Life happens, to composers as it does to everyone else. Sometimes it isn't that pretty.
I didn't set out to depress everyone when I decided to teach "Composers in Exile: Music in Adversity," a five week OSHER course that included the music and life stories of a number of persons making music in difficult circumstances. Those circumstances included voluntary and involuntary exile, imprisonment, isolation, societal shunning, war, the threat of execution, mental illness, racism, sexism, and depression.
On the other hand, it would be facile to see in all of those stories of composers who went on creating their art in the midst of trying circumstances a triumph of the human spirit. Not just because some of those spirits broke down in the end but because it is easy for those not in the midst of those trials to use the suffering of others as feel-good entertainment. We like movies in which the heroes struggle as long as they win in the end. Well, some of us do. There are also those who don't even like to confront life's ugliness long enough to make it a plot point.
Given my usual propensity to inject wit into the proceedings, as well as the music's frequently cheerful tone, the class was not the funeral procession you might think if you were not in attendance. Before last week's litany of woman barred from public performance, composition, and even teaching by the attitudes of the men who controlled their decisions, I strode to the piano holding my three-ring binder filled with music aloft and proclaimed "this is my binder full of women." Several people laughed, which was a good release since the next half-hour was more likely to make them angry or depressed.
The music, though, was frequently beautiful. It has been one of the sub-themes running through the course that you cannot tell the composer's circumstances from the music they write. Sometimes the most bubbly, exuberant music will emanate from a composer in the most trying circumstances. Sometimes I have played music from before the composer ran into the difficulties described, and the music sounds if anything like a prophet of doom in the face of later events. But those who think that the composer is always keeping a sonic diary will, I hope, have had their minds changed on this. Even though no less than John Kirkpatrick suggested that very thing about the music of Scarlatti, and it certainly sounds plausible. Schumann's Carnaval also lent itself to a good deal of biographical connection. But who really knows to what degree? In any case the relation between the music and the life is individually determined, complicated, and frequently unknown.
One thing that amazed me was how many commonalities emerged from such a disparate wealth of material. I mentioned to the students in week three that they were getting a healthy musical diet, since the first week's program featured the Romantic Era (19th century), the second week the 20th century, and the third week the Baroque and Classical Eras. We heard music from France, Germany, Russia, Italy, Spain, and America. The composers were often under pressure from without, either from societal attitudes (the women) or political regimes (Stalinist Russia). But they were often under pressure from within, as well. On the question of censorship, some composers had music condemned because it did not suit the regime (like Shostakovich). Others might censor themselves because they feared their employers wouldn't like it (Haydn, for example). Still others became dissatisfied with their own style and forged a new artistic style. Whether the composer was Prokofiev, repenting after official denunciation and declaring that from now on he would pursue a simpler style, or Arvo Part deciding the complex, atonal music of his early years no longer had any meaning and pursuing so-called "Holy Minimalism," in each case, the question is about simplicity, or directness of musical expression. But complexity has its rewards, too. That same Prokofiev won a Stalin prize for his complex Seventh Piano Sonata, and I note the student's approval of much music that was loud, fast, and filled with notes.
Whether it was a composer forced to make his living by performing (and grumbling about it all the way) or a composer who really wanted to be a performer but her husband wouldn't permit it, or someone segregated to the teaching studio, or making major contributions there, the variety of ways in which these people dealt with life and earned a living is vast. It can show us, if we like to be inspired, that there is no single right way to do music. But in each case, it was the composer's failure to control a situation which was larger than themselves that led to the different solutions. They were all partial solutions; nobody quite got what they wanted. Yet they left music for us, the lucky listeners, echoes from times and spaces distant from our own experiences, full of the richness of human experience.