Virtuosos of the written word

Why don’t great composers write great prose? A literary and musical mystery

Magazine Music
Hector Berlioz: The only great composer whose writing is as enjoyable as his music

Words and music are as different as ice and fire, yet as complementary as bread and wine. It is a rare magician who can conjure both with equal skill, yet the act of creation is in both cases a purely intellectual one—unlike, say, painting or sculpture, where a physical material is transformed into art. Hence we may use the same words to describe both: we write music or compose poetry.

Only a handful of great composers of music, however, are also gifted writers. Most set the poetry or prose of others to music; some write their own lyrics or libretti. Few write books, even fewer books that have endured. Here, with apologies for the inevitable omissions, are some of those who happen to have a place of honour in my library.

The first major writer-composer in the West was a medieval nun—a fact that ought to make us think twice before using “medieval” as a synonym for “barbarous”. The music of Hildegard of Bingen is now far better known to the world than it was in her lifetime, during the 12th century, when it can only have been heard by those who sang it: the white-clad “virgins” of her hilltop priory at Rupertsberg, above the Rhine. Her melodies are as mysterious as the process by which she composed them, but no less cryptic than her visions, or as original as her botany and herbal medicines, on all of which she wrote treatises. Some of the words that appear in the Latin texts of her sacred hymns seem to be her own inventions; she even created a language of her own, Lingua Ignota. She was canonised by her countryman, Pope Benedict XVI, just seven years ago, but St Hildegard is unlike any other female saint in history. Having been enclosed in a cell for eight years, she became an itinerant preacher, maintained a vast correspondence that included popes and emperors, and refused to defer to any male cleric—not even the most famous man in Christendom, St Bernard of Clairvaux.

Her sacred drama, the Ordo Virtutum, precedes the morality plays of the later Middle Ages by more than a century. It has more in common with the secular dramas of Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, who died more than a century before Hildegard’s birth, and who was steeped in classical Roman literature. But Hildegard’s is a music drama: it anticipates the emergence of opera in the Venice of Monteverdi a full five centuries later. She can also claim to be the first to have composed a “symphony” (symphonia) in Western music, although hers was a sequence of sacred songs, the Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations. The best introduction to Hildegard’s extraordinary oeuvre is the Penguin Classics volume of Selected Writings, translated and edited by Mark Atherton.

Composers of the Renaissance, Baroque and Classical eras were for the most part professional musicians, not scholars or men of letters. Most were also teachers and a few wrote books about their specialisms. A good example is On Playing the Flute by Johann Joachim Quantz, Frederick the Great’s music master. Far more than a manual for flautists, this treatise covers everything from musicianship to taste and criticism. It is a mine of information about how baroque music was actually played—for example, the measurement of tempo by “the pulse beat at the hand of a healthy person”, a method widely used before the invention of the metronome. As one of the last to see and hear Johann Sebastian Bach perform, Quantz was wise enough to describe precisely how he used his fingers to strike the keys and brought the organ “to its greatest perfection”.

Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven left few literary remains, apart from letters, notebooks and other documents. Like his predecessors, Beethoven might have considered “the dry letters of the alphabet” to be far inferior to music, but he certainly knew how to express himself to tragic and comic effect. His so-called Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he expressed his despair at the inevitability of total deafness, reveals him as a verbal as well as musical virtuoso. For example, in his correspondence with his friend Nanette Streicher, née Stein, Beethoven alternates in the same letter between puns on her married name (Streich means “trick”) and maiden name (Stein means “Stone”), but then rhapsodises like a true romantic: “If you go to the old ruins, think that Beethoven lingered there; if you wander through the mysterious fir-forests, think that it was there Beethoven often poetised (dichtete), or, as it is called, composed (komponierte).”

As this quotation illustrates, the composer thought of himself as a Tondichter (“tone poet”). He certainly understood poetry better than the poets of his acquaintance, such as Goethe, understood music. Among his last utterances was a literary reference to the Commedia dell’arte, according to his highly unreliable amanuensis and biographer, Anton Schindler: “Plaudite amici, comedia finita est!” (“Applaud, friends, the comedy is over.”) More typical of Beethoven’s humour, though, was his expostulation on being presented with good Rüdesheimer wine as he lay dying: “Too late!”

‘Only a handful of great composers of music are also gifted writers. Few write books, even fewer books that have endured’

Beginning with the Romantic era of the early 19th century, literary composers come thick and fast. One who is better remembered as a writer is E.T.A. Hoffmann, who was for several years a professional musician, conductor, composer and critic. His works are typical of early Romanticism; one, the opera Undine, is still occasionally performed. It was Hoffmann who first recognised the revolutionary significance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, “that leads the listener imperiously forward into the spirit world of the infinite”. It was Hoffmann who championed music as “the most romantic of the arts”. And it was Hoffmann who supplied subsequent composers with the stories—weird, sinister, even macabre—that they set to music in ballets (Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, Delibes’s Coppélia), piano pieces (Schumann’s Kreisleriana) and The Tales of Hoffmann, Offenbach’s opéra fantastique. The latter’s eponymous hero bears little resemblance to the original: rather than a raffish, bibulous poet, the real Hoffmann became a Prussian judge, dispensing harsh justice to revolutionaries.

Hoffmann is, of course, a great literary figure but a minor composer. Robert Schumann is a great composer who was also a great critic. He fearlessly championed pioneers such as Chopin or Berlioz, at a time when the French were seen elsewhere as dangerous revolutionaries: “In Vienna they laugh at [Berlioz]. But Vienna is also the city where Beethoven lived—and there is no place on earth where Beethoven is so little played or spoken of . . . In music, too, they don’t want a revolution.” Most of Schumann’s reviews and essays appeared in the journal he founded, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. After he relinquished the editorship in 1843, the Neue Zeitschrift drifted away from his cosmopolitan outlook—with, as we shall see, dire consequences.

Schumann’s writings on music were translated into English soon after his death by perhaps the first feminist in music. Fanny Raymond Ritter, the author of Woman as Musician (1877), boldly argued that composing was not a matter of instinct, but a “science” which women could master as well as men: “There is surely a feminine side of composition, as of every other art.” Ritter’s hero did not agree. Clara Schumann (née Wieck), one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century and a talented composer, was discouraged by her husband Robert, who claimed that “to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of the imagination, does not go together with composing”. Clara simply gave up: “A woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?”

Berlioz is the only great composer of whom it could be said that his writing is as enjoyable as his music. Like the latter, his Mémoires is a classic of romantic introspection—as searingly self-critical as his younger contemporary Wagner’s autobiography, Mein Leben, is slyly self-serving. One of my treasures is a first edition of Berlioz’s Voyage Musical en Allemagne et Italie, which recounts his travels in a series of letters to friends, such as Liszt and Heine—as wittily irreverent about his German and Italian hosts as his studies of Beethoven or Carl Maria von Weber are serious.

When Berlioz visited Germany, Wagner’s vast music dramas did not yet exist. Nor did the ten volumes of his writings and many more of letters. That he was a fluent, even gifted writer is undeniable; his verse epic Der Ring des Nibelungen was admired, not least by his hero Schopenhauer, long before it was set to music. But his voluminous critical writings, like everything else in his life, served his insatiable will to power. More than any previous composer, he was determined to maintain posthumous control of the interpretation of his works. Wagner’s hold over our imagination is greater than ever. Sir Roger Scruton, for example, has devoted two books to Tristan und Isolde and the Ring cycle; next is Parsifal.

One of the few writings by Wagner that is still widely read, however, is his polemic against “Jewishness” in music: Das Judenthum in der Musik. It is not merely a vicious assault on his rivals Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, but a foundational text of anti-Semitism—as malign in its influence as Marx’s slightly earlier tract Zur Judenfrage (On the Jewish Question). It was originally published in 1850, under the pseudonym K. Freidenk (“free thought”), in the Neue Zeitschrift. Among those who protested was Ignaz Moscheles, the Jewish friend of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, as impressive a man as he was a composer. (I have a score of his studies for piano Op 70, signed by Moscheles himself.)

The original essay was soon forgotten.  But nearly two decades later, in 1869,  Wagner reissued a second, revised edition in book form under his own name. By then among the most famous men in Europe, he knew exactly what he was doing. Why Wagner, who had received nothing but generosity and support from his Jewish acquaintances and colleagues, chose to prostitute his ability and his celebrity to the vilest legacy of his era, is as unfathomable as it is evil.

Among the generation who followed Wagner, Ferruccio Busoni alone is as remarkable for his writings as his music. In 1906, his Ästhetik der Tonkunst (Aesthetics of Music) appeared. It was seen in retrospect as the manifesto of the “New Music” that was emerging before the Great War and flowered after it. Of the two leading composers of the new wave, however, Arnold Schoenberg was highly critical of Busoni’s treatise, while Igor Stravinsky was dismissive of his devotion to the German classics, especially Bach. “If Stravinsky knew their works as well as I do,” Busoni responded, “he would love them as much as I.”

The New Music of the early 20th century is now as classical as Mozart—and even the avant garde of the 1960s is half a century old. This month, some of the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen are receiving rare performances on London’s South Bank. I own two volumes signed by Stockhausen: a study of the composer by Karl Wörner and a volume of miscellaneous texts: Texte zur Musik, 1963-1970—a presentation copy, with a dedication in German: “To Tim, looking forward to working together, regards Karlheinz St.” It is dated: “31 Oct. 1971, on the day of your arrival”. (I surmise that both books belonged to his translator, Tim Nevill.) One of his texts is a plaidoyer for homosexuality, illegal in West Germany until 1969. At least homosexuals don’t cause overpopulation, he writes. Stockhausen himself was a married father of four.

Stockhausen’s “cosmic” works are conceived on the largest possible scale, dwarfing anything else, before or since; and his collected writings now run to 17 volumes, making him even more prolific than Wagner. Born in 1928, he was too young to fight but served as a stretcher-bearer. His depressed and institutionalised mother was murdered under the euthanasia programme; his father, a teacher, was killed fighting for Hitler. The Nazi past was thus very much present in his life, yet his oeuvre is too abstract to address it directly. As the last practitioner of the Gesamtkunstwerk (as Wagner called his “total works of art”), a line that begins with St Hildegard, Stockhausen deserves to be revisited. But he does not deserve to be forgiven for describing 9/11 as “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos”. That effusion was worthy of Wagner at his worst.

To create from nothing is the prerogative of God, what theologians call creatio ex nihilo. There is something divine about those who can compose words and music, or even combine both. But the only word for those who deliberately abuse their gifts is: satanic.

er the pseudonym K. Freidenk (“free thought”), in the Neue Zeitschrift. Among those who protested was Ignaz Moscheles, the Jewish friend of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, as impressive a man as he was a composer. (I have a score of his studies for piano Op 70, signed by Moscheles himself.)

The original essay was soon forgotten, but nearly two decades later Wagner reissued a second, revised edition in book form under his own name in 1869. By then among the most famous men in Europe, he knew exactly what he was doing. Why Wagner, who had received nothing but generosity and support from his Jewish acquaintances and colleagues, chose to prostitute his ability and his celebrity to the vilest legacy of his era, is as unfathomable as it is evil.

Among the generation who followed Wagner, Ferruccio Busoni alone is as remarkable for his writings as his music. In 1906, his Ästhetik der Tonkunst (Aesthetics of Music) appeared. It was seen in retrospect as the manifesto of the “New Music” that was emerging before the Great War and flowered after it. Of the two leading composers of the new wave, however, Arnold Schoenberg was highly critical of Busoni’s treatise, while Igor Stravinsky was dismissive of his devotion to the German classics, especially Bach. “If Stravinsky knew their works as well as I do,” Busoni responded, “he would love them as much as I.”

The New Music of the early 20th century is now as classical as Mozart—and even the avant garde of the 1960s is half a century old. This month, some of the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen are receiving rare performances on London’s South Bank. I own two volumes signed by Stockhausen: a study of the composer by Karl Wörner and a volume of miscellaneous texts: Texte zur Musik, 1963-1970—a presentation copy, with a dedication in German: “To Tim, looking forward to working together, regards Karlheinz St.” It is dated: “31 Oct. 1971, on the day of your arrival”. (I surmise that both books belonged to his translator, Tim Nevill.) One of his texts is a plaidoyer for homosexuality, illegal in West Germany until 1969. At least homosexuals don’t cause overpopulation, he writes. Stockhausen himself was a married father of four.

Stockhausen’s “cosmic” works are conceived on the largest possible scale, dwarfing anything else, before or since; and his collected writings now run to 17 volumes, making him even more prolific than Wagner. Born in 1928, he was too young to fight but served as a stretcher-bearer. His depressed and institutionalised mother was murdered under the euthanasia programme; his father, a teacher, was killed fighting for Hitler. The Nazi past was thus very much present in his life, yet his oeuvre is too abstract to address it directly. As the last practitioner of the Gesamtkunstwerk (as Wagner called his “total works of art”), a line that begins with St Hildegard, Stockhausen deserves to be revisited. But he does not deserve to be forgiven for describing 9/11 as “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos”. That effusion was worthy of Wagner at his worst.

To create from nothing is the prerogative of God, what theologians call creatio ex nihilo. There is something divine about those who can compose words and music, or even combine both. But the only word for those who deliberately abuse their gifts is: satanic.