Download audio file read by Glyn Moody.
In our apotheosis of the greatest artists we strip them of the very humanity that lies at the root of that greatness. Too often we elide the life, thinking of the works, not the men and women who made them. We may know in a purely abstract way that they were born on such a date, studied here, married there, produced this masterpiece under those conditions, but these remain disembodied statements: they have no person at their centre.
Because of our awe, we tend to think of Beethoven, say, as a kind of Platonic essence, the common divine factor to all his music. We forget that he was ultimately a deaf, smelly old man who died in great loneliness. More importantly, we forget that he was born at a time when the classical idiom in music was reaching its maturity; as a result, he happened to arrive on the scene when there was a perfect framework for the kind of compositional iconoclasm that forms the core of his achievement. In a word, as far as timing was concerned, he was lucky.
This may seem an outrageous thing to say about one of the supreme musical masters; but it does not detract from that mastery: the music he wrote still required an incomparable genius to write it. But the fact remains that just as his time needed someone with exactly his skills to produce the works he did, so Beethoven himself needed precisely that time.
Take the same man - the same physical and psychological make-up, though obviously with an upbringing changed in details - born now in the fourteenth century. Music was fundamentally different in its sound, its structure, its scale, and in its performance. A fourteenth century Beethoven might well have produced masterpieces within those conventions, but they would never have had the impact of works which could draw on the rich and complex possibilities of the classical language at its peak.
The same is true of all the greatest artists. Shakespeare needed the English language to be poised exactly as he found it - a fresh and subtle blend of powerful Anglo-Saxon roots with infinitely variable Latinate extensions. Born a hundred years later and his works for the stage would have been incomprehensible doggerel. Rembrandt too absolutely required the Renaissance's anthropocentric assumptions, and his milieu's painterly techniques, to make the final searing self-portraits possible. Picture him during the impressionist era, an eccentric and obsessive academician.
If the key creators are great partly because of their eras, it follows that there may well be hidden among us Beethovens and Rembrandts or equivalent figures, whose particular cast of genius is at odds with today's artistic currents; they are like powerful orators forced to use a bad phrase book to communicate awkwardly in a language not their own.
But we should not mourn these losses too much; after all, there are for certain greater tragedies. For example, the millions of gifted children who will never realise or even discover their vocation, through being born in the wrong place, at the wrong time, in a desperate poverty which makes art a superfluity. There are Beethovens out there, for sure; but we will never know their names.
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