Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Tortured genius or trite generalization?

Out in Santa Monica, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra is hosing a series of musical performances with comments by three neuroscientists who study how music affects the mind.

In the upcoming concert on March 3, 2011, the orchestral will present an all-Schumann program. Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behaviour at UCLA and author of several books will be on hand to talk about how Robert Schumann's mental state may have affected his musical output.

There's no doubt that Robert Schumann was a tortured genius. Various diagnosis have been offered for his mental instabilities (which eventually forced him into institutionalized care in his forties). Schumann lived in what's known stylistically as the Romantic period, and his tragic story matched the zeitgeist of the era, as modeled by Gothe's Werther. The artist suffers for his art, and the suffering eventually destroys him (or causes him to take his own life). It is a romantic story -- but hardly one that applies to all composers. Even the geniuses.

In the LA Times article about the series,Scott Timberg writes:

For artists with mood disorders, [Dr. Whybrow] says, three things usually drive their work. “One, the ability to generate intelligence, which is tied to intelligence. Two, a prodigious memory to be able to manipulate those ideas, like keeping a score in your head. Third, mood swings turn things in a novel way. Some artists produce these by taking drugs. But it you have an instability of mood, which Schumann had, you have an acceleration of creativity. You feel an exuberance, which allows you to see things in novel ways.”
No argument here about Schumann. But is that true of all the great composers?

Beethoven had a stormy personality (to say the least), so he had the mood swings, as well as the intelligence and memory, so perhaps yes.

Haydn, on the other hand, was remarkably even-tempered, and could apparently churn out music virtually on demand. And better-than-average music at that! No big mood swings, and certainly no drug use. Hmmm.

Mozart's erratic personality traits have more to do with immaturity, a common problem for former child stars even today. Was that enough to account for his creative genius?

Handel was tempormental , but not especially moody. Ditto with Bach. And both accepted their compositional duties as simply part of their craft. Vivaldi wasn't a drug user, or especially volitile. Same with Gabrieli, Pachelbel, and Palestrina.

Mendelssohn didn't take drugs, and he seemed even-tempered. And what about Brahms?

Wagner may fit the mold, but Vaughan Williams doesn't. And on it goes.

While Schumann may be the symbol of what we imagine the life of a classical composer was (and perhaps should be) like, ultimately the story is just about one man and how he dealt with his creative gifts. One size doesn't fit all when it comes to composing music.

Which is why classical music is so diverse -- just the way we like it here at WTJU.

(I'm sorry I'll have to miss the series, though)

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