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Reliable Biography

StendhalIt is not only the easy access to a vast wealth of internet biographical detail that runs the risk of being misleading; it may be an array of published musical biographies themselves that prove to be unreliable evidence of a life, especially when the biographer is pursuing self interest or bias. Most students realize that they should not rely exclusively on a Wikipedia entry, although this free and often detailed encyclopedia has high and comprehensive standards imposed on its entrants and either insists on plausible verification for the suggested inclusion of facts, or highlights the need for corroboration.
Much that may be misleading is the result of enthusiastic interpretation rather than factual information. One of the most interesting and creative musical biographies was the result of the extraordinary idolization accorded to the composer Rossini by Henri Beyle, the French writer better known as Stendhal (pictured above). Although Beyle’s first encounters with the huge popularity of Rossini’s music were of little interest to him, he gradually developed a fascination that grew into adulation and in 1824 produced an account of excessive flattery, profuse inaccuracies, and strewn with a disastrous weakness for anecdotes and unsupported footnotes. Rossini was 32 when it was published – hadn’t yet written his greatest opera, William Tell – and died 44 years later, outliving Beyle by over 25 years.
There were others who, for reasons best described as opportunistic, created biographies either to please themselves, or to satisfy political, artistic or family sensitivities. Anton Schindler, violinist and conductor, is remembered as a young man who took lodgings with Beethoven, ingratiating himself to a confidential position as secretary, carer and, after the composer’s death, biographer. But his substantial biography is full of manipulated inaccuracy brought about by forgery and the destruction of documentary evidence that failed to uphold his personal objectives. Anselm Hüttenbrenner took charge of many Schubert manuscripts that he recklessly dispersed or destroyed over the next 40 years – perhaps the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony was finished and among them! His carelessness took half a century to inform biographers.
There has been much romantic and imaginative recreation of the lives of some 19th century composers, the flamboyant and infamous Liszt and the often despondent and ailing Chopin being judged suitable subjects for fiction and film. The supposed relationship between Brahms and Schumann’s wife Clara has proved far more intriguing than the reality of his busy yet frequently uneventful personal life, and if one is to credit Wagner with the additional imposition of his many rumored liaisons, it will be difficult to account for his vast volume of music and literary work, extensive travelling and conducting, and the organisation of opera performances he undertook before heart attacks plagued his last five years.
Some ‘lives’ may have been suppressed. Others became the subject of official censorship, and it is certain that versions of the biographies of Prokofiev and Shostakovich have been the subject of dispute. Some insensitivities were hidden behind the conventional silences of the day, like the many instances of syphilis that brought down a host of composers who had been drawn to study in Leipzig in the 1850s and fallen victim to student irresponsibility. Even later in 1935 Eric Fenby, who had rescued the blind and incapacitated Delius from silence by devoting 10 years to work as his amanuensis, was asked by the publishers of his biography not to mention the disease as the cause of death – the result of another reckless time in Leipzig – as it would not go down well with readers.
There may however have been some virtue in the biographer’s caution, for not all the intimate details of a life are either helpful or enlightening. There is nothing illuminating about speculations invented to provide music with a cause, and it is clearly ridiculous to suggest that Vivaldi or Bach were afflicted with indigestion when writing a particularly aggressive piece. But the flights of fancy, the exaggerated claims, fraudulent research and deliberately motivated destruction of evidence are impediments to the free flow of biographical writing. It occurs, and it is necessary to read as widely as possible around the subject, and ask questions, using the instincts of a detective in comparing sources. It is also helpful to take account of the date of a biography, for conventions of reporting differed through the ages.
And then there is autobiography. Well!
Unfortunately this is the last post by Music Curriculum Leader Patric Standford as he died last week suddenly, and unexpectedly. Patric was the driving force behind the composition courses and the OCA was lucky to have him. Patric’s enthusiasm was infectious and I am deeply saddened by the news. Here is a video from 2010 where some of that enthusiasm is evident. Gareth

Posted by author: Patric
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9 thoughts on “Reliable Biography

  • When I wrote my biography of Robert Volkmann I found that there was indeed much biased thinking about this composer by his peers, and even after his death by his grandson. Instead of evaluating his music for themselves much had been assumed and misinterpreted by most including his close friend Brahms who was actually rather scathing of his achievements. Without Volkmann, Brahms could not have developed into the type of composer he was. He built on Volkmann’s achievements. Rather surprising really that he should be so negative – or was it. He liked the adoration that he gained as if having appeared from nowhere, a fully formed genius. Not so to be truthful; he used Volkmann’s work to build on to create his own language, I just hope I did Volkmann proud in what I wrote.
    As for Patric, it was such a shock to hear the sad news of his passing. He was a composer I always greatly admired for his skills and his knowledge. He is of a generation that will not be seen again. A generation of intellectualism but with an emotional and human touch in what they write. Patric was a great ambassador of this idea. His enthusiasm was infectious and will be sorely missed by all who have had the pleasure of meeting, knowing, and working with him.

  • Ditto Andy, I couldn’t have put it better. Patric was a true gentleman that was always very generous with his time and advice, let alone his amazing stories and anecdotes. He’ll be sorely missed.

  • What terrible news, I hadnt checked the web for a couple of weeks. I had just finished music 1 with him last month and he was a really helpful and generous composer and teacher. I was always excited to receive feedback from him on projects and assignments to act on it. No matter how much I had read and worked on an assignment he would always find and give you a few critical points that would allow you to improve the pieces immensely… So valuable.
    Really sad hearing about his passing. My thoughts go with his family.

  • I am deeply saddened to hear of Patric’s passing. He was my music mentor for three separate courses over an eight year span. He was always very constructive in his commentary and I benefitted enormously.

  • I am sorry for the loss. I do share your grief; I am an OCA student- Creative writing. but feel sad as I love music. Someone made a comment on on Orchestras and Conductors it is like hands and gloves. He or she is the pulse of the Orchestra, without their presence is like asking us to have Decembers with out Christmas,or years without the Spring..Billy Cotton James Last, Edmondo Ross, Acker Bilke, Mantovanni…with the sounds of thousand strings,Henry Mancini on films I remember-Charade- Carry Grant, Audrey Hepburn-had she lived she would be 85 today..! Glen Miller… The one very special for me is Albert Fernando Riccardo Semprini I listened to him in Cyprus CBS light Radio programme, as my Aunt came over from London in !957…used to listened together.. I found out that he was then with the BBC Light Radio programme-now Radio 2.. All this time I thought he was Italian born somewhere in Rome or Milan or Naples; Not so! He was Italian alright with a name like that, but his mother was English and Semprini was born in…Bath…on my way to Weston-s-Mare I always thought of his Radio programmes…”Variations on a Boogie”,The theme music from “Exodus”.featuring a very young Paul Newman,. His “Semprini Serenade” every Thursday night 8.40 to 9.30.=25 years ,retired in 1982.He was awarded the O.B.E….he always started fingers feather touching over his piano with the theme from probably his best work” Mediterranean Concerto”He had a houseboat called Hotspur if I remember correctly; He died in 1990 and One or two years later his boat was sold for a cute sum of £99,000. It was then at Mersea Island,in East Anglia. Goodness knows if some Government sold it to some Foreign Company,or Country. One has to agree that Talent has never deserted these Islands…inspite hardships. Who worries about immigration…cross pollination is the name of… the game!.
    Patrick has gone away… his work will be remembered, and to his students memories.. an inspiration.

  • Very sorry to hear of Patric’s death. He was my tutor last year for Composing 1 and as well as appreciating the structure and content of the course I found him a wonderful ‘distant learning’ mentor.
    He was always very encouraging, challenging and good humored and clearly passionate about nurturing and guiding his students. By the end of the course I felt. I’d got to know him quite well despite never meeting !
    Now, working through Composing 2, I am able to appreciate and put to good use his feedback, prodding and encouragement in ways that I probably didn’t properly understand at the time.
    Thank you Patric.
    James Wood

  • Like so many others I am deeply saddened to hear of Patric’s passing. He was my tutor for Composing 1 and was a wonderfully generous and inspiring tutor. I am very thankful to have had the experience of his guidance and encouragement.
    Deborah Johnson

  • I am sorry for all that knew him close and sad as a student, he was a great tutor and he totally changed my musical world with his course and advice. If many of my dreams are musical today, it is thanks to him.

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