I blog about crime every once in a while, and as I've pursued this interest during the past couple of years, I've taken to following the work of the British criminologist David Wilson. I've read a couple of his books (more on them in the future) and watched as many of his documentaries as I could find on the web. I've also bookmarked his Facebook page, just in case something interesting turns up there as well.
Not quite three months ago Professor Wilson linked to an interview with the pianist James Rhodes. I had never heard of Mr. Rhodes before, and so I began to learn more about him. His story attracted Professor Wilson's attention because Mr. Rhodes was repeatedly raped as a young boy. The interview was conducted shortly after the conclusion of the legal brouhaha surrounding his autobiography Instrumental. He had been fighting a court injunction and had just won the right to publish his memoirs. Winning the right to publish his autobiography, I admit, sounds strange, but I don't need to recount the story for you. You can read the interview for yourself.
Well, I confess that I was intrigued. Because Mr. Rhodes's autobiography had yet to be published at the time of the interview, I had to wait a little while before I could read it. (I bought a copy as soon as it became available. It's quite a book, very grim at times.) In the meantime, though, I figured that I could watch his TV series Piano Man.
I ordered a copy of the DVD from a third-party seller on Amazon for about ten dollars (which included shipping and handling). So the price was right. Here are a couple of pictures to get you started.
The splashy graphics give you a hint about the intent of the series. It's not meant to be the sort of supposedly respectable program designed for those who have already been initiated into the alleged mysteries of classical music. In short, the show isn't stuffy. In each of the seven episodes Mr. Rhodes introduces various pieces of piano music and then plays them while the camera rolls. As he plays, graphics pop up on the screen to give the viewer tidbits about the composer and the composition. It's all good fun and very entertaining.
What struck me most about the series, though, is Mr. Rhodes's autobiographical approach to the music that he plays. I couldn't help noticing that Mr. Rhodes has a nervous, twitchy personality. It's part of his charm as a host, actually. As he goes through the seven episodes of the series he mentions his lifelong psychological difficulties (without ever revealing that he is a rape victim) and explains how classical music has always helped him to feel better when he was down.
In other words, Mr. Rhodes's approach to classical music is therapeutic. Whenever he introduces a composition, he tends to refer to the difficulties that the composer was experiencing while composing the music. Mr. Rhodes then typically marvels at how the composer was able to work through his emotional turmoil and create something of such great beauty and power.
In this way Mr. Rhodes hopes to make classical music accessible to listeners who have never thought that classical music really was for them. Mr. Rhodes's thinking behind this approach seems to be something like the following: "If classical music can help me to get through life, then maybe it can do the same for you. Isn't that a reason to give it a chance?"
There's nothing inherently wrong with such an approach to classical music. We certainly can turn to music for the emotional comfort that it can offer us, and we can certainly luxuriate in the relief that it can bring us. But the emotional benefits of music, as great as they can be, aren't really explained by reference to the emotional life of the composer. Our receptivity to music of any sort is more complicated than that.
Telling us that composer X was feeling emotions A, B, and C when he (or she, of course, but Mr. Rhodes restricts his attention to male composers in this series) composed some piece of music really tells us very little about why we happen to be moved when we hear a performance of that composition. The emotional content of music comes from, among other things, the history of musical style and technique.
Furthermore, facts about the composer's emotional life tell us very little about the composition's emotional content. A composer need not feel happy in order to write happy music, or feel sad in order to write sad music. Sad composers who know their stuff can write happy music, and happy composers can write sad music. Once again, the mechanics of musical composition are more important than the composer's mental state.
Our emotional troubles, however varied they may seem to us as individuals, are actually more uniform than we tend to think. All of Mr. Rhodes's composers experienced the many forms of human misery common to us all, yet each of his composers wrote music that differs from that of the other composers. These composers also experienced joy and ecstasy. But how to express all of these emotions depends on style and technique.
The most important composers tend to be those who create forms of musical expression that allow them to express familiar emotions in new ways. These composers are the musical geniuses, and their originality becomes exemplary. They blaze a trail for others to follow, until some new genius comes along and shakes things up again.
Mr. Rhodes talks about style and technique from time to time. For example, in episode 1, when he talks about Beethoven's Waldstein sonata, Mr. Rhodes briefly discusses the way in which Beethoven used chords, scales, and arpeggios to compose the first movement. In episode 3, when he introduces Chopin's Étude Op. 25, no. 12, Mr. Rhodes fleetingly mentions arpeggios, scales, and repeated notes. And in episode 5, he talks about the impressionistic musical style when he introduces Debussy's Clair de lune. But, of course, he never goes into much detail on such matters. After all, the series is intended to entice people into enjoying classical music, not to lecture to them.
I'm not a member of Mr. Rhodes's target audience. I've been listening to classical music and opera for much of my life. I'm even currently translating a book by Richard Wagner. (See my Wagner posts for more on this project.) And since I'm not really one of his intended listeners, he doesn't need to convince me to give classical music a chance. It's all to the good, though, if he manages to win new admirers for classical music.
But since Mr. Rhodes clearly has a talent for explaining things to his audience, it behooves him to go beyond his preferred autobiographical approach. If he did, he could help to dispel some of the genuine difficulty involved in listening to classical music. It can be very complex, and thus can be very demanding on an audience, which no doubt turns away some people.
It's comforting to know that even great geniuses have the same problems as everyone else. It's slightly more comforting to know that the fruits of their compositional labor can move us deeply and help us to get through life's traumas. (And more power to Mr. Rhodes on this score, by the way. My emotional troubles fall vastly short of his. I'm impressed that he has managed to achieve so much.) But if you ask me, what is most comforting to know is that we can learn to appreciate the great works of musical genius that have moved and comforted us. The distance between great composers and mere listeners, while it exists, is not as wide as we tend to think. Mr. Rhodes is in an excellent position to help us to bridge this gap.