“I heard she went on a date with Ravel and didn’t tell anyone.”
“Well, I heard that Berlioz was planning on popping the question last night, but Shostakovich did last week. Now he’s going to have to wait for at least a month.”
Relationships with composers can get complicated. We look up to them for long periods of time, and it’s almost impossible to see their flaws or quirks—everything they do is perfect. We develop obsessions with certain ones. First we get to know them, we begin to spend time with them, and soon we have crushes, we smile with familiarity when their themes and musical mannerisms pop up in our heads. We see our favorites as gods who can do no wrong, not as people with personalities like everyone else. But what if you found out your true love was planning a murder? What if your imaginary boyfriend was a serial bank robber? Of course not, we say. Oh yes, the composers reply.
Maybe the famous composers we have all come to love aren’t the type of people who would be found behind bars, necessarily, but they certainly all weren’t as well-rounded as their compositions. This may be hard to take for some people who have spent significant amounts of time with their favorites. But it is interesting to wonder; who would you be friends with if you lived in the 1800s? Who would you write letters to, and who would you gossip about? Schumann might be your favorite composer today, but would you have liked him had you met him? We will never truly know, but we can guess.
Richard Wagner is a composer associated with changing the opera world. He was and still is loved by many, from his 13 operas and other compositions to his operatic literature. He began composing at the age of 15 and influences others throughout the rest of his life with his operas like The Flying Dutchman and his Ring Cycle. What’s not to love?
Wagner was an anti-Semitic, something that would make him unlikable to many people today. Perhaps, during his time period, it was acceptable to his social circle, but if Wagner was a 21st century man, working in an office building in New York, riding around in subways, wearing Fruit of the Loom brand collared shirts, chances are he would be extremely excluded because of his views. His essay, “Jewishness in Music”, even states, “With all our speaking and writing in favour of the Jews' emancipation, we always felt instinctively repelled by any actual, operative contact with them.” That would not sit well with most modern world citizens. Additionally, with all his prejudice against Jews, he would cast them in his operas and underpay them. Wagner’s music may have been revolutionary, but he certainly wasn’t a revolutionary humanitarian.
Wagner was also incredibly arrogant. “I am not made like other people. I must have brilliance and beauty and light. The world owes me what I need. I can’t live on a miserable organist’s pittance like your master, Bach,” he allegedly said. One may cry with happiness when listening to Wagner’s compositions, but it is not unlikely he would get a slap to the face or two if he lived in modern times. Wagner would constantly ask for money from people, even when he did not need it and his reasons were absurd. No one can question his brilliance, but one can certainly question his pleasantness.
Franz Liszt was, in his day, Elvis, Kurt Cobain, John Lennon, and Mick Jagger. If Liszt lived in modern times, he would most likely stay single for a week at most. But Liszt could not help tampering with other composers’ music—he would create his own variations on Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, and others. “He could be kind and generous, yet could turn around and be arrogant and capricious,” writes Harold C. Schonberg in The Lives of the Great Composers. Chopin once said, “I am writing without knowing what my pen is scribbling, because at this moment Liszt is playing my études and putting honest thoughts out of my head. I should like to rob him of the way he plays my etudes.” Liszt may have been handsome, showy, and likable, but to his peers he was often seen possibly as, to use a more modern term, a sell-out. He also had numerous affairs with multiple women. Liszt was a man many people would be happy to have in their company, but to his colleagues, he may have been a subject of gossip.
Claude Debussy’s flaws were more subtle, but his personality can be seen as arrogant and uncouth. Debussy can be compared to a modern day term, “hipster”—he hated the term “impressionist” and insisted not to be one. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but Debussy also seemed to scoff slightly at anything that he didn’t compose. He also had affairs while he was married. Debussy had a girlfriend he lived with, Gaby, but proposed to Mademoiselle Thérèse Roger at the same time. After both of these women, he married Lilly Texier, a model, and had another affair with Emma Bardac. “Lilly did not take this well—she attempted suicide by shooting herself in the chest, but survived,” writes Elizabeth Lunday in Secret Lives of Great Composers. Debussy changed the course of music in his time, but he also changed the happiness of many women.
Composers are the role models of numerous people. They are the soundtracks to many of our lives—without Barber’s "Adagio for Strings," how else could we express our sadness? Without Vivaldi’s “Spring,” how could we live our triumphs to the fullest? Some composers, though, we would never want to spend time with in the modern world. But even though they might have not been the most pleasant, they were geniuses. Our true loves all have flaws, and we still love them.