December 30, 2007

"Life spans measured in years don’t take into account how fast we live them."

Bernard Holland says, as he looks at the lives of great composers:
Composing at the speed of life (forgive me), Schubert at 31 was like any normal musical genius at 65....

Schubert was ill [in 1827-1828], probably with venereal disease, and knew it. He was also eaten up by too much drinking. Given the time spent sleeping, taking meals, visiting friends and going to concerts, it is a puzzle how Schubert found time to copy all this music out, much less think up what to write. Forty composer-years were lived in about one and a half....

On the other hand, what more would Chopin have produced had his Paris doctors had the anti-consumption drugs that have since rendered tuberculosis sanitariums nearly obsolete?...

Sometimes the spirit outlives the body that houses it. Haydn in old age, broken and exhausted by “The Creation” and “The Seasons,” said musical ideas assaulted him physically when he no longer had the strength to act on them.
Most of us rely on the belief that we will live a long time, and we fail to accomplish things quickly in the energy of youth. There's plenty of time later. But maybe there isn't, or maybe there is, but you won't do much with it. You'll have a different sort of body and mind when you're older, and it may not do those things the younger you had planned for it.

And don't you wish you could be like Haydn, so beset by your own creativity that you feel your ideas are physically assaulting you? It would be sad if you reached the point where you couldn't do anything about those ideas, but how wonderful to know, even as you approached death, that the full force of creativity still lived in you. It is so much more likely that you will feel well enough but find nothing inside you that demands your artistic work.


Mr. Forward said...

"And don't you wish you could be like Haydn, so beset by your own creativity that you feel your ideas are physically assaulting you?"

"Doh", Homer Simpson (slaps forehead)

rhhardin said...

Schubert was ill [in 1827-1828], probably with venereal disease

You hear The Trout quintet in a different light.

hdhouse said...

I taught an undergrad course in Schubert lieder perhaps 35 years ago. One thing I liked about musicology was a chance to demonstrate genius from a pantry chockfull of shinning lights.

So much of his work was a aural picture of city life and a bohemian existence. He simply lived the artist life he depicted. The life expectancy in Europe was about 42-45 years at the time of his death and he died of typhus, consistent with his circumstances.

A lot of musicologists say that if he were living in the 1920s his name would have been Gershwin or Porter and the reverse.

Is this the first thread on a classical composer?

Troy said...

If Schubert had had Las Vegas or the prospect of Baby Boomers paying $200 bucks a seat to see him in his 60s he might have stuck around. He also missed penicillin and CAD (Composers Against Drugs) -- the true path to musical longevity -- by a century.

Bach of course -- is one major exception to the theory of short bursts of youthful energy.

Greg Hlatky said...

Then there are the examples of the late bloomers, whose main creative energy came in the latter parts of their lives. Anton Bruckner wrote no works of importance before 40. Success didn't come to Leoš Janáček until he was nearly 50 with the premiere of "Jenůfa." Havergal Brian wrote his 6th symphony at 72, then went on to compose 26 more in the next 20 years.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you ever want ideas assaulting you physically, in any domain. What do the following people have in common? Georg Cantor, Kurt Gödel, André Bloch, John Nash.

All are mathematicians, and all were institutionalized at some point in their lives.

ricpic said...

The Muse

She's a gusher
If you've got her
Coming up, coming up.
And she won't ever stop.
So there's no need to rush her
Cause she's a gusher
And she won't never ever stop.

That's her promise...if you've got her.

George M. Spencer said...

It is so much more likely that you will feel well enough but find nothing inside you that demands your artistic work.

Tell it to Grandma.

Grandma Moses....

And Robert Plant, too.

Steve M. Galbraith said...

I've always thought an underrated quality of people was how much little sleep they needed each night.

IIRC, Coolidge slept 12 hours each day.

I once had the chance to ask Daniel Boorstin, who has written extensively on Jefferson, about how Jefferson was able to be so astonishly productive. Architect, engineer, botanist, inventor, political scientist, and on and on and on ....

Boorstin said that, apparently, Jefferson would sleep the normal 5-to-8 hours each night (habits) but that he was amazingly disciplined.


So much for my theory.


hdhouse said...

actually troy, bach wrote as consistently and plentifully as schubert but for 50 years instead of 20. he also was the organist and had all preparational duties for the music at the various churchs, chapels and courts in which he was associated....and its been estimated that as much as 1/2 of his output has been lost or played one time and discarded and no one knows if it is the better half.

blake said...

Bach, absolutely.

Ockeghem, I'm pretty sure wrote into his 80s.

Could Beethoven's 10th Symphony have been even greater?

Palladian said...

Then there are composers like Mozart, who died too late rather than too soon.

ricpic said...

I've never understood Mozart worship. Switching gears, it reminds me - Palladian may or may not agree - of Joyce worship.

blake said...

Bach was so good at what he did, they had to invent a new style and deprecate the old.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

All are architects of Fate,
  Working in these walls of Time

For sheer volume, Bach was not alone.  His friend Georg Philipp Telemann has the perhaps dubious honor of having been the most prolific composer of all time.  Telemann had a long life (1681-1767), but he had a relatively late start as a musician, and his output tapered off as he grew old. As a result, during his active years Telemann seemed to have accomplished similar feats of sheer productivity to Bach and Schubert.  Telemann was well-regarded in his time, and was on friendly terms with many musicians, including both Bach and Handel.  He even stood godfather for Bach's second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel.  He also had legal training and a wide range of interests outside of music, so being brilliant and organized perhaps helped him accomplish what he did.

Vivaldi (1678-1741) was no slouch, either, having been one of the age's great violinists as well as a priest.  His output includes 500+ concertos, 46 operas, plus much chamber and sacred music.  Writing all that music did not insulate him from criticism, partly for just having written so much.  J.J. Quantz, (1697-1773) Fredrick the Great's flute teacher and an influential musician, wrote a long book in 1752, ostensibly about flute-playing, but in reality it was almost a general encyclopedia of musical practice.  In it he castigates Vivaldi for sinking into frivolity as a result of "excessive daily composing."

Quantz's remark points to something we may not appreciate with our modern understanding of what it is to be "original."  Composers such as Bach worked within what was almost a musical cosmology.  It was a musical culture that had important devices and traditions that no musician could ignore.

An important element of Baroque musical theory was the idea of musical "figures," derived, in part, from classical theories of rhetoric. These were basic melodic and to a certain extent harmonic formulae appropriate to the "affect" being expressed, similar to the concept of inventio in rhetorical theory.  The proper performance of music, including improvisation, was analogous to elocutio of the rhetoricians.

Bach was certainly an original composer, but his originality derived from his brilliant use of pre-existing musical expressions and forms.  He combined all the currents of European art music at the time into an astonishing synthesis, but he made no attempt to break the mold of either common musical forms or of a fairly standard musical palette of the day.  What he did was write beautiful melodies and mind-boggling contrapuntally-derived harmonies by twisting off-the-shelf material to surprising purposes and bringing the 300-year-old craft of counterpoint to a new perfection.  But it was perfection in the service of musical beauty, and always, in Bach's view, in the service of God.

Bach was original by being a master of his materials, not an iconoclast.

In the elder days of Art,
  Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part;
  For the Gods see everywhere.

But the old Baroque aesthetic was breaking down by Quantz's day.  There were the stirrings of what became the Romantic obsession with personal expression.  Beethoven was three years old when Quantz died, and Haydn and Mozart were in the full flood of their composing lives.  The world was different, and along with simpler styles, there was a slowly-gathering change in the sense of what it meant to be original. Thus Quantz says something of Vivaldi that would not have been thought of 30 years earlier.  And 30 years after Quantz, Beethoven was pounding at the gates of our consciousness, saying things that have not been forgotten since.

Thus alone can we attain
  To those turrets, where the eye
Sees the world as one vast plain,
  And one boundless reach of sky.

Having trained as a composer, I am fascinated by lives of composers.  For composers and writers, I think more than other artists, the knowledge that the moving hand one day will stop, impels, or freezes, or both.  Perhaps it is a comfort to have artistic ideas when the body can no longer express them.  Perhaps it is the torment of hell.  When we are beyond comfort or torment, there remains only the work, whether or not we have had worlds enough and time.

Let us do our work as well,
  Both the unseen and the seen;
Make the house, where Gods may dwell,
  Beautiful, entire, and clean.
Else our lives are incomplete

tjl said...

Theo, you've given us all some food for thought with your insightful comment.