Can a bad man create good music?

Can a bad man create good music?


norman lebrecht

February 03, 2008

Dominic Lawson, in a typically thoughtful Independent op-ed, took my Karajan column last week as a springboard for contemplating the connection between genius and virtue.
I am inclined to agree with his argument in respect of original creators. Aesthetically, and scientifically for that matter, lack of moral fibre is no impediment to genius. Byron was a rotter. So were Shelley and Dylan Thomas. Picasso was no paragon. Rodin was a bit of a shit, and as for Klimt, Schiele and the Viennese school… decadent, the lot of them.
Music, though, for some mysterious reason, is different. In music there are few instances of a great composer who was not, in some way, a good man. Misanthropes abound, but Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Britten were decent to the core. Bach was a friendly teddy-bear for the most part. Mozart was much misunderstood. Sibelius was a moral rock hiding behind a vodka bottle.
Mahler once said – and I think he meant composers: ‘there are no great men without some goodness’. Schoenberg said of Mahler: er war ein Heiliger – he was a saint.’
There is, of course, Wagner – but he’s an exception to all known rules.
So why do composers tend to the good? You tell me.


  • Stephen Seidman says:

    What about Delius? I seem to remember reading that his character was somewhat less than admirable.
    NL: When he was living with and dying of a terrible illness – an extenuating circumstance.

  • Claire Meljac says:

    It ‘s possible that we have such an intimate relationship with music that we cannot stand to hear music coming from evil. We, then, manage in such a way that we MUST think that the composer is a good man, by all standards, even if he is not.
    Listening to music from someone is like listening to his intimate heart, his intimate voice. We have to approve him in some way.
    I am not sure that this relationship between goodness and music is still valid with jazz, rock and other “modern” music
    NL: That’s a truly original idea: we beatify composers because we can’t bear to be moved by something that comes from an impure source. I must think about that some more….

  • Leboyfriend says:

    Britten, decent to the core? Oh, other than that unfortunate thing involving sex with underage boys you mean? And the cavalier way in which he treated a significant number of close associates. I knew Britten and am proud to have worked with hi, He was a towering figure of 20th century music. But, decent to the core? I am afraid not.
    NL: Britten, to the best of present evidence (and there is plenty of it) never molested boys. He may have lusted after them, but he controlled his urges. Britten had misanthropic tendencies and a rose-tinted view of the Soviet union, but I don’t think he can be considered a bad man, or indecent.

  • Gesualdo was a murderer

  • andrew gerber says:

    You seem to be limiting the field to classical and contemporary symphonic composers. If you open it up to jazz and popular composers, I think you’ll be able to come up with some good examples of bad examples.

  • Anonymous says:

    Lully…I hear he was of dubious moral fibre
    NL: Hard to tell in a baroque setting…

  • aloysius says:

    Britten was a pedophile wasn’t he? Brahms had some serious sociopathic tendencies (although he had a significant streak of generosity.)
    Of course if we move from composer to musician you have a lot of bad “actors”. Didn’t you write a book about nasty conductors? Was the only bad guy in the book, Karajan?

  • Robert Fink says:

    And how about Richard Strauss, the moral imbecile unable to figure out that the Nazis were not kidding?
    Prokofiev, not a nice man. Debussy, not a nice man.
    Gesualdo, a murderer.
    Lully, a ruthless musical monopolist.
    Composers are human, just like the rest of us. No better, no worse.

  • gukzik lau says:

    one makes good music not because she/he is a good person, but the music one inhabits or born with is already good,and music is above all the most direct line connected to god, and god is good.

  • Richard V Harris says:

    Art works by affecting our emotional states. In the case of music, this is the most abstract of the arts. In the other arts, there is value in reproducing a facsimile of the world or human experience. Music can only, (except for the trivial case of emulating bird-song, etc.), work on the emotions directly through the sub-conscious.
    In the case of music, the different categories of classical, folk, jazz, or pop, are distinguished by the range of emotions that their composers’ seek to stimulate in listeners, and that the listeners wish to experience.
    In the case of classical music, it was generally commissioned by people who had high ideals, at least within the context of their age. These were people who valued emotions dealing with the numinous, the sublime, and the counter play of tragedy, struggle, and triumph. Dare I say it, this is what makes for ‘High Art’. I am, almost, contrasting the Apollonian with the Dionysian. The composers who served their needs were those best able to tap into these emotions. It follows that such composers would tend to be influenced by such emotions in their behaviour, more than most. I think that this would probably make them ‘good’ people.
    Richard V Harris.

  • jeff turner says:

    Why would anyone think that because someone is a creative genius of one sort or another that they would be immune to the foibles of mankind?

  • Juliet says:

    Not that he was a true “great”, but there are stories about Percy Grainger that will keep you up at night. This review of a book about the odd Mr. Grainger shares details:

  • Jude Bloom says:

    What I find even more perplexing is the instance of right shits who made great philosophers. Why? Well, I guess cause the whole idea of what being a right shit vs. a good person is comes from Philosophy.
    It’s hard to imagine someone having the openness and plasticity of brain enough to paint a beautiful picture, yet having a grave deficiency in empathy. But it’s even harder when what that person reads, studies, and writes is the house where ethics lives to begin with.
    Heidegger and Jung were both, if I remember right, involved with Nazism. And both were brilliant. It just seems wrong.
    I think maybe we still think of aesthetics as being part of the Whole Package of the Mind — and if someone’s great in one area he’s probably going to be great in all the others. And this isn’t a bad assumption: you can also pretty safely bet that someone who can compose a great piece of music isn’t going to be dumb. Intelligence and aesthetic ability certainly seem to be linked.
    But I wonder if empathy isn’t a narrower part of the brain than we think it is — less the product of a great and well-rounded mind and more a specific module, that can, unfortunately, sometimes break.
    Also strange is that while we can’t think of any great composers who were outright evil, we sure can think of loads and loads of music-*lovers* who were. If the aesthetic sense were tied to moral intelligence, then why would Stalin and Hitler like music so much?

  • Eric Sogge says:

    Can we learn the mysterious reason by asking about the nature of music itself?
    Is there any such thing as music with a bad motive, that is, meant to do harm? Just the tunes, not the words, so I don’t count fascist songs or gangsta rap. Some music is crass, or stupid, or ugly, or just not worth listening to, but malevolent in itself? I can’t think of an example. (Some may argue that military marches imply harmful motive, but I don’t concede that.)
    Does music (again, just the tunes) have the capacity to include or express a composer’s bad motives? I suppose it may not be impossible. But such a composer would be a very bad man indeed.

  • leboyfriend says:

    The more I think about it the less I accept your premise that composers “tend to be good”.But is not the situation this: once a composer has written a piece of music then like a child it has taken on a life of its own and should (indeed must) be considered on its own merits rather than its musical worth being evaluated and coloured by our views of its progenitor? I am quite sure that as many morally faultless men have written atrocious music as there are villains who have made music which moves us in wholly laudable ways.

  • Richard V Harris says:

    “…Also strange is that while we can’t think of any great composers who were outright evil, we sure can think of loads and loads of music-*lovers* who were. If the aesthetic sense were tied to moral intelligence, then why would Stalin and Hitler like music so much?”
    In the context of our society, & its values, Stalin & Hitler were certainly very evil. But in the very different societies that they lived in, it’s not so clear that they were evil. It is possible that they thought that the acts that they committed, (which we see as atrocities), were for a greater good, their ethics being based upon a flawed utilitarian calculus.
    Anyway, biology is the science of exceptions, and we are not dealing here in absolutes (of goodness), only tendencies. Wagner was a great composer, but we do not see him as having been a good man, largely because he was an anti-Semite. I have no idea as to whether or not he privately carried out acts of kindness more than the average person

  • Jude Bloom says:

    Well, as Saul Bellow wrote in one of his books somewhere (maybe Mr. Sammler’s Planet?) — murder is very Old Knowledge.  Older than utilitarianism, older than democracy for that matter.  I understand the cultural argument for differing ethics — but in cases like these I just don’t think it’s true.
    However, that aside, taking a more everyday example — how does one reconcile brutish behavior with a refined aesthetic sense in anyone, whoever they are?   It seems counterintuitive to find them both in the same individual — whether Hitler or the Nazi doctors who gassed children and went home to listen to Brahms.   It seems like the “lift” that one gets from an aesthetic experience should also “lift” one’s empathy and morality with it (again, I reject –with respect — the idea that gassing children is not objectively unethical and only seems so from our perspective).  Is this a valid assumption?   Obviously not, at least in some cases.   Why?

  • Jessica says:

    Britten was a paedophile, a conscientious objector and a desperately overrated composer too. Liszt was reputedly even more anti-Semitic than Wagner. For a spot more of the same, meet Frederic Chopin, and don’t forget everyone’s best mates Robert and Clara Schumann, who used to make vile remarks about Jews behind the back of their oh-so-dear friend Mendelssohn.
    Brahms was a pretty good bloke and I don’t mind listening to him for the rest of my life, but wouldn’t he be surprised, and none too pleased, to think that people might enjoy his works not because they are good music but because he was A Nice Man?
    NL: Jessica – as Humphrey Carpenter established pretty thoroughly, Britten did not molest boys. As for his conscientious objection, that is surely a matter of consience, which is the faculty that discriminates between good and evil.
    I canlt agree that Liszt was more antisemitic than Wagner. He wrote no racist tracts and made no foul allusions to Jews in his works.

  • David Landau says:

    Speaking of Karajan: When you awake, the dinosaur will still be there.

  • Osama Obama says:

    The Jews are not a race, and the Jews are not Semites. But the Jews pretend to be a race, so they can play the “race card”.