Conduct Their Lives?
by Graeme Garden
One thing that might unite the great composers is a love of the bottle, although that doesn't exactly set them apart from the rest of mankind.
Stravinsky liked a drink. In fact, he often referred to himself as "Stra-whisky" and several stories are told of him disgracing himself. He apparently became very drunk at a dinner in his honor at the White House, when President Kennedy had to escort him to the lavatory, before pouring him into a cab home.
On another occasion, a meeting to discuss a collaboration with the painter Marc Chagall had to be abandoned when Stravinsky was found drunk and nobody was able to wake him.
Yet, when he was composing, his working methods were meticulously neat and his desk was kept obsessively tidy. This might make you wonder whether the wildness of his Rite of Spring came from the intake of drams or from the rigorous intellectual application of theory.
That raises another question: does knowing about the composers help us to understand their music? It is tempting to think that there is an obvious connection between the way a composer lived and the music he wrote (and most of them were "he").
Sadly, this isn't the case. Yes, Wagner was as mad and arrogant as his music, but, on the other hand, it is hard to square Tchaikovsky's bold, lush music with the fact that he was so nervous when he conducted that he felt he had to hold his chin with one hand to stop his head from falling off. And how could a character as complicated as Schubert, wallowing in drink and loose women, contracting syphilis and dying at 31, have written anything as sweet as his Trout Quintet?
It is often said that great composers compose because they have no choice - they simply have to write music. They also do it for the money. After he had written William Tell, Rossini - by then extremely wealthy - gave up and never wrote any more for the remaining 40 years of his life. He apparently had no burning desire to carry on creating, and was no doubt content to sit around eating and making witty comments about fellow composers.
It was Rossini who said: "Wagner has some fine moments, but some dreadful quarters of an hour." After hearing Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz, he observed: "What a good thing it isn't music." And he once remarked: "I have just received a Stilton and a cantata from Cipriano Potter. The cheese was very good."
Perhaps there is a connection between Rossini's wit and his music. In the same way, there is an echo of Gustav Mahler's grim outlook on life in his compositions. Being an obsessive neurotic, he was afraid of composing a ninth symphony. He believed "the fact that Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner died after having touched the number nine in their symphonies makes it a menace."
When he did come to write a ninth symphony, he crossed out the number and called it Das Lied von der Erde. Then he published his 10th symphony, now entitled the ninth, and died.
If it were a simple equation, we could examine the life of a composer and then guess what kind of music he wrote, or we could hear the music and guess what sort of character wrote it. But it doesn't work like that.
Consider Richard Strauss, the infamous composer of the "immoral" Salome and the swaggering 2001 theme tune Also Sprach Zarathustra, loved by the Nazis. At home, Richard was the archetypal henpecked husband. Whenever he came in the front door, his wife, Pauline, made him wipe his feet on three doormats - one wet, one dry and one rubber. Yet Richard stayed faithfully and apparently contentedly in an uneventful marriage. His wife's father owned a brewery.
(edited by David Van Alstyne)
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