Music & Drama » Classical Music & Opera

The best books on Composers’ Lives

recommended by Giles Swayne

British composer on his peers, past and present. "You can have people who are really extremely mediocre with huge careers, and people who are wonderfully good but don’t have wonderful careers. Bach was one of those."

  • 1

    Harmony And Discord
    by Julian Shuckburgh

  • 2

    The Letters of Mozart and His Family
    by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

  • 3

    The Letters of Beethoven
    by Ludwig van Beethoven Translated by Emily Anderson

  • 4

    Conversations with Igor Stravinsky
    by Robert Craft

  • 5

    Stravinsky
    by Stephen Walsh

British composer on his peers, past and present. "You can have people who are really extremely mediocre with huge careers, and people who are wonderfully good but don’t have wonderful careers. Bach was one of those."

Giles Swayne

Giles Swayne is a British composer, best known for his monumental choral pieces and his interest in African musical culture. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music under Harrison Birtwistle and at the Paris Conservatoire with Olivier Messiaen. In 1980 his choral work Cry, for 28 amplified voices, was premiered by the BBC Singers under John Poole. Hailed as a landmark, it has since been performed twice at the Proms and many times worldwide. In 1981, Swayne visited Senegal to record the music of the Jola people of Casamance. These recordings are now in the British Library. From 1990 to 1996 he lived in the Akuapem Hills in eastern Ghana. He now lives in London and is Composer-in-residence at Clare College, Cambridge. He is currently working on an open-ended series of bagatelles for piano, and a choral setting of a poem. ‘The thing about music, like the arts, is that there’s an extraordinary dichotomy between the art and the career,’ he says. ‘You can have people who are really extremely mediocre with huge careers, and you can have people who are wonderfully good, who explore their art in great depth, and actually don’t have wonderful careers. Bach was one of those.’

Giles Swayne's Homepage
Giles Swayne on Wikipedia
Profile of Giles Swayne by Chester Novello

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Tell me about Julian Shuckburgh’s Bach biography, Harmony and Discord.

This just came out. Most biographies of Bach have been tremendously hagiographical and, broadly speaking, treated him as if he was God. Julian Shuckburgh’s approach is to treat him like any composer now, as it were: to study him in his living conditions, in his contracts and his disagreements with his employers – which were constant. The interesting thing about Bach is that he was actually, in career terms, not very successful, and the book shows the struggles that he had – for example, to support his (very large) family. Bach was essentially a local church musician who was also a schoolmaster – it’s very surprising when you think like that.

“The thing about music, like the arts, is that there’s an extraordinary dichotomy between the art and the career.”

This is an integrated biography and very much a story of his actual life, as opposed to the sanctified version that was spread during the 19th century when Bach was rediscovered – largely by Mendelssohn. Before Mendelssohn, Bach was only really known to professionals – he wasn’t forgotten as a name, but his music was no longer performed. Mendelssohn, to his eternal credit, spent a lot of his career bringing Bach’s work to public attention. In 1829 Mendelssohn conducted the first performance of the St Matthew Passion since Bach’s death in 1750, and he was the first to perform the Mass in B Minor, which Bach had never heard.

Is there new material in the book?

There’s quite a lot, and one of the interesting and remarkable things about the new approach is that Shuckborough has, for the first time, catalogued Bach’s works (of which there are a huge number) in chronological order, placing them in the context of his life by date.

What sort of picture emerges?

Very much one of a man who was very attached to his family (who’d been musicians for several hundreds of years), very professional, devout, rather stick-in-the-mud, very hot-tempered and therefore not easy to work with. Unlike Handel, say, who was a sort of flamboyant impresario figure, Bach remained a local composer who never made it beyond the confines of regional German culture. The thing about music, like the arts, is that there’s an extraordinary dichotomy between the art and the career. You can have people who are really extremely mediocre with huge careers, and you can have people who are wonderfully good, who explore their art in great depth, and actually don’t have wonderful careers. Bach was one of those.

The Letters of Mozart and His Family?

These are Mozart’s complete letters, with selected replies from his father and sister, and occasionally his friends, or his wife. Mozart was an infant prodigy, of course, who spent most of his early life on the road with his ambitious father Leopold, performing, so the earliest letters are mostly to his mother or sister. The first part of the book is letters from his father which are all entirely practical: about contracts and fees, and the success, how little Wolfi has done so well, and they went to see the Duke of this and that, and how Marie Antoinette gave him a snuffbox or whatever.

You see the first letter from Mozart at the age of 14, and it’s quite extraordinary really. It’s partly in Latin – he just loved language, and was very good at languages, and he wrote multilingual letters all his life. And some of the letters are in code: the Mozart family all wrote in code when they had something insulting to say about their employers, because all post was opened. Mozart wrote very long letters and, within the family, they’re increasingly playful and scatological – an awful lot about eating shit and sending people farts, and all that sort of thing.

A very scatological family?

I think people in the 18th century were just much more down to earth. The letters are incredibly entertaining, and give a wonderful picture of real, everyday life in the 18th century. His letters are extremely playful and comic, and they also show the amazing development of somebody from a performing monkey to one of the greatest musicians who’s ever lived, how he was able to overcome what was almost child abuse – because he really was exploited by his father for commercial ends. I mean he went along with it, but he wasn’t to know any better at the age of six. And he did somehow transcend this and become a great musician, rather like Beethoven transcended deafness and used it to become greater. But I think there are very few like him, because it’s by definition such a shallow thing to be an infant prodigy.

How does he deal with all the pressures from his father?

Well, by being a good little boy. Once he married there were big problems because his father was a control freak – he wrote the book on the art of violin playing, which is still used. But what is fascinating is, rather as Bach was not a success in external terms, Mozart went from Salzburg to settle in Vienna (against the wishes of his father), and in worldly career terms he failed, because he didn’t get the jobs that, for example, Salieri and other people got. I suspect that was because he was very impatient with people. One of the things that comes out of the letters is his amazing ability to tease and mock and take the piss out of people. Which does not endear you to bureaucrats. The other thing about Mozart is he was wonderfully open about sex. In a late letter to his wife he writes, ‘Arrange your dear sweet nest very daintily, for my little fellow deserves it. He has really behaved himself very well and is only longing to possess your sweetest and…’ that’s been cut out, probably by his widow. He goes on: ‘Just picture to yourself that rascal. As I write, he crawls on to the table and looks at me questioningly. I, however, box his ears properly.’ So they were very close, he and his wife, and it’s very touching, I find.

Beethoven wasn’t prone to such flights of fancy.

Beethoven had much more guilt than Mozart. It’s astonishing because between Mozart’s death and Beethoven’s it’s only 36 years, but the Napoleonic wars, the weakening of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the rise of the individual as opposed to the class meant that the whole zeitgeist had changed. Beethoven lived at exactly the time when individual, personal feelings, and the personal experience, became something to be expressed (thanks to Goethe, Schiller, and indeed Beethoven), rather than the effect of the Baroque, and the 18th century, where an emotion was slightly generalised.

One of the things that particularised emotion in Beethoven’s case was his deafness – it’s very hard to imagine how difficult that must have been. Beethoven wrote a lot of letters because of his deafness.

Does he mention it in the letters?

Oh yes – he wonders how he can face people. How can he of all people face the public, when the one organ that distinguishes him and gives him his art is not working? It agonised him. He drank a lot. I mean, I suspect he was deeply frustrated by his deafness. But in a funny kind of way, the isolation of his deafness was a huge help to him – I don’t think there’s much doubt that it gave him an ability to think more deeply. And he tried to find ways to avoid work. He had a long problematic saga with his nephew Karl, with whom he had a sort of love-hate paternal relationship. Beethoven was tremendously controlling of Karl, who at 19 blew off part of his head in an attempted suicide. A lot of Beethoven’s letters are about that saga, about Karl and the dreadful influence of Karl’s mother, whom he describes as the queen of the night and the whore of Babylon: quite strange. But the other thing that comes through in the letters is this absolute confidence – not arrogance, just complete confidence in his, I suppose, destiny: schicksal.

Conversations with Igor Stravinsky?

These were very controversial at the time. They were conversations between Stravinsky and his, if you like, musical secretary, Robert Craft: an American conductor and musicologist who became his sort of right hand – some would say his evil genius. Stravinsky had been exiled from Russia, exiled from France by the First World War and then again by the Occupation, and he arrived in America in 1945 and settled in Hollywood. Because he was rather stuck up and spoilt and grand, Stravinsky refused to teach at a university in America. The thing about teaching is it keeps you in touch with what’s happening. Stravinsky wasn’t. And so, when this young guy, Craft, turned up as a fan, he took him on as an amanuensis. Craft became an adopted son almost, and eventually a sort of Svengali.

In the conversation books you get the feeling that when Stravinsky arrived in Hollywood, he was the centre of the world. Here was this incredibly cultivated man – a survivor, almost a dinosaur, who had lived through the Revolution, spoke old pre-revolutionary Russian, saw Tchaikovsky as a child, knew Rimsky-Korsakov, worked with Diaghilev and all that. Craft’s book – and Craft is the sort of person who will never use three words if he can use 47 – gives you a feeling of this great man decreeing, issuing his opinions. But in actual fact, when Stravinsky arrived in Hollywood he was extremely washed up, in a difficult state musically, and nowhere near the centre of action. The truth was very different, and he was actually searching to reinvent himself.

And this is what the Stephen Walsh biography, Stravinsky: The Second Exile, deals with?

That’s what the biography sheds a rather interesting light on: that Stravinsky wasn’t this great powerful omniscient figure, but, wonderful composer that he was, he was subject to all the usual difficulties. Even more so because he’d lived through these two world wars and a revolution, and was actually in quite a shaky state when he arrived in America. He had to rebuild his career, really.

What does this book say about Stravinsky’s relationship with Craft?

It’s difficult because Robert Craft is still alive and he’s quite litigious, but it’s pretty blunt about him: he made himself very unpopular with the music profession, because he was seen to be exploiting Stravinsky and was also very rude to him in public, in rehearsals, when Stravinsky was very old and frail. It was also felt that he’d misled the public about the extent of how much of these ‘conversations’ were actually written by Craft, which they largely were, towards the end. For me Walsh’s biography was an eye-opener because it’s a counterweight to the slight myth-making of the conversation books, which for Stravinsky were really a way of making some money.

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Giles Swayne

Giles Swayne is a British composer, best known for his monumental choral pieces and his interest in African musical culture. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music under Harrison Birtwistle and at the Paris Conservatoire with Olivier Messiaen. In 1980 his choral work Cry, for 28 amplified voices, was premiered by the BBC Singers under John Poole. Hailed as a landmark, it has since been performed twice at the Proms and many times worldwide. In 1981, Swayne visited Senegal to record the music of the Jola people of Casamance. These recordings are now in the British Library. From 1990 to 1996 he lived in the Akuapem Hills in eastern Ghana. He now lives in London and is Composer-in-residence at Clare College, Cambridge. He is currently working on an open-ended series of bagatelles for piano, and a choral setting of a poem. ‘The thing about music, like the arts, is that there’s an extraordinary dichotomy between the art and the career,’ he says. ‘You can have people who are really extremely mediocre with huge careers, and you can have people who are wonderfully good, who explore their art in great depth, and actually don’t have wonderful careers. Bach was one of those.’

Giles Swayne's Homepage
Giles Swayne on Wikipedia
Profile of Giles Swayne by Chester Novello