Concerning Biographies...

My first reaction was negative when K Stolba suggested I review the new biography of Bernstein. I don't read biographies much, of musicians or anyone else. But the suggestion drew me down to the biographical shelves of the music collection in my college library -- I didn't even know if I was going to find Bernstein in the composers' section or the performers' -- and made me aware of how the output of all other sorts of books about music is dwarfed by that of biographies. It never surprises me to notice all the biographies of composers in our collection; my colleague and I in charge of the book budget in music are pretty conscientious about ordering them. But the section on performers just seems to grow by itself.

It may be that many people like to read biographies of musicians because no other kind of writing about music has meaning for them. But there is also a positive attraction that draws people to the lives of musicians, and that is a sense of intimacy with favorite performers and a fascination with the performing life. Composers as such just don't fascinate in the same way. Of course, the division of musicians into composers and performers is hardly more than a convenience of library classification systems, even in classical music, as Bernstein's career attests. But whether the subject is popular music or classical, it is the life behind the performance, not the life behind the song, that people most want to read about, and biographies of Stephen Sondheim or John Williams (the Hollywood composer) are never going to compete with the latest biography of Elvis or the life of Kurt Cobain that landed in my mailbox about a week after he died.

Performance creates a one-sided intimacy that biography purports to round out. Once I played two notes of a recording to a class, and every student in the class -- every student -- identified Barbra Streisand's voice the way they'd have identified -- forgive me, Barbra -- their own mother on the phone by the sound of her "Hello." Yet they don't know Streisand at all, just the voice, the look, the act. To read a biography of a well-known performer is, in a sense, to investigate what it would be like to turn one kind of acquaintance into the other, and it is no accident that the writers of these biographies give pride of place to the testimony of their subjects' friends. When I began to read the new biography of Bernstein, Humphrey Burton's Leonard Bernstein (New York: Doubleday, 1994), I began also, for comparison, Leslie Gourse's Sassy: The Life of Sarah Vaughan (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993), and I was struck that Gourse introduced her story with an account of how Vaughan appeared to one of her oldest friends in her last days, and especially how her voice sounded on the phone to this friend. But I was also struck that in the end I didn't feel as close to either Vaughan or Bernstein as I feel to a character in a good novel. The authors' moralizing stands in the way.

Both books, in fact, begin with the subject's death, and both authors dwell on the role of cigarette smoking in causing that death. Biography is a judgmental enterprise, and, for biographies in the 'nineties, smoking is an obvious target of judgment. But vices of addiction are also a convention, almost a requirement, of the genre. The life of the performing musician is fascinating because millions have, however fleetingly, imagined themselves living it. In our culture it represents everything antithetical to the ordinary life: the indulgence of the self, the enjoyment of fame, the freedom of the road, the open future. Fatal addictions are crucial to the tale because they are the down side, the signs of the toll this performing life takes. They give us permission to settle for duller, stabler lives and yet, by doing so, they also allow us to go on dreaming.

As a music scholar, I can object that these books don't tell us much about their subjects as musicians. Gourse tells us the same few, second-hand things about Vaughan's musicianship

again and again; Burton applauds Bernstein's compositions and his conducting in long-familiar terms. We can, if we like, find other musicians' biographies that use the frame of biography to develop a serious account of a contemporary musician's artistic development; a particularly sophisticated recent example is Ronald Radano's New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton's Cultural Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). But the more popular biographers, like Burton and Gourse, needn't be dismissed, even by college teachers of music, simply because they do not impress us in the way Radano does. They have their myth to perpetuate, however crudely, and it is a myth that clearly matters to students and teachers of music.

We college teachers teach young adults, after all, many of whom are heading for lives as professional musicians and all of whom are wondering what will become of themselves. They are at an age when other people's lives are acutely interesting, and not just the lives they can imagine emulating. They find the lives of composers who lived hundreds of years ago interesting -- I'm always surprised how interesting, compared to other kinds of reading I assign about music. The unfolding of a life seems to have a magic in itself. But the lives that are beyond the reader's reach -- the lives of stars -- have the most magic. There are no biographies of musicians who teach, or if there are, they aren't written for students. Maybe we should let our students read biographies of Bernstein or Vaughan or Elvis or Barbra on their own and come to their own terms with the myth of the performing star. But maybe there is some point in talking with students about the myths they are cherishing as they make decisions about their own lives.

In any case, we can ask students to consider why and how the performer's life is turned into myth. That process may be more visible -- or students may be more willing to see it -- when an example is taken from the past rather than the present. An example I can recommend is Ole Bull: Norway's Romantic Musician and Cosmopolitan Patriot (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993) by Einar Haugen and Camilla Cai. This is the story of one of the great touring virtuosos of the nineteenth century, of how he constructed his career as a living myth, and even of how, without the benefit of recordings, the myth was sustained after his death. Bull's music-making can no longer stir us like the music of great composers of his age, but his story belongs to one of the most compelling parts of music history, the history of myth-making about performers' lives.

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Last modified on Thursday, 02/05/2013

James Parakilas

James Parakilas, a music scholar with a doctorate from Cornell University, teaches courses on music history and culture, music theory, and performance. He plays the piano, often in chamber groups with students and colleagues, and coaches student chamber groups. His scholarly publications include the books Ballads Without Words: Chopin and the Tradition of the Instrumental Ballade (Amadeus Press, 1992), Piano Roles: 300 Years of Life with the Piano (Yale University Press, 2000; paperback, 2002), and the textbook The Story of Opera (forthcoming from W. W. Norton). In 2010-2011, under a Phillips Faculty Research Fellowship, he studied recent research in psychology, neuroscience and other fields that is prompting new understandings of the nature of music.

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