The other day I talked about performing music written in Terezin, the concentration camp that the Nazis used to showcase their treatment of the Jews during World War II. Toward the end of that post, I wrote:
Would these composers have become part of the repertoire had they not been killed? If they had been allowed to grow as people and as artists? On the other hand, [some people] think that these artists are only being played because of their circumstances.
People respond to circumstance. The fact that a composer lived a tragic life and died too early adds a kind of halo to that composer’s work. The music they’ve already created becomes more precious, because there will be no more of it. An early death is a kind of immortality. And sympathy for a composer’s plight can add an appeal to that person’s music: music created under extreme circumstances has beaten odds. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written while Messiaen was a prisoner of war in Görlitz, Germany, is one of these pieces. The story of its generation – written for a clarinetist, violinist, and cellist who were also in the camp, and for Messiaen at the piano – adds to the piece’s luster. So does the story of its premiere at the camp, with an audience of prisoners and guards. Messiaen said later, “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.”
People respond to circumstance even if it’s invented. Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima is the classic example: he originally titled the piece as 8’37”. But after hearing the shrieking and wailing of its 52 string instruments, the composer decided to rename the work and dedicate the piece to the victims of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The piece works as a threnody: it’s powerful and moving, and something about the high tessitura of some sections and the fifty-two overlapping lines of busy counterpoint always strike me as perfectly evocative of the aftermath of the atomic bomb. And yet the effect is unintentional: Penderecki didn’t write the piece with that imagery in mind.
Does that make the piece any less meaningful? Does a composer have to write an intention into every note in order for it to carry meaning? How many audience members know the difference, anyway? If a piece has meaning for a listener, does it matter how that meaning came to be?