone and piano
9 mins.

Variations on a theme by Leonardo da Vinci.

Programme note

Leonardo’s Dream, which was written in November 2007, was commissioned by Hannah Marcinowicz, and first performed by her and Giles Swayne in the Park Lane Group Young Artists Series at the Purcell Room in January 2008.

The lira da braccio – an early relative of the fiddle – was popular in Renaissance Italy and was used to accompany the singing (by the player) of popular love-songs and topical ballads. As a young man in Florence in the 1480s, Leonardo da Vinci was a well-known singer and lira performer, and many writers remarked on the beauty of his voice. In one of his notebooks from about 1486 there is a melody which we can safely assume is by him. Written in Leonardo’s usual mirror-writing, it is a rebus or puzzle in pictures, words, and musical notation. When deciphered, the meaning is:

“Amore la sola mi fa remirare, la sol mi fa sollecitar questa gratitudine/rimunerazione” [She alone makes me think of love; she alone makes me seek this gratification/reward]

Given the veiled reference to orgasm, this seems to be a bawdy love-song. The notes themselves add up to something rather extraordinary: the only surviving melody by Leonardo da Vinci. My piece explores this melody, and alludes to Leonardo’s obsession: human flight. Designs and calculations for flying-machines fill many pages of his notebooks, and accounts of flight and birds also abound – both in his favole (short stories) and in his observations and drawings. After the melody has been played in simple form, eight short variations explore its possibilities, culminating in a song-like finale in which the sax soars briefly like a bird above a rumbling landscape. The piece ends with a restatement of the melody itself.

Giles Swayne 2009


Young – and not so young. The elixir of life was clearly at work . . . when the white-haired composer Giles Swayne took his turn with the evening’s young artists . . .  This was a memorable first performance of Leonardo’s Dream. Swayne has composed seven aptly enigmatic and airborne variations on a theme discovered in one of Leonardo’s 1486 notebooks: a sweet melody in mirror-writing, a little puzzle of pictures, words and notation. He responds to it with jazzy nonchalance, with trillings, leaps and bumps shared between saxophone and piano, and always with a witty investigation of the quintessence of the melody and the essence of each instrument.

Hilary Finch – The Times

Vinci . . . emerged from a misty beginning into a series of quirky cameos. Wittily crafted; brilliantly executed.

Richard Morrison – The Times


Leonardo’s Dream, variations on a theme by Leonardo da Vinci . . . a pithy work that included a visit to a nightclub – cued with real swing – and notable for giving an abundance of colour and expression . . . to the sax.  The composer himself was called upon to deliver the demanding piano part, which he did with no mean skill . . .  Leonardo’s Dream should be a mandatory choice next time a saxophonist is invited to play in a PLG concert

Colin Anderson – The Classical Source