Archive for the “Biography” Category

haydnIt’s still the 200th anniversary of Franz Josef Haydn’s death, and in honor I thought I’d borrow a few words from Chris Wendt’s Haydn bio on Chris’ “Here of a Sunday Morning” website. But what I’d like you to do, is read it as if it’s being written about some “maverick” in the last 20 years — Picking up what you know outside academia, living on ramen in cheap apartments giving a couple lessons & freelance, a couple lucky connections, landing a sweet commercial gig but with a lot of dogwork, copyright violations  and pirated music that paradoxically work in your favor…

At St. Stephen’s Haydn received instruction in voice, violin, and keyboard, but little general education except for a smattering of Latin. In 1745 he was joined there by his younger brother Michael, and almost immediately the gifted younger sibling assumed the elder’s position as soloist. Passing out of the limelight probably encouraged Haydn in his natural bent for composition, but he received little help: Reutter, himself a professional composer, gave the youngster only two lessons. As Haydn’s voice changed, his position as a chorister became increasingly untenable. In late 1749 he was dismissed peremptorily over a practical joke.

Taking an attic room next door to St. Michael’s Church, he made ends meet by giving violin and keyboard lessons, working as a free-lance musician in churches, and performing in (and sometimes composing for) groups playing the open-air evening serenades so popular in Vienna. At the same time he began an intensive study of counterpoint (using the writings of Fux) and figured bass (using Mattheson). The results of his industry were clearly evident by 1751, when Pietro Metastasio, the renowned poet and architect of opera seria, engaged Haydn to tutor a gifted girl, Marianna Martines. [...In 1753] Martines began vocal studies with Nicola Porpora; through her and Metastasio, Haydn gained an entree to that famous opera composer.

Haydn proposed to serve as Porpora’s factotum in return for instruction; although this arrangement was undertaken for no more than three months, Haydn later credited Porpora with teaching him “the true fundamentals of composition.” [....]

Haydn had worked scarcely a year when the prince died on March 18, 1762. If Haydn was once again plunged into uncertainty about his future, his fears would have been dispelled quickly, for Nikolaus, brother and successor to Paul Anton, possessed an appetite for music that was, if anything, even keener than his predecessor’s. Haydn’s original contract stipulated that he report to the prince in the morning and again in the afternoon to see if music making was wanted. This arrangement probably continued with Nikolaus, whose evenings were given over to theater and music theater. Daily music making often meant accompanying the prince in divertimentos for his favored instrument, the baryton, typically in concert with viola and cello (Haydn created a repertory of at least 126 such works in the years 1765-76); it sometimes meant playing solo keyboard works. Twice a week, orchestral “academies” were held; for these Haydn could probably count on assembling, before 1776, two oboes, two horns, one bassoon, and nine strings (disposed 3-3-1-1-1), with himself the leader; trumpets and drums were added on festive occasions. [....]

In his contract of 1761 it was stipulated that Haydn “neither communicate [his] compositions to any other person, nor allow them to be copied … and not compose for any other person without the knowledge and permission of His Highness.” This injunction did little to slow the dissemination of Haydn’s works abroad. Between 1764 and 1780, 51 authentic chamber works and 43 authentic symphonies had their first publications in unauthorized editions in Paris, Amsterdam, and London. These 94 works are but the tip of an iceberg that includes pirated republications, a large number of circulating manuscript copies, and many spurious works. The extent of Haydn’s complicity in this dissemination is not known, but he cannot have been pleased to go without recompense for his labors. From this flagrant piracy two results ensued. First, in 1779 Haydn obtained from Prince Nikolaus the freedom to write for and publish with whomever he pleased. Second, by the early 1780s Haydn had become one of the best-known and most sought after composers in Europe.

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With most musicians the obsession of Brian Eno tends toward the analogy of driving on the highway: anyone driving faster than me is insane, and anyone going slower than me is an idiot.  I’ve done more than my share of eye-rolling as it seems nearly any musician will pledge some allegiance to ‘Brain One’ no matter how tenuous the connection, yet it is undeniable how pervasive an effect Eno has had on the world.  From his early work with Roxy Music, then moving on into a solo career where he largely created the ambient movement (along with significant contributions to progressive rock and world music) we could stop there and have a significant figure to consider. Then of course we would be leaving out, world-renowned producer, visual artist, writer, and visionary thinker who helps found organizations like The Long Now Foundation. Author David Sheppard acknowledges that on the highway of Brian Eno, he drives in the unrestricted lane of the autobahn. I drive pretty fast myself, so I was quite excited to encounter this book.

The biography of a renaissance man (truly an apt description here) must be one of the harder tasks in telling the story of a life.  There are so many avenues to walk down it would be easy to lose focus. Sheppard starts off, “You couldn’t make him up.  Or at least if you did no one would quite believe you.”  The density of Eno’s multi-varied accomplishments is something that Sheppard is acutely aware of and are enumerated with humor and appropriate awe in his opening chapter.  Indeed there are so many facets to Eno that Sheppard could only hope to build a frame around him and “try to fit a skyscraper into a suitcase.”  Nonetheless with this book we are treated to a wonderful framing of an inconceivably accomplished life.

Of course this biography is destined to be incomplete as Brian Eno is alive and well (61 today), but we are left with a detailed tent pole chronology that gives us an excellent portrait of the man up to very recent history (Spring 2008).  While the opening chapters provide a warmly detailed account of Sheppard’s interest in Eno as well as the years of his upbringing, the bulk of the book deals (understandably) with his professional life.  There is a dizzying plethora of material on Eno as so many love to explore every inch of his output.  Certainly this is in no small part due to Eno’s enthusiasms for being interviewed and giving talks, but Sheppard has been exceptionally detailed in finding choice interviews and quotes from Eno’s many collaborators.  Beyond that, he had the handy cooperation of Eno himself and his wife Anthea to provide new and revealing detail.  While Sheppard is clearly a fan’s fan, he manages to temper the honorifics and hyperbole with a critical eye to give us much better than what could have been a gushing tome.

While Eno’s published diary gives us a personal insight and Eric Tamm’s book gave us a detailed musicology, Sheppard’s biography fills a much needed space in providing a fabulous and engrossing bridge between the two.  He gracefully merges groundbreaking collaborations, ideas, and music with an intimate portrait that is equally fascinating.

On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno” by David Sheppard, 2008, hardcover: 480 pages, $18.45 on Amazon, ISBN 978-1-55652-942-9.

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