Lies, Epiphanies, and Pants on Fire
by Chris Walton
Why do we lie? The answer is simple, and it’s twofold. We lie to avoid things we don’t want, and we lie to get things we do want (usually money, power, sex, or a combination of them). Lying is hardwired into the human condition – let’s not forget that it features large in the opening chapters of the Bible, as in Cain’s immediate response to killing his brother Abel (“It wasn’t me, honest”).
We like to think of the arts as a realm of truth – one removed from the muddied waters of politics, fake news and disputed elections. It doesn’t matter that art is always a product of our imagination, nor that we even use the word “fiction” to denote both a work of literature and a falsehood. We expect art to tell us something true about the broader human condition, for good and for bad. Hence we talk about the “deeper truths” of art, as if art were somehow more truthful than truth itself.
But artists themselves are no less averse to lying than was Cain. This is especially the case when they’re telling us about their origins or their sources of inspiration. Giuseppe Verdi, for example, liked to claim that he came from a family of illiterate peasants (he didn’t), while Richard Wagner insisted that his mother was the illegitimate daughter of the King of Saxony (she wasn’t). Their purpose was the same: to impress their uniqueness upon the reader. Verdi did it by pretending he had emerged from nowhere by sheer dint of genius, Wagner by claiming he was of royal lineage. And since the Romantic era, composers have also proved adept at creating fictions to describe the gestation of their works. One of the most famous stories is how Wagner was supposedly inspired to compose his depiction of the Rhine at the opening of his Rheingold after dreaming that he was sinking into a swelling river of E-flat-major triads. In fact, he invented the story when subsequently trying to convince a patron to up his allowance.
Giuseppe Verdi liked to claim that he came from a family of illiterate peasants (he didn’t), while Richard Wagner insisted that his mother was the illegitimate daughter of the King of Saxony (she wasn’t)
Later composers followed Wagner’s example by creating an aura of near-divine inspiration in order to market their works. Some (such as Stravinsky) pursued the route of supposed dream inspirations (which, conveniently, can rarely be disproven), while others were more cunning. Every CD booklet for Mahler’s Second Symphony includes the tale of how the inspiration for its choral finale came to him at the funeral of Hans von Bülow, though in fact he invented the story four years later to impress an influential music critic. Similarly, every programme note for Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto tells of how he was inspired by the tragic death of Alma Mahler’s daughter. But this too was a fiction. Berg wrote the concerto as a tribute to a former lover, but he needed Alma’s support through a liquidity crisis, even if it meant inventing falsehoods about how much he missed her daughter.
Sometimes an avoidance of the truth can even inform the fabric of a composition. Richard Strauss’s final opera, Capriccio, deals with aesthetic debates in 18th-century France. It was composed during the Second World War and first performed in Munich in 1942 – just ten miles from Dachau. It is almost ostentatious in its refusal to acknowledge anything outside itself. Its “heroine” even has her final scene in a hall of mirrors – unable to see beyond her own reflection, both metaphorically and physically. And yet, by avoiding the uncomfortable truths of the world around him and by concentrating instead on the private passions of his characters, Strauss somehow succeeds in offering us just those “deeper truths” we alluded to above – truths about love, loss, and the vagaries of the human heart. Whatever the falsehoods or the untruths perpetrated by artists themselves – whether Strauss’s denial of the horrors of war, Verdi’s lies about his parents or the fictitious inspirations of Wagner, Mahler or Berg: when they create great art, it can transcend them all.
This year’s DAVOS FESTIVAL, with its topic of “Flunkern” – “fibbing” – examines all manner of untruths, deceptions and lies in and around music. The Noxwode Ensemble is engaging with a series of more subtle falsehoods in its programme of 10 August entitled “Lies and Morals” – the “morals” being added at their insistence, on the logical grounds that lies cannot exist without an underlying moral framework. Noxwode’s programme is centred on music of the early Baroque, with the exception of a new work commissioned from the young English composer James Batty entitled Vivaci sensi, based on a piece by the Italian Baroque composer Barbara Strozzi “about the complications of love. It will be inspired by 17th-century sounds, but showing them in a very modern light” – thus Conor Gricmanis, the leader of the Ensemble. This isn’t the first time that Gricmanis has combined the Baroque with the contemporary, for he feels that it’s a means of providing a “refreshing idea of the Baroque as something new, offering modern audiences a way of grasping how people would have experienced the music back then”. Noxwode’s programme features several rarities, such as the Capriccio stravagante by Carlo Farina – an extraordinary piece that brings us very much down to earth with its depictions of a whole world in sound, from battle music to imitations of dogs, cats and hens. Just like Antonio Bertali and Giovanni Valentini, who are also represented here, Farina was a violinist-cum-composer born in Italy who found work in the German-speaking world – he even crossed paths with Bertali and Valentini in Vienna, where they were all active in the late 1630s.
Every programme note for Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto tells of how he was inspired by the tragic death of Alma Mahler’s daughter. But this too was a fiction.
“Each piece in ‘Lies and Morals’ presents the idea of a lie in a different way”, says Gricmanis. “In his Sonata a 4, for example, Valentini presents a short but reflective motif in a major key, then offers what would normally be considered an echo – only it’s in a bizarre, unpredictable key. This ping-pong effect goes throughout the whole piece. It’s as if he presents an idea, then reflects on it and asks: ‘Is it right to feel this way?’ And in ‘The Liar’ by Marco Uccellini, the relationship between the bass and the violin is unsettling. You never know where the emphasis should be. You feel as if you’ve entered into a conversation in which the bass keeps telling you that you’re tripping up over your own lies. Then there are very churchlike cadences that seem to express a sense of guilt.” Gricmanis adds: “We have this idea of the Baroque as something beautiful, but beauty can also be found in what’s difficult and challenging. The music’s golden moments of ease are all the more beautiful for it.”
This year’s DAVOS FESTIVAL is also tackling head-on what is perhaps the biggest lie perpetrated in Western music over the past thousand years – one formulated most succinctly by the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham when he claimed that “there are no women composers, never have been and possibly never will be”. Pants on fire indeed.
To be sure, most people today will have heard of the late-Mediaeval composer-poetess Hildegard von Bingen – some of her music is in fact featured in the Noxwode Ensemble’s programme on 14 August – and most will also have heard of women composers who are active in our own time, such as Sofia Gubaidulina (who features in the concert on 9 August). But women composers did not cease to exist in the centuries between Hildegard and Sofia. Women have always composed, despite the manifold restrictions placed by men on their opportunities for education and performance, though some have admittedly found it wise to write under an assumed (implicitly male) name, as did “Poldowski” (aka Régine Wieniawski) and “Anthony Trent” (= Rebecca Clarke), or under an androgenised form of their own, such as Mel (i.e. Mélanie) Bonis; works by these three ladies make up the bulk of the programme “Pseudonym” on 7 August. Today, there is no need to hide their identity. And perhaps, twenty or thirty years from now, putting on a concert devoted to women composers will be such a normal occurrence that it will cease to be worthy of note. Artists will still continue to tell lies, just like the rest of humanity; but maybe they might no longer need to tell so many.
Chris Walton is a Swiss music historian, writer and translator. He teaches at the Basel University of Music, runs a research project at the Bern University of the Arts and is an Honorary Professor at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. He lives today in Solothurn and Törbel. His books include Lies and Epiphanies (University of Rochester Press, 2014).
This text was published in the DAVOS FESTIVAL Magazine 2/22.
Photo: Conor Gricmanis © Private