The man or the music: the ‘Jimmy’ riddle

Everything you didn’t want to know about what’s motivating musicians.

In the light of the recently-surfacing allegations concerning Jimmy Savile’s exploits during his time with the BBC, Daily Mail reporter Richard Kay wrote an article (26th October) asking that the corporation investigates the rumours concerning composer Benjamin Britten’s penchant for young boys. Influential classical music writer Norman Lebrecht responded with a blog post detailing how this less-than-favourable aspect of the composer’s character has already been explored, most comprehensively so in John Bridcut’s book Britten’s Children. The author believes that Britten was undoubtedly sexually attracted to young boys, but that he never crossed the line of propriety. Just what label is ascribed to the composer therefore depends on one’s definition of ‘paedophile’ – is a man a murderer if he thinks about the act, fantasises about it even, but never carries it out?

This thorny issue led me to the broader question of whether a person considered ‘bad’ by society can create music which is ‘good’. Once written, should a composition take on its own life or become tainted by preconceptions or prejudices held against its creator? Those who consider Richard Wagner an anti-Semite often bring him into discussions of this nature. Personally, I feel quite able to enjoy the man’s music without subscribing to the extreme views he advocated in his youth; but were I Jewish of course, this might be a slightly more difficult issue to ignore. Furthermore, Wagner’s case is not helped by the fact that his music and writings came to be adopted and promoted by the Nazi party in the 1930s.

In writing a piece of music, the composer is laying bare his soul and granting admission to the very depths of his psyche – that which cannot be expressed in words. It is no wonder, then, that we listeners can scarcely comprehend that the creator of any music which moves us emotionally could possibly be a bad person. Admirers of a composer’s oeuvre will readily jump in to defend his or her lifestyle, irrespective of how morally dubious it may seem to an outsider. Such stories are dismissed as hearsay by staunch supporters, whilst they provide good ammunition for those who have removed their rose-tinted spectacles.

Going against those who argue in favour of separating the man from his art, the particular vices of the two composers whom I have touched upon are in fact in evident in their work. The portrayal of Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg puts Wagner’s views very much to the fore, whilst Britten’s infatuation for young boys is reflected in – and some commentators suggest stems from – his extensive use of the treble voice. The subject matter of several of his operas further demonstrates that he was not afraid of exploring adult-child sexual tension, most notably in The Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice. Although composers’ personalities are undoubtedly imprinted upon all of their works to a greater or a lesser extent, it seems folly that judgments be made about the listeners just on the strength of their musical tastes. Does listening to Debussy imply an approval of drug-taking? Gazing at a Toulouse Lautrec mean we must drink an absinthe? Reading Flaubert result in rushing out to see our local courtesan?

Naming just a few of the other skeletons in the classical music industry’s cupboard, Carlo Gesualdo was a murderer, Musorgsky an alcoholic and Percy Grainger a sadist. Whilst not wishing to countenance any of the allegations made against the above (or to condone any of their actions), it seems to me that the overriding notion is that composers are in fact human. They make mistakes. Despite producing music which can be so sublime and profound as to seem unworldly, most composers suffer character flaws just as you or I do. I’m reminded of an exchange with my A-Level English teacher: when I ventured that I’d read that the poet Philip Larkin may have been “a bit of a perv”, he replied with – “Well, I suppose we all are, when it comes down to it.”

To tie this loose collection of ideas into some form of conclusion then; for me, listening to music need not imply a tacit approval of the composer’s actions during his or her lifetime. In fact, the most wonderful thing is that the sounds can be appreciated whether or not you know the ins and outs of the composer’s life. As lovers of classical music, or indeed any form of music, our silver lining is just that – the music. The opus numbers, the legacy of recordings, the ‘dots’: whatever one chooses to call it, this product remains long after the composer is dead and gone. He or she can therefore rest in peace knowing that their contribution to the field of genuine art can still be enjoyed for many years to come. However, in the world of popular entertainment inhabited by Sir Jimmy, his broadcasting legacy is doomed to be linked pejoratively with his actions. Which is fine by me.

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