It 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