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A Review in six parts by DEREK STRAHAN


At the conclusion of my fourth article in this series I stated my intention to explore how the repression of emotion in concert music has resulted in a suppression of the sexual impulse, and in a betrayal of the heritage of the great composers of the classical and romantic traditions. I suggested that this repression has been achieved by indirect means; that is to say, not by banning, in principle, the expression of sexual feelings in music, but by banning, in principle, a range of musical devices which are useful, indeed probably essential, to evoke such feelings. In broad terms, these devices may be grouped under the headings of melody and rhythm. Musicologists and critics assumed the prescriptive initiative for composers, who were made to feel that they were lacking in invention and creativity if they employed an extended melodic line or a repetitive rhythm. If I may draw a behavioural analogy, the effect of this Cromwellian ban on the relationship between composer and audience has been similar to the effect on the relationship between lovers of allowing sex but disallowing movement. (In medieval times priests were allowed to join in communal dancing so long as they did not lift their feet from the ground.)

No such inhibition has effected the evolution of popular music during this century. Indeed, it is symptomatic of the total divorce between popular music and concert music, that the more the former becomes dominated by extrovert manifestations of sex, drugs and rock'n roll, the more the latter retreats into a kind of shell-shocked immobility. It is this divorce which is damaging to art music, and which is a relatively new development, at the most three decades old. There is no sign of effete withdrawal from the world in the music of Stravinski or Bartok; and composers as different in style as Walton and Milhaud welcomed and absorbed the influences of jazz and pop music. As to the question of why musicologists have enforced the prohibition outlined above, I expect it has something to do with the fact that academics are not encumbered in their personal lives by the demons which drive artists to self-expression, and, therefore, have no first hand knowledge of the psychopathology of the creative impulse. Perhaps, when given the power to dictate creative parameters, they obey an unconscious compulsion to destroy in others what is lacking in themselves. The remedy is simple: in music, as in others arts, the academic must be denied such power. The academic is an intellectual forager, whose role begins after, not before the creative event.

Having returned the academic from the studio to the lectern, we are now (at last!) free to explore the effects of a composer's sexuality on the music he or she composes. At the outset, I must point out that this involves looking beyond the programmatic content of musical compositions. Love, in its myriad manifestations has been, is, and always will be a popular subject for all kinds of art work, for two reasons. Firstly, because love, the need for it, the ways of finding it, the joy of giving and receiving it, and the pain of losing it, are common preoccupations of the human race; and, secondly, following from that, there will always be an audience for artworks which reflect and express this preoccupation. However, precisely because the subject matter is guaranteed an audience, the factor of fashion enters the equation. It is perfectly possible for an artist to write a work on the subject of love, without his or her emotions being engaged; to fulfil the commission requires only facility of invention. Music theatre of all kinds, from grand opera through the stage and film musical to rock opera is a graveyard of works which purport to be about love and sexual relations and which, after initial success, have proved to be as disposable as the handkerchiefs used at their brief run of performances.

Because Eros is perpetually in fashion, is no guarantee that the composer has been pierced by the arrow.

In any case, if we were to restrict our enquiry to an exploration of those works of music which have as their theme love or its twentieth century conjuration, sex, we would have to exclude from our enquiry the works of those composers who, like Bach, devoted the greater part of their lives to writing sacred music.

Even so, let us initially refer to programmatic content for signs of an equation linking quality of work to the power of the composer's sexual drive. We know, for example, that both Mozart and Wagner were extremely sexual beings. Mozart's first love was opera, and most of his other music was written to keep him while he tried to arrange for commissions to write theatrical music; and when such commissions came, he constantly endangered his work by choosing subject matter which was quite unnecessarily risque; unnecessary, that is, from the point of view of the entrepreneur. Consider: "The Marriage of Figaro" - a play banned in Vienna by the Emperor because of its scandalous satire on the sexual practises of the aristocracy; "The Abduction from the Seraglio" - whose action is set in an Arabian harem; "Cosi Fan Tutte" which is, frankly, about fiancee-swapping and "Don Giovanni based on the famous Spanish novel about male promiscuity. From whence came Mozart's need to confront these themes, and, in doing so, to risk his own livelihood ? His obsession with sexuality exceeds the requirements of the program content of opera, even in an era when social morals were notoriously lax. Is there a link between the enduring quality of Mozart's music, and the inner tensions which it expresses, and which derive from the inner tensions of Mozart's own personality? And were these tensions ultimately derived from his sexual drive?

One can ask the same question of Wagner, who was even more explicit in his musical treatment of the theme of love, and even more scandalous in his personal behaviour. Our exploration is made easier, once again, because Wagner composed opera, and because, in writing his own libretti, he made so many of his own attitudes to love, sex and morality, quite clear. "Tristan und Isolde" remains the supreme icon of eroticism in music, and we know that its inspiration came from Wagner's affair with the wife of one of his benefactor's, Mathilde Wesendonck, an affair which was conducted in close proximity to both Herr Wesendonck and Frau Wagner. Once again, is there a link between Wagner's sexual drive and the use to which he put his musical talents? And is it this use which determines the appeal of his music? (It has been said that Wagner fell in love with Mathilde because he was writing "Tristan" rather than vice versa. Is this penetrating psychoanalysis or self-serving sophistry?)

Interesting as this line of enquiry is, it cannot produce any conclusive answer to the very specific question we have asked. We will do better to borrow an approach from the methodology of science, and apply it to our questioning technique, in order to arrive at a less equivocal way of assessing our evidence. Instead of asking the question: is a composer's sexual drive the primary impulse in his compositional process? we should perhaps be asking instead: is there evidence of a great composer having ceased to compose because of a trauma which caused a drastic rechannelling of the sexual drive? The case of Beethoven provides such evidence.

In 1812, aged 42, Beethoven's hopes of forming a permanent heterosexual relationship ended with the failure of his relationship to a lady known to history only as the "Immortal Beloved" (after a letter found in his private papers at his death.) This trauma precipitated a mid-life crisis. Increasingly Beethoven's anguish and frustration were expressed in acts of hostility towards his brothers who had succeeded in marrying). In the summer of 1812 he visited the Austrian town of Lint with the express purpose of forcing his brother Johann to stop co-habiting with his housekeeper. Local authorities were pressured to expel the woman from the town: Beethoven's only achievement was to force Johann into marrying her.

In the grip of negativity, Beethoven's creative force began to weaken and, over the next three years, he wrote only "commercial" music, such as the deliberately simplistic Wellington's Victory Symphony, and some celebratory cantatas, music designed to "exploit" public needs during the Congress of Vienna and attendant celebrations following the defeat of Napoleon.

Worse was to come. From 1815 to 1822 Beethoven wrote very little music. The period coincides with Beethoven's litigious dispute with Johanna, widow of another of his brother's, Caspar Carl, over the custody of Beethoven's nephew, Karl. Space here does not permit a detailed report on the composer s pathological behaviour in this affair. For this I refer you to my article "BEETHOVEN; TRAUMA AND CREATIVITY" and to full biographies of the composer. In his 1978 publication "Beethoven", Maynard Solomon gives the key to the trauma when he comments: "Beethoven's aggression against Johanna can be seen as a denial of his desire for her." That Beethoven's conceptual faculties were still functioning during this tormented "dry" period, is evidenced by the quality of the few works which date from it, such as the Hammerklavier Piano Sonata. The fact is that for seven years he lost the urge to compose, and this loss is directly attributable to severe mental disturbance and re-channelling of his sexual drive.

Two valid objections may be voiced to the foregoing survey. Firstly, what have the sex lives of dead composers to do with Australian music today? Secondly, why is there no mention of women composers?

Firstly, the purpose of this article is to identify the sexual drive as an important component in creativity; to suggest that if this component is missing, an artwork will be thereby impoverished, that it will be less able to evoke a positive response in audiences, irrespective of the craft displayed in compositional technique; to point to the baleful effects of closet puritanism on Australian music of the past decades, resulting from prescriptive prohibitions on stylistic sources enforced by influential musicologists and academics. Clearly it would be quite invidious to support this thesis by offering psychoanalyses of living persons, therefore, to obtain supporting data, I am obliged to look to documentary evidence from past eras. Such evidence is, moreover, quite acceptable since, although social conditions may change, the psychopathology of composing does not.

Secondly, it is true that this exploration is deficient in that the emphasis has been on male sexuality. The reason for this is obvious: most of the evidence available from past eras is from the lives of male composers, for the reason that there have been very few female composers, or, at any rate, very few whose lives have attracted the attention of music historians.

On why this should have been so there has been much debate to which I now add the following observation: historically, the composer has been treated as a second-class citizen, in much the same way that women have been. (The only composers who have achieved notably easy material success have been those who specialised in writing light-weight and fashionable music theatre. This pattern holds good from Rossini through to Andrew Lloyd-Webber.) In considering composing as a vocation, I would suggest that women have been deterred by the threat of double jeopardy! Clara Schumann, who, as a composer, was on a par with her husband, Robert, put composing in fourth place after (1) giving psychological support to her temperamentally unstable husband (he died of syphilis in a mental asylum at the age of 46); (2) caring for her eight children one of whom war mentally retarded; (3) continuing her more lucrative career as a concert pianist. Clearly, it has, in the past, been more practical for gifted women to become novelists or poets, since the only transaction required between creator and audience in literature is that the work should be read. The reader becomes, in a very real sense, both performer and audience. (Space does not permit a discourse on the problems women have experienced in finding a publisher!)

As female emancipation takes effect, more and more women are electing to become composers, and world music will be thereby enriched; and we will have, increasingly, opportunity to observe if there is any subtle difference in the end product reflecting a difference in the nature of the male and female creative libido. The remedy to all forms of discrimination is, of course, equal opportunity, and now that this is the socially acceptable norm in Australia, both male and female composers should unite to prevent any infringement of their creative freedom through the imposition, by music ideologues, of the kind of strictures examined in this series of articles.

In my sixth and final article, I will try to evaluate various music futures which may be on offer in world art markets, during the final decades of the millennium!

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