If Hitler Were a Good Painter

It is 9pm or so on a warm evening in mid-Spring. My mother, fiancé and I are about to sit down to a late dinner when we hear an unexpected knock at the front door. Excusing myself, I leave the table to answer it.

Our twilight visitor is an unusual-looking woman of middle age. She seems to be wearing what looks like a maid’s dress, a thick, deep green veil, and is carrying a letter of some presumable urgency. However, she refuses to hand me the message, insisting instead to be shown into the drawing room in which the letter may be read aloud. Apparently, it concerns the entire household.

I pause. There is something unsettlingly familiar about our surprise guest: her large, trunk-like nose, the solemn, slightly downturned corners of her mouth, the wild, swept curls of her hair protruding from beneath her unusual headwear, and her gruff French drawl. Courtesy quickly prevails, however, and I dismiss my concerns, stepping aside to allow the woman in. Leading the way to where the others are sat eating it is, curiously, only then that I notice the two pistol butts protruding from the woman’s baggy dress. Looking across her generous posterior, another only half-concealed pocket seems overloaded with small bottles, one of which seems to have cracked, spilling crumbs of white power along the carpet.

The penny drops. Of course, I scold myself, it’s Hector Berlioz.

Such an event might have unfolded in April 1831 had Berlioz’s plan for revenge come to fruition. He had concocted his scheme in anger after having received a letter from his (by then, ex-) fiancée’s mother (whom he liked to refer to as l’hippopotame), informing him that her daughter, Marie-Félicité-Denise Moke (also known as Camille), was committed to Joseph Étienne Camille Pleyel, the descendent of the wealthy piano manufacturer. Berlioz was in Rome at the time and wrote to his family of his murderous intentions. Indeed, he went as far as purchasing a specially-altered maid’s dress, hat with a veil, two pistols and poison (should the pistols fail). As detailed in his memoirs, Berlioz imagined his fateful visit as follows (allowing for some retrospective, Agatha Christie-inflected artistic license):

I go to my “friend’s” house at nine in the evening just when the family has assembled for tea. I say I am the Countess Moke’s personal maid with an urgent message. I am shown into the drawing room, where I deliver a letter. While it is being read, I draw my double-barrelled pistols, blow out the brains of number one and number two, seize number three by the hair, reveal myself and, disregarding her screams, pay my respects to her in a similar fashion, after which, before the cantata for voices and orchestra has had time to attract attention, I present my right temple with the unanswerable argument of the remaining barrel; or should the gun by any chance misfire, I have recourse to my cordials. What a fine scene it would have made. It really is a pity it had to be dropped.[1]

Fortunately, under the conditions of the Prix de Rome which he had been awarded a few months prior to receiving the aforementioned letter, he would forfeit the prize altogether should he cross the French border. Consequently, he returned both to his senses and to Rome, and stayed out of prison. A lucky escape for all…

Let us, for the sake of my argument, suppose that Berlioz had killed Pleyel and the Mokes. If I had been in Camille’s slippers on the intended evening, looking deep into the barrel of a gun, inhaling the faint charcoal of the burnt smoke and facing my near-inevitable death, one of my final thoughts may well have been: ‘if I get out this, I’m certainly never going to one of your concerts again, Hector.’ And understandably so. Similarly (but less dramatically), if the Bach family were to (all 300 of them) move in next door, play loud organ toccatas late into the night, break into my house and retune my instruments to 4.15, poison my cat, and move my CDs into chronological, not alphabetical, order, I would certainly be less inclined to attend any of his concerts or play any of his music.

Yet, at the same time, I’m awaiting the arrival of a Carlo Gesualdo CD, a man well-known for the double-murder of his first wife and her lover.[2] I use extracts from Carl Orff’s Schulwerk in music workshops despite some suspicious evidence that he may have been sympathetic to, and even collaborative with, the Third Reich.[3] I both play and teach piano music by Christian Sinding (another possible Nazi-sympathiser), and am partial to a bit of Nicolas Gombert from time to time. Contrast these again with my comparatively petty insistence not to buy or watch anything in which Gary Barlow is involved, since he avoids paying tax, and you will get a sense of how ridiculous, inconsequential and yet still peculiarly serious these irregularities are.

There are differences, of course: a recording bought or concert attended today would benefit Barlow financially and in terms of recognition (however small) whilst Orff, Bach and Berlioz are dead. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling as though I have muddled my perspective, like Kirilov in Chekhov’s short story Enemies: a doctor who, whilst able to overcome the sorrow of his recently-deceased son, can still never excuse the minor personal offence caused by a distressed patient who interrupts his mourning.

It could simply be that my principles are flaky and inconsistent (to put it charitably), making allowances for those whose music I have already decided to like unreservedly but not for others. However, I suspect that – if this even is an issue (and I’m only half-convinced it is) – I’m not the only culprit. Jeffrey Archer’s books still sell incredibly well, for example, and the Disney Corporation continues to thrive artistically regardless of issues surrounding Walt Disney’s character and some of the Corporation’s past behaviour.[4] Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is still a strong part of childrens’ literature (not to mention The Jabberwocky and other poems), despite Lewis Carroll’s possible romantic obsession with Alice Pleasance Liddell and her sisters, the daughter of his neighbour and muse for his most famous novel.  In his documentary, Wagner and Me, Stephen Fry touches on some of the difficulties he himself faces in reconciling the man with his music, saying at one point:

“I have this fantasy…in which I go back in time, as an Englishman, and I write letters to Wagner…and I say to him ‘you’re on the brink of becoming the greatest artist of the 19th century and future generations will forget that, simply because of this nasty little essay[5] you’re writing and because of the effect it’ll have.’ […] What would he say to that? If he had known that the person who would be most hurt by his anti-Semitism was himself.”

I had better lay my cards on the table – I don’t have an answer. Nor am I entirely in search of one, but the issue of art, morals and the extent to which they can or cannot relate to each other both fascinates and bothers me nevertheless. I am not on the hunt for a system that acknowledges or rejects – in this case – composers on the basis of ethics. Not only does it intuitively seem misguided and impractical but, if one were to entertain the idea, I would imagine that such a system would need to be broad and flexible enough to incorporate those who are convicted of genocide on one end and, on the other, those who refuse to write their music on recycled paper. Such a system would be difficult to pin down, if not impossible, as our personal tolerances vary quite considerably.

But let us say that a system was unanimously agreed upon by all. Would there be caveats that would permit otherwise unacceptable composers? For example, if part of the proceeds from a given concert or recording were to be donated to a suitable charity. If so, would there be a minimum amount or percentage required, or would a gesture of any amount be sufficient to address a moral balance that would otherwise bother some of us? Would there be a regularly-updated ‘scale of evil’, requiring a greater contribution from concerts featuring the worst offenders? Would such a ‘tax’ (however charitable) be essentially anti-musical and anti-cultural, since it might price excellent yet ‘problematic’ composers and musicians out-of-reach for some audiences and concert venues? Indeed, would there be enough money available to incorporate such a scheme when concerts are expensive enough to present in the first place?

Moving on, if we were to collectively dismiss music on the grounds of who wrote it we would be left with a very slim catalogue indeed – our musical history is peppered with awful men and women who nevertheless created extraordinary works.[6] Joshua Fineberg retells this catchy story, handed down to him by a former teacher, that summarises the above quite neatly:

One summer three composers fall madly in love. All three of them independently decide to express their feelings in the form of a love duet for oboe d’amour and cello. The first is more in love than anyone has been in the history of the human race. The second, while only normally in love, is more sensitive and self-aware about his feelings of love than anyone has ever been. The third composer on the other hand is a bit of a cold-fish. While she is somewhat infatuated, it is quite superficial and not very important (this composer is already planning on how to break it off in a week or two). However this person is by far the best composer. Whose piece will be the most beautiful, most moving, most expressive of love? Without a doubt it would be the third composer.[7]

As Fineberg goes on to write, ‘It seems cosmically unjust, but there is nothing special about the humanity of artists. What is special is their artistry – nothing more or less. If your goal were to know love, a date would have a greater chance of success than a work of art. Art is a special substance into which some individuals are able to transform life through a poorly understood alchemical process.’[8] Worth citing in full.

So, it follows of course that we are better-off engaging completely and singly with the music as opposed to the person. This makes common sense and is, by-and-large, how most of us probably behave anyway. The Disney Corporation is not Walt Disney, despite the inevitable association with its creator. The interesting trade-off of course is that the future musical landscape may be marked by those with whom we might have serious ethical misgivings, and it is ultimately this that leaves me feeling slightly uncomfortable. Donald Trump’s posthumous Symphonies, Sonatas and Song Cycles may in fact be very fine and captivating examples of their genre (and why shouldn’t they be?), coming to, in time, form an integral part of the contemporary repertoire. There might even be a 2146 Proms bicentenary celebration. For all we know, the most recent hymns at the Westboro Baptist Church may be of such a refined counterpoint that the aforementioned cat-poisoning, piano-retuning J.S. Bach himself would be humbled.[9] Armin Meiwes’ lost Double Concerto for Tuba and Kazoo could be written with such an unparalleled understanding of both the instruments that it helps overhaul the limited way in which the public had hitherto regarded them. And Piers Morgan might even be an inspired sonnet-spinner, writing under the pseudonym Smearing Pro. Anyway, you get the idea…

As unlikely as these possibilities are, and as much of a non-issue they may well be, were they to become a reality I would still wager on a spectrum of reactions ranging from enthusiasm, through indifference, to outright aggression, particularly if the work in question was arguably a masterpiece and thus demanded more serious consideration.

Perhaps part of the reason some of us may face this conflict in one way or another is that, against our better judgement, we don’t always intuitively regard musicians, composers, artists, authors, and so on as just craftsmen and women. If this were the case, Dame Fanny Waterman could beat children around the back of the head with her knighthood for every wrong note, and I would probably still use her Me and My Piano series. The man who built my house could have an unprecedented criminal record, but I doubt it would impact on my decision to buy it or not. Instead, in the hands of the best of artists and musicians we can become like a client who has unwittingly fallen in love, dumbstruck, with an escort. In the minds of even the toughest of listeners, the boundaries can become blurred and emotions, even attachment, can end up playing a part whether we want them too or not. I have met people, for example, who refuse to read Mein Kampf for danger that any small part of them may be swayed by Hitler’s skills as an orator.

We have, of course, contemporary examples of music and art that is still very much taboo, such as those associated with Gary Glitter, Rolf Harris or Lost Prophets’ Ian Watkins. Furthermore, there are extreme examples, one of them being Hitler’s artwork, that are probably best regarded with an awareness of the man and his history first, before we entertain any artistic merit: fascination before appreciation. For most of us today it is easy and automatic to regard these men’s creative achievements in the shadow of their lives and actions. As such, most of us would not question a Jewish musician who refuses, on principle, to play works by a known anti-Semite such as Hans Pfitzner. But could that stance ever become eccentric with the passage of time? In 100 years? 1,000 years? As the decades pass it will be at the very least interesting (and worrisome in some instances), to see whose music succeeds over time despite our present regard for them personally, politically, or even criminally.

Humans are complex creatures that are of course not simply good or bad. Most of the examples and persons referred to above are deliberately extreme enough that they hopefully demonstrate my points, but it should not be forgotten that even in the case of extremes one man’s Trump is another man’s Obama (which is indeed, part of the point of this article), and there are grey areas that have not been considered. I do not of course endorse any of the serious crimes committed by those mentioned above, but simply find the ideas, problems and tensions that arise because of the interaction or separation of ethics and music both difficult and fascinating. There seems to be a potential trade-off whatever we decide to do.

Postscript: For further real-life examples to consider, see the following by Meghan Murphy: http://www.feministcurrent.com/2016/01/13/here-is-a-list-of-men-who-made-great-but-music-were-not-always-great-people

Also, consider this by Hadley Freeman: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/25/singer-musician-sex-offender-lets-remember-the-whole-chuck-berry


[1] From D. Cairns (trans. and ed.), The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, cited in H. Witchel, You Are What You Hear: How Music and Territory Make Us Who We Are, pp. 29-30.

[2] That is just the tantalising tip of the Italian iceberg. See Tom Service’s article on Glenn Watkins’ The Gesualdo Hex.

[3] For this and more, listen to the Radio 3 Composer of the Week podcast: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01ydkn8

[4] See this article on the Corporation’s policy on jobs available to women in 1938, for example. Consider, also, the anti-Semitic reputation that became associated with Walt Disney both during his lifetime and today: he was, for example, accused by the animator Art Babbitt, of attending meetings of the German American Bund (see N. Gabler, Walt Disney: The Biography, p. 448). Even if this is untrue, note the casual anti-semitism within this clip from Disney’s popular and successful 1933 short, Three Little Pigs.

[5] Das Judenthum in der Musik, ‘Judaism in Music’, in which Wagner attacks the Jews generally, but particularly Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer.

[6] Indeed, for some people, the worse the person, the greater their artistic appeal.

[7] See Fineberg, J., Classical Music, Why Bother?, p. 53.

[8] Ibid.

[9] On this point, the issue of the extent to which we as listeners can separate the music from the message, and where our boundaries lie therein, is another related avenue worth exploring.

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