Dual Threat Composers and Professional Hat Tricks
My previous column—meant to elicit eurekas that yes, artists do indeed have unique insights into their fellow artists, necessarily different from critics’ and scholars’—sure didn’t evoke a “shock of recognition” response; in fact, most of the puzzled threadbearers devolved into unrelated chats. Sorry if any unclarity was mine. But didn’t Arrigo Boito’s construction of Verdi’s librettos for Otello and Falstaff benefit from insight Boito gleaned composing his own operas Mefistofele and Nerone, insight that was not given to Piave? Likewise with composer Gian Carlo Menotti’s libretto for Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, which I just saw for the first time at the New York City Opera (and found a strong, worthwhile work). And don’t generic similarities of the artistic process cross-talk across boundaries? Look at the fact that Morton Gould’s primary composing and musical mentor was not a composer but Abby Whiteside, an unusual piano pedagogue; or that Percy Grainger, who studied composition with no less than Busoni, among others, averred that Karl Klimsch, an obscure painter and musical amateur, was the only composing teacher he ever really learned from? Didn’t Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko inform Morton Feldman’s music more than his composing teachers Riegger and Wolpe? How about sculptor Richard Serra’s effect on our contemporary Andrew Violette, acknowledged by Mr. Violette?
Virgil Thomson’s 1940s Herald Tribune apercus into what composers were really up to were unique among daily reviewers. Thomson was like an ex-major leaguer doing the play-by-play; he could explain with a workshop understanding why Shostakovitch wrote two-part counterpoint for a transitional passage, in a way that a non-composer critic didn’t have the tools to hear, much less analyze. And for similar reasons, a Norman Mailer, as I previously suggested, is going to see extraordinary things in a Picasso that will elude the most brilliant Ph.D. art historian. He’s a tradesman talking of a fellow tradesman.
Which brings me now to the rarest of rara aves in the annals of double-threat composers: not composers who have unique fellow-tradesmen insights into their brethren’s handiwork; not composers who double as critics or diarists; but successful composers who sustain wholly separate, successful careers as artists in other forms. I’d say the chief examples of this type in the 20th century (at least in the English-speaking realm) were Paul Bowles (well known for both fiction and music) and Anthony Burgess (well known as a writer but not as a composer), with honorable mentions to Carl Ruggles (composer and painter) and Dane Rudhyar (composer, painter, poet, astrologer…). There have been many composer-painters (Schoenberg and Gershwin are merely the tip of the iceberg) but Ruggles, a notoriously exiguous producer of musical scores, was actually quite prolific as a painter, though more famous as a composer.
Paul Bowles may have been unique among composers in pursuing two acclaimed art careers at different times of life. Until the late 1940s Bowles was known only a composer; his striking 1943 music for the Garcia Lorca zarzuela The Wind Remains is still in my ears twelve years after hearing the Eos Ensemble perform it at Alice Tully Hall. But in 1947 Bowles and his writer-wife Jane Auer moved permanently to Tangier, where he wrote The Sheltering Sky, The Spider’s House, and other remarkable fictions that garnered a worldwide readership far eclipsing the nichey numbers of his New York concert and theater audience.
Anthony Burgess’s closet composing is a fascinating case. Poets Sidney Lanier, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Ezra Pound all made stabs at composing music, but they were all dilettantes. But the hugely prolific author of A Clockwork Orange, the Enderby novels, and works on Shakespeare, Joyce, et al., set out in life to become a serious composer (he finished his first symphony in 1940) and quietly stuck at it. An English teacher and sporadic author, he suddenly dashed out five novels upon being told in 1959 he had terminal brain cancer and a year to live; the tumor proved nonexistent (or cured by art therapy?), but it unleashed a 30-year torrent of both prose and composing. Burgess penned about 175 compositions (!) of all sizes and varieties from pop tunes to massive oratorios, according to Paul Phillips, author of the Groves entry on Burgess. Phillips, a fine conductor and all-around musician, has already performed much Burgess with both the Brown University Symphony and the Pioneer Valley Symphony Orchestra (one of the best regional orchestras in the country). Phillips’s book, A Clockwork Counterpoint, scheduled for publication in late 2008, will tell the world much more about Burgess the composer, and hopefully recordings will follow. (Only one hard-to-find CD of his guitar quartets currently exists, to my knowledge.) Two months ago the Aurea Ensemble of Providence, Rhode Island, performed several Burgess chamber works in concert, and the performances were recorded.
Hat tricks usually refer to threes, but here I’ll apply it to twos. The verdict awaits: Was Burgess a graphomaniac dilettante, or the genuine article—a hat trick among artists?