A couple of days ago, I found myself having a Twitter exchange on a subject that I find fascinating and infuriating in equal parts. Several people were having a discussion about Brahms, and Brahms biography, and biographical approaches and writing styles. ‘Purple prose’, one person argued, was necessary in Brahms’s case. ‘Let’s be honest,’ they wrote, ‘the guy was pretty boring.’ This was the point where (not entirely surprisingly), I felt the need to enter the fray. (The thread is here if you want to read more.)
Why do we write – and indeed read – biographies? What are we hoping to find out? For the most part, the person in question has got to have done something to merit our being interested in them in the first place. This could be one of an enormous range of things: running a country, creating artwork of some kind, mass-murder, winning multiple Olympic medals, making a major scientific discovery, repeatedly and ingeniously breaking the law… the list goes on and on. They did something unusual and exceptional. We are therefore intrigued. What got them there? What caused them to be that person? As much as we can ever know the answers to these questions (and their corollary: could we ever do such things, or similar things – are they like us in some way, perhaps?), we want someone to find out and tell us.
That’s usually where the researcher starts: to understand how the person in question came to achieve/get away with whatever they did. From family history and upbringing to friends, education, opportunities, big breaks and major disasters, they work through the story. Wider context is crucial. And so is personal documentation. Did they write a lot of letters? Were they a good correspondent? Did they keep a diary – and for whom? Are there newspaper articles, about or indeed by them? Other public statements? Films and photographs? Memoirs of close friends? And so on.
Whatever we can glean from these materials form the historical basis of the narrative. Sometimes there is a mountain of material generated by the subject: Wagner’s prose works, for example, or Samuel Pepys’s diaries. Sometimes there are diaries (the Schumanns), or heaps of correspondence (Liszt), or a quantity of published pieces (Berlioz – though of course, what he said in print might have been diplomatically constructed and not reflect personal opinions). Sometimes there is even an autobiography, which may be more or less factually accurate (yes Wagner, I’m looking at you). And these sources might immediately bring to light particularly extreme/hilarious/tragic events and circumstances which are rich material for the biographer. Nothing like a gripping story full of translatlantic adventures, being mistaken for a corpse, dressing up as a ladies’ maid, hitting on your students, smoking opium cigars and deciding to conduct an invisible choir in the ceiling, to make a good story. All of those things happened, by the way. But to different composers. Still, they read well in a row, don’t they?
So there are some people who, at first glance, seem rather unpromising from the perspective of writing a suitably rip-roaring biography. Mendelssohn. I mean, the man was happily married, always had enough money, wasn’t secretly gay or an alcoholic or the possessor of a terrible temper, got on with people, and didn’t even have the decency to die of something respectably Romantic like syphilis. Where’s the fun in that?
And then there’s Brahms. Maybe he played in brothels as a boy, but maybe he didn’t. Yes, he loved Clara Schumann, but we have no firm evidence that they actually had a physical romantic relationship, either before or after Robert Schumann’s death. He never married. He did visit prostitutes. He didn’t, however, get syphilis. He didn’t publish contentious articles in the press after his first attempt at such a thing backfired spectacularly in 1860. He destroyed countless works and sketches, and a good number of his letters, too. He knew what it was to leave things behind for posterity, and he tried very hard to control what remained. And in many ways, he did an extremely good job.
So what do we do? What do those who want to write a biography, lure people in, tell a gripping tale of talent and triumph over adversity and hardship? Well, my personal opinion is: tell people the truth as far as we know it, in as engaging a way as possible. You’re reading the biography, probably, because you love Brahms’s music. Actually it’s possible to write intensely brilliant, passionate, beautiful music without having smoked opium cigars or dressing up as a ladies’ maid. And there are, in Brahms’s life, stories of hilarious practical jokes, extraordinary kindness, a LOT of big meals and nice coffee, friendships silly and serious, love and loss, adventures across Europe, and great art. He’s not a superhero, or a super-villain. He was just a guy with a complicated life who composed astonishing music. Isn’t that enough? It is for me – as a researcher, a writer, a reader. If you want the exciting life stories, go and read about someone else. If you want to know who wrote that symphony you love, that piano sonata, string sextet, group of Lieder, then here he is. No purple prose required. And if you really feel you have to spin it for your readers… then you probably shouldn’t be writing the book in the first place.