If I Like His Music, Must I Like Its Composer?

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dulcinea
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If I Like His Music, Must I Like Its Composer?

Post by dulcinea » Wed Jan 10, 2007 6:00 pm

A particularly caustic Internet acquaintance says that the REAL reason for which so many people prefer long-dead composers to live ones is that, with dead composers, they don't run the risk of meeting them in the flesh and personally discovering how so many of them, such as Gesualdo and Wagner, were truly rotten human beings with absolutely repulsive personalities. Stravinskii's weakness for liquor, for ex, no longer influences their judgment of THE RITE OF SPRING, and they can enjoy Chaikovskii and Cole Porter better because they will never have to handle the touchy issue of their homosexuality. How does this prime example of cynicism sit with you?
Let every thing that has breath praise the Lord! Alleluya!

piston
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Post by piston » Wed Jan 10, 2007 6:23 pm

A good one, Dulcinea! I'll take a stab at it but do reserve the right to tackle this cynical remark again, after further reflexion. I have read Volkov's Testimony where Shostakovich voices a lot of opinions on a variety of composers, artists, etc. He was not particularly fond of Prokofiev and, apparently, could not easily separate emotion from reason in his remarks about an individual who was more popular than him during his life time. Does Prokofiev's opportunism bother me? Not if the music is good, even if he had monetary purposes in mind. Debussy offers another interesting example. He spoke very negatively about Grieg's music because, in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair in France, Grieg refused an invitation to perform his music in that country, for humanitarian reasons! Debussy, whose music hardly speaks of "nationalism" may have shown himself to be more nationalist here than Grieg!! Does that bother me? Not a bit, because both composers were the focus of so much attention that the slightest moment of weakness, along with their respective strengths, was being recorded for posterity. To the cynical observer I can only reply: First achieve greatness and then let's see to what extent your flaws will undermine your image.
In the eyes of those lovers of perfection, a work is never finished—a word that for them has no sense—but abandoned....(Paul Valéry)

burnitdown
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Post by burnitdown » Wed Jan 10, 2007 7:00 pm

I always separate composer (human piece of meat) from works (product of mind). The human is too fallible. The brain, less so.

Nationalism is healthy. deBussy rocks. What's the connection?

piston
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Post by piston » Wed Jan 10, 2007 7:28 pm

Both of them "rock" but Debussy wasn't listening to music when he assessed Grieg's work in the newspaper. He was responding to the defensive urge of protecting the reputation of the State of France. That's the connection.
In the eyes of those lovers of perfection, a work is never finished—a word that for them has no sense—but abandoned....(Paul Valéry)

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Post by Ralph » Wed Jan 10, 2007 7:47 pm

Very few people ever encounter composers personally so their character traits are known, or surmised, solely through various media. It's the music that determines attraction - and many long dead composers gave us works of timeless beauty or, at least, interest.
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felino
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Post by felino » Wed Jan 10, 2007 9:53 pm

This reminds me of the Woody Allen movie "Bullets over Broadway". To my eyes, all the films is about (in my words): "Do you love the man for his art, or for the person he is", and that "no artist is recognized as such during his life".

Personally I separate the composer from his music, his creativity. Not because they had (some) eccentricity I will diminish/dislike his/her work. A good composition is born an lives timeless, regardless of the composer/person behind. I try not to put everything in the same sack. If I want someone as an life example (Gandhi comes to my mind), then I look for it. When I look for good music, I do the same, no matter the creator behind, and it doesn't bother me if he was different from what I consider "civilized".

Modernistfan
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Post by Modernistfan » Thu Jan 11, 2007 1:05 am

This is a very difficult and interesting question.

Of course, Exhibit A in this area is, as always, Wagner. The interesting thing is that, despite Wagner's antisemitism, a large proportion of his best interpreters have been Jewish: Mahler, Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Solti, Levine, Barenboim, and many other conductors. Right now there is a new Ring cycle coming out to high praise from Australia in SACD; the conductor is a young Israeli, Ascher Fisch. Presumably, these conductors can separate the worth of the music from the repulsive aspects of Wagner's personality, which repulsive aspects were by no means limited to his antisemitism.

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Re: If I Like His Music, Must I Like Its Composer?

Post by david johnson » Thu Jan 11, 2007 5:05 am

dulcinea wrote:A particularly caustic Internet acquaintance says that the REAL reason for which so many people prefer long-dead composers to live ones is that, with dead composers, they don't run the risk of meeting them in the flesh and personally discovering how so many of them, such as Gesualdo and Wagner, were truly rotten human beings with absolutely repulsive personalities. Stravinskii's weakness for liquor, for ex, no longer influences their judgment of THE RITE OF SPRING, and they can enjoy Chaikovskii and Cole Porter better because they will never have to handle the touchy issue of their homosexuality. How does this prime example of cynicism sit with you?
this commenter should speak for himself only. he does not display the competence to speak for me.

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greymouse
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Post by greymouse » Thu Jan 11, 2007 10:28 am

I don't agree with dulcinea's acquaintance. I think the reason people prefer dead composers is because at this point in time their style is more popular among classical audiences. There's been controversy in accepting many of the strands in the 20th century, but pre-20th century is more widely embraced by all. It's a thing of many listeners finding atonal music noisy, irritating, or whatever.

I think people do account for the personality of dead composers somewhat. Basically, mostly Wagner. Since he went so over the top, some just can't listen to his stuff out of disgust and I can respect that. Personally, I'm used to many of my artistic heroes having repulsive personalities, so it doesn't bother me to listen to Wagner.

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Post by lmpower » Thu Jan 11, 2007 12:51 pm

If you like a composer's music, there must be some aspect of his personality that is compatible with some aspect of your personality. That doesn't mean you have to approve of all his bad habits. I feel a deep sympathy with Brahms, but I don't like cigars or breaking off his engagement with Amalie Sieboldt the way he did. It's true that Wagner is usually taken as the poster boy for great, obnoxious composers. He was an anti-semitic, adulterous, narcissistic megalomaniac, but I don't think he could have created Meistersinger or Parsifal without having some good in him. I don't think anti-semitism is a core personality trait. I think it is part of the unfortunate human need to find a scapegoat or the butt of one's scorn. I'm not sure it's wise to establish one criterion as the litmus test for whether someone is acceptable into the human race, though I deplore sociopathic cruelty.

dulcinea
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Post by dulcinea » Fri Jan 12, 2007 3:45 pm

[quote="lmpower"]If you like a composer's music, there must be some aspect of his personality that is compatible with some aspect of your personality. That doesn't mean you have to approve of all his bad habits. I feel a deep sympathy with Brahms, but I don't like cigars or breaking off his engagement with Amalie Sieboldt the way he did. It's true that Wagner is usually taken as the poster boy for great, obnoxious composers. He was an anti-semitic, adulterous, narcissistic megalomaniac, but I don't think he could have created Meistersinger or Parsifal without having some good in him. I am very disturbed by W's ingratitude towards Meyerbeer, who helped him so much at the start of his career. Having actually heard L'AFRICAINE and LES HUGUENOTS, W's claim that GM's music is cheap and shallow does not convince me; methinks W was simply jealous of Meyerbeer's popular success.
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burnitdown
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Post by burnitdown » Fri Jan 12, 2007 7:27 pm

felino wrote:This reminds me of the Woody Allen
Yep, regardless of what one thinks of his child-molesting activities and bizarre perversity, his movies are... well, if you like them, they're great.

miranda
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Post by miranda » Fri Jan 12, 2007 8:54 pm

This phenomenon, as has been noted, is not limited to classical composers, dead or alive. Miles Davis, Ike Turner, James Brown, and Richard Pryor beat women, and so did Jimi Hendrix. HR, of the punk band Bad Brains, was, and probably still is, viruently homophobic. Edgar Allan Poe was a bad-tempered alcoholic who married his teenaged cousin. Jean Genet was a petty thief, and served time in jail, as did Reinaldo Arenas (although for nothing more than being poor, gay, and writing sexually explicit books under Castro's regime). William S. Burroughs shot his own wife in a tragic and stupid accident. Chet Baker, Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Parker, and Hank Williams, Sr., were all addicts and notoriously difficult a**holes to deal with. I think Robert Downey, Jr. is a brilliant actor, but he's manic-depressive and his life has been a trainwreck. J.G. Thirlwell, of the industrial band Foetus, is an alcoholic--or used to be. Lydia Lunch, punk chanteuse, has detailed some truly horrible things she's done in her memoir. I would like to have met all of these people, and many more besides, if only to say, thank you for the creative material you have shared with the world. All these artists, and many more, have enlightened and enriched me beyond compare, and because of that, I don't give a damn what they did in their personal lives. I separate the art from the artist; if I didn't, I'd be much the poorer for it.

my apologies for straying off the topic, but...
dulcinea, i think your friend is full of b.s.
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lmpower
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Post by lmpower » Sat Jan 13, 2007 10:30 am

I wonder if Wagner's reluctance to acknowledge Meyerbeer fueled his antisemitism. Beethoven was even a little reluctant to acknowledge his debt to Haydn. I'm sure they both felt uneasy being compared to an older master, but they both eventually surpassed their illustrious predecessor.

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Re: If I Like His Music, Must I Like Its Composer?

Post by DavidRoss » Sat Jan 13, 2007 12:11 pm

dulcinea wrote:A particularly caustic Internet acquaintance says that the REAL reason for which so many people prefer long-dead composers to live ones is that, with dead composers, they don't run the risk of meeting them in the flesh and personally discovering how so many of them, such as Gesualdo and Wagner, were truly rotten human beings with absolutely repulsive personalities. Stravinskii's weakness for liquor, for ex, no longer influences their judgment of THE RITE OF SPRING, and they can enjoy Chaikovskii and Cole Porter better because they will never have to handle the touchy issue of their homosexuality. How does this prime example of cynicism sit with you?
Such a preposterous claim must be meant merely to provoke the humorless.
"Most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives." ~Leo Tolstoy

"It is the highest form of self-respect to admit our errors and mistakes and make amends for them. To make a mistake is only an error in judgment, but to adhere to it when it is discovered shows infirmity of character." ~Dale Turner

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Post by jbuck919 » Sat Jan 13, 2007 3:42 pm

Confusing artistic achievement with the character of the composer is not limited to composers of bad character. If we were to consider Bach just as a person, he was a saturnine figure. avuncular, uxorious, somewhat irrascible, given to pietistic Lutheranism with no pretenses that would have meant anything to the cultured class in his time. Nothing about his character could possibly prepare us for the still unfathomable depths and breadths of his art.

I waited this long to post because my inspiration was hearing a performance of the B minor partita for solo violin.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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