Great music expresses more than can ever be experienced by a single person
I remember a conductor saying that walking in the Austrian mountains helped him understand Bruckner. It made me wonder whether you need to have experienced something in order to express it. To know the specific source of a composer’s inspiration may help you choose the right interpretative path but to define a piece in those terms inhibits the potential of where that path can take you. Music is infinitely more colourful than a postcard, far more personal than an aural autobiography, and the experience of listening to it is much deeper than the experience that was the catalyst for its creation. TS Eliot writes about having an experience but missing its meaning. Music gives you the meaning whether you have had the experience or not.
I enjoy reading around and about the lives of composers, but I wouldn’t say it necessarily gives me profounder insights into their music. Performers are not historians. Music is music, and the best music speaks for itself without any need for contextual reference. Even composers, whose life and works are intrinsically linked, express their music on a different plane. Researching a composer’s circumstances and personality can be invaluable in grasping the voice with which they speak, but it can also be limiting, or even positively unhelpful. It is certainly dangerous to make too great a connection between a composer’s life and their art. Beethoven wrote his happiest symphony just as he discovered he was going deaf. His situation could not be less relevant. Yet the 13 consecutive exclamation marks that he scribbles in one particular letter give an indication of the character that defines so much of his musical personality. The fact that Mahler had some therapy sessions with Sigmund Freud may provide a key to appreciating his emotional extremes; that he suffered from haemorrhoids is probably more of an expressive distraction. Then there are composers whose lives give you no clues whatsoever as to what their music means. I have yet to read anything personal about Stravinsky or Bach that I feel helped me know how their compositions should be performed.
The greatest composers have a Shakespearean ability to describe things beyond their own experience. The early operas of Mozart are extraordinary not so much for their musical sophistication but for the depth of psychological understanding that no 14-year-old can have gained other than through some mysterious inner workings of the soul. Even Shostakovich, whose works are unquestionably the result of the intense suffering of his time, writes music that is far more than a musical chronicle of 20th century Russia. Composers turn the personal into something universal whilst at the same time allow the universal to feel personal. For audiences, the combination of feeling touched as an individual, yet at the same time made to feel part of something bigger, is the wonderful consequence. And if music is simply a medium through which composers and performers share nothing more than their own experiences, it would be a lesser miracle than it is.