Magazine article The Spectator

Music: When the Maestro Is a Menace

Magazine article The Spectator

Music: When the Maestro Is a Menace

Article excerpt

Credit: Peter Phillips

W.H.Auden once wrote: 'Real artists are not nice people. All their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue' -- which puts those who aspire to be artists in a bit of a quandary. Is it a measure of one's success as a 'real artist' that one is not a nice person? Is it in fact possible to be a real artist and a nice person? And, if it is not, is it better to be a real artist or a nice person? Auden, who was speaking from first-hand experience, implies that it must be one or the other.

By the time he wrote this, Auden was sure of his standing both as an artist and as a person. His friends might say that he was a nicer person than he thought he was, but no one was going to say he was not a great artist. The quandary is for those who are not quite sure of their standing as artists, and who are tempted to think that bad behaviour proves that their creative work must have a certain worth. And that, by extension, the public will forgive them their bad behaviour out of respect for their work.

The most impressive cases are those where centuries after the event we admire the work and find the life entirely forgiveable. If Caravaggio had to live in such a rough milieu that he murdered his friends, we wouldn't want his paintings to be any different -- and perhaps if he had stayed his hand his paintings would be less adventurous. Presumably Christopher Marlowe didn't get stabbed in the eye because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but because he lived that sort of life. Even that arch-shit Richard Wagner, despite being a sponger and adulterer, is let off the hook for being a tedious human being because he created towering masterpieces that we love. So far, Auden was right.

The problem is with musicians, and in particular with performing musicians, whose reputations can never be as secure as those of composers: the former are recreative artists, the latter creative, with posterity always remembering the creative ones, no matter how good the former may have been in their lifetimes. When one hears of outrageous behaviour among practising musicians, the first thought is that they think their greatness will protect them from opprobrium. …

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