I need a classical music expert (biographical)

Ok, I am trying to examine and contrast the lives of historical artists in order to make a point in a paper. I need a quick list of artists who clearly succeeded in creating great works, but did so at the cost of other important matters. For example, Beethoven is often seen as obsessive about music, but he treated his family and other people in general pretty poorly. You could say that he sacrificed large portions of what most people woudl consider important in order to pursue his art. I need a quick list of people like that.

Then, for the contrast, I need a list of people who succeeded in art, but still led healthy, balanced lives doing other things. daVinci is probably the most obvious example of this. But I am sure there are people here who will know more.

Can anyone help? this is really a biographical question, more than a debate about aesthetics or morality.

Sorry about the topic title. I realized as I was writing the first message that it could be any artist, but I forgot to change the title.

The one doesn’t really necessarily have an impact on another. You’d have to be more specific.

Well, there’s Mozart. However, his situation was largely imposed upon him by his upbringing.

At the risk of spoiling your argument, I don’t think that the comparison is really a good one. I mean that in most cases, personal lives impacted the art more than the art impacted personal lives. I suspect that might make for a better comparison than looking at it from the other way around.

  • Alan

I think you’ll find that great visual artists sacrificed most things to achieve greatness. Much like a businessman will do the same.
Picasso was alienated from his family, Dali was trapped in his persona, pretty well any modern artist has had to market themselves as an avant-garde package which isn’t really conducive to solid relationships.
As far as stable personas go, I’d say Rene Magritte managed to look and act like a middle class grocer for his whole life. Marc Chagall seemed to have it together. Hmmm, not to many stable sorts come to mind.

What about the Painter of Light? I think he just drives other people crazy.


J S Bach - genius, prolific creator of the most magnificent music, and prolific family man as well.



Actually, most artistic eccentrics that I’m familiar with weren’t eccentric by choice, so I don’t think the sacrifice analogy works particularly well. Beethovan was misanthropic, and maybe somewhat manic-depressive (judging from his letters). This might have led him to prefer solitary pursuits like compositon. (BTW, he was also a brilliant businessman.) In this sense, he didn’t really give anything up to be a composer – what he ‘lost’ he didn’t have real access to in the first place.

As for the other end, Mendelsohn appears to have been a pretty healthy and well-adjusted guy – as were Igor Stravinski and Benjiman Brittan. I recall that Haydn lived a generally ordinary life. Bach’s been mentioned. Tshaikovsky did remarkably given what he was faced with, as did Shostakovich. I don’t recall hearing anything out of sorts with regards to Debussey.

Byron was practically a rockstar with his poetry. Had sex with his half sister. Got kicked out of England for a bit. Died at age 35 in Greece.

In many art vs. ethics debates, Gauguin is the classic example of the artist who pursues his vision at the expense of personal responsibility. For most aesthetes, Gauguin’s abandoment of his family and retreat to Tahiti represents the truly authentic artist, who creates not only art, but also the moral system needed to understand the art. To most ethicians, he represents the modern artist’s narcissism and disdain for any moral obstacle that may get in the way of the celebration of the self. After the table is set, the debate is usually a refinement of those two basic positions.

Karl Marx.

Thanks guys. For the record (though I hinted at this above) I am not trying to make an argument that they chose these things in an active way. My point, in the paper, is to show both sides. In fact, if anything, I want to argue that the Romantic notion that people have to sacrifice everything in order to be a great artist is wrong. I just needed a quick list to remind me of people from both sides.

all off the top of my head…

Beethoven was evidently unpleasant to be around, but he was in his own way quite devoted to temporal matters. When his brother died he took custody of his nephew Karl, and apparently took this charge very seriously. So seriously that Karl later attempted suicide (apparently B’s attentions weren’t appreciated). The deepest insight into Beethoven’s personality might be found in his “Heiligenstadt Testament,” which he wrote shortly after learning he was going deaf. He grappled with the question of why Fate was tormenting him thus, and ultimately decided he had to press on and pursue his goals. Beethoven was famously absent minded. He would complain about food at taverns, forgetting what he had ordered. Once he overturned a bowl of soup on a waiter’s head. Something of a dandy in his younger days, he became more eccentric in middle age. He would wander the streets humming to himself, unkempt. Children sometimes taunted him on the street, throwing rocks etc. He was paranoid that his servants were cheating him. He exploited publishers, sometimes selling the same piece of music to two different firms. One time he was arrested as a vagrant because his appearance was so disheveled. When the police realized he was the illustrious composer Beethoven, they released him.

Chopin, we see from his letters, was a charming personality with a bawdy sense of humor. He was a snob and social climber, always looking to get into higher circles, insisting on the latest fashions in clothes, etc. He associated with Polish expatriates in Paris and his music reflected a passion for the Polish cause, but in general he avoided politics and didn’t show a broad range of interests beyond music. He shamelessly used his friends – particularly his hapless factotum Julian Fontana, whom he sent endlessly on errands to find him apartments, get him better servants, better clothes, etc. Chopin was probably most at peace in the summers at Nohant, his longtime lover George Sand’s estate, in the late 1830s and early 1840s. Here he composed prolifically and participated in amateur theater with Sand and her kids. He was a skilled mime/impersonator with a wicked gift for caricaturing others. He was nervous on the concert stage and preferred to play for intimate audiences in salons. He was fashionably anti-semitic, complaining that music publishers would “Jew” him and deprive him of money. He taught piano to dilletante aristocrats in order to pay the bills. He took this job very seriously and was by all accounts a dedicated, conscientious teacher. He could occasionally fly into a rage, as when a listener told him his rubato was so extreme that he was effectively playing a 3/4 mazurka in 4/4 time. One of his closest friends was the painter Delacroix, with whom Chopin had long conversations about art and music.

Mendelssohn was a cultured, well-rounded gentleman. In addition to being a prodigious composer (writing masterpieces by the age of 16) and probably one of the 10 or so best pianists in the world, he was a highly skilled artist. I don’t know much about Mendelssohn’s bio or his personal behavior, though.

Schumann was a brilliant music critic, writing important reviews at the tender age of 20-21. He famously wrote of Chopin at that time, re Chops’ Variations on La Ci Darem La Mano, “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” His music is arguably more eccentric, more weird and offbeat, than anyone else in the Romantic generation of composers. He eventually went mad and (I believe) attempted suicide. He was devoted to his wife Clara, who after his death became one of Europe’s most celebrated pianists and a popularizer of his music.

Liszt was a real man of the world. Probably the all-around nicest guy of all the classical composers. He was intellectually curious, deeply religious, and tended to hang out with bohemian revolutionary types. He was a lady killer and once (according to rumor) used Chopin’s apartment for an illicit tryst – Chopin never forgave him. Liszt was generous to a fault. He bent over backwards to use his influence on behalf of lesser-known composers – Wagner being the most famous example. He donated proceeds from lucrative concerts to charitable causes (Hungarian flood relief, Beethoven monument, to name two). He toured tirelessly – in an era before railroads – and almost single-handedly created the modern piano recital. In his later years we see a wonderful portrait of him by young American piano student Amy Fay, as depicted in her book “Music Study in Germany.” She came to Germany to study around 1870 and took some master classes with Liszt. She portrays him as a kind, witty man, a generous teacher, and still something of a flirt into late middle age. Liszt had some children. He had two major relationships in his life, one with the countess Marie D’Agoult, the other with a Russian aristocrat, Princess Caroline Von Sayn-Wittgenstein. Both of these women were embroiled in other marriages and so Liszt never married, though he desperately lobbied for the Catholic Church to annul Wittegenstein’s first marriage – they refused. In later life his religious devotion increased and he became an “abbe.” He is seen as a generally sunny personality, but he also had that “diabolic” side, especially in his youth – copied from Paganini, and evident in some of his music, such as the Dante Sonata. Even in his tranquil old age he wrote some moody and very challenging music such as the harmonically forward-looking “Nuages Gris.”

Mozart is accessible through his letters. He was bawdy and humorous. Apparently a skilled billiards player. Financially inept, always borrowing money from people. His wife Constanze was his second choice (he was originally planning to marry her sister). His difficult relationship with his father, who taught him everything about music but did not approve of his marriage, is well known. There is probably a lot more to his personality (we must avoid the danger of slipping into “Amadeus” cliches) but I have read no Mozart bios so I can’t say.

From what little I know of Wagner, he was apparently a pretty shitty personality. Like Mozart or Chopin he tended to unconsciously use his friends, and he borrowed money a lot. His anti-Semitism is well known.

I know little about Bach except that he had a big family. He once walked something like 70 miles to hear Dietrich Buxtehude play the organ. He was a bit of a tech-head, capable of repairing and maintaining organs himself.

My gut feeling on this issue is that, to achieve greatness in art (and probably many other endeavors), one must be focused to a rare degree – to a degree that would exceed the “balance” the rest of us seek in our lives. Social concerns and financial concerns – and health concerns, a lot of these guys died young and it may not just be coincidence – do seem to fall by the wayside sometimes. (Edit: then again, compared to the average life expectancy of 18th/19th centuries, composers and poets may not deviate much from the norm, now that I think about it more.) A lot of these artists seem to make use of “enablers,” people who help shelter them from the real world, and whom they sometimes unconsciously exploit. I don’t have enough data to make any confident generalizations however.

Handel loved booze and was stingy about it (or, at least with the good stuff; I believe he was on the whole stingy with money). He’d have dinner parties, excuse himself at various times to go to a small room and fill himself up with the stuff.

Heya… is it welcome back or is this a drive-by posting? A tidy nearly 9 months from your last post to this one.

Things are really pretty simple here. A person grasps something great. It then becomes an obsession… a way of life. Everything funnels into this… both the actions of the artist and the influences of the artist on his surroundings.

Its not “balance” at all… most humans are practical, pragmatic, and political not out of a desire for balance but out of a lack of passion… a lack of desire for anything else. A human follows laws not out of special respect for laws but because its the safest thing to do. A human follows social conventions not out of special respect for them but because it offers him the most social benefits.

Artists who grasp something great quickly learn a large amount of derision for “common” humans (which they mask in egalitarian cultures where they are oppressed). Their goal is to serve the greatness, and they’ll make everyone around them who doesn’t have a goal at least as great serve it as well.

The idea that an artist “focuses”, and THEN produces something great is ludicrous… deeply stupid. They see the greatness, then achieve the greatness, then get very arrogant (achieving the greatness isn’t even absolutely necessary for the process, but encourages it). The greater the thing achieved, the less valuable everything else in life is… the less valuable everything else not associated with that thing is. I’m always amused when people talk about a poor artist, or a wayward artist, or a distracted artist and say “they’re doing that for their art”… the truth is more along the lines that they’re NOT doing it because of their art. Their art is their master… to promote another to an artist is to be laughed at, either overtly or otherwise. Eating is time away from their art. Sleeping is time away from their art. Time with friends is an opportunity to get material for their art.

Great art is the thing most feared by egalitarian cultures, and there you’ll find fun terms like “elitists”, “snobs”, “arrogant bastards”, and “hoity toities”.

“What, does he think he’s BETTER THAN ME or something?”, always spoken in a tone of outrage and aggressive threat. The truth is, “yes he does” and “he probably is”. It makes me all warm and fuzzy to see someone trying to threaten an artist into not pursuing his art (not that such a thing is likely outside of murder).

Gotta go… I hear the sirens of the Egalitarian Police.

The idea that an artist “focuses”, and THEN produces something great is ludicrous… deeply stupid.

Thanks for your pleasant reply, Brian, and for reminding me why I stopped posting around here 8 months ago. You are truly a prince among men. :)

Deeply Stupid Ludicrous Man,

signing off for another 9 months…

Koontz claims another victim.

I don’t think it’s so easy to say that the great artist puts aside every concern (monetary, physical, whatever) to pursue art.

Take, frex, Rossini, who (IIRC) pretty much wrote only for money. Writing music was easy for him, so it was an easy way to make money. As soon as it became harder (sometime after he turned 40, I think), he just quit.

Bach was also very focused on money–it’s pretty rare that we find any major stuff by him that wasn’t written for money, or in the hopes of getting some. (In fact, as I recall, that’s one of the big mysteries about the Mass in B minor–it’s not clear why he wrote it, and he normally didn’t write works on that scale just for the fun of it).