Orchestral manoeuvres

August 22, 1997

Discord reigns among scholars over whether a composer's life is relevant to his music. In North America, meanwhile, new musicologists argue that context is the key to musical meaning. Harriet Swain reports

Schubert was mad. He also had some pretty exotic sexual habits. Samuel Wesley suffered from manic depression. He was a Catholic convert from Methodism's most famous family and led a scandalous private life. Mozart was a child prodigy who died young and in poverty. Oh, and all three wrote music.

Musical biography is the most accessible route into the study of music for the general public and can achieve a popularity akin to literary biography. As such, it is a hard subject for musicologists to attack. It could be the only way their gems of wisdom are ever heard outside the narrow, specialist world of music scholarship. But music is a serious subject and many musicologists disapprove of prurient delving into the lives of the great composers and performers.

Writer and critic Jonathan Keates, who has written a study of Handel, talks of musicologists' fear of "dumbing down". "Inevitably, among musicologists there is a scorn for the general public," he says. "There is a certain resentment about trying to make the composer more accessible."

What may be forgotten is that most musicians get to have their lives described only if their music is already reasonably accessible. Moreover, as John Worthen, professor of D. H. Lawrence studies at Nottingham University, points out: "Most writing is done silently in a room with a piece of paper. Composers often do little apart from write; explorers and politicians are all interesting to biographers because they are doing things. Composers with extravagant private lives are always going to be more interesting than those who just get on with it."

Of course, the kind of detail which biographers and their readers find interesting differs. Recent biographers have begun to pay more attention to the women involved in music either as wives, mothers and muses or as musicians themselves. Nineties interest in sex, homosexuality and overt eroticism has also pushed these issues up the agenda in musical biographies. Such trends have spurred particular interest in Schubert and Tchaikovsky, both of whom supply plenty of suitable material. But to what extent is it relevant to appreciation of their work? Humphrey Carpenter's recent explosive biography of the 20th-century composer Benjamin Britten sparked protests that he dwelt too heavily on private matters. Others argue they would feel happier about Tchaikovsky's music if they were not distracted by knowing so much about his sex life.

Worthen says the context in which the work was produced can aid understanding. Lack of cash or musical commissions, for instance, can explain productive or fallow periods in a musician's life. Heather Hadlock, assistant professor of musicology at Stanford University, has found more romantic influences. She argues that a seminal force in the work of the French composer Hector Louis Berlioz was his first meeting with Harriet Smithson, who later became his wife. He set eyes on Ms Smithson when she played Ophelia at a production of Hamlet in Paris. Not understanding a word she was saying, because it was all in Shakespearean English, he experienced her performance at a spiritual level, which elevated the character she played to an idealised, superhuman figure. This he later translated to his work Death of Ophelia. But, Hadlock suggests, it influenced his approach to other pieces as well. For example, Berlioz insisted that his dramatic symphony Romeo and Juliet carried more weight of meaning than an opera weighed down by words, voices and actual bodies.

Anyone wanting an explanation for Mendelssohn's heart-wrenching String Quartet in F minor, might do well to look to the death of his sister, Fanny, just a few months before, says Keates. But sometimes it is too easy to make the leap from sad event to composition of sad piece. "You have to pull yourself up short and think about other considerations which might have influenced the piece," he says. "But I don't believe you can talk about a work of art as if it just turned up in a crate in an empty room. Works of art have a trigger, not just in inspiration but in events."

Philip Olleson, musicology lecturer at Nottingham, is researching the life of composer and organist Samuel Wesley. He says understanding Wesley's manic depression helps explain how he worked but not what he produced. "It is very obvious that when he was in a manic phase he composed a lot and very fluently and when he was depressed he didn't compose at all. But the music isn't necessarily the music of a man who was in a manic phase."

This brings us to the main difficulty of the musical biographer, which is to explain what the music actually sounds like. Some find this such a problem they barely mention a composer's work at all. Maynard Solomon, author of Mozart: A Life, quotes an entire musical score and leaves his musically literate readers to interpret it for themselves. Musical illiterates have to skip a page. "With novelists it is possible to make links between the events they write about and events in their own life," says Olleson. "You cannot do that with music because, unless it's opera, it's just music."

Music is one of the most interactive arts. It sounds different depending who plays, how they feel at the time, what instruments they are playing, where they are and who the audience is. Each member of that audience will experience it differently too. Some would argue this makes the life of a musician no more relevant to his music than the lives of the people listening to it. They suggest it is pointless looking to biography for an aid to understanding a work. Others would say that the myriad influences which help construct a piece of music and the way it is received mean we need all the help we can get.

The articles here are drawn from papers delivered at the 16th International Congress of the International Musicology Society, in London this week.

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