Musical Biography Again

The release of the new film Copying Beethoven (a female copyist? Beethoven meets Gary Blackwood’s Shakespeare’s Scribe trilogy meets…Nancy Drew?) occasioned a recent New York Times article about the film in particular and biographizing Beethoven in general, garnished with quotations by Important Scholarly Figures. OK, so author Daniel J. Wakin made the right phone calls; points granted there. How much of this really, helps, though?:

“There is something untouchable about Beethoven, isn’t there?” said Richard Kramer, a musicologist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

[Later, embedding a quote in a paraphrase:]

“Other specifics of Beethoven’s life do not make it easy for filmmakers. Beethoven’s relationships with women were fraught. He loved several but had no lasting bonds, and his sexuality is strangely inaccessible, Dr. Kramer said. In his music, ‘he’s passionate about some things, but you don’t get the voyeur’s sense of entering into Beethoven’s erotic zones.’”

[Not sure that I put that on my holiday gift list, actually. Then, at the end of the article:]

“But what makes this man interesting to the world,” said Lewis Lockwood, a professor of music at Harvard University and a Beethoven biographer, “is the music he wrote.”

Now, I do know how this happens. It’s very easy to strive for the common note, when speaking to a journalist or other non-musician, and simply end up with simplistic pabulum; I’ve done it myself. What’s more, like a lot of academics, I do think that nonspecialists should indeed consult us before rambling on in areas in which their own understanding might be a tad thin, and Wakin has clearly done so. So I’m not inclined to spend more time dissecting the article and its quotations. Yet the bigger question about musical biography remains. What is it about musicians that draws us to them as biographical subjects? Do legendary artists and actors get the same treatment? Not to quite the same extent—at least, that has always been my impression. What about authors? Same again. Why composers, above all?

Some of it has to be the Romantic image of tormented artist listening to the Voices in the ether, letting his personal life go to hell so that he might be mere mortals’ conduit to the Higher Realm. Some of it also has to be, in the words of a friend in undergraduate school, “center stage is sexy.” Does it not seem, ultimately, that there is a certain fatal attraction about music that even the most casual consumer or untrained music fan can still perceive? The elemental, physical appeal (Paganini, rock star working the audience to Dionysian hysteria, etc.) provides an entrée to the musical world that is unavailable in, say, literature or visual art. The iconic Composer is the one who can’t or won’t get out of the grip of the light (moth to a flame or following the white light: either way), making the journey in from whatever music first hooked one as a child to the deepest mysteries of the muses, staying the course despite privation, emotional isolation, and abandonment by the approving crowd. It’s like drug addition (without, of course, the drug addiction): there is something about an individual in grip of something far greater, the indefinable cocktail of agency and helplessness, that draws us back again and again.

I cannot recall if I have said it before in this space, but the only one of the cinematic biographies that I ever really liked (just don’t get me started on Immortal Beloved or Impromptu) was Tous les matins du monde, a French story—with Gérard Depardieu, natch—about composer and viol-player Marin Marais and his relationship with Sainte-Colombe and his daughters. The film followed Marais from highly talented but too self-centered (thus promising but flawed) student, through his personal follies with Sainte-Colombe’s daughter, to glimpses of an old age in which, though surrounded by fawning admirers, he was still somehow tortured by the knowledge that it—music, his talent, n’importe quoi—was all so much greater than his ego had allowed him to explore. There was the sense of real authenticity about it, in other words, a bit of the same torment that Peter Shaffer’s Salieri suffers in encountering Mozart. That is, only the greatest artists can perceive how insignificant they are, or how far they have fallen short of their gifts, while the rest of us do obéissance to them, seeking notice and validation.

That’s a powerful biographical image, and it resonates with the dramas of the Ancients, whether the plays of the Greeks or their afterbeat in Baroque opera. Look upon the mighty, for they feel things at an inconceivable depth. The link between witnesses (i.e. audience) and subject is almost atavistic, because it takes creative artists, to whom we bind ourselves—in an earlier age it would have been gods and powerful sovereigns, all of whom watch over the little people—and shows them to be both seeking to communicate with us, through their music, and entirely above us, unfathomable to our pitiful little minds. Composer as quasi-religious figure, then, mediating between the worlds? That might be why the feet-of-clay aspect has such a fascination of its own, why even someone like Richard Kramer might feel that we might want a “voyeur’s sense of entering into Beethoven’s erotic zones.”

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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