About Musical Biography


Let me start with a quick tour of what I think I’m doing as a biographer and why, then get to what I can of the how.

I’m a composer who writes scholarly biographies of composers aimed at a wide audience. I hope to write things that can be of interest and use to trained musicians and scholars, to performing musicians, to the mass of readers and music lovers. I think there’s a need for compelling writing from within the profession that casts a broad net. And it seems to me that the point of view of the rare composer who writes about composers can integrate and complement the angles of musicologists and theorists.

I cast a broad net by emphasizing the person behind the notes: his ideals, personality, friends and lovers, his Bildung as the Germans call it—a person’s education and growth not only in knowledge but in life. This all functions within a particular historical moment and zeitgeist. I emphasize the personal not just to grab readers, but because of some convictions about music: the technical and formal elements that occupy us as musicians are important, but more important is the human element, Above all, music is something people do to move and to communicate with other people. To put it another way: music contains abstractions unique to the art, but they are not the real point. Music and musicians are part of the world, not isolated from it.

In the end, the goal is to paint a subject so that he stands up and casts a shadow, so that by the end of the book a reader feels they know this person as they would know a friend or a family member, or at least a long-time acquaintance. That’s how I feel about my subjects: I’m present at the birth, en route I rejoice and regret, criticize and applaud, and end up beside the grave. At the same time, as with friends and acquaintances, you keep your own council, and respect what you don’t and can’t know about another person. In the same way that what your subject doesn’t do or say can be just as revealing as what he or she does do or say, what we can’t know about somebody has to be part of our understanding of them.

I don’t see that there’s anything unusual about what I’m saying, as long as we’re talking about biography in general as distinct from musical biography. In fact, that’s a distinction that on the whole I don’t make. I don’t see how musical biography has to be innately different than any other kind. True, musical biography has its own history and tradition. We also know that this legacy includes a lot of 19th century theories and assumptions that most of us don’t subscribe to, such as the Romantic cult of the Genius as demigod. One way to escape the shibboleths of the past, not the only way but one way, is to say biography is biography: reporting a life to readers, whatever the subject’s occupation.

The technical aspect of music is the main difference between musical biography and, say, literary biography. The average reader can more or less follow a poem but doesn’t know from dominant seventh chords. As scholars, each of us has to deal with this issue based on our particular career, project, and projected audience. As I used to tell my writing students, who you are writing for has much to do with how you write: when we write for experts the technical is naturally more important; for a wider audience you try to find ways of talking about music that are not too technical yet also not flapdoodle. That’s not easy to do, and writing about music doesn’t come easily for me, but unfortunately that’s my job when I’m writing for a broad audience.

So I see myself as a biographer, period. Sort of. Meanwhile I have no doubt that if I weren’t primarily a composer, I’d be talking from here to sundown about “the art of biography.” Since most of my creative juices and ego are involved in composing rather than writing about composers, I don’t define biography as art. For me art is when you make it all up, when you get to play God. Fiction writers, of course, regularly use personal experience in their work. When I first tried writing fiction I was astonished at all the things emerging on the page from my life that I’d forgotten, that I didn’t know I knew. Yet to me a novel is still an invention, one that comes out of imagination working on experience and then goes back to its source: the world according to X.

I believe ultimately composers do the same thing: write from deep personal experience, which includes the experience of music. With any kind of art, if it doesn’t come from your guts it’s not going to reach anybody else’s. Music is no different. But with composers the process of turning life into art is much more veiled and mysterious than with, say, novelists. Much of what a composer writes rises from the history of music and the nature of sound, according to X. Like a novelist’s art but much more so, a composer’s art is involved in traditions of genre and craft, rules of the game, the technique and character of instruments, and so on.

For one example, I know Brahms’s adolescence playing in waterfront dives, where he was abused by the resident prostitutes, influenced his work, because you compose out of everything you are. What I can’t know, unless he had spelled it out, and he didn’t, is how Brahms’s childhood influenced his music. That, I would not presume to say. He did spell out that he believed his abuse influenced his life: he said it wrecked his relations with women, and I duly reported that.

In passing, I’ll note that based on my experience as composer and writer of both fiction and nonfiction, my current metaphor for the relationship of artist and work is a DNA molecule: two strands vitally connected in every part, at the same time individual streams, in some degree each with its own agenda, that can be separated and go off to fertilize something or somebody else.

So I call fiction an art, biography a craft. Because biography is a branch of history, where you can’t play God but have to submit humbly to what’s known, I also think of biography as a kind of higher journalism. Your first and primary job is to report who, what, where, when, and if you can, why. At one point in reading Brahms’s letters to his lifelong love Clara Schumann I found an unusual case of his pressuring her to bring her daughter Julie along on a visit. Only a year or so later did it become clear to Clara that he was in love with her daughter.

In a book, only after I’ve laid out the life as it was lived, the art as the artist conceived it, the art as the audience of its time perceived it (the latter being two quite different things), only then do I allow myself to judge, to gloss, to interpret–much of the time interpret in some quarantined way like an afterword or an endnote. While I resist interpreting an artist’s life, however, I freely interpret his work because it’s there to be responded to, so among other things to be interpreted.

I say biography is higher journalism simply because you have a lot more time to write it than other kinds of journalism, but the goals are similar: get the facts straight as possible, let the facts speak for themselves when possible, let your subjects speak for themselves when possible, and lay out the life in a clear and readable way. Fact and truth are the game, not ideology, and the reality that both fact and truth are unattainable doesn’t change that. Like all artists, in my creative work I’m in the profession of trying to do the impossible–compose as well as Mozart–so that’s a normal state of affairs for me.

As you respect fact as the coin of this particular game, I suggest that a biographer needs to respect the fact of another person’s life–the concrete reality of it, the integrity and also the mystery of it. I have a moral conviction that a person’s life was not lived in order for somebody else to interpret it for their own benefit. I’m not talking about avoiding unpleasant things in your subject; you don’t. The way I honor the reality of a life is to let the facts of somebody’s life and words speak with minimal interference from me.

Now I’m getting around to my title: listening to your subject. In my Brahms and Ives biographies, much of what seems like interpretation is simply an explication of what they said about themselves, however obliquely. With Brahms especially I came to trust his hard-headed common sense and self-knowledge. Brahms didn’t lie to other people and he didn’t lie to himself. When he said in a letter by way of explaining some of the gloom of the Second Symphony, “I am a severely melancholic person,” he knew what he was talking about.

Charles Ives was a different matter. I came to trust his idealism and essential good-heartedness in nearly everything. Even if I found some of his ideas about life and art delusional, they were magnificent delusions, for the best of reasons. He believed, among other things, that humanity was rising inevitably toward divinity, and that music plays an irreplaceable part in in that rise. When it came to Brahms I ended up agreeing with him about a lot of things, and wishing I could agree more with Ives. I wish I could share Ives’s faith in the best side of humanity.

With Beethoven it was yet another matter. I think he was given to not so magnificent illusions and delusions about a lot things, including himself. I found that you can only fully trust Beethoven when it comes to his musical wisdom, skill, and judgment–there you can trust him almost absolutely. In the rest of his life, not so much. In his better moments Beethoven was quite aware of that himself. He once wrote in a letter: “Everything I do outside music is stupid and badly done.” I took him at his word.

In writing I’m guided by no theory and see my subject through no prism except in light of an inevitable limitation that he’s him and I’m me. I start a book by doing anything I can to wipe out of mind everything I think I know about my subject, and start over from scratch. I’ve found that the best insights come from working intensely with the whole of the material you’ve collected. Until then I collect facts with an attempt at zenlike detachment, waiting until the facts start to speak to me–often by way of two or three independent facts coming together and striking a spark. A simple example of facts coming together happened with the Ives biography. Part of the Ives family legend had Lincoln observe to General Grant of George Ives’s band as they marched past, “They say that’s the best band in the army.” That may have happened, but by putting two dates together I realized Ives’s father was not himself there that day—he was home in Connecticut recovering from an injury. He didn’t witness his greatest moment of glory.

The structure of my biographies I call “chronology with hooks”: the life is discovered as it was lived, the way we all discover our lives. Then at certain points it’s logical to bring up larger issues. Charles Ives was pervaded by his childhood in Danbury and the ideas of his band-director father, so I began with chapters about Danbury and its people, its hat-making industry, its bands, about the 19th-century brass-band tradition, about music and the Civil War, above all about the marvelous, eccentric Ives family.

When I looked at Brahms’s Schatzkästlein, the book where as a teenager he wrote down favorite quotes from authors, I saw the writers were mostly high-Romantic: Novalis, Wackenroder, E.T.A. Hoffmann, et al. In other words, Johannes was a very Romantic young man, though not such a Romantic adult. His teenage years were the hook to talk about Romanticism and a Romantic Bildung. When Brahms moved to Vienna, it was time to talk about Vienna–always a gratifying thing to do. With Beethoven, Brahms, and now with Mozart I’m dealing with Vienna in different parts of its history, from the Enlightenment to the fin de siècle.

Because I respect the reality and integrity of my subject’s lives as they lived them, I don’t shape the life into a book. The life shapes the book–my subject’s high points and low, joys and sorrows all given their due, in what approximates their true chronology, their true importance and true proportions, as doggedly if imperfectly as I can discern them. I’ve been accused of rambling, but that’s how it goes. I’d rather my books be more like life and less like literature. And my current favored metaphor for life is an improvisation on themes–often unconscious themes.

Some of the themes of a person’s life are obvious, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Ives’s hometown of Danbury was important to him, so it was important to me. I began the book with an evocation of his town. One of the main themes of Brahms’s life was his early and lasting fame, all the satisfactions, frustrations, and terrors that entailed. His book began with a scene of roaring but ambiguous applause. Beethoven’s ideals came from his youth in Bonn, so I spent a lot of time with the town, its people, its Enlightenment ideals, the Freemasons and Illuminati.

The less obvious themes of a person’s life are the things you notice turning up again and again in the material. With Brahms, it slowly sank in to me that in company his main conversational gambit was to find out the going opinion and then attack it. Brahms was the perennial Devil’s Advocate. If he was around Wagner fans, he lambasted Wagner. If people were running down Wagner, he suddenly became “the best of Wagnerians.” Eventually I realized what he meant by that: he admired Wagner’s music as music, his achievement for its ambition and scope, but dismissed all the hoopla and propaganda with which Wagner buttressed his work.

Again, I don’t write out of any theories. My themes and ideas come from my guy. You keep watch on your subject to find patterns, habits, themes. It’s a bit like watching a spouse, to find the things we need to know in order to live with them. Here’s something that helped me understand biography. Years ago I read a review of a bio of the American writer James Agee that essentially painted him as a monster. The reviewer wondered, if Agee was that bad, why so many people were so fond of him. At the time I was in a writer’s group with Alex Eliot, who was once art critic of Time magazine and knew nearly everybody. I asked Alex about the critic’s question. “Well, it’s pretty simple,” Alex said. “When Jim Agee was sober he was a great guy and everybody loved him. When he was drunk he was a bastard. And he was drunk a lot.” The biographer had apparently never figured out that his subject was a sweet guy at heart but a mean drunk. These are the kinds of fundamental human dynamics that biographers need to figure out–when we can. When we can’t, we should leave it alone, or at least be clear about when we’re speculating.

Of course, often you can’t figure it out. In the end you’ll most likely never find the things locked in a person’s heart that may explain everything about them. Often, surely, that person doesn’t know them either. In movie terms, you rarely find Rosebud–and if you did find it, there’s no guarantee it would explain anything, and if it did explain something, you might not understand the explanation. There’s no answer to this inevitable incapacity of biography, our inability ultimately to know another person, except to note that whatever people do and say and write reveals them in a more than superficial way, if you know how to read the signs. No one can say or write five words without telling you something about themselves. Even though Brahms, for example, was guarded in his letters because he feared they might end up in print, he could not help revealing himself in them.

Which is all to say that you need to listen intently to what your subject says, how he talks, what he means. You listen intently, even if your subject is lying, even if he appears to be nuts. When John Kirkpatrick first met Charles Ives, he happened to use the phrase, “for simplicity’s sake.” Kirkpatrick was horrified to find the word “simplicity” had triggered one of Ives’s fits. Ives jumped to his feet and went on and on excoriating simplicity until, with the cry “God DAMN simplicity,” he fell back exhausted. Kirkpatrick thought he’d killed him. I don’t think Kirkpatrick ever understood why Ives reacted so violently, but I think I do. Simplicity was a word the emerging populist / Americana school of composers was using to belabor Ives and his friends, and he knew it.

Brahms was fascinating to observe as a writer and talker, wonderfully subtle, ironic, sardonic, and funny. When he was most serious and closest to his heart was generally when he was most guarded and oblique, but I think he wanted to be understood. He once noted in a letter, “I only write half sentences. The reader has to fill in the other half.” I felt that nobody had tried to understand the unspoken half of what Brahms said. For example, his crack about the Fourth Symphony: “Oh, once again I’ve just thrown together a bunch of waltzes and polkas.” That’s a joke and a good one, like most of Brahms’s jokes, but it’s also half serious: the Fourth Symphony is largely made of dances, however solemn and mournful, though the scherzo is a kind of polka.

When our subject writes a letter, we need to remember where they are in their lives and to whom they’re writing, what the history is between them. There’s an often-quoted letter Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann where he says, “Passions are not natural to mankind…The man in whom they overstep the limits…should seek medicine for his life and health.” That letter is generally taken as a statement of principles by Brahms, and that’s one dimension of it. But there are other dimensions. The letter was also written to a woman Brahms had in effect recently jilted; in part, he’s exhorting Clara to get over it. And third, it was written to a woman who in fact was given to bouts of hysteria, and Brahms wished Clara could get over that, too.

Now I’m going to present a group of quotes from my three biographies, with my glosses.

Charles Ives, writing supposedly about Hawthorne’s stories but really about his own music: “Not something that happens, but the way something happens.” By that Ives means that, say, the way musical amateurs sing a hymn or play a march, for all its roughness, is an expression of something deeply felt. For Ives the “something” is, say, the musical notes on the page, but they are only the outward symbol of a fundamental inner reality—call it psychology, call it spirit. The roughness itself, the way a piece is sung or played by everyday people including the wrong notes, is part of the real music. Drunk bandsmen on the march at the Fourth of July parade might fall off the beat or forget the key, but to Ives that was as vital a part of the music as the notes, all of it rising from the human heart and soul. As Ives wrote of amateur town bands: “They didn’t always play right & together and it was as good either way.” For Ives not the notes of a hymn but the way they come out of people’s mouths and feelings is a symbol of the eternal spirit at the core of humanity.

Johannes Brahms, telling a friend how he replied to Nietzsche concerning the latter’s Hymn
of Life, which the philosopher had sent him hoping for praise. Brahms told a friend that it was “much the same as any young student’s effort.” But later, to the same friend: “I’ve done it! I’ve extricated myself beautifully from this Nietzsche business! I simply sent him my visiting card and thanked him politely for the stimulus he had given me. The amusing thing is that I quietly avoided mentioning the music at all!”

Now Brahms to Clara Schumann, concerning Eduard Hanslick’s celebrated tract On Beauty in Music: “I found so many stupid things on first glance that I gave it up.” Now Brahms to Eduard Hanslick, concerning On Beauty in Music: “I must also send you my most sincere thanks for your book Beauty in Music, to which I owe many hours of enjoyment, of clarification, indeed literally of relief. Every page invites one to build further on what has been said, and since in doing so…the motives are the main thing, one always owes you double the pleasure. But for the person who understands his art in this manner, there are things to be done everywhere in our art and science, and I will wish we might soon be blessed with such excellent instruction on other subjects.”

Have we caught Brahms being a hypocrite? Political maybe, but not hypocritical. Brahms was a relentlessly and sometimes brutally honest man. But after all, Hanslick was not just a personal friend of Brahms; he was the most powerful music critic in Europe. I came to realize that like the note to Nietzsche, but on a grander scale, the letter to Hanslick is a masterpiece of Brahmsian irony. Some translations: “Every page invites one to build further [you don’t go very far ]…the motives are the main thing [I know you mean well]…I wish we might soon be blessed with such excellent instruction on other subjects [Don’t do this kind of thing anymore, you’re not any good at it].”

In both cases the letters did the trick: Hanslick proudly quoted his letter in a memoir, and Nietzsche went about telling people his tune had received “deep signs of respect from Dr. Brahms.” One can hear Brahms’s lusty laughter. He was, by the way, an imaginative practical joker. At one point he convinced his musicologist friend Gustav Nottebohm that he had stumbled on a new sketch by Beethoven, wrapped around a sausage in the park. It was a current pop song, written on old music paper by Brahms in an expert imitation of Beethoven’s handwriting. He had paid the sausage-seller to give it to Nottebohm. Likely he dined out on that story for a long time.

Charles Ives, introducing his collection 114 Songs: “Greek philosophers, ward politicians, unmasked laymen, and others, have a saying that bad habits and bad gardens grow to the unintendedables; whether these are a kind of daucus carota, jails, mechanistic theories of life, is not known, but the statement is probably or probably not true.” Daucus carota is the species name of the common carrot. The sentence is just like one of Ives’s more riotous pieces: an accumulation of things piling up rapidly to a final punchline, and that punchline “probably or probably not true” shows his love of paradox. He’s basically saying that the songs have gotten so out of hand that he has to get them out of the house. The sentence also shows how gnarled, oblique, and apologetic Ives could get when presenting his music to the world. Meanwhile it further reveals that in his music, prose, and person Ives was a very funny guy, in a kind of proto-surrealistic way. He once sent a hilarious letter actually to his daughter, but written to “Raggedy Ann Ives,” who was Edie’s doll.

Brahms, writing to his publisher Simrock to ask for an advance: “The so-often-praised goodness and charity of your Well-bornship give me the courage to approach you with a great proposition. My situation is terrible, a horrifying future stares me in the face; the abyss appears yawning before me, I fall therein unless your saving hand draws me back. With the last one-mark note I must now proceed at once to the Igel restaurant, but with what feelings shall I eat, and indeed, drink!” Brahms was also very funny, generally at somebody’s expense though often at his own expense, and there was usually something serious concealed behind the joke. When he was rehearsing one of his quartets the violist asked if he liked their tempos. “Yes,” Brahms said. “Especially yours.”

Beethoven, four letters from a single month, August 1819:

[To his patron Archduke Rudolf] “The persistent worries connected with my nephew [Karl] who has been morally almost completely ruined are largely the cause of my indisposition. At the beginning of this week I myself had again to assume the guardianship, for the other guardian had resigned after perpetrating a good many misdemeanors for which he has asked me to pardon him.” Beethoven had adopted the son of his late brother and was trying to keep him away from his mother, whom he called “The Queen of the Night.”

[To a Viennese acquaintance] “Recently an attempt was made to make my nephew appear before a commission. That I cannot possibly allow. He is innocent and that I can testify so far as he is concerned. The meager support which the guardian I appointed received…coupled with the mother’s wicked intrigues is the only reason why my poor nephew and ward has been put back in his studies for a whole year.” [This is one of Beethoven’s rare accusations of Karl’s mother that was likely true. He considered her capable of anything, not omitting hiring herself as a prostitute and poisoning her husband. She was, to be sure, a piece of work.]

[To another acquaintance] “The best thing would be to resign the guardianship without choosing anyone and to leave Karl entirely to his fate. For already he is an utter scamp and is most fit for the company of his own mother and my pseudo-brother.”

[To Archduke Rudolf] “In the world of art, as in the whole of our great creation, freedom and progress are the main objectives. And although we moderns are not quite as far advanced in solidity as our ancestors, yet the refinement of our customs has enlarged many of our conceptions as well.”

Whether he is being idealistic, paranoid, or at wit’s end, Beethoven’s language is direct,
concrete, uncensored, and without irony (except occasional blunt and bitter irony). Yet
because of his capriciousness, much of what he says can’t be taken at face value.

There’s much more to be said but I have to finish somewhere, so I’ll do that with a few bits of ideas. I’ve spoken about writing with respect for the life as it was lived, and reporting that life clearly, fairly, and fully. I add that anyone’s life is not mainly lived in ideas and abstractions but in feelings. Feelings are facts too; feelings are an important part of the story. For me, the function of writing is to be clear and readable, but also to convey the emotions of your story so that the reader understands them. Many of the emotions are obvious: Brahms loved his mother, he was sad when she died. You don’t need a citation to know these things, you only have to be human. His mother was important to Brahms, and what’s important to my subject is important to me. Somebody once took me to task for talking so much about Ives’s illness: “He was an executive, executives get heart attacks, it’s boring.” All I could say was that Ives was seriously ill and that had much to do with his later life and career, so I had to report it.

So the form and style of my subject’s life is the form and style of my book, their themes my themes. Charles Ives was involved in music, philosophy, aesthetics, politics, business, family, and more. To get all that in, and to project the eccentricity and the paradoxes of that all-embracing man, I resorted to three kinds of chapters, occasional imagined episodes, and endnotes of all kinds, not omitting an illustrative story about my highschool band: we set out playing the Star-Spangled Banner in two keys at once, with Ivesian results. Ives believed that one should stand up and say one’s piece as an individual, and in my endnotes, I did. Meanwhile in his music Ives wrote what he called “shadow lines,” and the endnotes were the shadow text of my biography of him. That was my Ivesian book about Ives.

The challenge of writing about Brahms was that except for some dramatic post-adolescent years and a tragic end of life, because everyone’s life ends tragically, Brahms did relatively little but write music, perform music, hang out in cafes and taverns, visit brothels, and fight with his friends. He lived in other words an exemplary composer’s life. In contrast to Ives there was an enormous literature about Brahms’s music, and I felt his work was generally well understood. What I felt was not well understood was his personality, so I concentrated on that. My Brahmsian book about Brahms was a straightforward, hard-headed, craftsmanly affair, with well-behaved endnotes. Some were disappointed in that book because they assumed the Ives was “the way I write biography,” and the Brahms isn’t like that. But there is no way I write biography. There is only the subject at hand.

With Beethoven I was haunted by his words about being the most wretched of mortals. His life was heaped with misery and for him it was only made endurable and meaningful by music. In my book about Beethoven his music had to redeem his life and make it bearable. Thus the subtitle: Anguish and Triumph.

Which is all to say that when I’d finished the Ives book I ran across a line of philosopher Stanley Cavell’s that expressed the method I’d instinctively arrived at. I think it’s a good way to conceive biography and a lot else, and a good way to end here. Cavell said: “The way to overcome theory correctly…is to let the object of your interest teach you how to conceive it.”


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