Tuesday, February 19, 2013

School for Scandal

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A while back, someone posted an interesting question to the ChoralNet forum. Here it is, slightly edited for length and clarity:

I am trying to get my creative juices flowing for a concert theme for my chamber choir ― and bought a very interesting book last week. It is about royal scand[a]ls through history ― Henry II of England's famous temper, Roman Emperors and their “fondness” for their mothers ― you get the idea. It struck me, it might be interesting to have a concert of music by composers who were, um, “characters?” ― my favorite being Gesualdo, eventho a grad school music history prof claimed [that] all the kerfuffle was a legend. Despite [it’s] being a “legend”, I know we will do some of his madrigals. Brahms visited houses of ill repute (waiting for Clara?), so I may include him. Who should I include in my concert of composers of questionable morals? I don't care too much about pieces yet, I can hunt them down myself, I just want names and stories good enough for the [tabloids]. I want temper tantrums, back stabbing (literally and figur[a]tively) and cheating husbands (and wives ― Carlo G. and his wifey weren't exactly angels, were they?). Bawdy house visits ― gossipy stuff that would make the tabloids. Folks believe composers to be saints and I want to show they had foilbles [sic] ― even in Renaissance Italy― and were as interesting in their time as [contemporary celebrities]. Perhaps I'm reaching but I may discover something new. Who would you include in a program such as this and what would you call it ― crazies/devils/villians [sic] in music history? I hope this [query] generates some lively music history tidbits.

http://www.choralnet.org/view/266550?chron=0
Somehow this just struck me as mean-spirited. And that one phrase: “I don't care too much about pieces yet…I just want names and stories” made me wonder if this proposed program would be more about scandal and less about music. Here’s what I posted in reply, edited and expanded a bit for this essay:


I confess to having a hard time getting excited about this concert theme. As a program annotator and music researcher, I read many full-length scholarly biographies of the composers whose music we know so well, but about whose lives we know only the barest outlines. Some of the odd stories are genuinely amusing and not very personal, such as the many times that Handel was exasperated with faulty singers. But some of the “scandalous” stories ― such as Brahms' furtive visits to brothels, or Tchaikovsky's persistent anxiety ― are rooted in real sadness and heartbreak.

As a very young (12-13) boy, Brahms was forced to work as pianist in some of the roughest whorehouses on the docks of Hamburg. The experience left him unable to form healthy emotional or physical relationships with any women; he remained a bachelor and visited brothels compulsively but not, I think, with much enjoyment, and I doubt very much whether those brothel experiences had anything to do with his love for Clara Schumann.

Tchaikovsky suffered intensely in a world that rejected and reviled gay men. Much of the tragedy in his life stemmed from his struggles with his sexuality and his efforts to fit into a society that brutally rejected homosexuality. He was threatened and shamed and may have been forced to commit suicide. His “sham” marriage was a desperate attempt to conform to what was thought to be “normal.” He suffered from terrible migraines and stage fright ― hence the head-holding. [Another commenter had referred to these incidents.]

For the same reason, I would not make light of composers who suffered from mental illness (e.g., Schumann), STDs (e.g., Schubert), etc.

I like the idea of composers as scamps and rogues, though, provided you could stay on the lighter side: Mozart's scatological tendencies, Haydn's wonderful sense of humor, Brahms the practical joker (he was!). I'm sure there are plenty of stories on the light side. Perhaps Gesualdo's murdering of his wife and her lover is so far in the past that it seems more amusing now then it was at the time, though when is murder ever funny? Lully died from an infection that developed after he crushed his toe with his large conducting baton... Haydn was scheduled to become a castrato until his father found out and put a stop to it... Berlioz, jealous of his lady friend's relationship with another man, disguised himself as a woman, got a gun, and went off to murder the guy, before losing his nerve and jumping into the Mediterranean... The infamous love quadrangle between Wagner, von Bulow, Liszt, and Cosima (it's complicated) never fails to appeal to scandal-lovers... Liszt, tired of fans' requests for locks of his hair, bought a dog and sent clippings of the dog's hair to his admirers... The debut of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring caused a riot, though it was the choreography, not the music, to which the audience violently objected.

I suppose one challenge would be choosing repertoire that relates to the specific scandals, otherwise, how will you choose the music to be performed? And even if you do assemble a list of “scandalous” composers, you’ll be challenged to design a program that makes sense musically. What would the connection be between each of the selections, other than the fact that the composer had a skeleton in the closet?

If you choose some of these composers because of their scandalous anecdotes, consider how you will prepare the program notes so that even unsavory stories will be appealing to your audience. What do you want them to be thinking about as they listen to your choir?

Of course, whatever theme one uses for a concert, the music must be excellent. I'm not trying to be “politically correct” here ― though that should be taken into consideration ― my primary motivation in responding is to consider how to design this program so that it offers an evening of excellent choral music that will appeal to a broad audience.
 

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