Does music reveal a musician's personality, or a musician's personality reveal the music?
I was recently asked which composer most revealed my own personality. This refreshing slant on the more usual “who’s your favourite composer” question rather surprised me. I’d always thought it was the musician’s job to reveal the composer’s personality and not the other way around. Do we in fact make music to reveal our own personalities, or do we use our own personalities to make music?
I do believe a classical musician’s role is basically a re-creative one. We try to be the medium through which composers speak. But our means of doing that successfully is essentially dependent on our own personality. Performers seek to be invisible and yet know that music cannot be played without them. It’s not a straightforward line to tread, either for the individual or for the music business as a whole. Though the personality of the performer is crucial and ultimately what distinguishes great performances, that personality has to be used as a means to an end, an end envisioned fundamentally by the composer.
Non-classical music makes less distinction between composer and performer. Indeed, pop music audiences often won’t actually know who wrote the song. Some classical audiences may choose to hear a specific orchestra and not really mind what they play, but plenty want to listen to a particular piece without worrying who is performing it. The classical composer is definitely at the top of the tree. Though certain classical musicians undoubtedly have a specific fan club, there will never be a performer as famous as Mozart. But musicians expressing music through their own feelings is what keeps it alive, and in that sense, pop music’s emphasis on the performer is extremely healthy.
Stravinsky was highly critical of conductors, complaining that the profession ‘rarely attracts original minds’. It’s an interesting criticism. Originality in a conductor is perhaps an odd requirement, especially from a composer. Of course one wants to make music sound new, but one hopes audiences react in a way that they feel it’s always been like that. Certainly as a goal in itself, originality would lead to extremely self-conscious and artificial performances. If musicians aimed to purely express themselves, then everything a particular person played would sound very similar. But if you can express yourself, having moulded your own personality to what’s suitable for the piece, the result will bear a stamp as powerful as it is inaudible.
Performers need to balance expressing their ego with using their ego to express another’s. Fortunately it’s not a contradiction to have a strong personality that is nevertheless directed towards the curiosity of expressing someone else’s and the best results are of course when the personalities of both the piece and its performer lie in perfect harmony. The greatest music reveals an almost infinite range of personalities. Though performers can probably never do justice to them all, it does allow us to realise that what we might think of as some of our most personal traits are also in fact probably the most universal ones.