As a composer myself, I personally like the metaphor that my works are my children. In fact, they are my grown children, separate people, out of my house and entirely responsible for themselves now. Don’t blame me for them! And don’t blame them for me, either.
No, my title does not refer to good people who compose badly but to bad people who compose well. Composer Carlo Gesualdo (1566 – 1613) committed the gruesome murder and mutilation of both his wife and her lover, whom he caught together. He was acquitted by the local court, who acknowledged that he did the deed but justified it as an understandable crime of passion. Then Gesualdo went on to compose much of his greatest work. His beautiful Madrigal of 1611 “Moro Lasso” shockingly but brilliantly prefigures the “chromatic mediant” harmony of the late nineteenth century.
Apart from those composers who occasionally murdered a sonata form or even murdered a piano with an axe, there is a more extensive list of great composers with lesser crimes than murder. Wagner was well known as an anti-Semite, for example. Others had conditions we would treat as an illness now, though they sometimes still made everyone around them miserable. Scriabin was a pathological narcissist who imagined himself a god, and wouldn’t let you forget it. Schoenberg had triskaidekaphobia, a virulent fear of the number thirteen, and he inconvenienced a lot of people who lived or worked somewhere with a thirteen on it. Satie had bizarre food obsessions, for example refusing to eat any food that was not white in color. Imagine having to host and feed him when he came to town to play a concert! Of course we have some performers today who have some pretty interesting food demands for their dressings rooms.
Until now, none of this has ever been of particular interest in my lifetime, at least not as more than bizarre footnotes. However, now we are faced with the pulling down of statues, based upon those figures’ personal lives, even if they did good things. We are, likewise, challenged by some to disassociate or “cancel” whatever those people produced or did, even if it was good. I have been unable to find any news stories about statues of European classical composers being toppled — yet. But in June of this year, San Francisco activists pulled down a statue of Francis Scott Key, a slave owner, who wrote the U.S. national anthem, “Star Spangled Banner”. Some have even demanded that the anthem, which itself does not promote slavery, be changed because of its author.
Can We Separate Good Music from Bad Behavior?
In 2018, the city of Pittsburgh took down a statue of American songwriter Stephen Foster, who had performed in blackface and wrote some songs that contained racial stereotypes in the lyrics. Before this was recognized as a problem, he had previously held the unofficial title for school kids everywhere, “Father of American Music”. His more innocuous songs include two of my childhood favorites, “Beautiful Dreamer” and “I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.” Are those perfectly innocent and charming songs now to be banned, by association? That is the question still hanging in the air. Can we, or should we, differentiate between the good works of a person and the flaws and bad deeds of that person while living? It seems that up until now, we have usually done so.
Here is one example that puts an even finer point on this dilemma. Thomas Edison, though not a professional musician, is credited with the invention of the phonograph, arguably the genesis of today’s recorded music. From 1899 to 1908, Edison made not just one but four recordings of the same song to demonstrate improvements in his device. Shocking today, that song was called “All Coons Look Alike To Me” (warning, offensive language).
This raises the question, for those who lean toward complete disassociation or cancel culture: Shouldn’t you now swear off listening to all recorded music because Edison did this? Shouldn’t all recorded music be shunned and canceled as a product of white supremacy or systemic racism? I dare to suggest a completely unscientific guess that most people are not prepared to sacrifice listening to recorded music. However, if you are going to keep recorded music, why should we have to give up “Beautiful Dreamer” or the national anthem, or any other good things that a reportedly “bad” person created?
Put more simply and directly: Should creative products be judged anonymously, on their own merits, or judged by their association with whoever made them? That, in turn, raises a more interesting philosophical or spiritual question that has been discussed for ages: After the composer of a work has died, does that work left behind somehow still embody a mystical projection of his or her person, preserved in sound? Does that music remain spiritually one with its creator? How profound a thing that would be! I have often heard people claim they can hear Beethoven’s very personality and strength in his music. If the music actually “contained” the spirit of the person who composed it, I might be able to see why someone would wish it to be banned, if the composer was bad. But if, on the other extreme, it is wholly separate and embodies nothing of that person, then it would seem to be fine to keep hearing it, in its own independence, on its own merits.
Somewhere in between those two poles, perhaps, I have heard some composers call their works their “children.” As a composer, myself, I personally like the metaphor that my works are my children. That is because, in some sense, my children are at least a reflection of me – perhaps of my mannerisms and speech patterns, or my hairline, or sometimes even my opinions. However, for me, my compositions are not my young children, still living in the home. Rather, they are my grown children, separate people, out of my house and entirely responsible for themselves now! Don’t blame me for them! I thought I raised them pretty well. And don’t blame them for me, either.
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The featured image is a portrait of Carlo Gesualdo by an anonymous artist and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.