Life and Other Distractions

The painter Francis Bacon never tired of stressing the importance of avoiding anything in his paintings that implied a narrative. He felt that narrative induced boredom; in contrast, he was interested in conveying the excitement of the fact in itself, devoid of context, full of primary sensation. Bacon denied that he had any intention of conveying a meaning with his images – he wanted the onlooker to absorb the image as it was, without searching for messages.

Paradoxically, interest in Bacon’s biography and the historical context of his paintings grew hugely as he was elevated to the rank of superstar painter. A visit to the recent retrospective at the Tate Gallery will have educated the visitor as to all the gory details of Bacon’s love for violence, alcohol and gambling, thus explaining the often perceived disturbing qualities of his paintings. This at best tacitly implied interpretation of his work goes against everything that Bacon himself stated in his fascinating and extensive comments on his paintings.

Shostakovich is often subjected to a similar treatment. The well versed audience member is aware, or will become aware through the programme notes, of the struggles Shostakovich had with the Stalinist authorities, the direct interventions in his music by Stalin himself and the existential threat he faced on stylistic grounds. The fact that the larger part of his masterworks was composed under these conditions creates a moment of uncertainty: should we regret these conditions and thereby imply that the music is compromised, or should we acknowledge Shostakovich’s triumph over adversity and thereby imply that the difficult conditions he faced were musically superficial? Either way, between the listener and a free and open reception of the music stands a large body of biographical information that may help understand Shostakovich’s life, but that is of little use in appreciating his music.

If we place the work of art in the context of the artist’s biography, what is it that we gain from this? We undoubtedly know more about the artist and can perhaps understand more of the motivations and challenges they faced while creating their works, which is of course in many cases fascinating. To appreciate the contrast between the struggles of Mozart’s later years and the serenity and optimism of his music is to appreciate his achievement as a composer to stand above his circumstances. To learn about the last weeks and days of Tchaikovsky has an influence on how we hear his last Symphony. However, these are purely biographical details – do they tell us anything about the music itself? Are they even helpful in understanding the music? If one knows of the circumstances of Tchaikovsky when hearing the Sixth Symphony, what will one hear? Will one hear a Symphony, or will one hear beautiful background music illustrating a tragic death? However much composers may draw on their life for inspiration in their works, if it had been their life they were telling us about they could have just written an autobiography. But when composers are creating a work of music, surely it is as such that we should approach it? When I write this article, do I wish the reader to consider what I am writing, or to consider my circumstances as an explanation of what I write?

All human beings are to some extent shaped by their background and their experiences, so it will certainly bring us closer to the great composers to know more of their lives. But being closer to the composers does not equate to being closer to their works. The extent to which the creations of humans are directly shaped by the background and experiences of their creators is not at all obvious, and must be at best variable. In some cases there seem to be clear links between the two, but one must first determine on which level one is finding these links. Clearly, if a composer is paid to write symphonies, then the fact that he wrote many symphonies is largely determined. If a composer such as Schumann was gradually losing his mind, it will explain certain features of some of his later works that may otherwise remain puzzling. If Shostakovich had not been threatened by the authorities, he may have composed different music.

However, many of these biographical aspects are uncertain and have been manipulated over time to suit certain images. To draw from general, public facts of a composer’s life to explain subtle features of their music can be very misleading: we know how complex the human personality is and how capable of infinite contradictions – to think that we know someone’s character from a few letters and testimonies would be tantamount to building a palace on quicksand. And to base our interpretation of their works on such foundations would be like taking out a mortgage on such a palace. Equally, it is not at all clear that composers, or artists in general, wish their works to be considered in this light. Whilst some may be in favour, most have not expressed any preference. The assumption that we should judge creations not by themselves but through the lives of their creators has something rather patronizing about it, implying that they have been unable to include in their art all they wish to say. The fact that we know next to nothing about Shakespeare has never stood in the way of appreciating his work, which we have been compelled to digest in isolation. Feverish attempts to cobble together some sort of individual whose (fictional) biography we can then use to better understand his art have never felt quite sufficient. Would anyone seriously claim that a miraculously appearing genuine biography of Shakespeare should change our impressions of his works? Is it not something of a relief when we can immerse ourselves in a drama by Euripides without having to worry about his relations to his parents? Does it not add something to our ability to appreciate his words? It is they alone that we can hear, and their echo in our heads.

A further consideration is whether, having explained the puzzling character of some of Schumann’s later pieces through biographical means, we should be entitled to stop worrying about them. Let us just assume for a moment that new evidence emerges which shows that Schumann was in fact lucid until the end. Does his music then instantly mutate from insane ramblings to inspired avant-garde? What is the difference between the two? Does it lie in the intention of the composer? If he intended to write strange music it is avant-garde, whereas if he was insane it is merely confused? Perhaps the answer lies principally in our perception of the music: if it is beautiful, sophisticated music that seems successful to us then that is what it is, and if it seems incoherent and confused, then that is what it is, for the time being. That it doesn’t seem successful now does not mean it never will, as Beethoven’s late quartets show. Because the biography seems to give an answer, we may become tempted to stop questioning.

This practice of emphasizing biographical or historical details when presenting art has become more prevalent in recent times. Whether it is in explanatory notes by the paintings in a gallery or in programme notes in concerts, or in the helpful chatter of radio or television presenters, we are subject to large amounts of supplementary information in our enjoyment of art. If one examines this information carefully, one often finds that very little of it is pertinent to the specific work that one is listening to or seeing. Why then are we flooded with all these miscellanea?

Many people welcome the personal touch, the knowledge that Beethoven was a real person with a real life. It is fascinating to know that he was quite temperamental and treated even royalty with disdain. Equally, when performers at concerts speak directly to the audience, it is mostly greeted with enthusiasm as a chance to relate to the performer and enjoy the concert in a more relaxed atmosphere. What they actually say is fairly unimportant. Relating to the human beings behind the art is used as a means of forging a relationship with the art itself, much perhaps as politicians know that how they come across personally matters at least as much as what they say. How often have we let our judgement of a politician be determined by our personal impression of him/her? How often has that artificial familiarity concealed, or obscured, a more solid judgement that could have been formed by studying their messages? To draw from our experience with politicians to that with composers may seem arguable or harsh, but it is the same desire for familiarity that shapes both. Whether that acquired familiarity with the persona of the politician, the pianist or the composer is helpful in assessing or enjoying their message is doubtful, and whether that familiarity leads to greater interest in the material of the art work is unclear.

Could it be that this emphasis on biography and the personal touch is growing due to a diminishing knowledge of more technical matters on the part of the audience? It would be hard to argue that a familiarity with Mozart’s life story would be more helpful in understanding and appreciating his string quartets than some knowledge of harmony and sonata form, but the latter are not as easily disseminated in a programme brochure mainly devoted to advertisements. Or could it be that the technical matters are just a little too much like hard work, and in our democratic society we wish to be entertained, not educated – effort, even when later rewarded, is less attractive than the very human pleasure of relating to other humans.

© Béla Hartmann 2009


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