As anyone who has the vaguest interest in cinema, DVD collecting, watching the TV or even bus posters will know, superheroes are in. They have been for a while: men of steel, fortuitous victims of nuclear/chemical accidents, test subjects of government projects – heck, even sparkly vampires. They battle the bad guys, deal with tough moral dilemmas, attempt to save the helpless and their loved ones, and generally battle for love and humanity. They allow us to identify something or someone often unequivocally bad, and have the strength and power to deal with it.
But more than this: ever since dear old Uncle Ben told Peter Parker that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, superheroes have had a tougher time of it than in Hollywood past. They have demons to battle, past mistakes that can never be rectified, impossible decisions and sacrifices to contend with. No one just gets to fly and punch stuff any more. You have to suffer for your strength.
Change a single word there, and we’ve crossed the borderlands from comic books to classical music: you have to suffer for you art. Of course, no one did this more spectacularly than Beethoven, whose twin sacrifices – of the chance for love and the power of hearing – are often presented as some kind of cosmic balance to his extraordinary creative output. Move on a few decades and we find Franz Liszt tweaking the aristocratic notion of noblesse oblige (those of nobility and wealth have moral obligations as a result of their privileges) to génie oblige (geniuses, artistic and others, have a social and moral responsibility because of their gifts). It’s just a hop, skip and a radioactive spider from these musical heroes to our web-slinging champion.
For those of us who spend our lives researching the life and works of people past, this tendency towards heroism and idolisation can be a tricky one to negotiate. To stick with music, it can be hard to remember sometimes that just because a person’s music speaks to you directly, it doesn’t mean that you would necessarily have been bosom buddies if you’d only had the opportunity to meet them face to face. And if you’re going to research a life as well as works, you’re almost certainly going to find things out about your hero(ine) that you will consider distasteful, disappointing or even repellent. Wagner is surely the famous example. But there are plenty of other composers whose lives contain details small or large which we may choose to ignore or reinterpret to make spending time with them and their music more comfortable. As Graham Johnson remarks in his Foreword to Franz Schubert. The Complete Songs: ‘Christians are convinced the composer was religious, while agnostics regard him approvingly as an enemy of the church. Extroverts imagine the fun the composer must have had with a life of sociable Schubertiads… introverts think of the number of times he failed to turn up to gatherings… Those who are bon viveurs want him to have been a merry drinker; those who are abstemious will make the argument that he could not possibly have achieved all he did while suffering from hangovers… It is almost as if we can all decide whom we want ‘our’ Schubert to be. And all of this because the documents we have at our disposal are silent on many issues.’
As scholars, we have a duty to report and interpret the evidence at our disposal as objectively and realistically as possible. But as people, we are often most lenient about those whom we care about and are not able to defend themselves. Brahms was a conservative, liberal, pro-Bismarck German living in Vienna with an attitude towards women which was entirely in keeping with that of his time, but would make me completely furious if I had to confront it face-to-face; and he could also be extremely cruel, even to close friends, when arguments flared up. Equally, there are reports of him being quietly, heartbreakingly kind. I love his music, and there are many aspects of his personality which I admire greatly. But if we had the chance to meet for coffee, I rather suspect it would be a complete disaster. Something tells me dinner with Ethel Smyth would be far more entertaining.
Yet the heroic element still clings to composers gone by. Over the last few weeks I have been making my way through Louise Marley’s The Brahms Deception, a sort of historical sci-fi in which time-travelling musicologists (yes, really) end up possessing Clara Schumann and Brahms and altering the time line with potentially disastrous consequences. It’s complete tosh, of course, both in terms of plot stability – Doctor Who would be reaching for the ibuprofen if you tried to explain Marley’s ‘science of time travel’ to him – and writing style. But what is so fascinating about it is the little tweaks that have been made to Brahms and Clara Schumann for the sake of it being A Book About Heroic Musicians. Brahms is made out to be about a foot taller than he actually was, with long legs and an appropriately rumbling baritone voice. After all, being 5’6’’ with a high-pitched voice doesn’t really fit the hero mould, does it? And he needs to be tall enough for Clara to rest her head against his lapels, as in all good romances. Schumann herself is almost entirely physically unaffected by giving birth to eight children, and presented as character in need of strength and support from Brahms – something I find particularly hilarious since everything I’ve read about her suggests to me that anyone who might try, dodgy time travel or not, to possess her, would end up going through the psychological equivalent of being decked with an iron skillet.
Of course, Marley is writing fiction and is not obliged to stick entirely to historical fact, nor to mention some of the less savoury details of living in a small, hot Italian house in the middle of country for two weeks with only a couple of changes of clothes. But it’s important to remember that writers of ‘fact’, too, have agendas, often fondness for their subjects (or at least fascination), and might be battling with loyalty to their historical hero(ine) as well as the search for accuracy of interpretation. Now it is us pen-wielders and the laptop owners with the great power. And we too have great responsibility.