Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"Being" a Composer

Sometimes I wonder what "being" a composer actually is. When you're not currently writing something, are you still a composer? And when you are working on something that you realize doesn't have any particular value, are you then a lousy composer? How about if you write something that nobody else seems to like? If you stop writing music, are you still a composer?

Oh how I envy Haydn! He never had to ask these kinds of questions. He reported to his Prince and got his musical orders for the day, and after he was dismissed with a generous pension, people in Vienna and London wanted more new music from him. He did have tremendous musical responsibilities, but he also had the ability to meet them with music that was inventive, brilliant, always interesting, always modern, always a pleasure to play, and always meaningful. The pleasure I get from his Piano Sonatas offsets nearly any sadness or feeling of isolation that comes into my life. I can't think of a single piece of Haydn that doesn't give me great pleasure.

I suppose that Haydn never had to wonder "what" he was in his world. He was simply a musician.


Anonymous said...

Envy someone supported by royalty? Doesn't this clash with our modern notions and politics of equality? If one is -- the notion of being -- a musician, then making music in any venue, place or time should just be about making music. After all, in art plenty of our great painters earned precious little, had no support from royalty and the like. It seems odd that the new "royalty" supporting arts endeavors is the university system. Maybe things never change after all? But poets and painters and composers have sometimes worked in relative or even complete obscurity and yet their work emerged over time. Maybe the new self-questioning is like an episode out of Frasier or Big Bang where comic characters constantly question themselves about their own insecurity. Maybe not asking such questions can contribute to just making art. Better not to worry, not to stop before you stop for all the envy and worry? Signed -- an obscure composer unconcerned about such things.

Elaine Fine said...

My Haydn-envy is not about money, fame, or position. It's about everything else. It's about living in a world that is gone, and a world that we can only access in a living way through playing the music of the time. It's about Haydn's uncanny ability to surprise and delight, his impeccable taste, and his deep understanding of how music can be profound without being overbearing. Haydn loved his life, and his music shows it.

Perhaps a modern analogy (I don't pretend to believe that we actually practice equality in our "post royal" times) would be to liken Haydn's life more to the way composers worked in the movie and television business during the middle third of the 20th century, as opposed to making analogies to the university system.

The royals would be like the corporate sponsors and the studios, and composers would do their bidding. But even then composers knew who they were, and they had a distinct sense of purpose. Not all of them were happy (for many non-musical as well as musical reasons), but they knew that they were necessary.

Anonymous said...

Given the number of composers who work for corporate sponsors versus the number supported by university systems, the numbers suggest the university system as the far more supportive "post royal" royals. After all is not the argument for teaching composition and theory in the university system around the country spoken of as "necessary?" Perhaps you've twigged on an interesting premise, that "Haydn loved his life, and his music shows it." From the late 19th and into the avant garde of the 20th, classical music seems to have gotten more serious, convoluted, complex and ugly. May be, just maybe, so much of modern music is unable to speak with "surprise and delight" is because it is too darkly pretentious and basically empty. I recall a Socialist World review which dared to suggest that the 20th century avant garde had lost its way, had an emotional range of grumpy to angry, and had little to say or add to the musical landscape. I paraphrase, but that seemed an apt description. Your description of an "uncanny ability to surprise and delight" with "impeccable taste" surely doesn't describe a lot of the modern music I've done at festivals of "modern" music. Rather it's all seemed much the same, from composer to composer and piece to piece. Lots of work with little "surprise and delight." Let's be radical, and return in a forward manner to "profound" yet surprising and delightful works, shall we? Couldn't hurt.

As to "money, fame and position," adding the corporate sponsors of business to the corporate sponsors of academia, I'd say there are a bunch of composers whose works I happily avoid in my dotage.

As to "necessary," we all are. Sometimes that shows up after we've slipped this mortal coil. As a commentator on radio used to say, persevere.

On your previous blog's notion of blogging, a reason to read yours while skipping a lot of others is your reply about "Haydn-envy." Reasoned and nicely written. Best wishes.