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Jan Swafford

Classical music and artistic genius

Jan Swafford is an author and composer of classical music. He's written canonical biographies on Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Ives, and is a composer of works such as Landscape with Traveler, From the Shadow of the Mountain, and The Silence at Yuma Point.


(0:00:00) Intro

(0:00:43) Beethoven and immortality

(0:02:35) Mozart and human nature

(0:04:43) Mozart and romanticism

(0:08:13) Artistic genius 

(0:12:38) Beethoven’s late period

(0:15:10) Composers and virtuosos

(0:19:00) Beethoven’s father

(0:21:02) Influence of the enlightenment

(0:26:08) Identifying the next Beethoven

(0:31:23) Aristocratic patrons

(0:34:11) The German genius

(0:38:45) Modern art

(0:41:54) Artistic influences

(0:45:45) Explaining your art

(0:49:55) The solo composer

(0:51:50) What would Beethoven say today?

(0:55:39) Modern recordings

(1:02:22) Future of art

(1:04:57) Jan’s compositions

(1:11:47) Enthusiasts and the internet

(1:13:29) Interpreting history

(1:18:02) Music v literature

(1:23:07) Three great spiritual forces 



[00:00:10] Dan Schulz: This is a conversation with Jan Swafford. He's a composer of classical music as well as a writer. His biographies of Mozart and Beethoven are considered by many to be the best ever written. This conversation was a ton of fun for me, as music is a deep personal interest, and Jan is one of the world's experts. We talk about what made the great composers capable of producing the art they did, what's happening with music and art today, and where it might be headed. We also dig into Jan's music and his personal influences. I hope you enjoy this one, and thank you for listening. Let's get right into it.

I'm here today with Jan Swafford. Jan, welcome to the show.

[00:00:42] Jan Swafford: Thank you, Dan.

[00:00:43] Dan: First question here. Handel was the first composer whose nonchurch music stayed in the repertoire. This happened when Beethoven was alive for him to see it and really internalize this idea that a composer could become immortal, right? For Mozart and Haydn, my understanding anyways, is that concept of immortality long after death and that their work staying as something that's really valuable to future generations, it wasn't as much of a part of who they were. You can object to the premise a little bit, but I'm curious, how much was the idea of immortality core to who Beethoven was?

[00:01:19] Jan: Very much so, I think. Handel died when Mozart was 3 and Haydn was in his 20s, but I've never found a letter or anything that Mozart or Haydn wrote talking about the idea of a permanent repertoire that they're going to be part of and Beethoven did. When you consider yourself writing for the future as well as the present, and I think in Beethoven's case, more and more, he thought of himself as writing mainly for the future, it makes you a different kind of composer. It doesn't make you better, it doesn't have anything to do with that, but it makes you more aware of yourself as in effect a historical figure.

My line, I don't know if you remember this, is, at the end of the Mozart, I said, Beethoven wrote for humanity. He was writing for history and for the whole as what he saw as the whole of humanity, which he was trying to serve with his talent. Mozart, I say, wrote for people. He wrote for people he knew, he wrote for friends, he wrote for publishers he knew and what was happening right then. This was a time, in Mozart's time, when most music heard was new music. That's the context in which he thought of himself, and Haydn too.

[00:02:35] Dan: Actually, another point on Mozart, in that biography you have a quote here which says, "More than any other composer of his level, Mozart viewed human life and behavior almost as a novelist would, but in his case, his insight finally emerge as music, not just in opera, but in all music, founded on a fascination with the world and the people in it." Can you go a little bit deeper into that? What does it mean for Mozart to view human life as a novelist would?

[00:03:00] Jan: I first noticed it when he was writing letters home in his travels. When he broke away from dad and was traveling on his own, he would go to a party and then write his father descriptions of the people at the party. Some of them really quite marvelous. They're very physical or how people talk or how people move. You just see somebody-- The way he writes about them is almost Dickensian sometimes. He talked about one composer at a party who, every time he was going to walk across the floor, would lean back on one foot, hoist his belly up with his hand, and then advance forward. It reminded me of Dickens' description of people.

He had a very wide circle of friends, everything from the aristocracy to tradespeople and musical amateurs and so forth, and he was fascinated by them all, and I think he identified with them all. This was not true of Beethoven. I think one of the reasons Beethoven came to opera obliquely and a bit late is that the great model of what you should do with opera was Mozart at that time, but he knew, whether consciously or not, that he couldn't do what Mozart did, because he didn't understand other people as well as Mozart did, and he could not write comedy like Mozart did.

Beethoven had to find a higher, more ethical theme, and he finally found that in the operas of Cherubini that became his model rather than Mozart. Mozart was just a guy who was totally involved with life and people. I call him Mr. Joie de Vivre. Beethoven was not Mr. Joie de Vivre at all.

[00:04:44] Dan: Yes. Let's compare these two a little bit more. I'm wondering if Mozart would have lived to be 70, let's say, and so him and Beethoven were actually contemporaries, would Mozart have followed Beethoven into the Romantic era? The second part of this would be, would Beethoven have entered his heroic phase if Mozart was still alive? What do you think would have happened?

[00:05:03] Jan: I think it's a very interesting question and it's actually the kind of thing I think about a lot. I think about the fact that if George Gershwin lived into his 70s, he would have died the year the Beatles broke up. What would that have done to him? If Beethoven and Mozart had been together in Vienna, I think it would have been in some ways incredibly fertile for them both, and at the same time, it would have been harder on Beethoven because Beethoven really didn't have any rivals.

There were people who didn't like his stuff, there are always people who don't like your stuff, but he really didn't have any rivals because Haydn was still working when Beethoven showed up, but he was really getting near the end of his career as a composer. The person that critics used to beat Beethoven over the head was Mozart, who had died a few years before. If Mozart had still been around and doing what he did in his way, I think it would have been much harder for Beethoven to make his way.

I also think that Mozart would have understood what kind of a talent Beethoven was, and there would have been a great deal of cross-fertilization. Beethoven, he would have had more resistance is what it amounts to. I think Mozart would have been probably interested, but how long he would have been-- If Beethoven had written The Eroica when Mozart was still alive, would Mozart have been able to countenance that? I don't know. I don't know if Haydn was particularly fond of that piece. I think somebody said to Haydn when they heard The Eroica, "Well, we wouldn't do it like that, would we, master?" He said, "No, we wouldn't." That's Haydn, but Haydn was a lot older than Mozart, of course.

[00:06:40] Dan: Yes. That's the thing, is you've got to wonder if Mozart, he was younger, so maybe the school would have been more influential on him, whereas-

[00:06:46] Jan: I think that's true.

[00:06:47] Dan: -Haydn would have known he doesn't have the life in front of him to really dive in and so there's an incentive to poo-poo what the young are doing to defend your own.

[00:06:56] Jan: I think there are traces of Beethoven's influence on late Haydn here and there. His late E-flat Piano Sonata is an absolutely wild piece. I always think of that piece as him showing these kids that he could do it too. He was in London, he had much bigger, more robust pianos, Haydn did at that time. He really got into the piano in a new way. Meanwhile, he had this kid, Beethoven, who was writing very idiomatic piano music and very exploratory piano music. I don't know. Haydn may have been a little bit--

When I grew up, what they taught you in music class was Beethoven created the modern idea of the symphonies. It's not true. Haydn did. In the late symphonies, Beethoven simply picked up where Haydn left off and took it to another level but nothing he ever did contradicted what Haydn was doing. That's why I call Beethoven not a revolutionary but a radical evolutionary. Revolutionaries want to overthrow the past and the present. Beethoven had no intention of doing that. Everything he did was founded on the past, but he took it very much in a new direction with tremendous intensity, emotionalism, individuality, and things like that.

[00:08:13] Dan: Yes. You have on your personal blog a post that talks about this idea that genius is distinct from talent, sort of making the claim that, to some extent, you're either born with it or you're not.

[00:08:24] Jan: Oh, it's not exactly what I said.

[00:08:27] Dan: Okay, yes.

[00:08:28] Jan: I think to be a genius, you have to have enormous inborn talent. Talent, to a large extent, is inborn, though everybody is different, but that's not enough. If you have great inborn talent for music or painting and you never take up music or painting, you're not going to be a great painter or composer. I think there's also a great deal of work and luck involved. I don't think you can be a genius without enormous inborn talent. I think that's a delusion that a lot of people have these days, the academic left, "There's really no such thing as talent." That's complete nonsense. I've taught in conservatory and you see talent all over the place.

Then you have to cultivate it, you have to have good teachers, you have to be lucky in a way. You have to find encouragement and a milieu where you can develop the talent. Eventually, I think genius is an ability to not only surprise other people but surprise yourself. It is very much intuitive, but you still have to try. I think 90% of art is intuitive. You work in a kind of trance. They're wild horses and you have to keep them under reign, and a lot of that is talent, judgment, taste, and experience.

[00:09:52] Dan: Okay, I love this topic. I've got several questions on this. If we take Mozart and Beethoven, right in their wake, you have Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms.

[00:10:03] Jan: Let me point out, to begin with, the two composers, one of them Mendelssohn and the other Schubert, wrote more original and lasting music in their teens than Mozart did.

[00:10:13] Dan: Yes, yes, yes. That leads to a question-- Schubert is a special case because he died so young and right at the peak of his powers really. I really wonder what he would have done with another even just five years, but what I'm wondering is for these others, and let's just take like Mendelssohn and Brahms, could they have reached Mozart or Beethoven's level under the right circumstances, or did Mozart and Beethoven have some inborn talent that the others did not have access to?

[00:10:41] Jan: I think all those composers had enormous talent. They had the talent in some way. Mendelssohn didn't get better. That's his particular thing. I think his late music is not radically better than what he was writing as a teenager. Many people feel Mendelssohn's best piece is the String Sextet, or is it Octet? I think Octet-

[00:11:02] Dan: The Octet.

[00:11:02] Jan: -that he wrote when he was 16. He wrote the overture of Midsummer Night's Dream when he was in his teens. He never did anything better than that and more original. Whereas Beethoven, again, every genius is different, Beethoven was somebody who-- When I first started the Beethoven, I said he didn't write anywhere near the volume and the quality of music that Mozart did in his teens. Maybe he didn't quite have that same level of talent, but I realize that's probably not true. He probably did.

Beethoven concentrated on piano in his teens. He wanted very much to be a composer-pianist, and he didn't really compose all that much compared to Mozart certainly. Mozart was writing operas from age 12. Nor did Beethoven reach the kind of maturity as a composer in his teens that Mozart did. It's probably just because he didn't do it as much. As soon as Beethoven got to Vienna and studied with Haydn, you see this boom, something happens. You look at what he was writing at 19. It was very promising. It was very interesting, clearly had a huge talent. I hadn't heard this. He said this kid is really something as a pianist too, but he didn't have a sense of proportion.

His timing was off. Then he got to Vienna and studied with Haydn and suddenly had an incredible sense of timing. Just how long do I do this and how do I put pieces together? Beethoven had this capacity to make enormous jumps in a very short amount of time. The year or so he spent studying with Haydn, I think was part of that jump into what became the beginning of his maturity.

[00:12:38] Dan: How important was his late period to his greatness, because he's known as the Romantic God or whatever, really for the heroic phase when he's doing Eroica, the Fifth Symphony, and everything, but it's like the late string quartets and the Ninth and the late sonatas are really where he was clearly achieving something that that was-- No one taught him to do that. He was really on unbroken ground. Would he be who he was without the late pieces and just the heroic phase?

[00:13:05] Jan: For us, he wouldn't. The question I'm thinking about is how much did the 19th century and the Romantics relate to his late music as opposed to his middle-period music. Remember that most of the pieces of his middle period, we call it the heroic period sometimes, but less than half the pieces he wrote, probably less than a third of the pieces he wrote in the middle period are really in the heroic vein. Things like the Fifth Symphony and the Razumovsky string quartets in the middle, the Sixth Symphony, Seventh Symphony, these influenced the Romantics tremendously.

Remember, the Ninth Symphony wasn't played that much until the later 19th century, partly because it was so hard. In a way, the Ninth Symphony is so big and complex that you need a modern conductor to handle it and put it together. That kind of conductor didn't exist when he wrote the piece and for decades after. This idea of the virtuoso conductor is a product of the later 19th century and only then did the Ninth really get pulled together and find its audience.

It was played. Brahms heard the Ninth very early and he was tremendously influenced by it. It's clear that Mendelssohn heard the late string quartets, Beethoven, and was influenced by them. Schumann, I don't know. Rimsky-Korsakov in the late 19th century said he thought the lake quartets were just a disaster and the poor guy was half crazy and deaf and he couldn't really do it anymore. I think that was the opinion of a lot of people in the 19th century. I can't say to what extent the late music influenced the 19th century as compared to the middle. I can't really say that entirely. Brahms' did.

The first piano concerto, the D minor, you cannot imagine that if you hadn't heard the Ninth Symphony in D minor.

[00:14:54] Dan: Yes.

[00:14:56] Jan: Mendelssohn, I think is see late Beethoven quartets in Mendelssohn at some point in his quartets, but maybe not those later ones. I'm not entirely up on all that. It's a very interesting question, though.

[00:15:10] Dan: You talked about the role of the virtuoso conductor, I'm actually curious about the role of the virtuoso instrumentalists, for example, Mozart when he met Joseph Leutgeb, the horn player, it pushed the limits of what he thought you could do in a horn concerto. To what extent, you yourself are a composer, do you feel constrained by what performers are actually able to play?

[00:15:32] Jan: Oh, absolutely. It's not a matter of constraint. It's a matter of knowing, knowing what instruments can do and what they can't do. You can push that, but you can only push it so far. This may or may not be relevant, but there's a story-- I studied with Jacob Druckman at Yale. I was his assistant in the Electronic Music Studio. He said when he first started doing electronic music, one of the things that most interested him was that he could create rhythms that were more complex with electronic music than humans could play.

He did that. He said he discovered it didn't sound like anything, that it just sounded like rocks hitting a tin roof. There was no life in it. He realized that what he wanted to do was if he could write difficult rhythms but he wanted the effect of people struggling to play those rhythms because that's what brought it alive. I've heard a certain amount of electronic music that is just very virtuosicly facile and it doesn't add up to anything. I've done it myself when I was first doing electronic music.

[00:16:37] Dan: Yes, yes, yes. Going back to this idea of talent, I want to stick on it for a second, how generalizable do you think the great composers' talents were? Let's say, Leopold, Mozart's dad, he put him up to literature or painting, do you think that Mozart would have been in the very top tier in one of those domains as well?

[00:16:54] Jan: Leopold was an incredible-- He's the only teacher his children ever had in music and everything else. If Mozart had had the same kind of talent he did and didn't have that father, well, an example of that is Beethoven. One of the reasons Beethoven didn't mature as fast as Mozart is he didn't have a Leopold Mozart. He had his father, Johann, who was alcoholic and a mediocre musician. Johann tried to bill his kid as the next Mozart, including lying about his age, but it didn't really work even though Beethoven was a hell of a prodigy.

When Neefe became his teacher, got to Bonn and met Beethoven at age 10, and started teaching him, he wrote an article saying this kid is going to be the next Mozart, but Beethoven didn't develop as a composer as much in his teens as Mozart by half. Nowhere close. That's partly because he didn't have a Leopold. Neefe was a good teacher but not a great one probably. Beethoven really is as much self-taught as anything, both as a performer and a composer.

Whereas Mozart had his father. He was a skilled composer, by the way, and reasonably. He quit composing when he saw-- His job, Leopold's job became his son at a certain point. He quit composing. I think he just said, why bother? He was a pretty good composer and pretty well known and his hand appears on Mozart's manuscripts into Mozart's 20s. He would still make suggestions and even corrections.

When Mozart was writing Idomeneo, he was in Munich and he was writing letters back and forth to Salzburg with dad, and Leopold was making a lot of suggestions and Mozart took some of them. His father, at one point said, I hear this scene in my head, it's got trombones and it's uh-uh. Mozart did exactly what his father suggested. This is Mozart's first-grade opera, but he was still listening to dad when dad had good suggestions. When dad tried to run his life, that's when Mozart was beginning to break away.

[00:19:00] Dan: Yes, yes, yes. How should we think about Beethoven and the relationship with his dad? On the one hand, it's a tragic story when you think about it. He suffered abuse as a child from his father. On the other hand, his work was a direct result of or direct consequence of the abuse that he suffered in some ways. It made him who he was. My question is, can we have it both ways? Should we be grateful to his father?

[00:19:26] Jan: His family gets a bad rap in some ways. He wasn't a helpless alcoholic until his wife died. After his wife dies is when you start hearing the stories of him rolling in the gutter and that kind of thing. He was alcoholic but he was functional. Again, we're talking about Beethoven's father. He was a respected voice teacher in town. He did not have a good voice but he was competent. He sang in the choir. He was probably a decent voice teacher. He did a lot to show his kid around. He had him play all over the area. He gave concerts in the house, where they'd open the windows and people would gather outside and listen, and he found his son teachers.

He started him off brutally, would beat him up and lock him in the cellar and things like that, which was probably the way he had been taught by his father, but his later teachers were not like that. Beethoven had a very good teacher from age 10 on, which was Neefe. He didn't study composition or piano that much with Neefe, but still, Neefe was a good and not a mean teacher at all. I think partly you could say that Beethoven when he was a kid advanced in music at first because dad made him and then it became a way to get away from dad and get out from under dad.

Beethoven and Mozart both had dad problems, but very, very different dads and different problems with them. Beethoven was making the money for the family by his mid-teens. He would give an allowance to dad who was pretty drunk by then.

[00:21:03] Dan: Yes, yes, yes. How do you think this turns out for Mozart? He wasn't really the suffering genius, but his music has this joyful happiness to it, whereas of course, Beethoven is very emotional, very fraught. There's a lot going on inside that head. Do you think it is a direct result of their life or is it more the context under which-- Beethoven was also a big fan of the Enlightenment and Napoleon at one point in time. Which of these do you think was a bigger impact, cultural influences, or the direct result of their daily life?

[00:21:36] Jan: A certain amount of it is just personality. Mozart had a very joie de vivre personality. He was a showbiz kid. He was one of the most famous people in the world from about age six. That was not Beethoven. Beethoven was not as Mr. Joie de Vivre because he was sick all the time. He'd been sick starting as a teenager. He had depressions, his gut was a mess his whole life. Meanwhile, he was just a more emotional and intense person. As an artist, Mozart to me is the charmer and the seducer. Beethoven is a guy grabbing lapels and saying, within 2 inches of your face. "I'm telling you something very important and you must listen to this."

That's a different artistic personality, which partly came out of their individual personalities. Meanwhile, Beethoven was not, I don't think, in his sensibility-- He was an Enlightenment person very much. He was a product of the 1780s, which were the revolutionary decade in Europe. It was the decade of the American Revolution and finally the French Revolution. There was this incredible sense of new things in the air and human potentials with science and constitutional governments that were new in the world. Beethoven was absolutely part of that, but he was not a romantic in his sensibility. He was an 18th-century person. I think it's very important, Beethoven's audience in his maturity were romantics.

[00:23:10] Dan: Oh, yes, yes.

[00:23:12] Jan: That leads to one of my old lines, it's something I discovered when I was writing the Ives book. There are three important things when you're an artist and before the public anyway. One is what you think you are doing, consider yourself to be doing. Two is what your audience considers you to be doing, which those can be quite different and even contradictory things. Three is your response to what your audience thinks you're doing because your audience may influence you.

I think Beethoven's audience who were romantics did influence him and did have something to do with the late music. For example, one of the critics-- He read everything written about himself. Beethoven did. He certainly read E.T.A. Hoffmann, who was an arch-romantic. Wrote fantasy stories that are still known, which are really quite fantastic. He was also a composer and music critic, Hoffmann. Beethoven read Hoffmann's, things which are now considered to be the foundation of romantic criticism of Beethoven. He's writing things like Beethoven presses the levers of fear and the uncanny, all these qualities that romantics loved and the bizarre.

When Beethoven was young, his music was condemned for being bizarre. When the romantics got ahold of it, they praised it for being bizarre. I think that came back. Meanwhile, two things, he thanked Hoffmann. He sent a note to Hoffmann. He said, "Thank you. I've really appreciated you writing about me." There is a letter he wrote to a young friend of his that I found was sounding very peculiar. I suddenly realized it is in the vein of Hoffmann's stories, which he had read by then.

There is a romantic who absolutely Beethoven is aware of what he's saying about his music. I think it gave him a new angle on his own work and new possibilities. I won't go so far as to say exactly how, but it may have stimulated and emboldened him toward the late music. Being deaf did, too. It was in his head. He couldn't hear music outside anymore. It was all in his head. That takes on a very particular quality. Well, I won't say particular. It takes on a quality. I won't be too precise about it because it's not precise.

[00:25:26] Dan: That fact is just so mythical to me. It's almost like it's scripted or something. It's so crazy.

[00:25:35] Jan: It's also amazing that he completely changed his orchestral sound when he was deaf and his string quartet sound when he was deaf. To me as a composer, that's beyond belief. Some things in the 19th century didn't work. He did some miscalculations, but not that much. Mostly he just created this wholly new and fantastic, huge, big orchestral sound. The string quartets, the late quartets, some of the pages look like Schoenberg on the page. They're so wild in terms of texture and color. He's combining four different textures sometimes.

[00:26:08] Dan: It's so crazy, almost as to be divine at times. As a teacher, let's say the next Beethoven was in your class at the conservatory, do you think you'd actually be able to spot them? What characteristics or signs would you look for where you would say, "Holy cow, this student is something special"?

[00:26:27] Jan: That's a very good question. Basically, you're teaching a conservatory, you get these people who are thrown into this situation of just a boiling cauldron of music all the time. They all grow and they all change, but you see some changing like this and you see others taking off like a rocket. Those are the ones, of course, who have talent and imagination.

Almost all those who take off like a rocket, at a certain point, they plateau out and stay there pretty much. The ones who keep going and going and going, those are the ones who had the potential for genius. Have I ever had a student that I felt had that? No. Do I have that? No. Even though I've certainly grown and changed, and I think I'm pretty good as a composer, and I think I just wrote my best piece at 77, it's not getting on a plateau, and the same is true of a performer.

Most performers, when you first start getting serious about an instrument, you get better very, very quickly. To get from nowhere to pretty good takes X amount of time. To get from pretty good to very good takes X squared or more. To get to be really fantastic and to make these tiny, tiny gains but keep going and keep going, it takes an enormous amount of effort, time, talent, and discipline.

[00:28:08] Dan: We will come back to your best piece being written at 77 because I want to dig into that, but one follow-up on this point here. Let's say you were convinced. Without a shadow of a doubt, you're saying "This student has Beethoven-level potential," but of course, the modern world is very different from where these composers grew up. In the past, you could take the institutions and structures. Just the whole realm of classical music is much different. Knowing what you know about how classical music works today, how would you guide them to make sure that they reach their full potential and really go down in history as one of the greats?

[00:28:38] Jan: I wouldn't know that. I would know somebody had tremendous potential. If I watched them through their first 10 or 15 years of their career, I might say, "Geez, this person is--" The mechanisms and the kind of milieu that Beethoven had in his time don't exist anymore. There was a real system for recognizing and fostering talent, a lot of it by the aristocracy and the church, and they had the money to do something about it.

Beethoven didn't have to go and spend a lot of time yelling, "Look at me, look at me, look at me," because he got to Vienna, there were immediately people who knew of phenomenal keyboard player when they heard one and knew a great composer or a budding composer when they heard one and they would do a lot of the promoting themselves. These days, as a composer, you try to get a teaching job because that's the only way to make a living unless you have a lot of money. Then you have to be an entrepreneur. You have to sell yourself.

In a world where you can't make a living at it most likely, and where there is no milieu to foster composers and bring them along, you have to do it yourself. You have to be a creator and an entrepreneur at the same time. This is something I'm terrible at. I'm a terrible careerist in every respect. I would tell students and I have told students, "You have to be a careerist. You have to--" One way a lot of composers do it is form groups of composers and give concerts. Those groups are popping up and disappearing all the time, but some stick around. That's one way to get noticed.

I tell people to make friends with musicians and write music for them that will make them sound good and that they'll like. If you have a really good musician on your side, especially a prominent one, then that's going to make a huge difference. Those are the mechanisms, or you can do what one composer I know does which is send you his music and then call you about every three weeks to hound you about it.

I say that because the guy I'm thinking about it worked, even though I don't think much of his music. Somebody was telling me about this. He said he sent him his piano concerto and he would get a call like clockwork every six weeks. Every time he'd have a new idea about how to do it. "Oh, I can hire some ringers," or we can do this, that, and the other, the guy kept saying. He conducted a college orchestra who could begin to play this piece. This went on for a couple of three years. That guy eventually had a certain amount of success because he just was absolutely relentless in promoting himself. Certainly, somebody like Philip Glass, that's exactly what he did. He is a brilliant self-promoter.

[00:31:24] Dan: Yes, yes, yes. Actually, just generally, what do you think of that, the role of the aristocratic patron and the church in just 18th to 19th-century art more broadly? I feel like some people don't like it because it made composers subservient to this ruling aristocracy. On the other hand, what you're describing now doesn't necessarily sound like it's fostering more innovation or necessarily better for artists. Was there actually something quite right with the aristocratic method of going out and funding young artists?

[00:31:55] Jan: They had money and in some cases they had taste. Vienna was interesting because the aristocracy was pretty superficial. The aristocracy all over Europe were often quite superficial, though some of them were very smart. Basically, they often competed with one another. Music was status for them. Having a stable of musicians and composers you were fostering, this was status in the aristocratic world. Meanwhile, they had a whole lot of money. It was changing, though, in the 19th century. By the middle of the century, the main way you made a living as a composer was publishers.

Music publishing was taking off in Beethoven's lifetime. He was the first composer to be published. All of his music pretty much was published from the beginning. It's partly because there were innovations and engraving and things like that that made it much faster and cheaper to put music out. Also, there was a growing audience for music, middle-class audience, and Beethoven's music contributed to that. Remember, Beethoven was not played in public that much. Chamber music was never played in public. Piano sonatas were never played in public in Beethoven's lifetime.

His string quartet, that he was associated with, run by a guy named Schuppanzigh, were the first quartet in Europe to do a public subscription series, and it didn't last that long. They mostly worked for aristocrats. There were public concerts of orchestra music in Vienna, but there was no standing orchestra at all in Beethoven's lifetime. If you wanted to put in a concert, you had to scrape together the orchestra yourself and pay them. There were some concerts in the park and things like that in the summer. Our notion of a concert life didn't exist. It was mostly private music enthusiasts.

The first performances of The Eroica were in a room not much the size of a large banquet hall for audiences of 20, 30, 40 people. As the century went on, partly because there had been this incredible run of genius, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and then Schumann and Schubert, music just boomed in the 19th century. It became profitable to publish it and publishing was much more cheaper and easier, so the sales of cheap music took over as a way for composers to make a living.

[00:34:12] Dan: Question on those really early legends. I know Germany is a new concept as a sovereignty, but broadly speaking, you could classify Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven as of German descent. Could they have been French or Italian? Why is it that these three all happen to be German?

[00:34:28] Jan: They could have been. They would have been different composers if they were.

[00:34:32] Dan: Would they be who they are today, though?

[00:34:33] Jan: They might have been great composers. Again, a certain amount is luck. They would have had to be lucky too in a different way, in a different place. As I say in my book about Beethoven, he grew up in Bonn, which was one of the most intensely enlightened and progressive states of all the many states in Germany. If he'd grown up somewhere else other than Bonn, he might have been a very great composer, but he wouldn't have been the same. He wouldn't have been as inculcated the same way with Enlightenment ideals to which he was--

Beethoven was told, "You have great talent. It is your duty to use that talent to benefit humanity. That is your task." He stuck to that to the rest of his life. That's an Enlightenment idea. All these people, if they'd been French again, might have been, but they would have written French music because there wouldn't have been any alternative. You don't grow up in France and write music that sounds like German music, by and large. That's what Berlioz was accused of and he was pretty Germanic for a French composer, but he was still basically French.

[00:35:36] Dan: I guess what I'm wondering is if there's something about Germany at that time that was fertile ground for young talent to come up and get into music.

[00:35:46] Jan: It was just a great place to be a musician, that's all. Think, Beethoven grew up when there was a court musical establishment, an orchestra, an opera, a theater. He played in the opera orchestra. He accompanied opera rehearsals. They played all the latest stuff, so he heard all the new Mozarts within a year of their being premiered, probably. He heard everything. He played in the orchestra, and he played at court. He got paid for this. You couldn't make an international reputation in Bonn. You had to leave for that, and he did, but it was a fantastic place to grow up as a musician. There were other places like that, in Vienna, and Berlin. There were places all over Germany.

Mannheim was another place like that. Mannheim had probably the greatest orchestra in the world for a while when Mozart was young. It fostered composers. None of them were in Beethoven's league or Mozart's league. There was just these fertile music places where you had all kinds of experience. Beethoven was also a church organist. He was assistant to Neefe as a church organist. He was playing piano, he was playing organ, he was playing violin and viola in the orchestra. He was listening to new operas. He was playing in court as a soloist. He was traveling as a soloist with the court orchestra. This is an incredible way to grow up as a musician.

[00:37:10] Dan: Yes. Just by the way, the reason I'm so interested in these types of questions is it seems obvious that if you have this cluster of really talented people, they're all from broadly the same area, there must be something causal about the culture and what's in the water or whatever. The question of how do you get more Beethovens or Bachs today surely has something to do with figuring out the culture and the environment that people are able to grow up in.

[00:37:35] Jan: The culture. Italy had a fantastic musical culture, but it had largely to do with opera. If you grew up in Italy, that's what you did. When Mozart's dad, when Leopold said, "Okay, we're going to gear you up to write opera, so we're going to go to Italy because that's where you learn to write opera." It has to do with the Middle Europe. Let me tell a story that I think is great in terms of the idea of a Middle Europe. When Rossini was young, there was a system of going from city to city and writing operas.

When you were a young composer trying to get known for writing opera and you'd breeze into town, you'd meet the singers. You would, on the spot, write an opera for these singers, piano accompaniment. It would either be a hit or it was not. If it was a hit, you would have a lot of girlfriends, a lot of wining and dining. You would be lauded. Then you go on to the next town and see if you could do it again. What a fantastic way to become an opera composer. Though, of the people who went through that system, there was only one, Rossini. I don't know if anybody else made a great-- That had to do with his particular talent, gifts, and luck.

[00:38:45] Dan: Some questions, these are all going to start to point towards the modern era and where music has evolved to. Why do you think it is that different art forms evolve together? 20th century, you've got Picasso, serialism. They're all making the same point. Then in literature as well, you've noted before that Faulkner was influenced by Einstein's relativity and Freud. It seems like there's this macro zeitgeist that catches everybody. Why is that? Why does all art seem to move together?

[00:39:15] Jan: In the first place, you used the word zeitgeist and I believed zeitgeist is a real thing. It's a temperament. As you said, I think Faulkner was influenced by Freud, but I don't know if he ever read Freud. I doubt it. It's possible, but I doubt it. These ideas were just in the air. If you were in the arts, around the arts, you picked up these ideas by osmosis. Every period has its zeitgeist. Somebody like Beethoven was so powerful that he changed the zeitgeist. First, he became part of it. He grew up in the Germanic tradition of mainly Haydn, Mozart, Bach, and Handel.

Handel was the only composer Beethoven considered as superior, by the way. He considered others as equals, but not as superiors. The Romantic zeitgeist was something he, I think, gradually absorbed. Meanwhile, what he absorbed was the 1780s, the zeitgeist of the Enlightenment and the revolutionary decade. I don't think that any artist completely escapes the zeitgeist, though everyone responds to it in their own way.

Somebody like Charles Ives who was writing music was so strange in the terms of his time, and he was so independent because he had to be, he was still very influenced by the ideas around him and very much by the idea of evolution, which was the big, fat, intellectual, scientific idea of the era, but it was applied both rightly and wrongly to sociology as well. So much of Ives had to do with the concept of evolution, whether you put it that way or not, evolution in the arts and in humanity in the human spirit.

I don't know what Jung would say about all this in terms of the zeitgeist and the world spirit and things like that. I just think you're influenced powerfully by the things around you and you can't help it because that's what's around you and you begin by imitating. That's how you begin as an artist, by imitating, by and large. Mozart was a phenomenal mimic. He could breeze into a town, listen to the local composers, and start writing in their styles right away, but that's something he had to get beyond, just like he had to get beyond his fame and his being a prodigy, because when he grew up, he had to show up and say, "Hey, I'm not a kid anymore."

There's no alternative. As an artist, you don't come out of nowhere. You come out of your time and its zeitgeist. You may be independent in many, many ways, and I think I'm a very independent composer. I don't write like anybody else, but I did it for a while, and then I gradually moved beyond it.

[00:41:55] Dan: Here's a question for you as a composer, I had this frame just like more generally, but I'm curious for your own experience with it. We just agreed here, it does feel like there is a zeitgeist and everybody is wrapped up in it. It's really hard to ignore, but as a composer, you can think about picking and choosing your favorites for influences, right? What I'm curious is it doesn't seem like there's that many people that are able to ignore certain movements before them. For example, after Beethoven, nobody in the Romantic era, at least as far as I'm aware, that was really big, completely ignored him. You had to grapple with the fact that Beethoven was there. Then--

[00:42:30] Jan: Like it or not, yes, you had to deal with it.

[00:42:33] Dan: You had to deal with it. It seems like the same thing for Schoenberg nowadays. I don't know. Maybe some people do ignore him, but it seems hard, at least, for people to just move on. No one is just going back and saying, "I'm just going to write in the style of Mozart and Haydn." Why is that?

[00:42:50] Jan: Well, because you've had sounds in your ear that are not Mozart and Haydn. Unless you're completely dishonest, you can't pretend that you haven't. Though, you can certainly write in retrogressive ways. You can write regular chords and tonal harmony, what are called the Atlanta School today. People like Jennifer Higdon are very much writing traditional veins and having a lot of success at it, but you can't pretend that you aren't who you are, and who you are is to a degree your experiences. Whether you like Schoenberg, for example, or not, you've heard him.

One thing, though, about the zeitgeist, the zeitgeist when I was coming up in graduate school was dominated by serialism. There was a phase when students were little to be told if you're serious you write serial music. If you're not a serialist, you're not serious. That was ridiculous. It was never anything but ridiculous. When I was in graduate school I saw all these what I call petit revolutionaries running around trying to revolutionize everything. I said, "This is nuts. This is crazy. Most of this is just nonsense." There aren't that many genuinely new ideas in the world. They don't happen that often and when everybody's trying to create them, it's chaos.

I would say that the zeitgeist now in the arts is chaos. That's what I think it is. It's anarchy and chaos. To find a grounding for yourself as an artist in any medium, and that I think is unique to this period, because you're grounding yourself in a period of chaos it's like you're trying to find firm ground in a flood. I think my line about what you have to do as a composer is that there's the-- Lying around you is the rubble of all past systems of music. There's tonality, late tonality, the Renaissance, the Baroque, twelve-tone, serialism, minimalism, primitivism, and futurism.

All this stuff is just lying around. What you have to do as a composer is pick up bits and pieces of these ideas, techniques, philosophies, and aesthetics and from that cobble together your own thing. When I was at Boston Conservatory, we had a big composition department. I think when I left, there were 30 some, maybe even 40 students and maybe 5 faculty. All those people wrote in 45 different ways and none of them were straight serialists, and none of them were straight minimalists, yet all of us were influenced by serialism, minimalism, neoclassicism, and Cage. All those flavors and elements were circulating around among all these composers but in a different way in every person.

[00:45:46] Dan: Got it. You've said before in another interview that twelve-tone music, basically, it became an orthodoxy because Schoenberg explained it. Then you have other composers like Bartók who never really actually explained their work. The question to you is, should they be explaining their work?

[00:46:03] Jan: Bartók refused to teach composition. He said, "It can't be done. You have to find your own way." That's one of the reasons he was practically starving when he got to America. He refused to teach composition. He only taught piano.

[00:46:16] Dan: That's interesting.

[00:46:17] Jan: What you just said, you may have picked this idea from me at some point because I really believe that's true. Why did so many people adopt Schoenberg's system? Because he explained it. If Bartók had explained his system, there would probably be a lot more people writing like Bartók. Hindemith explained what he was doing, so a lot of people wrote like Hindemith. That's just how it is. I have a very ambivalent attitude towards serialism. I like a lot of Schoenberg, but he's the only twelve-tone composer I like a fair amount of.

I tremendously love early Webern, what's called a free Anton Webern. When Webern got very serious about serialism, I don't like his music anymore. Sorry. To me, he started playing Mahjong with notes, which is what I call most serialism. Schoenberg is passionate. Schoenberg is expressive, which he isn't given much credit for but he is. He's often expressing despairing and dark things, but that's how it goes. Pierrot Lunaire, it's just a matter of he took up these very strange poems.

I'm going to tell you another great principle of creativity, which you're not taught in school. You're taught in music school that innovation is entirely a technical matter. You bend this, you break that, you extend this, you write new kinds of this, that, and the other, and that's what innovation is. Every one of the great musical innovations came from trying to express something outside music. The Eroica, the greatest revolutionary symphony ever written was called Napoleon. It was called Bonaparte. It was a piece about Napoleon.

Wagner wrote music dramas. He evolved a revolutionary musical style to express his stories and his characters. Schoenberg, when he started to write, Pierrot Lunaire had these very strange, decadent, wonderfully weird poems, who evolved a very weird musical language to express them, and he did it in a traditional way, what's called a melodrama, which is speaking to music, speaking verse. Mozart used this idea. It's an old idea, but all Schoenberg did was said, "I don't want to have it. I want to have more control over the speaking than melodrama has in the past, so I'm going to notate it precisely." That was the only difference. The language was to express those strange poems.

Rite of Spring, another one of the great innovative things was a story about primitive Russia and so forth and so on. Every great musical advance has to do with trying to express something outside music that is maybe new in itself. The Ballets Russes was doing revolutionary kinds of dance, so it called for revolutionary music. Schoenberg was very much a part of fin de siècle, wonderful decay of romanticism into the fin de siècle. He was part of that, and he contributed to it.

When I was in graduate school, I said everybody in all the arts I knew they were trying to be revolutionary, and I just thought it was stupid. A lot of people in graduate schools at that time were writing as if they were writing serial music in 1918 or 1922, and I also said that is idiotic. It pretends that music is just technique and it has nothing to do with its time and place in the world and that is stupid. It's not true. It's ridiculous to try to write as if you're a German. For American two-year-old graduate students to write music as if they're Germans in the fin de siècle [laughs] in 1919 it is foolish. That's not how art works. It's not how life works.

[00:49:56] Dan: On this, for composers, you did mention that, at least lately, some of the strategies that people have used to get their work out there has been collaborating with other composers. All of the greats, for the most part, they all did this solo. Why is it that there aren't any--

[00:50:09] Jan: No. It's not true. Schoenberg founded the Society For the Private Performance of Music. There were private concerts where critics were not invited. It was all by invitation. He did have a group. He had his students, Webern and Berg, who were brilliant composers whom he fostered. They had their little group and they had some other people involved. You can say that's the first case maybe of a composer forming a group. Certainly, Brahms would never have done anything.

[00:50:39] Dan: I guess the question just is before Schoenberg and the 20th century, why were there no teams? Everyone did this solo. Why didn't we have a group together or a duo or something like this?

[00:50:52] Jan: Well, there were certainly affinities. Schumann was associated with Mendelssohn and against Wagner and Liszt, basically. Wagner and Liszt went and to a degree, Berliozt, who was older, they were a bit of a team, but they didn't do concerts together. Your relationship was with publishers, really, and performers, and you've made your career as an individual. In the 19th century, you tended to be affiliated either with the Brahmsian train or the Wagner and Liszt train.

You were either writing program music in the vein of Liszt or in the tradition that Liszt invented, he invented the tone poem, or you were sticking to what was called abstract or pure music in the vein of Brahms, who did not write on stories or if he did, he never admitted it, except that occasionally dropped little hints about its connection to his life because his music was connected to his life. He just didn't like to talk about it nor hear about it.

[00:51:51] Dan: If Beethoven stayed alive, who do you think he would have sympathized more, and who do you think more correctly got his influence? Would he have woken up and said, "Wagner, you got it. You understood. You keep going." Or would he have said--

[00:52:04] Jan: Wagner certainly painted himself as the ear of Beethoven, but he also said this, "The symphony is dead, and the future is basically me."

[00:52:11] Dan: Yes. Would he agree or would he say, "No, you fool. You're supposed to stay within the confines of symphony and work within these parts,"?

[00:52:19] Jan: Or would Beethoven, if he'd lived another 20 years, would he have written more program music? Because the fact is the program traditions was founded basically on Beethoven pieces like the Pastoral Symphony. Also, everyone in Beethoven's overtures is very programmatic. You hear the story, you hear the characters. He didn't like to admit-- Beethoven actually put down the whole idea of program music, especially when Haydn did it, and yet he did it anyway. He was very good at it, but he never quite admitted that that's what he was doing except in cheesy commercial pieces like Wellington's Victory, which Beethoven, as he said, "I know this is crap," he criticized it, "but this crap is better than either you ever did." [laughs]

Beethoven might have might have felt less self-conscious about program music. That's about the only thing I can think of. Would he have been influenced by Wagner's music dramas? He wouldn't have lived long enough to see those in their maturity anyway.

[00:53:26] Dan: I just wonder if he approved of the concept or if he would've said, "Brahms, you got it right. This is what I was pointing towards." I'm not sure.

[00:53:35] Jan: I'm not sure either. I think he would have been-- He never admitted being influenced by anything, but he was anyway. Just like he never admitted writing program pieces, but he did anyway. I don't know. I can't say. I think he might have found more affinity in Brahms because Brahms was so close to him. I've heard an imminent Brahmsian say the first two Brahms symphonies are Beethoven's 10th and 11th, and the third is the first real Brahms symphony, which isn't to say the first two aren't great pieces, but they are so overtly in Beethoven's line of thought.

As somebody said to Brahms about the first symphony, gee, that chorale theme in the last movement is very reminiscent of Beethoven. Brahms said, "Yes, any jackass can see that. What you bet is, yes, it's true but I contributed something too. It doesn't really sound like Beethoven exactly. Sounds like me, you jackass."

[00:54:27] Dan: I've heard you say that the very first show that got you into classical music was you saw Bernstein conduct Brahms 1. Is that true? What influence did that have on you?

[00:54:38] Jan: I played that melody with all these Tennessee junior high honors band a year before and I just loved it, but I had no idea who wrote it. Meanwhile, I'd forgotten it. I was sad that I couldn't remember that wonderful melody anymore. Then suddenly in this concert, there it is and I was just changed as a person. I think that's, I always say that's when I became a musician. I was talking to Laith Al-Saadi about this once and he said for him it was the middle part of the second movement of the third symphony, that huge fugue, which is one of the pinnacles of music, I think. That same thing had a lot to do with my being a musician too. I know Amanuel Ax and he said for him it was Brahms' second piano concerto. There are these moments that just knock you over and change your life. You have to be ready for them. You have to be primed. When they happen, they they happen.

[00:55:41] Dan: Alex Ross, the New Yorker, journalist, he wrote about the classical music recordings in 2023, and he commented, "I can't remember a year of so many pleasure-inducing, addiction-triggering albums." Basically, what he's saying here is he thinks that the world of recording anyways is still really, really great. Do you agree? Do you think that the world is still generating great recordings?

[00:56:01] Jan: Well, I think he was talking about the pieces. And one of the things about the current situation, in music anyway-- Visual arts are very different. You can throw a pail of dirt in the corner and get paid $1 million for it. That's the situation of the visual arts now, and I'm not really exaggerating that much. You can't do that as a composer, but here's what I think. I think in the '60s, minimalism appeared, and it did. I don't like most minimalist pieces. My line is I don't like minimalism except for the pieces I like, which is mostly Steve Reich music for 18 musicians. What minimalism did is break the power, the stranglehold that serialism had in the academy and it became so simplistic, often childishly simplistic writing stuff that a four-year-old could understand. It opened up everything in the middle.

I'm one of those people in the middle. What you have now are people like, Jennifer Higdon writing very 19th-century music that really calls 19th-century romanticism. You have still some serial composers, I'm sure here and there, but you have other people writing it. Just an amazing variety of voices, and some of those are very appealing. Caroline Shaw who won the Pulitzer a few years ago with this marvelous vocal piece that had-- I just remember feeling that this had elements for the last several 100 years in it and put together in a way that was entirely new and her own and that's the kind of thing that-- a piece that's tremendously appealing without having feeling like it's pandering in any way. That's the kind of thing I'm sure that Ross was talking about. There are other composers like that.

I have to admit I don't systematically keep up with new music as much as I probably should. A lot of what Ross is probably talking about, I don't even know.

[00:57:56] Dan: Actually, a lot of what he was commenting on in this specific one, yes, he does write a lot about new contemporary music, but it was specifically recordings. I think what he's getting at is there are still great pianists coming out with full cycles of the Beethoven piano sonatas. There are still great string quartet recordings coming out of some of the old repertoire. It does seem like, at least in his view, this is surprising because classical music as a whole, the narrative is revenues are down and people are less interested. At the same time, it seems like the 10th best pianist today is as good as way better than the 10th best pianist maybe at any time ever in history. I'm just curious if you agree with that sentiment.

[00:58:36] Jan: I can't say in terms of pianists. I really don't know. Not knowing what Ross is talking about, I'm not sure I can comment on that except to say that there's this huge stew of stuff going on. It's a great time to be an anarchist. I call myself politically a right-wing socialist and creatively an anarchist classicist because I believe the classicist side of me wants to be things just so, and to try to write music that sounds like it wrote itself, which is what I think the classicist classical period was trying to do. At the same time, I'm a bit of an anarchist, and I'm comfortable with that. In a way, it's a great time to be an anarchist because there is no way to write music. There is no technique. You have to make your own technique.

You may draw on previous techniques, but just to draw blankly on serialism these days, I think just is anybody still doing that? I don't know. There are many other things that are involved with that. One of the reasons that serialism triumphed after World War II was that it was an antidote to chaos, that the composers felt that it was a rational system of composition that spiritually was an answer to the chaos of two world wars. After World War I, Schoenberg turned to 12 tone, which was much more organized, and Stravinsky turned to the neoclassic stuff which was much more constrained. You can't leave those things out either.

Now, I'm wandering again, but I think this is all relevant. I'm wandering away from what you said about Ross to another issue, which is that I think the deconstruction movement of 20 or 30 years ago had, to me, a disastrous influence on art because it said the reader is superior to the writer, any cockamamie anything you want to say is perfectly legitimate if you can manage to get tenure for it. I think that in an era when there are no longer any agreed-upon standards of what's right and wrong-- let's forget about right and wrong, good and bad, in the arts, it creates a situation we are in right now, which is the general critical opinion that you see everywhere is nothing but-- what justifies art is politics. It is saying the politically correct things that make you a worthwhile artist in that because what else is there?

What is the wonderful Black poet, the young woman who read at the inauguration of-- She came out of Harvard. What is her name? In the comments, I've heard about her is she's going to write about the Black experience and Black suffering, as if writing good poetry doesn't have anything to do with it. I'm of the school that, I think Joseph Brodsky said once, he said, I'm paraphrasing, "The artist's main responsibility to society is to write well." Beethoven wrote a symphony called Bonaparte, and that was very significant in a political sense, but if the notes weren't great, it wouldn't make any difference. If your words aren't good, if your notes aren't good, it doesn't matter, ultimately, in the long run, how correct your political sentiments are. It's not going to last.

The way that it's being judged now critically and academically has almost entirely to do with politics, and I don't like that. I've written pieces that have to do with contemporary politics and pieces that don't, and I think they're both perfectly valid. I'm not saying you shouldn't write about contemporary issues. I'm saying that that is not ultimately what makes a difference. What makes a difference is how good you are and how good your notes are.

[01:02:23] Dan: You've been in the artistic creative community for a while now, and presumably have seen a little bit of shift in the zeitgeist over time, and have a feel for it. What is your prediction for the next 10 to 20 years? Do you think we'll get out of this rut, or is art sort of a political device?

[01:02:40] Jan: If I'm right that we're in chaos right now, chaos isn't exactly a rut. It's an anti-rut. I have no predictions for 20. I really don't know. I don't think anybody would have predicted minimalism until it happened, and minimalism really changed music. Even though I don't like most minimal pieces, I think it did music a great service because it opened up the whole range of musical possibilities as something you could do and to be taken seriously for. Other than the continuation of the anarchy that we're living in now in arts and maybe in politics too, for all, it seems more and more, I can't see--Let's put it this way. I can't see a unified technique of composition coming along that will become standard. I don't think that will ever happen again.

I don't see a unified aesthetic coming along, which a great many artists adhere to. I don't think that'll ever happen again, though that is maybe more possible than a technical thing. Other than that, I can't predict. I read a thing once that's really influenced me a lot. It said they analyzed a bunch of prophecies, a great many of them. This was a study, and they found there was no difference between prophecy and random. Prophecy was random. It had nothing very solid to do with-- Then who would have predicted that Donald Trump would become president of the United States? That idea would have been so ridiculous, and yet here we are.

[01:04:21] Dan: Even when I look back like a year in my life, sometimes I'm shocked by how many things happen that you're like, "There's just no way you could have ever seen it coming." Your personal life, what's going on in the world, it doesn't matter. It's just so hard to get a grasp on it.

[01:04:34] Jan: Somebody said once, "The future is old-fashioned. We've learned to try to predict it." The movie 2001 technologically could have very easily happened. I'm not talking about the slab. I'm just talking about the technology to get to Jupiter or whatever, or to have bases on the moon. We just didn't go that way. That's all.

[01:04:59] Dan: A couple of questions on your pieces of composition. They That Mourn I was listening to it on YouTube this morning, and I highly recommend, I'll link to it in the show notes, but I'm just curious, who are your biggest influences on this piece?

[01:05:10] Jan: Great question. That's not what I've always said is my best piece for quite a while, and certainly my best performance, but I've got one coming out on piano with Adam Golka that is going to be in that league, but I haven't heard it yet. On Mourn, it's in the vein of music I've been writing for a decade or two before that, so there was that. It was a commission piece. I just started it as a piece, and I was working on the beginning when 9/11 happened. I said, "Don't let that get in the music. It's too big. It's too early. Don't do that," but it just took over the piece. I couldn't help it. In fact, the beginning of the piece was absolutely appropriate to nail a giant piece.

The biggest influence was an immediate response to 9/11. Musically, I'm sure there's some problems in it. I think some people would call that a neo-romantic piece. I don't admit to that. [laughs] I've been called neo-romantic, but to me, I'm no more that than neoclassic and neo-Balinese, and Neo-Indian, there are a lot of influences in my music, and neo-blues for that matter. I think jazz and blues have had a lot of influence in my music. There's some kind of rhythm and bluesy stuff in the piece, but that's there to evoke the city. I imagine the beginning of this piece as if on a normal day going to work, you're driving down the road and you're hearing stuff, and some of that stuff is chaotic and maybe you go past a radio and that's playing something. That was my image for the early part of the piece, and then there's a catastrophe.

I mean, part of the idea, a lot of part of the piece is that mourning is both public and private, and there are a number of feelings involved in mourning, some of which is fear, and some of which is rage, and some of which is sorrow. All those are part of mourning. Also, the public part has to do with maybe religion and maybe hymns, the piece ends very much with-- A Jewish friend of mine was listening to it, and he said, "My god, that's a cantor," and I said, "Yes, that's what it is," because that's what seemed to me, right for the end of the piece, that kind of emotionalism, but again, in a formal sense.

I have to say, I heard a cantor on radio once in my life, maybe 30 years ago. I've never heard a cantor since, but it made a big impression on me, obviously. The influences are things like that rather than classical music as such.

[01:07:34] Dan: What about this new piece? You're writing it at 77, that's impressive in itself, but what makes you so confident that it's one of your best? Tell us about the influences.

[01:07:42] Jan: It goes back to ideas I was working with already in my 20s. Yet, what I've been saying for years about my music is that I wanted to reclaim the wildness of the music in my early 20s. I wrote 100-page one ensemble piece that is just absolutely waves of notes all the time. [laughs] I guess technically, call it a '60s, '70s tone-colored piece. At a certain point after that, I said, "I've got only a certain number of notes in my life, and I'm using them up too fast." I cut back, and I said, "Oh, I just want to be expressive. Whatever I do, I'll be expressive." I really began to write a much more contained, and in some ways, music more related to tradition, more overtly. These are the pieces that some have called neo-romantic, though they're also very much involved with Beethoven, and Brahms and Balinese music, and on and on, and jazz and blues.

I've said that I want to get back to that wildness, but yet know what I'm doing, and that's exactly what I did in this piece. I just told myself that that's what I wanted to do, and then I waited to see what happened, and what happened was this piece in which I used these ideas that go back to my early 20s, but they're much, much more controlled and much, much more aware of what they're actually going to sound like when they're played. I'm writing big masses of sounds sometimes, but I'm aware of what's going to happen when this happens. I learned a very great deal from Beethoven's sketches.

One of the things you learned from Beethoven's sketches is to let it be bad because what Beethoven did, very often in the sketches you would see a patch that is just dismal, and he knew it, and he'd go back and change it. In other words, a lot of very great music starts off as bad music. I had to fully absorb. I think when I was younger, I thought music was either all good or all bad. No, that's not how it works. I have more control as a composer, and that's one of the reasons it's my best piece. Even though I'm using ideas that I worked with before, it's in a whole different context, and this piece just doesn't resemble anything else.

Yet, even though, to me it is a piece that sounds unique, it is very much its own voice and its own world, and that's hard to do. I was finding harmonies that I'd never heard before even though technically, there is no harmony that's been there before. In a way, that harmonies are new. The way a piece is put together is new. I'm not somebody who puts newness and innovation on a pedestal. I think that's a virtue, but not the only virtue. That's one of the things about a lot of modernism that innovation was the only virtue, and I find that foolish too. It's a piece that doesn't sound like any other but still sounds like me and still sounds like a real personality.

I think it was headed toward the Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening that I did early on. That and the image of light autumn in New England, this beautiful gloominess after the leaves are gone, really influenced the feel of that piece. I find that nicely dark and eerie.

[01:10:50] Dan: Well, I very, very much look forward to it. Please do send it to me.

[01:10:54] Jan: Are you musically trained at all or just an enthusiast?

[01:10:57] Dan: No. Just an enthusiast.

[01:10:59] Jan: Well, people like you were what made 19th-century music, these enthusiastic amateurs whether they played or not. One of Brahms's great friends was a surgeon. Billroth is still very famous for his innovations in the 19th century with anesthesia and he was an amateur vielle player. He knew a lot about music. These were typical of-- One of the early great critical articles about Brahms was written by a doctor or actually, was a lawyer, I think, but these were amateurs who knew a lot about music, who were terrifically enthusiastic about it, and they were Brahms's audience. They were mostly politically liberal too. The political conservatives like Wagner and Bruckner. It's interesting because the conservatives liked the more radical composers and the politically advanced liked more conservative composers.

[01:11:47] Dan: Yes. That's backwards. What I found crazy interesting I know is I don't know how easy it would've been to get into this without the internet and technology solo without some people I knew in my life who were there to teach me, but it is so easy on the internet. I mean, the amount of great recordings on YouTube, the amount of lectures that are available for free, you have Spotify which with endless music that you could just always dive into, there's forums where people are just chatting all day about this stuff. It's really crazy and it's really great, but--

[01:12:18] Jan: I think the availability of music is absolutely fabulous, but it also has a problem. I talked about this at the end of the Brahms book. In Brahms's time, you didn't get to hear Beethoven's symphonies live very often. How you got to know them was somebody playing them on piano in the parlor or playing that four hands. To go here and actual get to go and hear Beethoven's Ninth, it was so special in the 19th century. To hear a really good performance, that's something that only happened to you a few times in your life. That's special and this was part of the meaning and value of the music. It's not special anymore. Whatever you want to listen to from hip-hop to Schoenberg to Beethoven, it's all just a click away online. I think, to a degree, it tends to make it less special. In fact, I know it does.

It's a double-edged sword is what I'm saying. The availability you were talking about is certainly tremendous. At the same time, it tends to all glob together because it's so easy. It's like the difference between climbing a mountain and driving up a mountain. I'm an old mountain climber, so I know the difference. It's the same mountain top, but it's not the same.

[01:13:29] Dan: That's a very, very good analogy, I feel. Actually, I do have a couple of questions just on your writing. I found this really, really interesting which is in your Brahms book, there's a dispute, right? There's this topic where he claims that he was abused in brothels when he was a young man playing piano for them. I heard from your blog, anyways, that you had a friend that was on the Pulitzer Prize committee and they told you that you didn't have a chance at it because you took the viewpoint that Brahms was being truthful and that he was abused in these brothels.

My understanding, anyways, of this was that there's people within academia or from the committee who really truly believed that this was false and have a whole reputation and career based on the fact that this is false. What I was curious about is it seems to me that that fact is sort of a he said she said and you can look at the evidence and you made your conclusion, yet you have people with career-vested interests and having one thing be considered the truth. I'm just wondering if that influenced, actually, how you wrote your later books like your Mozart or Beethoven.

[01:14:35] Jan: No.

[01:14:36] Dan: Not at all?

[01:14:37] Jan: Because I don't have any vested interest, I think. I follow the facts as best I can find. That doesn't matter to me one way or the other the issue of Brahms and the brothels which they were these waterfront establishments. They were a handy combination of restaurant, dance hall, and brothel. They were in the St. Pauli district. The St. Pauli Girl beer, the girl in the cover is one of those St. Pauli girls who were waitresses and they were multi-faceted. They were also prostitutes. Brahms said all his life that he was abused by these women when he was 12, 13. You don't makeup things like that. There's multiple testimonies to that.

A famous Brahmster, this colleague came along and said, "No, it never happened." Everybody figured the German had to be right because I came along as writing a Brahms when nobody had ever heard of me. The Brahmsians, I think to this day, don't take me seriously because I came out of nowhere. Every book I've written is like that. When I was writing about Ives, I called him leading American music specialist, so he said, "Who the hell are you?" When I finished the book, he vetted it for me. He gave me a lot of very good suggestions. Then he wrote to the publisher and said, "Don't publish this." He later relented, and I'm not going to say it was, but I don't worry about that.

By the way, the friend in the Pulitzer committee who told me that wasn't my friend after that. I think a certain amount of people agree with me now. If you're a historian biographer, you should not found your career on anything but what you believe to be true. My main opponent in this-- Brahms got slammed for the issue of the brothels more than any other single issue. In fact, that is the main issue that he got slammed for. Not by all the reviews but some of them. The main person who went after me about that is somebody who made a career of representing these ideas of Gert Hofmann, the German scholar who said it never happened. She founded her career as a Brahmsian on saying this never happened. What I'm saying is she shouldn't found a career on any thing like that, but what you believe to be true.

If I had been convinced by better facts, I would've changed the book. In fact, I did. I went back to Hofmann and I looked at it again and he convinced me that the Brahmses were not dirt poor, as poor as Brahms painted them as. Brahms did not lie, but he did exaggerate. He exaggerated the struggle, the financial struggles of his family. They were up and down, but basically, they were more or less bourgeois nor did they live in a slum when he was born which it was the old tradition. Hofmann convinced me he was right about that, that they weren't living in a slum and they were up and down but did okay. I changed that. I went back and changed all that. If he'd convinced me about the brothels, I would've changed that too with no problem at all because I don't care one way or the other as long as it's what I think is true.

The main reason I think it's true is because Brahms said it and you don't make up things about yourself. You don't make up a shameful and humiliating lie about yourself and repeat it your whole life, least of all Brahms who hated lies and lying.

[01:18:02] Dan: Yes. Question on music versus literature. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, you can disagree at the margin about whether they're the best three composers ever and people have, but I don't know of any other art form where it's so widely agreed upon that you'll get those three names.

[01:18:18] Jan: Well, I don't know. You get Rembrandt and Vermeer and there are people who dominate at every period. Though, it's going to be different in the visual. It is different. Every art has its own thing. For example, romanticism happened to visual arts long before it happened in music.

[01:18:33] Dan: Yes. I guess in literature, do you think of it as the same thing? That's where I was going to cut at because I think it's just different. You could have Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Tolstoy just depending on what you're interested in, but it almost seems like in music, the God-likeness of Beethoven and Bach and Mozart, people will stick their nose up if you think someone is better than Bach. I don't see that quite as much as in literature as you do in music.

[01:19:01] Jan: Or in visual. No. I think there was a sense in the 19th century that's like Beethoven just sucked all the air out of the room and what the hell do you do now? I mean, that certainly was human thought. I wonder if there have been any artists like that. Was Michelangelo like that? Do people tear their hair after Michelangelo and say, "Who can do anything after Michelangelo?" I've never heard that that happened. It is an interesting thing. The arts are different.

I think Schoenberg as a composer said, "I'm just doing the kind of thing Picasso would." Picasso and the other contemporary artists are doing, it's the same kind of thing, but somehow music is different. People are more accepting of abstraction, say, in the arts than they are of serialism in music. That's probably because of the difference between hearing things and seeing things somehow. I don't have any opinion about that, but they are different. It affects how fast things get accepted and find an audience. Things do change. I mean, Schoenberg is-- I think audiences are much more willing to listen to Schoenberg.

I heard Mitsuko Uchida got a standing ovation for the Schoenberg's piano concerto at the Boston Symphony, I don't know, 20, 25 years ago. When James Levine came in with Boston Symphony, he did a whole Schoenberger and Beethoven year and filled the house a certain amount of the time. I think film has helped a lot. There's a lot of wonderfully strange music in films, not always with horror movies, but sometimes, and I think it's changed people's hearing in a good way maybe. They're able to take in.

[01:20:35] Dan: That's a good point. This kind of comes back to the internet thing too as well. I think there's more accessibility. It's easier to go on the internet and read someone raving about Scherenberg on a YouTube video and explaining to why it's good than it is to pick up a record if you don't have any background to put it on and say, "What the heck is this?" Maybe there's something there.

[01:20:55] Jan: These forums that you probably know and I don't. Where people really talk about this stuff all the time, and I don't tend to keep up with those forums. What I do is go on to Amazon, and I periodically Google myself just to see at random what people out there are saying. Other than that, I don't -- you've been influenced by people talking about these things, and I probably should go into that more. It's very interesting. Are you talking about things like Reddit and things like that?

[01:21:25] Dan: Yes. There's a Reddit Classical Music page, and then there's a site called Talk Classical. Both of them are very similar, but it's just people talking about classical music pretty much every day.

[01:21:35] Jan: I think it's a great thing.

[01:21:38] Dan: It makes it super accessible if you don't have people that are directly in your life that are really into it, right? It's great. You mentioned that when you wrote your first two books, people said, "Who are you?" I think your Beethoven and your Motzart as just like a layman going on the internet and saying, "What biographies of these composers should I read?" you're pretty much the first one that comes up. That has changed in time. Those two are both top recommendations if you search around.

[01:22:05] Jan: I'm really a very lazy person but I'm dogged as hell. I just kept doing it and waited for the dollars to flow in and they never did. The only book I've ever been paid reasonably well for was the Mozart. The Ives I was paid $15,000 and the Brahms I was paid a lot more than that. After all was said and done, I had about $60,000 for three years of work.

[01:22:30] Dan: I can only imagine how much the Beethoven and Mozart took to go through all that source material.

[01:22:35] Jan: The Beethoven was incredible, the Mozart-- Well, I told people my Charles Ives library is about two bookcases, my Brahms library is about three bookshelves, my Beethoven library is about two bookcases. The amount of writing in Beethoven was overwhelming. Mozart was one skinny bookcase, so it seemed relatively easy by comparison.

[01:23:07] Dan: I heard you mentioned in an interview that you believe there are three great spiritual forces. Science, religion, and art. It seems that public perception has turned a bit negative on actually all three over the last few decades. Are you optimistic or pessimistic on science, religion, and art in the 21st century?

[01:23:24] Jan: There's a certain antiscience movement, but it's not going to change science. It's not going to destroy science, and nothing's going to destroy religion either. I don't think anything is going to destroy art, though I'm more concerned about art in some ways than the others. The reason I say those three things is that, to me, science is about what's possible to know within the limited means at our disposal, which is a lot, but it's still very limited. In other words, good science, you limit yourself to the scientific method and what our instruments can measure and to what can be seen and measured, but that leaves a great deal of things out.

Religion, to me, is about what can't be known. It's about things that will always be beyond us, and that's why faith is involved. To mix religion and science is a disaster for both. To say that the Bible is scientific is just total nonsense because it's not what it's for. Art is somewhere in between those. Art is about emotion, and it makes use sometimes of science. It makes sometimes use of religion. It makes use of spirituality. It's the emotional inwardness in the human spirit that animates art, and it draws on those other two. In a way, I see it in between those two in a very important way. The trouble is a lot of artists not trying to do that anymore. It's not trying to exalt the human spirit as Wagner put it as the main goal of art.

It's trying to make a buck and to be famous. That's why I dislike Andy Warhol intensely for Andy Warhol, art was something that made you rich and famous. That's what it was about. It was a con game in that direction, and I don't think that's what art is about or should be. A great deal of art these days is because, especially in the visual arts, you make so much money. All you have to do is convince people that you're important and the millions can start rolling in. It doesn't have anything to do with whether you make people's lives any better, or whether you amuse them or exalt them, or-- Doesn't matter because you get the bucks anyway. In the case of academia, if you can get a job at a school, you can be completely indifferent to the effect of your music on people and still get tenure and have a pretty nice life.

[01:25:33] Dan: Well, Jan, you've been extremely, extremely generous with time. I had just a blast with this one, honestly.

[01:25:39] Jan: I did too. I did too.

[01:25:41] Dan: Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

[01:25:43] Jan: I always appreciate running on about these issues because they're terrifically important to me.