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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Real Bios of Fictional Composers

Throughout the years, composers have been portrayed in literature and film. Here are the “bios” for a few of the notable fictional composers….


Richard Halley from the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
Richard Halley spent years as a struggling and unappreciated composer. At age 24 his opera Phaethon was performed for the first time, to an audience who booed and heckled it. For years Halley wrote in obscurity. After nineteen years, Phaethon was performed again, but this time it was received to the greatest ovation the opera house had ever heard. It appears his critics felt he had paid his dues long enough that he was at last worthy of their approval. The following day, Halley retired, sold the rights to his music, and disappeared.


Edward Bast from the novel JR by William Gaddis.
Edward Bast teaches at JR's junior high school where he is composer in residence appointed by the Foundation. He rehearses Wagner and delivers an educational TV lecture about Mozart. He tries to get a job writing “nothing music” and accepts a $200 commission to write “zebra music.” At various times he finds his studio vandalized, and that his house has disappeared, and is fired from his job.


Adrian Leverkühn (1885-1940) from the novel Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn As Told by a Friend by Thomas Mann.
Mann modeled Leverkühn on composer Arnold Schoenberg. In the novel Leverkühn effectively sells his soul to the devil for a generation of renown as the greatest living composer. Leverk's great step forward is Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique.

Beginning his studies as a student of theology, Adrian Leverkühn succumbs to his passion for musical composition. His early pieces lack energy and imagination. However, the young man experiences himself as having made a pact with the devil. In a confession written years later, Adrian recounts that after hearing Strauss’s opera Salome, he "voluntarily" contracted syphilis in an encounter with a prostitute. It was an episode that he believed emblematic of this Faustian bargain. The confession recreates his dialog with Satan, who promises the composer an artistic breakthrough if he agrees to forego human love. Leverkühn sets off on a brilliant 24-year career, becoming the greatest German composer of his time. His oratorio Apocalypse is premiered in Frankfurt in 1926 under conductor Otto Klemperer. Throughout the novel we learn technical details of Leverkühn’s many compositions, culminating with his masterwork -an oratorio titled The Lamentation of Doctor Faustus. His personal life consists of a series of aborted relationships. In 1930 as he was introducing his final masterpiece to a select group of friends, Leverkühn experiences a stroke and lapses into a coma from which he recovers physically, but not mentally. He survives for another decade in a demented, childlike state, and cared for by his mother.

The story is set into the context of the deteriorating military situation in Germany during which Mann had written the novel. Arnold Schoenberg was not pleased by any of the associations made between him and the fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn.


The Baroque composer Van den Budenmayer. He appears in several films by Krzysztof Kieślowski - including “Red” and “Blue” from his three color trilogy and in the “Double Life of Veronique.” Van den Budenmayer is an Eighteenth-century Dutch composer. In “Bleu,” we have a married couple of composers: Julie (played by Juliette Binoche) and Patrice de Courcy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7EMSEnMnKg


In the Hollywood film An American in Paris, Oscar Levant plays Adam Cook. Cook is a chain-smoking, neurotic, expatriate American composer. Oscar Levant was a real-life pianist of note, good friends with George Gershwin, and had been a composition student of Arnold Schoenberg. Levant’s own 12-tone Piano Concerto is a neglected but worthy work. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HzmsCt3zP8A


Alexander Hollenius in the film Deception (1946) with Bette Davis. Hollenius is an older, established composer involved with a much younger pianist. When her true love - a cellist thought killed in the war – reappears on the scene, it ignites an intense love triangle. In a rage, the composer tries to kill his rival with a cello concerto! (I kid you not). Movie trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAHa6GU6O-U


Vinteuil in A la Recherche du Temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust. Vinteuil, a modest piano teacher, turns out to be a great composer. A petite phrase from one of his sonatas becomes the leitmotif of Swann's love.


Kuhn in the novel Gertrude by Hermann Hesse. Gertrude was Hesse's third novel, published in 1910. It is written as the fictional memoir of the famous composer. Like many of Hesse's novels, there is a strong influence of Nietzsche.


Bendix Kaar
in the novel Hot Ticket by Janice Weber. Kaar attended London’s Royal College of Music, served in Vietnam, made a fortune in the exotic hard-wood business, but sold it to become a lobbyist and environmental consultant in Washington D.C. He had a penchant for disharmony. His Sonata for Violin and Piano was handsomely commissioned for the birthday of Ethel Kiss by her son Fausto. The sonata has a slow movement subtitled Elegy but fades out on the G string after a humongous fugue. Kaar tore up all of his operas after receiving a stomach-wrenching review of one of his stage-works in London. “It was a trashing for the ages.”


Port Moresby is the protagonist in Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky. The composer is patterned after Bowles himself, who was a composer as well.

Preston Thib is a 104 year-old composer in an unpublished fictional autobiography by Boston-area composer Robert Ceely.

Eckhard Rabindranath Unruh in How Is This Going to Continue? by James Chapman. This unusual novel comes in the form of a libretto for an oratorio. It is available online at: http://www.fuguestatepress.com/how.html


(I'm sure there are others)



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