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Too little music, too much politics
on 9 September 2010
It's "The Lives and Times of the Great Composers". Not "The Lives and Works of the Great Composers". There's a significant difference. As Michael Steen points out in his introduction:-
"The art of Biography
Is different from Musicography.
Musicography is about cellos
But Biography is about fellows".
This is very much a book about fellows; it is certainly not an introduction to classical music for the beginner, but appears to be written for those who are already familiar with the Classical repertoire and want to know more about the personal lives of those who wrote it. It is essentially a series of potted biographies of famous composers, concentrating less on their works than on their finances and their love lives and also, often, on the political background against which they wrote. That phrase "and Times" in the title is significant too; Steen clearly has a good knowledge of European political history and wants to make maximum use of it.
It is always going to be a matter of debate which composers deserve the label "great", and fashions in musical greatness tend to vary over the years. Bach's music was regarded as unfashionable for nearly a century after his death. Mozart was not venerated in the late nineteenth century in the way he is today. It is unlikely that a book with this title published fifty years earlier would have included Mahler; today it would be virtually impossible to exclude him.
Steen's emphasis in this book is very much on the nineteenth century, possibly reflecting his own personal preferences. The Baroque period is represented by Handel and Bach alone, and then it's straight on to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Even a figure as familiar to the modern concert-goer as Vivaldi is omitted. Only two composers born after 1900 (Britten and Shostakovich) are covered at all, and no composer born in the final third of the nineteenth century has a whole chapter dedicated to him. Modernist atonal composers are omitted altogether. Even among nineteenth century composers there are some surprises, with Bruckner possibly the most surprising omission and Scriabin the most surprising inclusion (apart from the minor members of the Russian "mighty handful" who get in by association with the likes of Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov). The entries on some big names are surprisingly brief; Dvorak, for example, is lumped in with Smetana, Janacek and Bartok as a "Central European Nationalist", although that may be less a reflection on the quality of his music than on the fact that his life was not very eventful.
Any music-lover will be able to think of his own particular favourite whom he would like to have seen included, but that is not really a criticism of the book. Any attempt to increase the number of composers covered would have either led to the book becoming impossibly bulky or to a reduction in the length of individual entries, which would have made it indistinguishable from a biographical dictionary. My own criticism would be that I would have liked to have seen more about music and less about politics. To take an example, was it really necessary to take up three of the ten pages devoted to Edvard Grieg with a discussion of the Dreyfus affair? (His Piano concerto, however, possibly his greatest work, only merits a few lines). Steen's justification for bringing French politics into a discussion of a Norwegian composer was that Grieg played a very minor part in this affair, refusing an invitation to conduct in Paris in protest at the way Dreyfus had been treated. Oddly, however, Steen ignores altogether Grieg's support for Norway's independence from Sweden, something achieved two years before his death.
Events such as the War of the Austrian Succession or the Crimean War may be of great interest in themselves, but here they are given more prominence than one might expect in a book on music. I felt that political matters like these only needed to be dealt with in depth where composers were directly caught up in them (e.g. Wagner's participation in the 1848 revolutions) or where they directly affected their music. Beethoven's music, for example, would doubtless have been very different had there been no French Revolution or Napoleonic Wars, and one cannot understand Shostakovich without reference to Soviet cultural politics.
Although Steen states that detailed musical analysis was beyond the scope of his book, there are times when I felt there should have been a greater emphasis on the music written by his subjects. To take an example, I would not have expected in a book of this nature a lengthy disquisition on all five movements of Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony", but I would have welcomed a mention of the fact that Beethoven wrote it, if only because the fact that he had a deep love of nature and was inspired by that love to write one of his finest works would have acted as an antidote to the general picture given of Beethoven as a grumpy, reclusive, drink-sodden misanthrope.
Beethoven is not alone in having a negative picture drawn of his character; a lot of others come off equally badly. Steen writes of Puccini that, apart from Janacek, he is "probably the least likeable of all the composers described in this book", but does not say why he finds either man so obnoxious. (To be less likeable than Wagner is no mean feat, and if Steen's allegations about Tchaikovsky are correct he was not only a deeply unhappy man but also a deeply unpleasant one). Certainly, both Puccini and Janacek were serial womanisers, and compulsively unfaithful to their wives, but they were far from being alone in that. Indeed, miserably unhappy marriages are a recurring theme in this book, Elgar being singled out as a rare exception. Sometimes I felt that it was the wives who the subject of unfair criticism. Steen writes of Berlioz being "caught between two dreadful women"; this may be true of his mistress Marie Recio, but I have always felt sorry for his wife Harriet. Someone should have taken her on one side and told her that a man who writes a programme symphony depicting, inter alia, his own execution on a charge of uxoricide is unlikely to prove an ideal husband.
There were a few errors, most surprising being the statement that Mahler completed his tenth symphony, which was famously left unfinished at his death. The French president who sent troops to Rome in 1849 was Louis Napoleon, not Cavaignac, and Mussorgsky's birthplace Karevo is 250 miles south-east of St Petersburg, not south-west (which would place it in Latvia).
Overall there is a lot of useful biographical information in this book, but I felt that Steen fell into the same trap as Bill Bryson did when writing about scientists in his recent " Short History of Nearly Everything", that of writing about famous men with insufficient reference to what they did to become famous. The subjects of this book are, after all, famous because of the music they wrote, not because of their personal eccentricities or the number of women they slept with.