Monday, August 31, 2009

Celebrities in Music

Today, popular music is full of celebrities who are idolized by cheering fans.

It may seem hard to believe that in the 19th Century, the concert virtuoso – a musician who played at an extremely high level, called “virtuosity” – was regarded as a cultural icon much like rock stars are today. People clamored to buy tickets for their performances. After the performance, the musician could be met by a cheering crowd who would lead him back to his hotel through the city streets.


Vienna went crazy for the violinist Paganini when he performed there in the 1820s. He was tall, pencil-thin, had long hair and could do things on the violin that no one else ever imagined doing. Some said he had sold his soul to the devil in order to play like that. He dressed in black to accentuate his thinness. He often showed up in a black carriage drawn by black horses. It helped that he was a phenomenal violinist but the rest sold tickets and brought him fame.

(Just a side note: this fame or notoriousness backfired on him. The story about selling his soul to the devil? When he died, he refused last rights not because he didn't believe in God but because he didn't believe he was going to die just then. Unfortunately word got around it must have been because he'd sold his soul to the devil. The priest would not allow his body to buried in 'consecrated ground' which was about the only place you could be buried. His coffin remained in the basement of his house for five years while the landlord rented out his old rooms. Then they put it in the basement of a nearby hospital. His son finally took the coffin back to his home town but they were not allowed to enter the city, so they stored it in the tower of a friend's country estate. The gardener charged tourists money to view the corpse. ” People claimed to hear a violin playing in the middle of the night. His body was moved around a few more times, sometimes being buried in a garden but not a real cemetery. It took 36 years and a decree from the Pope to allow him to buried properly in a cemetery! So much for “Rest in Peace”...)

People often describe other great artists performing on other instruments as “The Paganini of the Double Bass” or something like that. In fact, today, you could call Paganini the “Michael Jackson of the Violin.” He did things that no other artist could do. While Michael Jackson would “moon-walk,” Paganini might play an especially difficult passage using a certain technique that only he could play, and the audience would break into applause or cheers.


Franz Liszt as a young concert pianist was the first pianist to perform with his profile to the audience. Before that, the sat with their backs to the audience. Why did Liszt make this change? Well, for one, he was a very handsome man and young ladies in the audience would want to see this. He also felt that, as he played emotional music, audiences wanted to see the expression on his face when he played it.
In fact, Liszt would come out to the piano wearing gloves. After he'd sit down, he'd take these gloves off in such a way, young ladies would “swoon.” In those days, a woman showing her ankle in public was considered “erotic,” so perhaps the idea of peeling off gloves like this implied something erotic.

Think of Michael Jackson and his habit of wearing just one glove. Or the different kinds of physical moves that singers and dancers would make that might be considered “sexy.” It may seem pretty tame compared to some guy coming out and peeling off a pair of gloves, but lots of other things have changed between the middle of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 21st!


Johann Strauss Jr., known as "The Waltz King" in Vienna, had so many fans not just asking for his autograph but for a lock of his hair, a very common celebrity souvenir in the 19th Century. It was said he joked about going bald to satisfy his fans, so he got a black Newfoundland dog whose hair was similar in color and texture to his own. Whether the dog went bald or not, I have no idea.

Composers were celebrities, too. Fans of Beethoven had gathered to hear his concerts. When he wrote “Wellington's Victory” to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon's troops in Spain in 1813, everybody wanted to hear it, everybody talked about it. Beethoven was a “popular” composer in a way a composer of symphonies and quartets could NOT be. But people went out and bought his music so they could play his sonatas in their own homes or they'd buy tickets to go hear an orchestra play his latest symphony. And in that sense, Beethoven was able to use this popularity to earn more money.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Mendelssohn, though not the virtuosic showman that Liszt and Paganini were, also had his fans. One of them was Queen Victoria of England. When he first met the young Queen and her husband, Prince Albert, in 1842, she sang some of his own songs for him to show how much she enjoyed his music. People flocked to hear Mendelssohn's concerts when he would perform a piano concerto or conduct the orchestra whether he was in England or in Germany. Works like the “Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream” on a program would guarantee more tickets would be sold.

When Mendelssohn was in Leipzig, ill and dying, the news that he was close to death brought large crowds of people out into the streets around his house, a vigil as people waited for the inevitable. When they heard that he had just died, hundreds of people stormed the house and tried to get into the room where he was lying. Friends had to push people out of the room so that Mendelssohn's own family could get into the room themselves (the children had been asleep at the time) so they could have a private last moment with him.

At the funeral service, a chorus of 600 sang a chorale by Bach and a chorus from his oratorio, St. Paul. That night, a thousand people, many carrying torches, accompanied the casket to the train station. Wherever the train stopped on its way back to Berlin, in the middle of the night, the train was greeted by hundreds of people singing tributes to Mendelssohn. (Just writing this now, I'm thinking of having watched news coverage of the funeral of Senator Edward Kennedy).

(At left is the statue of Mendelssohn standing in front of the Leipzig concert hall where he conducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Erected in 1892, it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1936. It was not replaced until October, 2008, but relocated to the front of the St. Thomas Church which had once been Bach's church.)

A performance of one of Mendelssohn's recent works, the oratorio Elijah, had been long been scheduled in Vienna, to take place ten days after his death. But instead of being a joyous musical occasion, their first chance to hear a new work by “the master” that had been highly acclaimed after other performances, it became a memorial tribute. The musicians' stands were all draped in black, the singers were dressed in black, the conductor's podium where Mendelssohn would have stood was draped in black with a laurel wreath resting on the score. The man who conducted the performance stood on a podium lower than that in deference to Mendelssohn's memory. It was a solemn occasion and people wept openly.

Queen Victoria, after writing a personal letter to Mendelssohn's widow, wrote in her journal:

“We were horrified, astounded and distressed to read in the papers of the death of Mendelssohn, the greatest musical genius since Mozart & a most amiable man. He was quite worshipped by those who knew him intimately & we have so much appreciated & admired his wonderfully beautiful compositions. We liked & esteemed the excellent man & looked up to & revered the wonderful genius & the great mind, which I fear were too much for the frail delicate body. With it all, he was so modest & simple...”

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

One of the great composer-celebrities of his time was the composer Richard Wagner (pronounced in German, VOG-n'r). He was far from being “modest & simple.” He was controversial because he wrote difficult “new” music that not everybody liked. There were fans who loved his music and felt it was definitely the direction music should be going in (more modern) and those who hated what he composed and felt he was destroying music completely.

He was extremely egotistic and a very unpleasant person to deal with. He had an affair with a woman who was the daughter of Franz Liszt and the wife of a conductor who championed Wagner's music. She had two children by Wagner even before she left her husband. They lived together for years and had another child before the divorce became final and they could legally marry.

He had been charged with treason during the 1848 revolution in the Kingdom of Saxony where he lived and had to flee for his life to avoid arrest. If he ever returned to Saxony, he would have been arrested and possibly executed.

He was outspokenly anti-Semitic and wrote many articles full of nasty accusations against Mendelssohn because he had been born a Jew. In fact, after he died, Mendelssohn's fame began to diminish as Wagner continued to campaign against what he called “Jewishness in Music.” Many of the heroic characters in his cycle of four operas called “The Ring of the Niebelung” - based on ancient German legends similar to those in Tolkein's “Lord of the Ring” (different ring, though, but same idea) – are represented by stereotypes of German culture: the villains are characterized with stereotypes of Jewish culture.

(You can read more about Wagner's anti-semitism and the impact of anti-Semitism on Mendelssohn life in this post.)

Years after Wagner's death in 1883, Hitler was one of those fans who loved Wagner's music and believed in the same political and anti-Semitic attitudes. When he came to control the political party known as the Nazis, he imposed Wagner on them as a cultural ideal (even though many of his government's leaders slept through the operas he forced them to attend). And so Wagner has long been associated with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

Until recently, it was forbidden to perform Wagner's music in Israel. In 2001, Jewish conductor Daniel Barenboim added a piece by Wagner to a program when he was conducting a Berlin orchestra during an Israeli tour. It created an international furor. Anyone programming Wagner's music in Israel today would still face considerable controversy.

People who love the music usually have difficulties separating the man and his personal philosophies from the music.

When Michael Jackson died recently, much of the media attention focused on negative aspects of his life – the child molestation accusations and trials, the strangeness of his behavior and all the little details and flaws of a person that might get in the way of saying “this was a great artist.” And yet he was a great singer and dancer and one of the most celebrated popular musicians during his lifetime. How much should this personal life determine how history views him? It's not an easy question.

It's not that Wagner's “negative issues” are comparable to Michael Jackson's. But it raises a question about how you separate Life from Art.

Something to think about.

- Dr. Dick