A long time ago in a land far, far away…

When Mozart wrote music, he never made a mistake – it was as if he was taking dictation from God. Sensing his pending death, he composed a Requiem Mass for himself. Such are the lives of the great composers.

Legends like these are nothing new to music. (Recall the first notated repertory, plainchant, and the dove whispering in Gregory’s ear.) With Josquin and Palestrina, we can see the same mythologizing forces at work: after Josquin’s death, he was turned into a larger-than-life Genius, an emissary of God expressing perfection through sound; Palestrina was turned into the literal savior of music when his Missa Papae Marcelli wowed counter-reformation church officials. Were it not for Palestrina, the Pope would have tossed the whole messy affair of music into the wastebasket of history.

The ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl has written a number of playful articles and books examining western music from the perspective of an outsider (an “ethnomusicologist from Mars” in one memorable piece).* While we may like to think of ourselves as a purely rational, scientific culture, our tendency to mythologize our great musicians is profound. Ask the average student in the average music department about the lives of Mozart and Beethoven and you’re bound to get a colorful potpourri of fact and fiction. (Ask the average person on the street and you’re bound to get a blank stare.) Beethoven is the great mad genius of music, with an Einsteinian explosion of hair, deaf as a doornail, pounding out tormented, brilliant music on the piano. How many times have we seen this representation in movies, TV, and cartoons? Mozart, likewise, is less a historical figure than he is a Force. With every generation, myths are kept alive and reinforced through Mother Culture; the movie Amadeus, for instance, has done a tremendous amount of cultural work to keep the Mozart myth flourishing. According to Nettl, the way our culture transforms the great dead composers is really no different from the origin myths of the Blackfoot Indians, in whose mythology the beaver is the bringer of music. When in comes to the great musicians of the past, Taruskin’s often-quoted Italian proverb holds: “Not true, perhaps, but well invented.”

It’s a curious case. Perhaps our propensity to elevate (dare I say deify) great artists after their death is a reason why living composers are such a rarity on concert programs. Music and musicians must be transmogrified into myth before they can be counted in the pantheon of the truly great and eternal. You can’t very well mythologize a living person – too much warm blood is anathema to legend. Therefore, the dead receive more attention than the living. Remember: six months ago, Michael Jackson was a washed-up kook; today, he’s the tortured genius of pop.

The discipline of musicology might not be as death-fixated, but we have our myths as well. Who hasn’t gasped in shock at the story of the legendary Susan McClary standing in front of an AMS crowd, likening Beethoven’s 9th to rape? (The original comment was quite a bit more ambiguous, and it appeared  in the Minnesota Composers’ Forum Newsletter, hardly the hornet’s nest of an AMS conference.) Who hasn’t heard about Richard Taruskin’s legendary graduate courses, where he assigns between 500-800 pages of reading (in a handful of different languages) per week? Who doesn’t know about the two reckless grad students attempting to read all of the OHWM and – foolishness of foolishness – blog about it!

* Bruno Nettl, Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music (Champagne/Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 1995).


  1. Why are myths so sticky? I gave a substitute lecture on Josquin while my supervising professor was at AMS, and I included a discussion of the Josquin legend. I talked about how he has been compared to Beethoven, and how this obscures our view of him. I mentioned the famous pronouncement that Josquin “only composes when he wants to.” The argument was how these legends can cloud our judgment.

    But when asked for characteristics of this composer on an ensuing quiz, what were the frequent responses? Josquin only composed when he wanted to, and was a moody genius, like Beethoven. *sigh*

  2. Part of the issue, of course, is the nature of memory itself. Mnemonic theory states that we tend to remember things much better when two factors are involved:

    1. Focused attention is paid to the acquisition of the item to be remembered;

    2. We are able to form mental connections linking the new item to things we already know–the more memory nets we can hook the new item with, the better we will remember it.

    When undergraduates encounter a composer such as Josquin for the first time, then, they tend to remember facts about Josquin that they can link to previously-acquired information. Since the “moody genius” musician is such a prevalent archetype in our culture (not only Beethoven, but many other famous composers and popular musicians as well), that is a very easy link to form. It takes quite a bit of conscious effort to reforge new links that go against the grain of currently-held perception (increasing the focused attention factor above to compensate for the concomitant decrease in the mental connections factor). Other commonly-held perceptions such as “prodigy/genius,” “ahead of his time,” and a whole slew of other mental fallacies that Taruskin has pointed out tend to thrive for the same reason–furthermore, each time said fallacy gets applied to a new piece of music history, the mental web of that fallacy is strengthened. It requires quite the dedicated teacher (and one who is willing to slow down presentation of new content) to overcome these pre-existing fallacious cognitive networks!

    1. Nathan—I follow you. The way I deal with these phenomena is to harness the familiar (in this case the moody genius archetype), and then attach a negative clause to it in my memory, which includes the corrective information. (I’m doing this a lot as I read RT.) But this last, crucial step is the one that was lost on at least some of the students it seems.

  3. Interesting discussion, Nathan and Mark.

    Another element to the creation of these sorts of myths is far simpler – people like and remember a good story. The truth is somewhat ancillary to the quality of the story, and if a good yarn embeds itself in memory, then that’s what’s going to be transmitted and culturally remembered, not the boring truth. The Palestrina myth is so compelling because it’s such a fabulous story: one imagines a panel of dour-faced cardinals sitting in judgment, losing faith in the entire enterprise of music, when a lone genius walks in the room and presents them with a piece that restores their faith. That’s much easier (and more fun) to remember than the much more boring truth.

    This aspect of music mythologizing can be problematic because it engages people on a more personal, emotional level than the truth often does. I’m sure many a music teacher has perpetuated a myth purely because it will ignite the students’ imaginations, knowing full well it’s not true. I had a music history teacher in college that told us there’s not a single error in Mozart’s manuscripts. True, no; fascinating and “sticky,” yes. In situations like this, I feel our dual allegiances as teachers are being pitted against each other: on the one hand, we’re responsible for telling the truth; on the other, we’re responsible for turning young people on to the topic and sparking passion. Who knows, Mark? Maybe if you didn’t mention that Josquin/Beethoven comparison, nobody would have any conception of who Josquin was. Maybe nobody would have a personal relationship with him, and thus have a stake in being interested in him.

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