Classical Tyro

A Beginner's Guide to Great Music

Separating the Composer from the Music


I often play Death and Transfiguration by Richard Strauss in my music history classes, using it to demonstrate the characteristics of romanticism and define the concept of a tone poem. It’s a piece of music that my students — whether they are teenagers or adults — seem to enjoy.

How could they not enjoy it? In portraying the transfiguration of a human soul and the metaphorical “white light” that comes after death, it provides orchestral music that might best be described as “spiritual.” It’s guaranteed to raise a few goose bumps and moisten the eyes.

In any case, one of my students recently pointed out that before anyone became too enamored with Strauss's music they should know he cooperated with German Nazis in the 1930s. He dined with Adolf Hitler, socialized with Nazi officials, and served as president of the Reich Music Chamber. Strauss’s defenders point out that he was a reluctant Nazi who was generally apolitical and did not share the Nazi Party’s most disgraceful ideas. In 1935 he was even forced to resign from the Reich Music Chamber for his lack of Aryan loyalty. This defense does little to mollify the victims of Nazism.

Richard Strauss
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

And Strauss was not the only notable composer guilty of objectionable behavior or beliefs. Beethoven’s deranged behavior drove his nephew to attempt suicide. Berlioz attempted to kill the fiancé of his lover. Saint-Saëns enjoyed the companionship of adolescent males and reportedly said, “I am not a homosexual, I am a pederast.”

Fortunately, none of these personal transgressions appear in the music these composers created. Their music has brought beauty and inspiration to generations of concert goers. People’s lives have been transformed by listening to their compositions.

And then there’s Richard Wagner — what a lousy, no good human being. He was greedy and ruthless. He ran from debts and had affairs with his friends' wives. He was racist and viciously anti-Semitic. He regarded himself as a god and once said, “I am not made like other people. I must have brilliance and beauty and light. The world owes me what I need.”

Despite his shameful legacy as a human being Wagner’s music dramas are filled with messages of the redemptive power of love. His work has moved music lovers to believe in the possibility of personal transformation through love and the purity of the human heart.

Wagner
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

So what should I make of all this? Should I never again listen to or enjoy the music of Strauss or Wagner? Should I quit playing music by Saint-Saëns, the pederast, in my music history classes? Should I enjoy works of art created by such misguided, unpleasant, and sometimes evil human beings?

If I decided not to listen to their music, I would only be denying myself some of the greatest music ever composed. And where would I draw the line? Should I abandon Brahms due to his habitual transactions with prostitutes? Should I not be inspired by the Beatles’s recording of “All You Need is Love” because John Lennon mocked people with physical disabilities? Should I avoid music (or any other art) created by someone whose personal behavior or philosophy I find despicable?

I think not. Life is short, and I see no profit in denying myself great music because the person who created it was vile or corrupt. Music not only helps me make it through the day, it sometimes serves as my only salvation during those inevitable dark nights of the soul. If I require my composers to be good and decent human beings, I’m not left with much, if any music, to serve my needs. I must accept that some composers are flawed, imperfect, and sometimes odious creatures who nevertheless can create works of exquisite beauty.

This Sunday (May 22) is Wagner’s 203rd birthday, and I have no desire to commemorate the memory of that loathsome man. I will, however, spend time on the day after his birthday listening to the Overture to
Tannhäuser and Isolde’s “Love-Death” from Tristan and Isolde. No doubt I will enjoy the music, even if it was composed by an abhorrent human being.


Tannhäuser, Overture (Zubin Mehta conducting the New York Philharmonic)


Tristan and Isolde, "Love-Death" (Waltraud Meier under the direction of Daniel Barenboim at Scala Milan)






© 2011 James L. Smith  (originally posted on SonataForm.blogspot.com)

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