Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Putting A Face On It

An item in the paper this morning mentioned a Scottish anthropologist, Caroline Wilkinson, who has reconstructed the face of J.S. Bach on the basis of Bach's death mask, a bronze cast of his skull, and other data. According to the report, the only great uncertainty in this project is the color of the composer's eyes, as some contemporary paintings rendered them blue, others brown.

Why we should be interested in what Bach -- or any other historical composer, for that matter -- looked like? A desire to hear what his organ playing, for example, sounded like, is natural (although tempered, in my case at least, by joy in the astonishing variety of interpretations possible for the written scores), but curiosity about the face that had once been attached to the musical works is something else altogether. I am frequently disappointed by portraits of composers; they never match the intensity of emotion that has built in my relationship to individual pieces of music, and the portraits always belong to particular moments in a life (think: portly, barbate Brahms), and so are hardly a match for an entire catalogue of music and rarely a match for a single piece in that catalogue, that life.

There are exceptions, of course -- that forward-leaning photo of Ives, the intense stare of Schoenberg, Cage's wide-open-mouthed laugh, even some caricatures of Wagner -- but a composer doesn't get into this business because of his or her good looks, and those looks, the physiognomy as Teddy Adorno put it, are not to be confused with our sounds, however handsome, they too, may be. If there is resemblance between musical and bodily physiognomies, it is probably accidental, and always a matter of surface. Need one mention the handful of composers who happen to be honestly ugly folk yet produce music that angels envy? Yeah, there's a face for every piece of music, but most need not become familiar.

1 comment:

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