When it comes to great composers, the gifts they have seem so overwhelming at times that it can often feel that they have been touched by God. The music that they present to us is so beautiful, majestic, other worldly that the composers themselves seem to be from another place, outside of our own realms of understanding.
But, delving a little into classical music history, it won’t be long until you bump heads with a tale or two that will turn your thoughts on their head. Composers whose personalities seem to stand in stark contrast to their musicality and perhaps leave us wondering how such genius could be matched with such unpleasantness.
Some of the more obvious tales belong to Wagner and Beethoven, composers who in different ways caused alienation and even hatred among their contemporaries and are stigmatized or unliked to this day. Wagner had some completely outlandish views that were eaten up gladly by arguably the most hateful governmental regime of the 20th century. Beethoven, apparently, had such a paradoxical personality that some modern day scholars and sleuths suggest he suffered from bipolar disorder.
And that’s just the beginning. By the time you read the tales of Benjamin Britten’s alleged pedophilia, Jean-Baptiste Lully’s hedonism, Chopin’s anti-Semitism and Stravinsky’s love of Mussolini you’re likely to be in a very depressed state. Is it possible to be (as a Welsh band from the 90s once said) equally blessed and cursed? Blessed with such wonderful music and yet cursed with such unpleasant character?
Well, here are my thoughts on the matter:
When you pack your bag, don’t forget the big grain of salt
Not everything that’s written in the media is the truth (as well you all know) but it’s worth bearing in mind, especially when we think about composers who lived centuries ago. Rumors, hearsay and sensationalism were as prevalent a few hundred years ago as they are today. That’s not to mention the biased agendas of some who may have had their own more personal reasons for slamming the characters of composers. By all means read, but don’t base your truths around the gossip-mill of the day. Frankly speaking, it’s not all true.
Don’t sugar-coat it
Sometimes our love for a certain composer compels us to don rose-tinted glasses when it comes to all areas of their lives. But, as much as we love their music, sometimes you just can’t deny the facts. And why should we? Stravinsky, Chopin, Wagner and to a more questionable extent Britten, have made clear in their own writings views and opinions that many of us would see as disdainful. At some point we have to accept the facts of the matter and move on, as difficult as that can be. I found it hard when researching Chopin to find out that he was prone to making anti-Semitic comments in a manner that would be abhorred today (even though he was in no way on the same level as Wagner). It was difficult to accept, but, in the end, I had to. Great composers, like you and I, are fallible, prone to errors of judgment and sometimes, just plain unlikeable.
Love the music not the man
I guess my final point on the matter is slightly more contentious, as it’s really a personal decision as to whether you feel a certain composer’s personality or views stop you from being able to listen to them. But a pervasive view today, and one that I subscribe to, is that music overrides the writer.
I watched a documentary where the British actor Stephen Fry went on a sort of Wagnerian pilgrimage, visiting some of the most important places of the composer’s life while coming to terms with the challenge of being both Jewish and an avowed Wagner lover. In the end, he came to the conclusion that he could love the music and not the man, enjoy the beauty of the compositions while putting to one side the views he expounded. And, I guess that’s where I am at. It seems clear to me that you don’t have to be a great person to create great works of art. You do, however, have to be a great composer. So, if our inability to separate the music from the character stops us from enjoying great art, perhaps we are the ones who are poorer for it.
It’s difficult to know what to put as a video for this article, so I’m going to sidestep the issue a bit by adding a video of a composer who, by all accounts, was a wonderful human being. Here’s what one of those accounts said about him:
“His soul was so crystal clear in its purity, his inner being so unsullied by the self-seeking currents of life, that he stood like a giant, head and shoulders above the grasping medley of human desires, envies and strifes.”
So, in honour of pleasant characters, here is Antonin Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings in E played by the English Chamber Orchestra.