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Blog » Dead composers

14 Mar  

It seems to have fallen to Radio 4 (rather than 3) to have informative and engaging programmes about classical music. The last one I heard was about the enduring power of ‘When I am laid in earth,’ by Purcell. Various bods were wheeled out to deliver their epiphanies and insights, and I have to say that I really enjoyed Alison Moyet’s gorgeous rendition, a fifth down – how much easier to do that tricky word ‘remember’ -normally on a top G! Everyone had their point of view, including the muso who declared it ‘the best melody of the 17th century!’ Does it irritate you as much as me when people create league tables and play off one unique work of genius against another? I shouted ‘shut up!’ at the radio.
 

What was absent from a composer’s point of view was just that – the composer’s point of view. To me, whatever a piece of music becomes, whatever peg the composer hangs it on, it always starts with the composer. Amongst all their sense of personal ownership, nobody seemed to wonder about Henry Purcell, the human being, and what his personal input had been into those 40 bars of exquisite pain. Could anyone doubt that he identified with Dido rather than the colourless Aeneas? This is not an idle point, for Aeneas is on a mission to create a new country, surely something a creative person might identify with, and yet it is Dido’s fragility and easy decline into early death that is drawn with such pain. I wondered why nobody mentioned the surely pertinent fact that Purcell was a child of 6 or so when the Great Plague hit London, and then the following Fire. And/or wondered whether Purcell, still a young man, had just experienced something similar by way of a rejection.
 

It is the vagueness of music and it being a non-verbal language that makes people take ownership of it, and elbow the person that was the composer out of the picture. This doesn’t seem to happen so powerfully in the visual arts and it certainly doesn’t happen with books or poetry. It is a wonderful thing to become totally engrossed in a piece of music. I like to binge on a particular piece, playing nothing else for days, - the music becomes subsumed into your existence like the first days of being in love. The downside of this is the ludicrous and depressing mythologizing of dead composers that goes on. If you believe that some God-given gift is at work then that rules out any influence from dreadful upbringings, or hot-housing parents. Let’s face it, living composers are nothing like the Jill and John picture of dead ones. You can have a pizza and a laugh with them, get irritated by them, owe them money, talk about mobile phone tariffs with them. They can sleep with your wife or have to go to AA.

Recently I read a brilliant book about Schumann by Peter Ostwald called Music and Madness, - a psychological study based on letters and diaries. I nearly laughed out loud to read that Schumann, as a young man, may have had a sexual relationship with William Sterndale Bennett. Immediately, the two young men seemed totally recognisable as people I know now, and I felt a tremendous rush of sympathy for them. It made me want to listen to some Sterndale Bennett as well.

How different to the repulsion I feel (and I seem to be alone in feeling)towards the latest biogs of composers on BBC4, by Christopher Nupen, in which a profoundly reverential tone is taken and the things which influence other people – ‘normal’ people – are ignored – stuff like alcoholism, or child abuse. Psychologically, they are 100 years out of date. Near the end of the Schubert episode, which seemed to be made up of one long close up of the pianist’s right hand (modern piano of course – nothing too real!), Nupen mentioned in a hushed voice that Schubert had contracted syphilis. Now I am shouting at the TV! – When, where, why?? But already he has moved on.

It is this ghastly attitude to dead composers that bedevils the lives of living ones. The lack of compassion towards their everyday existence, the lack of interest from the press as compared to the truly extraordinary interest there is in books and writers, the impoverishment that accompanies the lives of 90% of composers, is only enhanced by this romanticising of the dead. Living composers can only ever be a disappointment.



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