Mythmaking

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).