Musical Autobiography

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Musical Autobiography, performed on March 14, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

On some level all music is autobiographical. This can be argued even for instrumental music since at least the late eighteenth century, when music was explicitly conceived as a medium to communicate sensibility and refined feeling. The idea of music as expressing the emotional was a fundamental principle of Romanticism, and later, after the mid-nineteenth century, music was thought of as a psychological mirror of the will, manifesting those portions of human consciousness that could not find proper expression in language. It assumed the status of a private or encoded form of communication that was simultaneously public. Not only was the inexpressible or ineffable capable of communication through music, but a popular notion evolved which held that music was more accurate than spoken language in reflecting the human condition and the essence of feeling. Although the distinction between absolute music and illustrative or narrative music was debated endlessly during the second half of the nineteenth century, the early Romantics, including Mendelssohn, cherished the idea that music was in some way the clearest and most precise means by which a human being could publicly and properly express his or her response to experience of life.

Scholars have found autobiographical implications and narratives in the work of practically all nineteenth-century composers including Beethoven, Chopin, Rossini, and Schumann. Perhaps the most famous exponent of autobiographical experience in music was Hector Berlioz, whose centenary is now upon us. His Symphonie fantastique and Harold in Italy are two classic works with autobiographical dimensions. A musical response to critical moments in life was also the impetus for such great compositions as Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage (1877), Berg’s Lyric Suite (1926), Janáček’s On the overgrown path (1901-8), Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (1888-94), Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (1898) and Symphonia domestica (1903), Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll (1870) and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (1893). Even Schoenberg, in one of the sketches of his Piano Concerto Op. 42 (1942), chose autobiographical designations for each of the four movements.

In each of these cases, as well as for the pieces on tonight’s program, a particular autobiographical impulse or event may have been crucial to the composition of the work, but it is not indispensable for the listener. To appreciate and follow a work, one doesn’t really need to know about the intentional meaning or the circumstances that compelled it to be created. In this sense autobiographical music functions on more levels than that of the composer’s intention. However, in explicitly evoking an autobiographical dimension, the composer draws out and highlights each listener’s inclination to weave into the sound some sort of plausible imaginary narration. Even if the autobiographical element is as indirect as in Lehár’s case, there is an intensity and immediacy that is implied by the acknowledgement that the work is a reflection of personal history. Autobiographical music seems the polar opposite of commissioned or occasional music. It embodies art as generated by inner necessity. Its intimate subject matter somehow seems to imply heightened candor and a greater sense of the autonomy of the work of art.

But anyone who lives in the society of others knows that self-representation is often far from honest—not because it is deliberately deceitful, but because the very act of self-analysis and description ignites all the wishes and despair of unconscious ambition, desire, envy, and doubt. To describe oneself without falling into the trap of instead describing how one wishes to appear to or hiding that which may have been from others is exceedingly difficult. The rendering of subjectivity that was prized and strived for in all the arts of the nineteenth century, and of which music was thought the quintessential medium, was clearly a quicksand, diversely exploited by such writers as Flaubert, James, and Dostoevsky. What is not said or perceived is infinitely more revealing than one’s calculated revelations and perceptions.

In music this tension between truth and subjective impression can also exist. Autobiographical music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries regularly functioned as a vehicle through which the composer could define his or her originality. Individuality was a prized attribute in the Romantic tradition of composition. The “artistic personality” was privileged as a reflection of human autonomy and freedom. Autobiographical music offered composers an opportunity to distinguish their music from that of anyone else. The autobiographical works of composers are therefore often considered in retrospect to be their most characteristic. This is certainly true of Suk and Schnittke. For Lehár, as Morton Solvik aptly points out, the autobiographical dimension of the work on tonight’s program resided in its capacity to express an unfulfilled ambition. It does not reveal that for which we remember Lehár but rather that which he wished to become but did not. It is therefore not surprising that the fantastic and the heroic often come to the fore in autobiographical music. Nowhere is this more apparent and chilling as in Wagner, whose autobiographical fantasy of heroism and chronic megalomania found unbridled expression in music. Contrast him to Richard Strauss, whose Symphonia domestica shifts between the fantastic and the shockingly candid and puts forward the most mundane aspects of daily life without embarrassment. In the American tradition, perhaps the most unusual and fascinating reflection of the autobiographical impulse is exemplified by the music of Charles Ives—particularly his Three Places in New England, in which the listener is invited to share the consciousness of memory and loss, particularly of childhood.

But precisely because instrumental music is not linguistic and the specifics of any autobiographical narrative can never be pinpointed, sometimes the difference between truth and subjectivity can be expanded beyond the ordinary oppositions that are delimited by the written word. The autobiographical in music is offered as an emotional characterization of the composer that is inferred by the listener. In this sense, music perhaps possesses a great advantage over the written word in representing subjectivity. Not bound by the limits of linguistic description, composers have sometimes used the intimacy of the autobiographical and the subjective as a covert act of artistic freedom. For example, Schnittke, who lived and worked in the Soviet Union, used, as did Shostakovich, autobiographical elements to express a range of responses to conditions of life not permitted in painting or literature. For the composer, musical autobiography unfettered by descriptive clarity could publicize private impressions and sentiments without endangerment.

The biographical details of each of the composers on tonight’s program suggest different ways in which lives could intertwine with musical creation. Franz Lehár (1870-1948), for example, may be famous for his operettas, but happiness and merriment were not the hallmarks of his life. The Merry Widow (1905) was particularly beloved by Hitler. Lehár (whose wife was Jewish) conducted himself through the Nazi era with unheroic ambivalence. The Viennese operetta, of which he was the most famous practitioner after Johann Strauss, had been until 1938 nearly dominated by Jewish colleagues among composers and librettists. His own work was thus easily appropriated as the true Aryan, rare, uncorrupted form of a popular genre. He died in 1948, long after his greatest success, a wealthy but isolated figure from the past. Despite the fact that he never achieved the respect he sought in the public imagination as a serious composer (even though his music was far superior to that of many of his fellow operetta composers), he did gain the high regard of none other than Arnold Schoenberg.

Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) is widely regarded as the most successful and important composer of the Soviet era after Shostakovich. His music had an enormous currency and popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in the West. Like Shostakovich he suffered the disapproval of the regime. In the 1970s he was persecuted by the head of the union of Soviet composers Tikhon Krennikov, and was almost entirely ostracized in his native country. In 1991 Schnittke moved to the West even though in the era of Perestroika his music had been embraced by a new generation of Russian musicians in the Soviet Union. Schnittke’s work was immensely influential in its austerity, irony, appropriation of historical fragments and models, and the composer’s determined desire to bridge the gap between the popular and concert genres. Schnittke fused a unique synthesis between modernism and post-modernism. Much of his music has, like the Viola Concerto, an explicit connection to narrative. Since his death his popularity has receded somewhat, but there is little doubt that despite the changing tides that often plague the posthumous reception of composers who enjoyed enormous success during their lifetimes, Schnittke’s music will remain a vital part of the canon of music composed during the second half of the twentieth century.

Perhaps the least known composer being performed tonight is Josef Suk (1874-1935). The name may be familiar to many concertgoers because of the violinist Josef Suk, the composer’s grandson, whose recordings and performances have earned him a place as one of the great violinists of the twentieth century. Music was a long and proud tradition in the Suk family. The composer’s father (also Josef) was a music teacher and choirmaster. The composer himself was also the second violinist in the famous Bohemian Quartet (also called the Czech Quartet). But Suk’s real ambition was to compose. Consequently he studied composition with Dvořák and went on not only to become Dvořák’s favorite pupil but also Dvořák’s son-in-law. Suk was himself a teacher of considerable importance whose own pupils included Bohuslav Martinů. Suk was also responsible for bringing Janáček to the attention of the writer Max Brod (who had written extremely laudatory essay on Suk’s music). Suk urged Brod to go to a performance of Janáček’s Jenůfa in Brno. As a result of that performance, Brod arranged to bring Jenůfa to Prague and ultimately to Vienna and Berlin, thereby launching the international career of the then sixty-year-old Janáček. Unlike many of his Czech colleagues, Suk’s relationship to folk elements was not very pronounced. He saw himself a multi-faceted composer in the European tradition. Among his finest works are the Piano Quintet Op. 8 and the String Quartet Op.11, both of which reveal the enormous craftsmanship at his command. In this regard he can be compared to his contemporary, the Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnanyi.

In many ways, Suk innovated on the training of his celebrated teacher and father-in-law. Like Schumann, Suk’s piano works often have a powerful and intimate quality and are deeply personal and autobiographical works. Most commentators, however, consider Suk’s orchestral music his finest, which makes it difficult to understand why so little of it survives the standard repertory. (His wonderful Violin Fantasy, Op 24 (1903) was performed by this orchestra at the Bard Festival in New York in 1993). After the Asrael Symphony, Suk completed in 1917 the other orchestral work, entitled Ripening, Op.34, that one might still find on the occasional concert program. But it is clearly Asrael that stands as his orchestral masterpiece, and for some, his greatest work in any genre. In this work, Suk integrated the finest traditions of the Lisztian tone poem with that of the symphony. This work represents a musical experience that can certainly hold its own alongside Strauss, Elgar and Mahler.

Music that reflects the deeply personal and autobiographical creates a form of intimacy between creator and audience that exploits the exclusive qualities of musical communication. In a way that is quite distinct from reading a novel, attending a play, or gazing at a painting, the listener can accept the candor and specificity of another person’s experience of life without being locked into the passive position of an observer. The sense of communication through the evoking of corresponding emotion allows for the translation of another’s sensibility into the listener’s own. As the works on tonight’s program make plain, the autobiographical in music depends on a kind of empathetic parallelism. It is this singular form of connection that makes instrumental music an utterly unique medium for autobiographical introspection and expression.