Our Classical Bedtime Stories

I write a lot of program notes these days – my work as a classical music annotator is replacing my work as a critic, strangely enough. And in the vast repetitiveness of what people say about classical music, you realize that the lives of the Great Composers are myths, bedtime stories that we tell ourselves to stabilize a certain sanitized, comfortingly simple view of the world. Nadazhda von Meck’s cutting off of patronage to Tchaikovsky in 1890 was one of the crushing blows of his life. Beethoven’s letter to the “Immortal Beloved” brought about a creative crisis and made him realize he would never find happiness with a woman. Sibelius’s involvement in the pro-Finnish language movement wrested him stylistically away from the Germanic composing style. Told that his First Sonata sounded like Beethoven’s Hammerklavier, Brahms responded haughtily, “Any jackass can see that.”

All probably true enough, I suppose. The books can only report what the primary documents say. But you can’t read virtually the same words, the same phrases, over and over in so many reference books and biographies without beginning to think of these as folk tales developed from writer to writer over the decades – and suspecting that some more subtle truth has escaped us. The artist’s psychological life is not so simple that a few phrases repetitiously used are enough to capture it for eternity. I always wonder how Brahms really said, “Any jackass can see that” – angrily? embarrassed? guiltily? good-humored? We are given the mythic assumption that it was a trivial comment to make to a Great Man, but Brahms was young and just as subject to the anxiety of influence as any of us.

Carl Maria von Weber, hearing the first movement of Beethoven’s Seventh, declared that the composer was now “ripe for the madhouse.” You’d think that more than a few people in the history of the world had been declared ripe for the madhouse. But Google those four words, and you will find 32 uses on the internet. 31 of them refer to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. And everyone quotes them – including me.