Wednesday, March 8, 2017

A Month of Music, Day 6

“It’s probably time to tell the truth,” I said to Lady, “which is that a surprising number of composers were seriously fucked-up. In fact, none of the goings-on (or the going-ons, whichever it may be) of the popular music crowd are very impressive. Jimmy Hendrix? Madonna? Virtually every composer puts them to shame. Schumann, of course, is one the worst: he threw himself into the Rhine, had to be rescued by fishermen, and died in the madhouse. Oh, and they wouldn’t let him see his wife, Clara, until two days before he died. And he had been languishing there for two years!”

“Horrors,” said Lady, “syphilis, I presume?”

“Probably,” I said, “but who knows? There’s also Schubert, who almost definitely did have syphilis, and who may have been gay. There’s Beethoven, who used to play in bawdy houses as an adolescent, to scrape up money. Probably necessary, since Beethoven’s father was a drunk, as well as abusive—and we all know what a toll that takes on disposable income! Bach, of course, looks normal enough, but he must have had a hell of a life. Lost his mother when he was nine, and then his father the next year. Then he gets sent off to live with his oldest brother, and who knows how that went? Got into duels, got thrown in jail for a month, lost his first wife and over half of his kids. No, it must have been a hell of a life, and there he is, churning out one masterpiece after another.”

“Well, surely there has to be some composer who isn’t completely cracked,” said Lady.

“Well, if anybody can make the claim, it’s probably Mendelssohn,” I told her. “He came from a privileged background, but that has its own challenges. There was this whole thing about his religion: he was of Jewish background, but his parents didn’t circumcise him, and in fact baptized him as a Christian in the Reformed Church. So nobody quite knows what that’s all about.”

“Reformed Church?” asked Lady.

“Oh, I used to know,” I told her. “It doesn’t much matter. Anyway, he had success and was—supposedly—‘equable,’ as Wikipedia put it. But then the article goes on to say that he once had a fit of furor, and had to be spoken to sharply by his father. Oh, and then they put him to bed for 12 hours….”

“Well, well…”

“Anyway, Mendelssohn never made it into his 40’s,” I told her. “And in some bizarre way, we still don’t quite know what to do with him. His music—isn’t it just a bit too pleasing? A bit too conventional? And yet, when I heard his last string quartet, I couldn’t believe it was Mendelssohn…”

“Hmm, so there was something more there?”

“Remember how I said that coming from privilege bears its own challenges? Well, if it was bad for Mendelssohn, just imagine how bad it was for Mendelssohn!”


“Well, there was Felix, whom everybody knows, and then there was Fanny, whom few people know. And the confusion wasn’t helped by the fact when some of her songs were published, it was under the name of her brother. She only performed once in public, even though knowledgeable listeners thought she was as good a pianist as her brother. And the only thing she seems to have published—without consulting her brother—was a collection of songs.”

“Well, what’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing, until you realize that her brother was composing oratorios. Massive works for full chorus and orchestra. So a collection of songs—especially since they were published on different colored paper and illustrated by her husband…. Well, it’s all just a bit too ladylike.”

“Well, I see your point….”

“It’s odd, when you think about it. Here’s what her father wrote to her: Music will perhaps become his [i.e. Felix's] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.”

“Thanks, Dad!”

“I know. But has anyone ever explored why there are so many fabulous female pianists? And have been for centuries? Fanny’s mother, by the way, was a student of a student of Johann Sebastian Bach. So all of this veneration of Felix for having ‘championed’ Bach…well, we know where that came from!”

“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Every well-bred house had a piano, and ladies were expected to be able to play. So inevitably, the piano became the instrument of choice. Can you imagine a female French horn player in the 19th century?”

“You’re probably right,” I told her. “But there’s something infinitely sad about Fanny. You know, Clara Schumann may have had, in some respects, a better life. They two women were both great pianists, and also composers. But Clara was a child prodigy, and actually was the breadwinner, especially when Robert was ill. Both women were composers, as well. But here’s Wikipedia quoting Robert Schumann:

Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she has never attained before. But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out.

“Not disturbed enough to get a job at Burger King, and let her get on with composing?”

“Nope—poor Clara had to take charge of the home and be the breadwinner. And her career, by the way, spanned 61 years. And she died forty years after her husband. Poor dear, she didn’t have much of a life. Hard to know which of the ladies—who must have known each other—had a harder life…”

“Well, who’s to say? But my vote, somehow, is with Fanny,” said Lady.

“It’s ironic,” I told her. “You know, I listened today to the piano sonata that Fanny wrote, and that everybody thought was really by Felix, because it was so ‘masculine.’ And I was able to post it onto Facebook, but somehow I can’t post it on the blog. And nothing I could find of Clara Schumann would play on YouTube. I kept on getting error messages. But then, the string quartet of Felix Mendelssohn—which he wrote in honor of his sister—well, that plays just fine! So I’m going to leave the space where the piano sonata should be blank. But you can click on it here, and for the next 28 days listen to it. It’s sort of melancholy, you know. Two great women, two great composers, and still…well, still struggling to be recognized.”

“It’s not ‘sort of melancholy,’” said Lady. “Here’s what it is…