Do Composers Live in a Bubble?

Sep 2, 2016

Do composers live in a bubble? I do not think so. Years ago I had a musical conversation with a friend of mine. As a non-specialist, at some point he decided to pick my mind and ask me, the specialist, about composers’ lives: “I studied a little bit of music history at school” – he said – “but to us composers were presented in such a way, that they seem to have had no contact with the real world. Their music seems to have stemmed from a spark of lonely creativeness while their lives may have easily belonged to a parallel dimension, with little or no relation with the contemporary social and political environment. Is it really the case?”

However exaggerated this question may sound to us, there is some truth in it. If we think of all those monographs portraying composers, they tend to put a lot of emphasis on the description of the creative processes, the analysis of his music and the intrinsic quality thereof, at the expense of everything else. Unless they have played an important role in the creative process, performers are very often nowhere to be seen; on the other hand, the music score seems to represent the necessary and sufficient condition for a music piece to exist. Nor are we confronted with the responses of the audiences in a way that really helps us understand the manner in which the image of a composer evolved over time. The same can be said of music critics, whose role in the process is rarely taken into serious consideration.

Despite the turn taken by recent musicology, and the increasing attention scholars pay to music understood as a process rather than a product, I am still under the impression that we tend to put past composers on a pedestal (at least some of them) and underestimate the importance of those contextual conditions that made it possible for them to compose their music and for us to enjoy it.

This is also true where operatic works are concerned, especially since a number of factors other than the composer’s talent are to be considered when it comes to accounting for their success. Words such diva or prima donna still hold a negative connotation, very often meaning spoiled singers abusing illustrious composers. Then, why did the audiences line up for hours in order to secure a ticket and gain access to a prima donna’s performance? Why did theatre managers do their best to secure the most cherished prima donnas for their establishments? Why do they still do the same? Did the first deafening success of La Traviata in London belong to Verdi or Marietta Piccolomini? And what about music critics? To what extent is a review going to affect the reception of a new music composition, be it a symphony, a quartet, or an opera? Should we take the review at face value? Can we trust the reviewer? Can we take it for granted that the value judgement we find expressed in that reviewis not biased by reasons of interest, idiosyncratic beliefs, personal antipathy or antagonism? One lesson I learned when working on Verdi in Victorian London is that, as George Bernard Shaw put it long ago, “we cannot get away from the critic’s tempers, his impatiences, his sorenesses, his friendships, his spite, his enthusiasm (amatory and other), nay his very politics and religion if they are touched by what he criticizes.” The question is, whether all these personal likes and dislikes are made clear by that very critic. Is the critic’s verdict presented as on objective statement rather than a subjective opinion, however wonderfully justified? And, if so, how can we debunk the critic’s claims?

In the end, relativism is what we learn when investigating the reception of a cherished masterpiece. How come that Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and even La Traviata were so long harshly condemned by Victorian journalists? If it is not because of the intrinsic value of these operas, which is not discussed in contemporary theory, was it because of the mentality of the music critics? Does Victorian mindfulness of moral and aesthetic values account for the long-lasting hostility many critics expressed? Finally, should we continue to trust music journalists, whether past or present? Should we dismiss the whole question? Or, instead, should we be even more interested in the complex relationship that connects a composer to his performers, the work to the audiences, and all of these components to the critics?


Massimo Zicari’s latest book Verdi in Victorian London is available to read for free here.

Music specialists will value this volume’s historical reconstruction that stems from a large body of first-hand source material, while Verdi lovers and Italian opera addicts will enjoy vivid analysis free from technical jargon. For students, scholars and plain readers alike, this book is an illuminating addition to the study of music reception.