Moods and music


25th February 2003

When we think we know the circumstances of a composer's life that produced a particular mood in the music we are more often than not deluding ourselves. Historical commentators on the great artists make many assumptions in startling ignorance of them as human beings with real daily lives requiring the goods and services common to us all, hardly ever connecting with their moods and musical reasoning.
The expression of wit in music, as distinct from cheerfulness and good humour, was not widely practiced before the mid nineteenth century, and we do not therefore associate very much baroque or classical music with banter and witty repartee, though there is little doubt that Handel, Bach and a goodly company of their contemporaries enjoyed merry and boisterous times. It is tempting to associate dark, cold and damp living conditions, constant work, poverty and anxiety, bad food, bad teeth and indigestion with gloomy church music and pictures of tortured saints, but composers drew great enjoyment from their craft, the skill with which they could manipulate notes and harmony to whatever effect their patrons required.

Like good film composers now, the artisan does not betray in the product the moods of the maker -- and if it is a large score, an opera spread over two years or more, the changing moods will be many, whatever the theme of the work in progress. The virtue of the composer was, and is, in resisting the influences of daily life rather than allowing every hazard of the day to fall into the making of a series of notes or a pungent chord. They have in common with many other vocations, like teachers, doctors, nurses and churchmen, a professional need to rise above the influences of everyday life in order to carry out a task which may have a far higher level of intent and application than daily life.

Tragic art does not have to be the product of tragic experience. In a letter from one of music's most morbid composers, Tchaikovsky dismisses the popular belief that his sombre music is the product of unhappiness. 'On the contrary', he writes, 'the composer in the act of creation, and as a result of it, is in a state of ideal happiness'. Nor does tragic experience need to stimulate a constant flow of tragic music. Palestrina enjoyed a far more merry life than his church music might suggest, and Poulenc's musical cheerfulness hid more tragedy than we might suspect.