The Artist in the World: Courageous Reinvention

August 14, 2014
mendelssonAnsicht von Luzern 1847

A View of Lucerne, 1847 by Felix Mendelssohn (Wikipedia)

How do unpredictable life circumstances affect great composers? Do they succeed despite adversity or does it spur them on to greater heights? In her upcoming class, “The Composer, The Performer, The Collaborator, The Visionary”, Nancy Bailey explores these questions, spotlighting events in the lives of Mozart, Mendelssohn, Debussy, and more. Bailey focuses on themes of reinvention and transformation for these composers amidst events that shaped their lives, and in the process uncovers fascinating insights. We visited with her to find out more.

WIH Reporter: What is important to know about the artist in the world?

Bailey: Great works of art are not created in a vacuum. The composers of those great works were impacted by their time, place, and by events in their personal lives. I chose six people who lived in truly interesting times, had a great deal of interaction with the worlds that were around them, and wrote music that is truly compelling.

WIH Reporter: Can you give us examples of reinvention that was musically and personally transformative?

Bailey: I’m especially fascinated by Felix Mendelssohn and his wunderjahre. As was traditional for a young man of his social status, he was given the chance to travel wherever he wanted, exploring, learning, sketching, painting water colors, thinking about music that he could compose. He gathered source material that he used in some of his greatest pieces – Fingal’s Cave, the Italian Symphony, the Scottish Symphony. I imagine him thinking about that wonderful time, in his later life in which he constantly seemed to be juggling three jobs, multiple deadlines, and perpetual interruptions.

WIH Reporter: What things would surprise us to know about reinvention and the creative arts?

Bailey: Creation is a difficult, exasperating process! Artists (such as Mozart in this course) may have an internal sense of what needs to be created but they may not have the tools at that time to convey what is being heard in their heads. The process of finding those solutions, of being able to transfer the ideas from brain to paper, is so frustrating. But, when it does happen, it is like a stream that is suddenly unblocked. This is what happened to Mozart in 1791, the last year of his life. And it resulted in some of the most serene musical works that the world knows.

WIH Reporter: What are some misconceptions we have about the internal processes of creating art and the effects of external world?

Bailey: The challenge of creating art is intensified when the outside world is in turmoil. There are very few composers who were able to shut out the outside world and continue their usual life. Ballet could not be performed when the world was at war; there were no audiences, musicians and dancers were soldiers at the front; there was no money on which to live while the work was being created.

Sergey Rakhmaninov suddenly found himself in a country at war and undergoing a revolution, with no money that he could access: his bank accounts in Russia and Dresden were frozen. He had to leave Russia – but how was he going to support his wife and two daughters and keep them safe? He had three career options and the decision that he had to make was heart wrenching – and fascinating. It tells you a great deal about Rakhmaninov himself – and about what the United States was like during that decade.

WIH Reporter: What media will you use in your class?

Bailey: I use a combination of sound and visuals, so art of the period, images of the composers, recordings of the pieces we’ll be discussing, and dvd performances of the ballets. The Debussy and Verklärte Nacht classes will be especially rich since both composers were so intensely influenced by the art movements of their times. And we’ll use DVDs of The Magic Flute and a couple of Ballets Russes reproductions, complete with their Picasso sets and costumes.

For more information about Nancy Bailey’s upcoming class, click here.