Virtuosity

6-april-2009-hamburg-ger-013

Historically there seems to be a connection between instrumental virtuosity and ability as a composer. I think of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, and, more recently, Britten. I suppose that there are many more examples. Yet there seems to be no obvious reason why these two human capacities should be related.

It doesn’t explain why these composers who could write so excellently for their own instruments should also produce wonderful music for the human voice, for example. It’s true that experience of music from the inside will give a composer a better grasp of the nuts, bolts and beyond, but if I remember correctly neither Berlioz nor Tchaikovsky were great shakes as instrumental performers, and there are plenty of keyboard virtuosi whose compositions (particularly concerti) could never be considered as top-drawer efforts.

As with so many theories about the arts, it’s possible to argue either way with selective examples, but the wider the net is cast, the more likely it is that the pros and cons will start to balance each other out.

I think it’s just that in the days before recordingss and radio there was more need for the composer to be able to go about and present his own music, and musicians tended to be more “all rounders”, with pianists and opera conductors naturally composing as a sideline.

The advent of the specialist tended to expose the “all rounder” as less proficient in one or other branch of the art, so fewer persisted.

I don’t think there is any direct link in terms of quality; it just seems to be a matter of how diverse the individual’s talents were. Sibelius conduct the premieres of most of his works, but chose not to make recordings; Rachmaninov, like Mahler, earned his living as an opera conductor and only later as a pianist.

One might suppose that only experienced string players could write good string quartets, but again there’s no trend: Haydn, Schoenberg and Mozart were, Beethoven, Bartók and Shostakovich weren’t.

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