– a foreword
The Artist. Inspiration. Intensity. Devotion. Drama Genius. Talent. Tragedy. Success. Failure. And usually a little bit of crazy.
Most of these things come to mind when people think of the typical ‘artist’ in whatever medium, be it Beethoven or Dali or Gaudí or Woolf or Newton. Devoted and quirky and brilliant, a little crazy, and oftentimes (as has been mentioned by plenty of people before) a happy helping of tragedy or suffering. Just think of all those composers everyone knows of who died so young. Among those that probably don’t readily come to your mind are Julius Reubke, Alex Stanchinsky, and yes, Hans Rott.
This should probably have been subtitled ‘a foreshadowing’ instead of ‘a foreword.’ I don’t really want to reveal anything about the composer or the piece of his we’ll be discussing this week (there aren’t many to choose from), but instead to focus a little bit on what fascinates me about this man and almost frustrated me (but ultimately didn’t) about someone else. So I guess you’ll have to wait until Thursday’s post (and next week’s, sort of kind of) for all the context. Let there be suspense.
That all being said, this article won’t be so much about the details as much as what the details and the music make me think about. There’s a famous quote I’d like to share:
If you steal from one author it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many it’s research.
Many people have heard this, but it wasn’t until I searched for the wording that I see this name associated with it for the first time. This may not be the actual quote or the first person to have said it, but it’s what I had in mind. As an editor (technically) in my day-to-day life, I have to deal with the evils of plagiarism, and it’s a touchy subject. There’ve obviously been scandals aplenty in the
Mizner’s comment above it has its humor in suggesting that ‘using information’ from many sources tends to be research and not frowned upon, while ‘using information’ from only one is plagiarism. But in another way, he’s genuinely 100% correct in the most serious way possible, and I’m witness to this in much of my writing here. I don’t have the musical know-how to read a score and analyze it to identify the kinds of things like real professionals do here or here (incredible references I found for two of the previous works I wrote about). I do literal research, lots and lots of reading and rereading and listening and re-listening, and hopefully what comes out is a mash-up of everything that I’ve read (well, the bits and pieces that have stuck with me from different places) all mixed in with a heavy dose of my own opinions and misunderstandings. When I want to quote something directly, or at least refer to it, I keep the source and link to it in my articles. I would be kidding myself to believe that what I have to say didn’t come from the suggestions, statements, opinions, and notes of others far more talented than me. But again, not ALL of it does. It’s that process of sifting and preparing, but without the masquerade of pretending it’s all original work.
The same thing happens in art. Let’s look at another quote:
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
So, the obvious question is: when is it flattering imitation and when is it blatant plagiarism? Ask Brahms. He made no bones about quoting directly from Beethoven’s ninth in the final movement of his first symphony, and when people told him his melody wasn’t original or came from Beethoven, he said “any ass can see that.” He did it intentionally. There’s a relationship there, not personal, but artistic, and Brahms made the gesture for a reason. It happens throughout music. Charles Ives was a master of this. I adore his second symphony, and it is practically a musical photo album of folk songs and country tunes, but gorgeously sewn together to be something more than they were individually. In Brahms’ case, it was an homage, but is it the case in Rott’s?
Having first heard Rott’s symphony probably around a year ago, it didn’t stick much with me. Not because it wasn’t good, but because I hadn’t learned to listen as well (?) (or something). But going back a few months ago and listening to it again, I had a “Hey, WAIT A MINUTE!” moment, and had to do some serious research. It started to make me question some things, and really question the importance of inspiration as opposed to creativity.
What if your favorite book was To Kill a Mockingbird? You love it; the characters come to life and you feel like you know them. You see where they live and you understand their struggles; maybe you even grew up in that part of the U.S. and can identify with the culture of the time, and even if you didn’t, the sentiments are universal. But then what if you found out that Harper Lee DIDN’T write that book? What if you found out Truman Capote, her neighbor, classmate and best friend, actually did most of the work for her? Would you be disappointed or feel cheated? Mind you, this is a real theory that some people have about the book. The authors had bits of the other in their own works, and splotches of their books were obviously autobiographical. But what if (and the fiction begins here) Capote had written the work, but tragically died and Lee published the work (or something based on it) in her name? Would you feel less disappointed and more disgusted?
I’m not saying that any of that happened with Rott here in this work of his, but it’s something to think about. Clearly, he was a dedicated, talented, passionate, gifted genius, and it is an enormous tragedy that his life ended as quickly as it did, or else he would undoubtedly be a pillar of the symphonic repertoire. His work does, however, live on, and thankfully so. It has managed to continue past his few short decades of life, and we shall see how on Thursday. It just makes me wonder: how much of art is raw talent? How much is inspiration or creativity? imitation? plagiarism? homage? improvisation? Is the glimmering brilliance of a piece of art its saving grace, and will it, by some artistic natural selection, always shine through, even if in another’s name (for a time)? Or was this just luck?
I am impugning no ill motive to anyone here, but these are things that all went through my head when I had this eye-opening moment three or four months ago listening again to Rott’s symphony for the first time in a while. On the one hand, it made me think of all of these potentially sinister things, but on the other, it made me blissfully and inexplicably happy and grateful. Let’s have a look at this piece on Thursday and see why. It is one of my favorites.