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He was born/thinking about composers...

From the earliest days of this website, whenever I would write about composers, I always chose some interesting aspect of their philosophy, their writings, some incident from their lives, or some filter through which we might get a glimpse of them as human beings. With Bach it was something he said about organ playing; with Beethoven, a study of different portraits and the question of image; with Mozart a study of his earliest pieces and a look at how musical logic works by way of a silly game he invented; with Erik Satie, his absurdist writings. This was well before wikipedia and several author sources of biographical information, but there were already plenty of places you could go online to learn about when a composer was born, when they died, and what they wrote that was so important. I didn't see any point in repeating the same thing you could find everywhere else. I wanted my site to be different, not to ask what but to ask why, and how, and get us to think a little about who these people actually were and why it mattered.

So if you wanted to simply find out when a composer was born, and when they died, you might have to look somewhere else.

Somewhere along the way, the listening catalog was born, and with it, over a hundred composers were listed with their dates, which can make the page look a little like a graveyard. Most of the composers represented are dead, after all. And the rest will be...

Some of my teachers had warned me away from beginning essays on persons with the ubiquitous phrase "He was born" on the basis that it was a pretty dull way to begin an essay. It doesn't exactly draw the reader in and make them want to know what you have to say. On the other hand, there are a lot of folks out there who just want to know some basic facts about composers, and these temporal boundaries for their lives seem to be the coin of the realm. Many of us just want to know stuff to pass a test, and simply facts like these tended to dominate education when I was young and maybe still do. It's easier to trade in things that not only can be proven, but proven easily, regurgitated quickly, graded just as fast.

One of my favorite authorial travelling companions, the historian Will Durant (I've read all 11 volumes of his Story of Civilization) will not infrequently begin a discussion of a famous figure with the phrase "he was born." I try not to think less of him because of it: he has a huge story to tell, plenty of space in which to tell it, and there are only so many ways to begin to talk about someone. Also life is short and who knows how many hours he would have wasted trying to be clever all the time. So with a journalist's efficiency, he simply started were most of us do. Much of the time, anyway.

It isn't that that phrase, and the information it represents isn't important. Many people, however, may think it is not. Mozart was born in 1756. Should I care? Why not just enjoy the music? What does that year mean anyway?

And that, I think, is where it can get interesting. Because a year in the story of humanity is never just a year. What was happening in 1756? Who was in charge of what and what were they fighting over? What was the nature of the world into which the composer was born and what shaped their thinking? You have to know a bit of history in order for that number to come alive; otherwise it is just a number.

Beethoven, for instance, was born in 1770. Anybody remember what happened in 1776? How about 1789? Two seismic shifts in the rule of nations. Two stabs at democracy. Brahms was born in 1833. That would have made him 15 in 1848. Any takers for why that might have made an impact?

Suggesting that none of that could have had anything to do with the man's music is a lazy way out. It may ssem to honor the integrity of music as music, not wishing to adulterate it with political events, particularly when the composer was writing a symphony with no program as opposed to a symphony with a year attached, as Shostakovich was to do, explicitly memorializing an uprising that had tragic results. But it really ignores the larger picture and a piece of music's place in it.

A year doesn't just mean politics. It also means style, and fashion. It can tell you, before you hear a note of the music, what kinds of music the composer is likely to have written. Did he live during the Classical period or the Romantic period? If so, does his music sound like the standard ideas of his time or was this person clearly swimming upstream? Were they avant garde or reactionary? Was what they did really unique or just utilitarian? You can figure that out for yourself if you know the history of musical ideas. Otherwise, you can read an essay in which some erudite person tells you these things and you simply swallow them and hope you will remember enough to get through that essay question on the test. But you probably won't own that information, because you bought it retail, and maybe the sleeves don't fit. If you made it yourself, in the furnace of connecting things to each other, that is thinking, you would be far more likely to remember it. Or not have to.

Here's a random example: The French composer Claude Balbastre lived from 1721 to 1799. Isn't that interesting? How did he manage that? Why didn't he die earlier, say from sudden loss of a pretty important part of his body? What was he doing during that time, I wonder? He lived through some interesting times. Obviously some other people did as well; it's not like everybody died in the French Revolution. But he, it turns out, could have been in more danger than most, given his aristocratic background. And he survived. Does that make him someone you want to get to know a little?

He was a person, with thoughts and ideas, joys and fears. Maybe to us he is only a series of sounds, pretty noises from a simpler time because it isn't our time. Unless you get a glimpse into his world, and suddenly, it's not so simple after all.

He was born....into a time and place when life wasn't easy. And he managed to write music that some of us are still listening to. Did it affect the music he wrote? You'd better believe it.

Beethoven writing a heroic symphony and dedicating it to a bringer of democracy who turned out to be an authoritarian, Bach writing a huge Catholic Mass in Protestant Germany, Mozart writing an opera in which the servants get the better of the nobles, Brahms writing a Requiem to a traditional, yet tradition shattering text, you'd better believe these pieces would not exist outside of the times in which they were written. Even the pieces that say merely Symphony no. 29 or Sonata in A Major can't be taken completely out of context. Ever heard of a Mannheim Rocket? It was all the rage at the time when Mozart, wanting to make an impression, began using the musical device in his music. Or the famous Rondo alla Turca. Do you know about the rage for all things Turkish in a Vienna that felt threatened by, and soon would be at war with, the Turkish empire?

There are a lot more sources for information like this now on the web than there were. Often they come in the form of program notes to various piece of music. They can make for some interesting reading. But they aren't just glittering anecdotes. They can make the composers and their music more real. Nobody lives in a vacuum. Their lives are affected by the circumstances in which they live. You were born. You will die. That dash in between is about what you will make of it, and what society will make of it, and what the forces you can't control will make of it, and the ones that you struggle against will make of it. What your parents tried to make of you, and your teachers, and your political leaders, and your friends and those magazines and books you read and those thinkers and those people your heard on the radio and online and on television and those places you lived and the people you just couldn't get along with. That's your life. And for better or worse, at least it's interesting.

Wouldn't you think that the people who wrote what you are listening to are at least that interesting too?


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