The cult of celebrity (AKA being famous for being famous) has muddied the waters of music for a long time. Yet, after a lifetime of loving Beethoven’s music, (and Mozart’s, Schubert’s, Chopin’s, Brahms’, etc.), I’m still moved by their works, without knowing much of the personal nature of their lives, if you can imagine that! For me, the logical development of the musical material gives meaning beyond the intrinsic beauty of their pieces – the music stands the test of time on its own merits, regardless of how celebrated or unpopular these creators were during the course of their lives.
I was always a fan of Aaron Copland’s music, though I knew little of his private life and didn’t really care; it was enough to admire the fact he managed to earn a living from his compositions without needing a church gig, like J.S. Bach! (It probably helped that, unlike Bach, Copland didn’t have 20 children to support!?)
When I first met my teacher Hale Smith 49 years ago, I had never heard any of his works. As a teenager without funds to purchase recordings and in the absence of the internet, I didn’t become acquainted with his music until well after meeting him in person and becoming charmed by his vibrant character, energy and prodigious knowledge. While UConn had many fine faculty members who lived near the campus at Storrs, the music dept. also brought in professionals who made a living in NYC, and who provided an example of how it could be accomplished, for those of us who longed to make our mark in the music biz outside of academia. Hale was the chief shining beacon who inspired and encouraged me to imagine my own future as a professional musician.
But did I know his music? Do I know his music? Ummm…. maybe not-so-much! Though brilliant, cogent and compelling, Hale’s “formal” music demands the listener truly pay attention to catch the nuances that constitute the integrity of his creations. For example, his Contours For Orchestra is pretty intense and difficult to appreciate on first hearing – at least for this listener! Three Brevities (Allegro) is also complex, though composed for only a solo flute, and only one minute in duration! Hale’s “casual” music is more accessible, I think, but still sophisticated and not completely grokked without paying attention.
We live in a society that frequently prizes big-name superstardom above actual accomplishment, and it’s easy to get swept up in the hype of celebrity; we’re certainly encouraged to do so by the media. One might argue that the personality pervades the creative end result and is indistinguishable – but it seems to me that art falls or stands on its own 2 feet, regardless of the creator’s reputation. It takes effort to focus on more substantial values, in the arts and elsewhere. However, the rewards are worth the effort, IMHO.