If you want to know what composers really think about their art, about the act of creating music, you might ask Bálint Varga.
Bálint spent more than forty years working in the music business and has published interviews with the likes of Lutosławski, Berio, Xenakis and his fellow Hungarian, György Kurtág. In 2011 he put together Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers which conductor Simon Rattle declared to be “necessary reading for all who care about the music of our time.”
His most recent collection of interviews, The Courage of Composers and the Tyranny of Taste, is perhaps his most intriguing. It looks at the courage needed to create something new in the face of audiences’ expectations, in the light of musical tradition, even under totalitarian regimes.
Anyone involved in any sort of creative endeavour will understand Unsuk Chin’s feeling that ‘the very nature of the process of composing…resembles a tightrope act between success and failure – no risk, no gain.” She describes several weeks of staring at a blank piece of paper followed by “sudden breakthroughs – none of which can really be foreseen” and notes that while composing was always complicated, it “seems even more so today, when no binding ‘grammar’ [for example, of functional tonality] exists anymore.”
Then there is the weight of the past, all those who have gone before and the work they produced. What is the point of creating something unless it says something that hasn’t already been said or at least says it in an individual way? The Israeli composer, Chaya Czernowin, mentions that when you write you “hear your teachers’ comments on this or that…[and] have in your head all the pieces you have heard in the past…You have to make a distinction between what others expect of you and what you want to do.”
Finally, there is the courage needed to write music that you know could put you in real danger – not just of ridicule or negative reviews, but imprisonment, banishment or worse. Here’s a chilling story told to Bálint Varga by Péter Eötvös:
The director of the Budapest Music Academy was Ferenc Szabó. He was not only a composer but had also been an officer in the Red Army and was tasked by the Russians to report any suspicious phenomenon in Hungarian cultural life…He was a dangerous man, with the power to have anyone imprisoned if he deemed that the person represented the artistic principles of Western culture.
In the course of one of my examinations at the Academy, I presented one of my compositions to Ferenc Szabó. On detecting in them rather suspect aesthetic principles, this man summoned my professor and questioned him about how and why he had permitted me to compose music of that kind. I never learned what actually happened at that conference – all I know is that on reaching home, Professor Viski’s heart stopped beating. Nobody could prove a direct link between the conference and Viski’s death, it might have been pure coincidence, but in my mind I have always suspected a connection between the two.
What does it mean to create under those circumstances, to fall out of favour with the authorities because your art shows Western tendencies? To be like Czech composer, Miloslav Kabeláč, who, presenting Varga with a number of his scores, suggested he carry them with the title pages turned inward so that nobody in the street could see his name?
Syphilis, alcohol, a broken heart – the notable lives of history’s musical geniuses may have been cut short by such afflictions. Retired surgeon, Jonathan Noble has analysed the fatal illnesses and sometimes mysterious deaths, of the great composers in his new book, That Jealous Demon, My Wretched Health. In this article, he discusses another fatal cause which led to their undoing – the possible freakish accident.
Of the 79 composers studied, 14 had suffered severe accidents, nine of which had been fatal, or were said to be. Three died in wartime. Captain George Butterworth died from a sniper’s bullet at the Somme. Anton Webern was at his daughter’s house when he was shot by a GI, after the Second World War’s end. Enrique Granados was returning to Spain on a passenger ship in 1916, which was torpedoed by a German submarine. He was rescued into a lifeboat, from which he saw his wife struggling in the water. His attempt to rescue her resulted in them both drowning.
Perhaps the most famous accidental death is that of Jean-Baptiste Lully. He dominated an era where conductors usually used a staff, rather than a baton. On an energetic downbeat one day, he drove the pointed end into his foot, which became septic. Gangrene followed and he refused an amputation, dying two months later. The popular view that this changed the development of orchestral conducting is probably tenuous. Sepsis also accounted for the deaths of Alban Berg and Scriabin. The latter’s moustache made Poirot’s seem restrained, and it was during shaving that he cut his lip, which became infected. Recurrences followed and he ultimately died in London after the lancing of an abscess. Berg was stung by a swarm of bees or wasps. Sepsis, to which he was prone, followed and, despite active surgical treatment, he died on Christmas Eve, 1935. One wonders whether Berg and Scriabin might have been diabetic.
Whilst out cycling, Chausson collided with a wall and died of a consequent head injury. It is commonly held that Charles Valentin Alkan was reaching up to retrieve his Talmud from the top of a bookcase which then collapsed upon him, causing his death, possibly from a head injury. The likely truth is more prosaic, with him returning home and collapsing, whereupon the hat stand may also have collapsed across him. The likely cause of death was either a heart attack or a stroke. Whether Nielsen’s first accident moving a piano on the stairs was due to early heart trouble remains uncertain. That his later accident moving scenery was, is very probable. There are two versions of César Franck’s collision with a horse-drawn omnibus, to which his death is often attributed. In a way it is difficult to attribute that death six months later to this episode from which, for a while, he had seemed to recover.
Puccini was a passenger in a car which skidded off the road. Although he rapidly recovered from concussion, his progress following the consequent compound fracture of a shin bone, was stormy. It had to be re-set and subsequently he always limped. A young girl, Dora Manfredi, was engaged to help nurse him, and her consequent tragedy at the hands of Signora, not Signor, Puccini overshadowed the rest of the composer’s life. Prokofiev was also the victim of a car accident, although he eventually recovered from the subsequent head and hand injuries. Mendelssohn’s return home was delayed by two months after a carriage accident in Wales, which gouged out a chunk of flesh from his leg. In that era people lost limbs for less. Probably the most famous vehicular accident of all was when Ravel travelled by a Paris taxi during 1932 and bumped his head. Thereafter, he composed little more than a few songs. The question is raised as to whether banging his head was more serious than apprehended at the time. He thought not. Ravel’s sad, late decline is analysed in my forthcoming book, That Jealous Demon, My Wretched Health. These accidental deaths, like the poisoning of Mozart, the alleged syphilis of Schumann or Britten (and many others), or the supposed suicide of Tchaikovsky, at first sight are like Russia – a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
That Jealous Demon, My Wretched Health: Disease, Death and Composers by Jonathan Noble will be published by Boydell Press in hardback for £25.00 RRP in June 2018.
The life of England’s Greatest Knight as told to his own household minstrel. It may not be 100% accurate but the gist is more than enough! It’s the medieval biography of the man who after great tournament success (he claimed to have beaten over 500 knights), served as warrior, diplomat and statesman to four kings and who at the age of 70 crowned his truly remarkable career with victory at the Battle of Lincoln. Nigel’s translation makes it available in modern prose for the first time.
The greatness of Chrétien de Troyes lay in his inventiveness and his keen awareness of the impact that Arthurian stories could (and did) have on their audience, and his skill in taking myths and folklore and polishing them into elegant tales which some say prefigure the modern novel. Of course, Chrétien died before finishing Perceval but the work inspired others to complete it, resulting in four ‘alternative endings’ written simultaneously by poets with no knowledge of each other’s work. Nigel’s translation makes available not just the first literary appearance of the mysterious Grail but also the first ever translation of the whole of this compelling body of tales.
The Prehistory of King Arthur’s Britain
Perceforest is a monster. Not literally, that would be weird, but in terms of length: this sprawling prehistory of King Arthur’s Britain runs to over a million words. Not surprising then that it’s been relatively under-studied in the past, though happily it now attracts more attention. It begins with the arrival in Britain of Alexander the Great. His follower Perceforest is made king, only to find the country infested by the “evil clan” of Darnant the Enchanter. In the dazzling adventures that follow magic, the supernatural and chivalric ideals all jostle for supremacy, but can a lasting peace be found? Nigel Bryant’s great achievement is to present a version that gives a complete account of every major episode, linking extensive passages of translation, to form an accessible, highly readable version of an extraordinary romance. Bear in mind this abridged version still runs to 640 pages, but thankfully Nigel prepared yet another version as an ideal introduction, A Perceforest Reader, which is available in paperback and eBook.
Let’s switch away, temporarily, from Arthurian literature to this, one of the most important sources for the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War. Jean le Bel was canon of the cathedral at Liège and a great admirer of Edward III – he had actually fought alongside him in Scotland – who wrote from personal experience and eyewitness accounts, determined to record events “as close to the truth as I could, according to what I personally have seen and remembered, and also what I have heard from those who were there”. The result is a strikingly vivid text that gives invaluable insight into the period. In this edition Nigel Bryant provided the first English translation.
Here’s a great way to end this list, with a work that really sums up Nigel’s apparently tireless work and profound skill. The original Grail romances were composed by a number of different writers whose stunningly imaginative works introduced an array of difficult contradictions. Nigel’s great achievement here is to have wrought from them a beautifully readable version of the Grail story in a single, consistent narrative which never fails to capture the wonder and mystery of the originals. It’s a triumph and a real jewel in our list. Nigel Bryant, you are our Arthurian hero!
More Nigel Bryant books can be found here
A composer of musical masterpieces, a controversial king and a conflict-ridden region are just some of the topics in this month’s books to look out for. Take a look at some of our highlights to keep on your radar this May, and we hope you find something that tickles your fancy. Until next time!
Silk in the Pre-Modern World
Silk has long been a global commodity that, because of its exceptional qualities, high value and relative portability, came to be traded over very long distances. The production and consumption of silks spread from China to Japan and Korea and travelled westward as far as India, Persia and the Byzantine Empire, Europe, Africa and the Americas. Threads of Global Desire is the first attempt at considering a global history of silk in the pre-modern era. The book examines the role of silk production and use in various cultures and its relation to everyday and regulatory practices.
Art and the Politics of the Unpolitical
Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) has entered the historical memory as a renowned interpreter of the canon of Austro-German musical masterworks. His extensive legacy of recorded performances of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner is widely regarded as unsurpassed. Yet more than sixty years after his death he remains a controversial figure: the complexities and equivocacy of his high-profile position within the Third Reich still cast a long shadow over his reputation. This book builds an intellectual biography of Furtwängler, probing this ambiguity, through a critical examination of his extensive series of essays, addresses and symphonies.
Volume 1: Nos. 1 to 8 (February 1818 to March 1820)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is recognized the world over as a composer of musical masterpieces exhibiting heroic strength, particularly in the face of his increasing deafness from ca. 1798. These important booklets are here translated into English in their entirety for the first time. Covering a period associated with the revolutionary style of what we call “late Beethoven”, these often lively and compelling conversations are now finally accessible in English for the scholar and Beethoven-lover.
“Searchers and Discoverers”
Flannery O’Connor is one of the most widely read, discussed, and taught of all American authors. Her work, often characterized as “Southern Gothic,” betrays in its focus on morality her devout Roman Catholic faith even as it displays a wicked sense of humor. This book offers the first chronological overview of O’Connor criticism and commentary from the publication of her first novel, Wise Blood, in 1952 to the present.
The work of William Morris (1834-1896) was hugely influenced by the medieval sagas and poetry of Iceland; in particular, they inspired his long poems “The Lovers of Gudrun” and Sigurd the Volsung. This book shows how Morris conceived a unique ideal of heroism through engaging with Icelandic literature. How the sagas and poetry of Iceland were crucial in shaping his view of the best life a man could live and spurring him on in the subsequent passions on which much of his legacy rests.
Transnational Texts from England and France
Alexander the Great – controversial king, conqueror, explorer, and pupil of Aristotle. Aiming to illuminate not only the conqueror’s history but also the fast-changing and complex literary landscape that existed between 1150 and 1350, important Alexander works (the Alexandreis, the Roman d’Alexandre, the Roman de toute chevalerie, and Kyng Alisaunde) are compared with the fortunes of other prestigious inherited tales, such as stories of Arthur and Troy, highlighting the various forms of translatio studii then prevalent across northern France and Britain.
Intimacy and Alienation
The cinema of the German Democratic Republic, (its state-run studio DEFA), portrayed gender and sexuality in complex and contradictory ways. This is the first scholarly collection in English or German to fully address the treatment of gender and sexuality in the productions of DEFA across genres (from shorts and feature films to educational videos, television productions, and documentaries) and in light of social, political, and cultural contexts.
Kawuugulu Musical Performance, Politics, and Storytelling in Buganda
Tuning the Kingdom draws on oral and written accounts, archival research, and musical analysis to examine how the Kawuugulu Clan-Royal Musical Ensemble of the Kingdom of Buganda (arguably the kingdom’s oldest and longest-surviving performance ensemble) has historically managed, structured, modeled, and legitimized power relations among the Baganda people of south-central Uganda.
This collection of essays places the Balkans at the center of European developments, not as a conflict-ridden problem zone, but rather as a full-fledged European region. Contrary to the commonly held perception, contributors to the volume argue, the Balkans did not lag behind the rest of European history, but rather anticipated many (West) European developments in the decades before and after 1900.