The Art of Humiliating Dead Composers

May 27, 2009

By Kyle Gann

A student, preparing for her senior recital, asked me how to write program notes, and I knew just what to tell her. I'll pass on my recipe. You need three kinds of sources. First, copy (assuming you can computer-access it) the entire article on the composer from Grove Online, just so you have the accepted skeletal facts in front of you and won't go astray. Next, assuming the composer is moldy enough, check out books of two kinds: an old-fashioned biography, pre-WWII if possible, of the conventional myth-making variety, and then a more recent revisionist book of articles by musicologists, such as the Cambridge guides, or Bard's "So-and-so and His World" series. Then you find the date of composition of the work in question, and look through the old-fashioned biography for some colorful event in the composer's life immediately preceding, if possible, or at least proximate to the piece's creation - say, Saint-Saens's baby falling out of a window, or Brahms jilting that woman he was supposed to marry. Naturally, you lead with that event, not, "Cherubini lived from 1760 to 1842," or "Giuseppi Verdi was the towering figure of 19th-century Italian opera" - both deadly. If the biographical event has some actual connection to the work, all the better, but if not, proximity will do. You then play up the contemporaneous events found in the myth-making biography, but contrast them with some point of revisionism from the recent musicology book, so that you can get credit both for indulging the reader's need for heroism and romantic detail, and also for showing that you're not taken in by the demode illusions of conventional hagiography. For instance, you mention the famous story of Alkan's being crushed by a bookshelf, before letting the reader know it never happened.

Here's the opening of my program note for Cincinnati's Nutcracker Suite. I hate the f-ing piece, and the thought of it turning millions of children against classical music forever turns my stomach, but I found in it a connection to things I actually give a damn about:

Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), of course, was to become a great choreographer and impresario, a supreme figure in the world of ballet. Alexandre Benois (1870-1960) became a painter, graphic designer, and theater designer. All three men were associated with a movement to become known as Mir Iskusstva (The World of Art), which would start its own magazine in 1899 and usher in a new, 20th-century sensibility in Russian art.

What does this have to do with The Nutcracker, that simple staple of Christmas celebrations? According to Russian cultural historian Arkadii Klimovitsky, The Nutcracker (which Tchaikovsky wrote a year later in 1891/92), was the first "opera of miniatures," and its evocation of puppetry, its underlying dark symbolism, its mixture of humans and toys, and even its imitations of 18th-century music were all inspirations behind the aesthetic of Mir Iskusstva. Without The Nutcracker, it is unlikely that Diaghilev, Benois, the dancer Nijinsky, and the composer Igor Stravinsky would have gone on to create the puppet-show ballet Petrushka, one of the seminal ballets of the modern world. Now that we in the West have more open access to Russian scholarship, Tchaikovsky appears to have more direct ties to the formation of 20th-century aesthetics than his reputation as one of the 19th century's great sentimentalists would have suggested.

Tchaikovsky's reputation has changed in other ways, too. In 1891, the same year Tchaikovsky made a tour of America, a Carnegie Hall program presented Brahms, Saint-Saens, and Tchaikovsky as the three greatest living composers. By the end of the century, rumors of Tchaikovsky's homosexuality began to circulate outside Russia, and he came to be thought of in the English-speaking world as a dark, tortured individual, one who may possibly have even committed suicide to avoid scandal and exposure. Recent attention to Tchaikovsky's letters and diaries, however, shows that while he was certainly a deeply sensitive individual, uncomfortable in all but fairly intimate social situations, his sexual orientation was not nearly the burden on him that inheritance of a Victorian moral outlook would lead one to assume.

While homosexual acts were officially illegal in 19th-century Russia, the laws were virtually never enforced, and potential scandals even among the highest nobility were simply overlooked. In 1876, however, at the age of 36, Tchaikovsky decided that his sexual decadence was a bad influence on his likewise homosexual brother Modest, and he decided to marry. Conveniently, he started receiving love letters for a former student, Antonina Miliukova, and after some courtship, they were married on July 6, 1877. The composer quickly realized that he had made a terrible mistake, and that his sexual preference was not something he could change at will. After 21 days, the marriage still unconsummated, he traveled to see his sister, and when he came home in September, he stayed only 12 more days before leaving Antonina forever. (It might correctly be inferred that Antonina had a couple of screws loose, and she indeed ended her life in a mental institution.)....

Of course, I go on to Tchaikovsky's mysterious patroness Nadezhda von Meck, and the guy died soon enough after Nutcracker that I could end by throwing in the allegation about him committing suicide by drinking cholera-contaminated water - before telling the reader that it never happened.

Another effective ploy is to throw in some criticisms of the composer, contemporaneous or current. This has the double effect of making it seem that the composer labored heroically against a lack of appreciation, as all of us do, and also takes classical music down off its pompous pedestal and makes it seem OK to criticize it. The reader can then sympathize with the composer, and is primed to find the music not as bad as people say. For instance, here's what I had fun writing about Saint-Saens, a composer I heartily loathe:

The life of Camille Saint-Saens spans ancient and modern France. [Disappointingly conventional start, but it's a setup.] At the age of 12 he played for the "Citizen King" Louis Philippe, yet he lived to write a cantata about electricity, the first film music by an established composer, and music in praise of the aviators of World War I. Liszt pronounced him the world's greatest organist, and he astonished Wagner and Hans von Bulow by his ability to sight-read the orchestral scores of Tannhauser and Lohengrin at the piano. Thanks in part to their influence, in youth he was more famous in Germany than in France - his opera Samson et Dalila, widely considered his greatest work, was produced in 1877 in Weimar, and not performed in France until 13 years later. In old age, England and America considered him France's greatest composer long after his reputation had begun to fade in his own country.

In short, Saint-Saens stands astride French music like a colossus, but a frail one, and everyone seems to find fault with him. He was a child prodigy who composed at six and played Mozart and Beethoven with an orchestra at ten, leading the older French musical giant Hector Berlioz to remark, "He knows everything but lacks inexperience." Unlike most Romantics - Schumann, Chopin, Wagner, Liszt - Saint-Saens wrote best in the sturdy classical forms of sonata, symphony, and concerto, yet George Bernard Shaw dismissed his music as "graceful knick-knacks and barcarolles" (the barcarolle being a piece that imitates the songs of gondola drivers). The advent of the Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel made Saint-Saens seem like a dinosaur at the end of his life, and he railed against Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune: "I'd soon lose my voice, if I went round witlessly bawling like a faun celebrating his afternoon." Ravel returned the compliment: "If [Saint-Saens] had been making shell-cases during the war, it might have been better for music."

Perhaps Saint-Saens' difficulty in playing nice with others is responsible for the steep decline in his posthumous reputation. It's difficult to decide even how French he seems: extremely so in languorous melodies like "The Swan" and his fairy-like schrezo textures, the least so in his devotion to sonata form and full-bodied contrapuntal textures. (Gounod dubbed him "the French Beethoven.") He did fit, however, into a long and illustrious tradition of French organist-composers, most recently embodied in the late Olivier Messiaen....

And so on. Of course, if the composer is living, it's more difficult, because the only good biographical incidents are either dirty or humiliating, and no living composer will admit to them; in fact, few composers' lives today seem to have much of the really disgusting stuff that makes for good program notes. For Jennifer Higdon I once had to content myself with the fact that she once caught 41 fish in an afternoon's fishing. But I do often get compliments for writing livelier and more absorbing program notes than average, and the tricks I use are easily appropriated. It's a good thing for a young musician to know how to do. Too bad the thought of writing books about conventional repertoire bores me to tears.


Neely Bruce says: Dear Kyle - Great blog, as always. I had discovered several key aspects of your recipe on my own, but you are so much more systematic about it!
On the subject of loathing composers - your intense dislike for Tchaikovsky (Nutcracker, at least) and Saint-Saens (in general) is sincere, I am sure, but you should have a look at (reexamine) the writings of George Bernard Shaw on Gounod and Brahms. I have never read anything so hilariously vitriolic. And both composers were still alive when Shaw wrote this stuff!
BTW, I have a direct pedagogical ancestor in the person of Camille S-S. He lived long enough to be one of the piano teachers of Soulima Stravinsky, my piano teacher at the University of Illinois, 1965-67. Soulima, perhaps out of loyalty, was quite enthusiastic about some of his teacher's music, but I was never convinced. "Loathe" is too strong a word for what I think about CS-S, but the music does bore me in general. I must confess, however, to a genuine love for the Carnival of the Animals. Ditto Samson and Delilah, especially its most flagrantly pseudo-oriental moments.
And you may be distressed to know that when I teach orchestration I have my students buy the Dover reprint of the score to the dreaded Nutcracker. The orchestration is, in a word, perfect--whatever one may think of what is being orchestrated. Shaw, of course, had similar feelings to yours, rather than mine, about Tchaikovsky.
KG replies: Oh, I've been waiting all my life for a critical line to match Shaw's on Brahms's Requiem - "borne patiently only by the corpse." And I'm sure Tchaikovsky's orchestration is perfect. When you don't waste any effort developing your ideas, you have time left over to orchestrate like a demon.

mclaren says: Some of us consider Saint-Saens' Third Symphony the greatest composition of the 19th century. Your mileage may vary.

FCM says: God, such wit, my man...
Never underestimate subtle, intellectual flattery, especially of classical music listeners (or blog readers!)
Great points on program notes.

peter says: "Some of us consider Saint-Saens' Third Symphony the greatest composition of the 19th century."
Is that the same 19th century that Beethoven, Arriaga, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky composed symphonies in?

Copyright 2009 by Kyle Gann

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