The Importance of Biographical Study in Preparation for Performances

As a precursor to my musings on Beethoven, I thought it would be a good idea to explain why it is important to study the lives of composers. Biographical research is not just for music historians, it should be an essential practice for performers as well.

There are many times where I have begun playing a piece and enjoyed an out-of-body experience whereby I temporarily felt as if I was the composer of the work. Later through diligent studies of the composer’s life and what drove him or her to pen the composition, I found the work to be even more compelling than my first acquaintance with the piece. On the flip side, learning about a composer’s life and personality can help one connect with a piece that perhaps did not grab their soul at first meeting.

I started to learn about Beethoven the man from which point my understanding of Beethoven the composer and my interpretation of his works became for me real and profound. The beginning of my spiral into an obsession with Beethoven. You realize that he and his contemporaries are not a group of stuffy icons in paintings. These were real people with lives and emotions and problems and situations that are relatable to those of people today. For modern people who feel alone in their feelings, in the private memoirs of these composers and the individuals of their time one can find camaraderie and solace. We can learn from their mistakes and share in their triumphs. All of these emotions meld together and make it easier to understand and interpret great works of musical art.

True, as artists we have our own unique interpretations of the works in our repertoire, but we are also responsible for conveying the composer’s message and intent to the audience. In order for us to truly understand this vision it is paramount to have some understanding of the character of the composer as a person. What did he or she think about the world and humanity? How did he or she view their works? Was this work written as a part of a commission or was it forged to make some independent artistic statement? What was going on historically in the world of the composer at the time this work was written?

I understand that this research practice is often a part of the score study process for conductors and performers of large-scale works but it should be a common exercise for all performers and all works. Granted not every piece or composer will carry an abundance of resources to solve the mystery of composer intentions especially if that composer is dead and there are few records of his or her opinions. It is certainly an easier task to undergo if the composer is alive in modern times especially with the advent of the internet and cellular telephones.

The key is that performers and interpreters of “classical” (I hate the term Classical music it is a misnomer and my unbridled hatred for its coined usage in popular culture is something I shall cover in another post.) particularly have an important role in the preservation of the Western music tradition: the privilege and duty to preserve the works of the past, present, and future so as that our music does not become like that of Ancient Greece, a people whose music we have documentation of in written regard but whose sounds are lost to the sands of time.

I urge you next time you learn a new work no matter how small or large give sometime to learning something deep about the person who composed that work. You may find a like-minded friend as I have in Beethoven, though you are separated by time and space.

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