Separating composers’ lives from their music

This is very difficult, isn’t it? We really want the composers whose work we admire to be admirable on a personal level too, even though we have no right to expect them to be any different from the rest of us. Speaking for myself, I’m afraid their perceived personalities do affect my ability to enter wholeheartedly into their music. I’m not happy about this: even though I reject all that old structuralist stuff about the sanctity of the text, as if music didn’t have a human creator behind it, I find myself quite conflicted over some works that I would otherwise love, because some reported awfulness in the composer gets in the way.

Just as one example, because I have the book to hand here, Michael Kennedy’s Portrait of Elgar refers to him as an “often dislikeable man, a flawed human being but a blazing genius as a composer”.

I think very few great composers are or were “nice” people, however lovely their music. Beethoven was notoriously volatile and moody (well, he was deaf), I’m sure I’d have found Mozart rather tiresomely rude, Wagner was probably tolerable as long as the subject of the conversation was how great his music was, Schoenberg’s difficulties with just about everyone are legendary (some of his replies to American students who wrote to him about his music are dripping with sarcasm), and although Otto Klemperer said Stravinsky was always courteous and polite, that doesn’t seem to have extended to anyone he regarded as his social inferior.

This can be explained by the need of a composer to exclude distractions, I suppose.

Sir Arthur Sullivan was a very easy man to get on with, by all accounts. He made friends easily and would do anything to avoid an argument. Some composers went to extraordinary lengths to avoid distractions (think of Mahler in his hut being driven mad by cowbells, finally demanding that they be removed), Sullivan would compose at his desk, with a large gin, away from the piano, pen in one hand and cigarette in the other, and hold conversations with people who came and went all at the same time.

I’ve always found musicians (great and small) to be very pleasant. The one exception was Sally Beamish. She was having a work premiered by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and was very off-hand when I attempted to talk to her. She also, when she was a mere violinist, ballsed up a piece of mine back in 1985.

As a result I’ve ignored her music as much as possible. Petty, I know.

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2 Responses to “Separating composers’ lives from their music”

  1. Great thoughts, fellow blogger. I find myself often wrestling with the same issue. I love great music regardless of the composer, but knowing that a composer is a jerk certainly takes some of the magic away from it. Supposedly Bach and Haydn were pretty decent guys, right…? 😉 Thanks for posting!

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