by Mark English
“Are you mad?”
“But you asked me to play.”
“I asked you to play. If you can’t think of anything better, play a chromatic scale or a five-finger exercise, but spare me your suburban shopgirl trash.”
This exchange comes from a very popular movie of the 1940s, The Seventh Veil. (1) A romantic melodrama, it explores the complex relationship between a shy, musically-gifted girl (played by Ann Todd) and her misogynistic guardian (James Mason). In the scene in question, the Ann Todd character, who had by then developed into an excellent pianist, had just come in from a night out with her boyfriend, and she had dared to play a popular waltz instead of the usual Beethoven, Chopin or Schumann.
Margaret Rowley suggested in a recent discussion that the inordinate respect granted to certain composers of the past had – and continues to have – unfortunate effects on musicians. (2) She referred specifically to the “trope that Beethoven exemplified: moody, alone (both physically and mentally) … dark, brooding, brilliant.” This is certainly one form that the Romantic ideal of the creative artist has taken, and it certainly has had an impact.
As Rowley noted, even the “brilliant and musically literate Brahms was afraid to write symphonies because of “Beethoven’s shadow” – as have been countless composers since the nineteenth century.”
According to Rowley, this way of looking at things has had far-reaching implications. For one thing, the composer is seen to be the ultimate authority on his music, and the performer’s role is essentially to try to fulfill the intentions of the composer. Secondly, composers “should be fully-formed, musically-literate beings with a sprinkling of genius.” Composers compose. Performers perform.
The result is musicians who, like me, are comfortable rendering recreations that are imperfect, inauthentic replicas of what we hope a composer intended – and, simultaneously, we are entirely musically illiterate when it comes to improvising and composing. Imagine being a painter and being limited to (poorly) copying Rembrandt. Imagine being a wordsmith limited to re-writing books that have already been written, but not being allowed to speak or write a new work. We all – all musicians, at least in my generation and prior – live uneasily in Beethoven’s shadow.
It seems to me that there are two incompatible Romantic myths at work here: the one being criticized is a kind of retrospective Romanticism, Romanticism with a conservative overlay; whereas the notion of the musician who is comfortable and confident in his or her own perspectives and creative abilities – who has moved out of Beethoven’s shadow – is also a Romantic one. In fact, the latter position, lacking any conservative overlay, seems to me to reflect more directly the original spirit of the Romantic period.
My concern here is not to make judgments about the value or usefulness of various Romantic perspectives or ideals, but simply to describe my encounters with some of them.
My main academic focus in terms of intellectual history has been on the first half of the 20th century, and I also take an interest in the popular culture of that period. The cinema – more than any other art form – encapsulates the society from which it springs: manners, ways of speaking, a whole range of cultural assumptions and myths. And implicit in The Seventh Veil is a set of values relating to art, celebrity and sexual politics. The film mixes popular ideas of love and romance with pseudo-Freudian psychology and Romantic myths about music and musicians.
It is structured as a series of flashbacks. The opening sequence involves a suicide attempt by the main character, who is a young but celebrated pianist. Believing she will never play again, she throws herself off a bridge.
This scene brings to mind any number of similar scenes in other movies or in fiction. A cinematic example from the same period is a segment of the movie Quartet (based on stories by William Somerset Maugham), in which an aspiring pianist played by Dirk Bogarde is judged not to have the spark of greatness. (3)
We see Romantic myth in action in both these examples: variations on the theme of musical genius. In neither case was there any suggestion that the pianist should also be a composer, so they reflect what I am calling Romanticism with a conservative overlay. The master-works involved are seen as given, timeless, representing a pinnacle of musical art; and the composers as Romantic icons, almost as gods.
Todd’s character says at one point that she had never met a man who understood the spirit of music better than her guardian. He is presented as a lover of music and a masterful teacher but he is not – much to his chagrin – a true musician. By contrast, a gifted pianist like the character played by Todd is seen as a kind of medium, someone who interprets and brings to life the work of the great composers within which this “spirit of music” lies dormant.
A clear hierarchy is being presented here. It is not a social but an artistic hierarchy. At the bottom are those who don’t appreciate “the spirit of music” – like the pianist’s former high school classmate who bursts into her dressing room before a performance, comes late to her seat and stifles a yawn as the concert begins. Then there are those with an artistic sensibility; then those who are gifted musically and who become performers. At the top of the hierarchy are the composers, the true creators.
These myths didn’t exist just in the movies. I know that Ludwig Wittgenstein (whose brother Paul was a celebrated pianist) thought in similar terms to this. He judged a society by whom it chose to honor. He himself honored artists, and particularly composers. Brahms meant a lot to him, I believe.
Even much later in the century, in boring, provincial cities far from the main centers of art and civilization, traces of these myths were discernible. I’m thinking of gifted pianists I have known personally. One was a boy at my high school who modeled himself on Beethoven. He was a bit of a rebel. Interestingly, he also liked rock music, and claimed that Beethoven would have also. I was three years older than he was and a prefect and so was obliged to uphold and enforce the school’s strict standards of behavior and dress. He didn’t conform. We had polite arguments about it. He argued his case quite well, actually. I heard much later that he had joined the army.
Another promising pianist I knew died of a drug overdose in his early twenties; and another, about the time of her graduation, had a traumatic experience performing a concerto which led to her giving up music and joining an extreme right-wing politico-religious sect.
My brother had some dealings with the pianist, André Tchaikowsky. But Tchaikowsky’s greatest wish (unfulfilled) was to be recognized not only as a pianist but also as a significant composer. He died of colon cancer at the age of 46, bequeathing his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company to be used as Yorick’s skull in Hamlet (which it was – and maybe still is). Was he a Romantic? Very much so.
My father was never an aspiring artist, but he too was strongly influenced by the kind of conservative Romanticism I have been focusing on here. As a child growing up in the Western Australian goldfields, he was deeply influenced (after his own father’s early death) by a remittance man who was perhaps a failed musician. (4) It was from this man that he got his lifelong love for the music of Beethoven and Chopin.
My father’s family – dominated by strong women – was in the hotel and guesthouse business. Presumably the remittance man lodged with them, and this made it possible for him to interact with my father and become a sort of mentor, or even father-figure for him.
There’s another side to this story. It relates to a musically gifted schoolgirl called Eileen Joyce who was known to my paternal relatives. I’m not sure of the nature or the closeness of the connection, but I do know that during a period when she did not have access to a good piano (her family was very poor) she was allowed to practice on the grand piano of a hotel run by my father’s family.
Eventually she attracted the attention of some influential people and went to Germany to study. She became quite famous, especially in England and Europe.
In fact, she played the piano for the soundtrack of a number of classic movies, including Brief Encounter, Quartet – and The Seventh Veil. She tutored Ann Todd in how to move her body, arms and hands like a professional pianist. But the extreme close-ups in the movie are of Joyce’s hands on the keyboard, not Todd’s.
- https://youtu.be/ftoufdcz-3s The link is to the full movie. I suggest three (or four) highlights: a scene in which the James Mason character persuades the girl to play for him for the first time (16 minute mark to 20 minute mark); and the two concert scenes – parts of the Grieg concerto (39-43), and parts of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 (46-51). The final scene of the movie is (in my opinion) a brilliant piece of theater, but I suspect that it may irk some viewers.
- https://youtu.be/iHHovbYDcXM See the second segment, “The Alien Corn”.
- Remittance men were generally the offspring of wealthy British families who didn’t fit in at home or had caused some scandal or embarrassment. Their families sent them to the colonies, remitting money to them on a regular basis.