glass notes
What’s in a Story?

Sorry for the break in between posting. I had some personal business to tend to. Of course the big event which happened in my absence was Philip Glass' 73rd birthday this last Sunday.  I doubt that Glass does this, but at a time like this, I think it's natural to take stock of a larger historical perspective on the longevity of composers.

Glass has lived more than twice as long as Mozart or Schubert, Beethoven died at 57, Shostakovich died at not quite 69, Stravinsky at 89…but then there's Elliott Carter who is still alive, well, and composing at 101.

Of course age doesn't mean much. Look at the masterpieces Mozart and Schubert left is such short lifespans.  There are composers like Gian Carlo Menotti who many wrote lived too long, living well past his own height of popularity where he was a powerful impresario, and a darling of Broadway and the Met Opera. 

The point to me is that lovers of history enjoy a good story. We get to talk about a tragically premature death for Mahler at age 50 after suffering from an abusive father and witnessing his children dying, with everything culminating in his final and greatest symphony, the Ninth.  It's a good story.  One then pictures Mozart composing and dictating the Requiem from his deathbed, Beethoven in failing health writing his final somber masterpieces, Shostakovich turning to the intimate medium of the string quartet for his last few works. 

Now there are two problems here.  Firstly, that a good story has nothing to do with good music.  A good story frequently gets in the way of evaluating work on a musical basis.  I am not denying the greatness of the Mozart Requiem.  But since Mozart didn't live to orchestrate the Requiem himself, I ask you to imagine he lived to 55, wrote 20 more singspiels which would have been low-brow opera buffa type pieces and 25 more symphonies.  Would you then consider this middle period requiem for which he didn't write the instrumentation in the same way you do now as "his final masterpiece?"

The second problem is that composers don't control their own story.  As much as Wagner attempted to write his own history in Mein Leben,  composers are like ordinary people: they exists without the benefit/curse of a slow long demise (most of us don't know when we are to expect our end.)  Mahler had the diagnosis of his terminal heart condition in hand when he wrote his Ninth symphony.  A small glitch in his story was that he was still alive after having completed it (people don't frequently like to add that into his narrative)…so naturally he did what all creative people do: he kept composing, not living to see his Tenth Symphony to completion.

The point his is that story doesn't matter. Focus on the music. While what happens in a composer's life is not without importance, the main purpose of the music which they offer to the world is how and why it affects us: you remember the time and place you first encountered a certain piece, whom you were with, what was happening around you at that time, your emotional state…In my opinion, the listener's story is as important as the composer's. Inasmuch, I can remember where I was the first time I heard Philip Glass' music.

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