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Classical Mythology 101

1. The Myth of the Composer Deity

Classical music is the food of the gods and only the divine are capable of creating it.

That's one way to look at it. Classical music as nectar and ambrosia. Fruit of Olympians. Breakfast of champions. Victuals of kings and noblemen.

But how about coming back down to earth and trying an alternative model? Classical music as meat and potatoes. Carrots and peas. The basic stuff we all need in order to get by every day. Written by professionals with a gift for understanding the language of music and its craft.

I don't really know when the deification of composers began, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it was in the 19th-century. After all, how close could a composer get to godliness in the 18th-century when he was considered royal chattel -- like Bach, for instance, who was thrown in jail for a month by his boss, the Duke of Weimar, for wanting to serve another patron. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it all began on March 27, 1827, the day after Beethoven died. His funeral cortege drew an estimated 30,000 people, an outpouring the like of which hadn't been seen in Vienna since the Congress of Allies met in 1814 to carve up Napoleon's Europe. No doubt he was ushered straight into the Pantheon -- unlike Bach or Mozart who had to wait a century. But before long, even the living were elegible for godhood; witness Brahms, who "sprang like Minerva from Jupiter's brow," according to Schumann.

You still hear classical music talked about with saccharine sacrosanctity (if not quite in such shamelessly romanticized terms as Schumann's). It probably served a few purposes in its time. The Romantic Age was an age of hero worship. By equating composers and their art with gods, you could easily convey a sense of grandeur to ignorant masses who would worship anything with four legs and a tail. Making a god of Beethoven (or Brahms or Mozart or Wagner) gave them the edge of moral superiority over, say, a Rossini or a Meyerbeer. And it created a high art that was unassailable by the low art of virtuoso showmen from Paganini to Pachmann.

Today, performers would just about never dream of deviating from a printed urtext or a pianist improvise new variations on the spot as artists used to do in the late 19th and early 20th-century. It's safe to assume that the battle for high art has been won. But now that hero worship and sanctimony are suspect (or at least ought to be), it would serve composers well if they resembled humans instead of gods.

The transformation of Mozart into "Amadeus" over the last 10 or 20 years -- in this case, from melodious god to perverted but gifted man-child -- was met with howls of protest from religiose purists who claimed that this flesh-and-blood version was based on myths and falsehoods. But wait a minute! Much of the legend surrounding Mozart's life and death existed when he used to be a god, and much of it directly fed into the "Mozart as deity" myth. Where were the defenders of fact back then? Could it be that the critics of "Amadeus" are less concerned with accuracy than with keeping their guy up on Olympus?

That's one way to look at it.

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© David BŁndler, 2000
Last revised: May 23, 2000