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Saturday, September 19, 2009


As I write this, I am listening to the last glorious strains of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which, not surprisingly, has come nearly top of ABC FM’s Top 100 Symphony Countdown (personally, I think it should have come first, though I do like Dvorak’s New World Symphony, which is Number 1).

Tears fill my eyes for the sheer beauty of it, both the music and the words of Goethe.

And I can't help musing on the number of geniuses who weren’t particularly nice people. I think Beethoven’s soul was in his music; perhaps deep down, he was a man who loved humanity and had optimism for it, but I really wouldn’t have wanted him as a next door neighbour. He’d be yelling at you to get your damned cat out of his back yard or he’d turn it into catskin earflaps. He certainly wouldn’t keep an eye on the house while you were on holiday, or pick up your kids from kindergarten.

And you wouldn’t want to be his nephew. At one point, Uncle Ludwig's unpleasantness drove him to attempt suicide.

Nevertheless, he had friends and there were plenty of women in his life, if none who actually married him.

Anyway, when you listen to his music, you don’t care. The courage of the man! And his most glorious music written after he became deaf!

The Pastoral Symphony (number 4 on the Countdown list) is another one I enjoy. I remember hearing it at a concert once, and suddenly realising that you could hear each individual instrument while they all worked together to make a gorgeous harmony and tell you a story.

Then there’s that asshole Wagner. Let me make it clear: I don’t own any CDs of his music and I find those of his operas I have heard pretty dull, in between the orchestral pieces. He was arrogant and up himself, an adulterer, and as a Jew I have no reason to love him. And then there’s The Valkyrie, in which you’re supposed to sympathise with two characters who commit incest, just because they’re somehow superior beings! Urk!

But think of those whose style he influenced. How about Howard Shore of Lord of the Rings fame? And then John Williams, with his symphonic film scores and his leitmotifs that let you know exactly what the writer is saying about his characters and events? John Williams tells entire stories in his music and he admits to being influenced by Wagner. And he isn’t the only one by any means. But when I listen to his scores for Star Wars and theHarry Potter movies, I think Wagner. Damn. I hate to think of that debt, but I acknowledge it. I love John Williams and he is definitely influenced by Wagner.

And that’s only the music; when we think Nordic myth, we think of him, however much of it has no connection with him.

Wagner was not a nice man, but he was a genius.

Thomas Malory wrote the brilliant Morte D’Arthure while he was in jail. Okay, he adapted existing stories by other writers, but that was common in those days, and he convinced us that all those stories were one novel. It was his version of the story of Arthur that influenced T.H. White’s Once and Future King, which became the musical Camelot. It’s Malory’s Arthur we think of when we think of the Arthurian legend, not the earlier warrior king or even the Celtic version in the tales of the Mabinogion. And I know what I’m talking about; the theme of my university Honours Thesis was “Arthur - From Epic Hero To Master of Ceremonies In Mediaeval English Literature”. I spent a year with Sir Thomas. His book moved me more deeply than I can say.

We know he was in prison, though we know a lot less about him than you might think. And if he is the Thomas Malory who was jailed some time in the reign of Edward IV, it wasn’t just for being on the wrong side in the Wars of the Roses, it was probably for burglary, sheep-stealing and rape.

His book was printed in the early days of printing in England. There is actually a children's novel, The Load of Unicorn by Cynthia Harnett, which is about a young man trying to track down the manuscript at a time when the scribes were terrified of losing their jobs to the printing press. In the course of his quest, he finds out quite a lot about the late Sir Thomas..

Not a nice man, no, but a genius.

So, what is it with these geniuses who don’t get on with people?

It’s not that you can’t be a genius and nice, but that the ones who move us the most quite often aren’t, or weren’t.

Perhaps their souls were in their creative output and they had no room for anything else. In any case, we shouldn’t judge them by their unpleasantness, because if they really did put their souls into their creativity, then their souls were just fine.

That’s my theory, anyway.

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