Thursday, October 6, 2016

Did 18th-century artists "struggle"?

This week, a lot of my music friends have been sharing links to the “about” page on pianist Khatia Buniatishvili’s website. It’s one of the purplest things I’ve ever read, and since I research 19th-century writing about music, that’s saying a lot. If you need a laugh, go read it right now. If you’d prefer an audio version, check out Matt Marks’s dramatic reading (which adds a suitable soundtrack).

Make no mistake, this is atrociously bad writing. My favorite sentence features one hell of a mixed metaphor:
For fun, her mother would leave a new musical score each day on her piano and, hungry, Khatia’s long, octopus-like arms would devour them.
Image by Reddit user NeokratosRed
What an image! This biography, written by French music journalist Olivier Bellamy, probably suffers from translation issues, but even that doesn’t account for the complete lack of meaning in sentences like,
By lifting one’s eyes skywards one might notice her playing hide-and-seek with either Venus or Mercury. 
Okay, okay, okay. Enough! So, as much as I relish the absurdity of it all, I didn’t think there was any reason to put it on my blog. Then my friend Temmo posted a link to the dramatic reading on his Facebook page, and we had the following conversation:

That got me thinking. Yes, presenting Buniatishvili as a superhuman Artist plays to 19th-century tropes, but what strikes me is how often Bellamy invokes the 18th century.

Some of the references are obvious. The second sentence name-checks the Enlightenment: “The fundamental values handed down from the Enlightenment are not up for discussion.” (WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN?!) The penultimate paragraph uses a quote erroneously attributed to Mozart—he never actually said, “Love, love, love, therein lies the soul of genius.” That line was actually penned by an acquaintance of his, Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin.

Throughout the biography, Bellamy keeps bringing up the idea of struggle, but only to assure us that Buniatishvili doesn’t struggle:
The piano, however, has never posed a problem for Khatia.

As she has never had to struggle with her instrument…

Khatia’s great career has come quite naturally, without a struggle. 
The Artist Hero narrative of the 19th century is all about struggle: Beethoven struggling with deafness. Schumann struggling with mental illness. Brahms struggling to produce a symphony worthy to succeed Beethoven, and so on. The Romantic Artist Hero must overcome some adversity, even if it’s the very act of production itself.

But people had a different perception of artistry and genius in the 18th century. During the Enlightenment, artists were praised for having natural talent, for producing their art effortlessly.

When Mozart presented six string quartets to Haydn, he wrote in the dedication that they were “the fruit of a long and laborious endeavor.” By our standards, it sounds like a sign of quality, that he spent so much time polishing and perfecting them before sending them to the acknowledged master. But Mozart is actually engaging in self-deprecation here, apologizing for the quartets’ poor quality in a requisite act of faux-humility. It’s not a humble-brag because working hard is nothing to brag about in this context. Art is supposed to sound natural, not belabored.

So, even as Bellamy drops hints of Buniatishvili’s heroic triumph over poverty and her admiration for 19th-century writers, I’d say the overall aesthetic he attempts is 18th-century.

The aesthetic he achieves, however, is ridiculous. Delightfully ridiculous.

Thanks to Temmo Korisheli for the suggestion!

“About Khatia Buniatishvili” by Olivier Bellamy

“A Dramatic Reading of Website Bio” by Matt Marks


  1. Yikes, the source page really is horrible. By the time I got to "-- she too is a Gemini" I had to stop reading so as not to punch the screen. I'm imagining Gordon Ramsay shouting, "THIS PROSE IS SO PURPLE, ONLY BEES CAN SEE IT!"

  2. Somewhere in the back of my brain is the idea that these string quartets by Mozart were the point where he realised that he could compose even better music by combining his natural talent with laborious endeavor. This must the quote that sparked that idea. It’s a sexy idea, as Mozart’s late music is a step up from the early stuff IMHO. But maybe it’s just another Music History Cliche.