Composers’ Lives

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Two questions came up over dinner the other day:

Do you think it helps in the interpretation of a piece if you know the circumstances surrounding its composition? Or is music an art form devoid of context?

I would say that pretty much anything one might be able to ascertain concerning the circumstances and context of a work’s composition (as well as looking analytically at the work) is likely to inform the interpretation in a fruitful manner. Whether the listener needs or even necessarily benefits from such things is another matter. It depends whether one is interested in a piece of music as something purely existing for today, or as a historical/cultural artefact. If the latter, then all the other information can certainly be of interest and assistance.

Although it depends on whether you regard music as an academic exercise or an expression of humanity. It varies, no doubt, from composer to composer, from composition to composition, and from listener to listener. I can’t think, though, of any circumstance where knowing more about the origins of a piece would not shed some light on it. In many cases it’s supremely important. After all, is there any art form (or anything else for that matter) where knowing less is a good thing?

I have just finished reading a German biography of Mozart, by Dorothea Leonhart, published 1991 by Matthes & Seitz Verlag, Berlin.

I made several attempts because it made such sad, if not to say, unpleasant reading. It dispelled so many myths as to why he was always in financial difficulties, for instance. On the jacket Nikolaus Harnoncourt is quoted thus (my translation):

“I thought that Mozart had, more or less, been explained to me from all angles when I got hold of Leonhart’s book. At last a convincing portrayal of the father-son relationship; and finally my old suspicions regarding Constanze and her family are confirmed. This book simply had to be written.”

How does my reading of the book inform my listening? Not sure, I will see. But it will never be the same again, and not necessarily improved by deeper knowledge. One can never be innocent again, of course.

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