Monday, August 1, 2016

Music and Misery

I have presented the position a number of times here that the results of artistic creativity are not some sort of autobiography--angry composers don't compose angry music that makes you angry--but some recent research may challenge this view. The story is at the Pacific Standard: For Mozart, Misery Inspired Masterpieces.

The first thing to note is the delightful grammatical reversal that they undoubtedly picked up from the New York Times where it has become an ingrained quirk: instead of simply saying "Misery Inspired Masterpieces for Mozart" they give it that extra measure of. pretentiousness by reversing the clauses. Here is the hypothesis:
The tortured artist is a familiar figure in literature, an embodiment of the belief that suffering is a catalyst to creativity. Evidence to that effect, however, has been extremely mixed. Some researchers agree with this popular notion, while others insist happy emotions actually induce innovation. Still others suggest mixed emotions are the true drivers of great work.
So which is it? Well, a close look at three of the greatest musical geniuses of all time — Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt — provides evidence that misery really can inspire masterpieces.
Hm, well first of all, three composers is hardly statistically persuasive. Why not Bach, Haydn and Steve Reich? That would have given some rather different results, wouldn't you think? Turns out he picked the ones he did because of the extensive personal correspondence available which he then analyzed using linguistic software.
Borowiecki found obtaining a permanent position — and therefore job security — resulted in a reduced creative output. So did “being married or living in cohabitation.” This suggests there’s something to the notion of inspiration arising out of necessity. Hunger, or fear of paying next month’s rent, not only focuses the mind — it can apparently stimulate creativity.
But this could simply be a question of time: if you have a full-time job or are married this takes up a great deal of your time that might otherwise be spent composing.
As pianist Jeremy Denk wrote, “Beethoven needed the strength and consolation that he poured into his music.” If he had just been a little more miserable, we might have gotten a 10th symphony.
Oh, blah, blah, blah. Beethoven had sketches for a 10th symphony, but he didn't get around to finishing it.

Without a look at the details of his study it is hard to criticize it, but it occurs to me that a lot of Mozart's finest music was written when he was quite happy. Take for example the string of superb piano concertos he wrote for his Lenten subscription series in Vienna. This was a period of his life that was both happy and productive. Mind you, when he was unhappy and anxious he also wrote great music. He wrote great music no matter what mood he was in. As did most other composers I can think of.

What Prof. Borowiecki has done is cobble together some highly questionable statistics purporting to show some correlation between mood and productivity. The means, the data and the method are relatively crude compared to the normal complexities of human life and creativity. So I think that this is one of those studies that can be safely ignored.

One final point: I notice over and over that where these scientists (in this case an economist) go wrong is very often with the initial conception. They pick out some hoary old myth or cliché such as the "tortured artist" and then go out and hunt for some data they can torture into a correlation of sorts. Might there not be a better way? Why not just study some composers and their music without any preconceived ideas? Oh, wait, that is what musicologists are supposed to be doing!

For our envoi today, let's pick one of those delightful piano concertos by Mozart. This is the Piano Concerto no. 22 in E flat major, K. 482, composed in December of 1785:


Jives said...

I think this is a personal thing that is different for every composer, in every case. For myself, ideas generally flow better when I'm in a good frame of mind. Anxious or depressive states are generally not so productive. However, I can also recall an episode of my life when I was so wretchedly unhappy for a time (about a specific set of events, everyone hits bottom now and again), that music was the only thing that made me feel safe and sane again. So that state of almost despair turned out to be productive too. I imagine our great composers experienced similar ups and downs.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, exactly! I'm sure a lot of us have a similar experience. There are a lot of largely irrelevant things that can trigger an inspiration or distract from one. But what causes a good piece of music to emerge is all the work that follows that inspiration.