Faced with a number of short flights in recent weeks, I grabbed a copy of Composers Letters, edited by Jan Fielden, that I found in my home (not sure how it got there, having never read it before). The book, which came out roughly 20 years ago, presents selected correspondence of European composers from Monteverdi to Britten. Perfect bite-sized chunks for bouncing from terminal to flight to terminal to flight.
Reading it brought me face-to-face with the belief that successful composers need to be vicious people. There is a long and honorable tradition in this regard: as the editor quotes Auden’s words to a young Benjamin Britten, “If you are really to develop to your full stature, you will have, I think, to…make others suffer, in ways which are totally strange to you at present, and against every conscious value that you have, i.e., you will have to be able to say what you never yet have had the right to say – God, I’m a shit…”
At the time this book came out, I don’t think I would have admitted to subscribing to this belief, but twenty years later, I’ve come to realize the degree to which it appealed to me at that time. I was in a place where I delighted in exposing the raw underbelly of history, and of human interaction. Now, though I suppose raw underbellies deserve to be exposed as much as anything else, I’ve learned the danger that lies in zooming in on the underbelly to such a degree that all other aspects fall from view.
Flipping through the book, it is easy to say now that Lully was a special flavor of crème du chien, while Haydn was most assuredly not. I’ll leave it to others to argue as to which one was the better composer. Although perhaps that is beside the point, since Auden specifically referenced “stature,” by which standard it makes sense to say that Lully achieved great stature in the musical world at a younger age than did Haydn. And maybe that’s what all of this is about.
Having known a good many composers — close friends, enemies, teachers, students, acquaintances — I feel safe in saying that some of them are, or were, pretty vicious people. The vicious ones are sometimes excellent composers, and they sometimes have tremendous stature within the profession. But I have known vicious composers who accomplished little and gained little from their accomplishments. I’ve also known composers who were perfectly lovely people, and their accomplishments and gains have varied as much as have those of the meanies.
In my case, I like to think that I have become a bit more benevolent over the years (though I still have to keep tabs on my propensity for putting people who take presumptions in their place – it doesn’t do anyone any good), and my music is, on the whole, marginally better than it was when I was less accommodating, which is to say I still write really fantastic stuff from time to time, and the stuff in between the fantastic stuff is mostly pretty decent, with an occasional misfire. Or, to hopefully put it more clearly, becoming a kinder person has not had a detrimental effect on my work, nor has it improved my work noticeably. Any improvement that’s occurred is solely a matter of practice.
But the concept of the horrid person who creates sublime art is a powerful paradox. People who are as easily seduced by paradox as I once was will find it difficult to resist.