Biographical Dilemmas


What do we do with unreliable biographies and biographers who seem ambivalent about the role in life-writing? This blog post considers Rosa Newmarch's statements about her own life-writing and the challenges of writing about musicologists as people.

Lately I have been seeking some kind of occupation that would take me completely away from music for a time, and would seriously interest me. Alas, I have not discovered it! There is no guide to the history of music in Russian, and it would be a good thing if I could occupy myself with a book of this kind; I often think of it. But then I should have to give up composing for at least two years, and that would be too much. To start upon a translation—that is not very interesting work. Write a monograph upon some artist? So much has already been written about the great musicians of Western Europe. For Glinka, Dargomijsky, and Serov I cannot feel any enthusiasm, for, highly as I value their works, I cannot admire them as men. I have told you what I think of Glinka. Dargomijsky was even less cultured. As to Serov, he was a clever man of encyclopedic learning, but I knew him personally, and could not admire his moral character. As far as I understood him, he was not good-hearted, and that is sufficient reason why I do not care to devote my leisure to him. It would have been a delight to write the biography of Mozart, but it is impossible to do so after Otto Jahn, who devoted his life to the task.

P. Tchaikovsky, in an 1880 letter to N. von Meck (as translated by Rosa Newmarch in The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (1906))

As a musicologist, I’ve long found Tchaikovsky’s comments about writing music history or biography as “some occupation that would take me entirely away from music for a time” amusing. But this letter raises some questions about the function of music biography and the role of the biographer in how we understand and interpret artistic lives. To the reader in 2023, the notion that one would need to personally admire one’s potential research subjects as both artists and human beings likely seems as foreign as the idea that there is no need for any further Mozart biography beyond the monumental work of Otto Jahn.

It is also curious to ponder this source in connection with Tchaikovsky’s own autobiographical tendencies and Rosa Newmarch’s remarks about biography and the place of the biographer within her research. (I’m currently putting the finishing touches on a forthcoming article about Newmarch’s methodological approaches, and will also soon be updating the sections of this website with links to her biographies of Tchaikovsky, Henry Wood, and Mary Wakefield.) Around 1900 (and for several decades thereafter), biographical knowledge–both documented and rumored–played a key role in Anglophone reception of Tchaikovsky’s works, particularly the Symphony No. 6.

Newmarch was keenly aware of this interest, if highly skeptical of the forms it sometimes took. She refers to Tchaikovsky on multiple occasions as “the composer of the Pathetic Symphony,” attributes British public interest in his life as closely tied to the popularity of his last symphony, and aims at debunking rumors of his alleged suicide.

Yet the way she frames her depiction of Tchaikovsky also reveals some of her personal discomfort with the idea that a biographer must know and interpret all that they know for public understanding. In both her biography of the composer and her translation of Modest Tchaikovsky’s Life and Letters, she emphasizes the centrality of Tchaikovsky’s own music criticism, journals, and letters to her narrative of his life and remarks on his works. In some ways, this makes her a kind of documentary biographer, cutting through an already-emerging mythology to reveal what can be determined from written sources (as, famously, Jahn attempted to do in his work on Mozart). As a biographer working on a figure whose archives were carefully controlled and whose homosexuality was the subject of much rumor and gossip, however, this caution reveals many of the gaps it attempts to fill. Anecdotes and accounts from known friends and colleagues are subject to misinterpretation and errors of memory or fact. Letters are taken as authoritative and objective sources, when in fact they were often written to present a particular image of their author (whether to the intended recipient, later readers, or both). Publicly available sources might be sanitized or censored. Popular and oft-repeated stories might turn out to be outright fictions.

While the full extent of Newmarch’s personal knowledge of and opinions on Tchaikovsky’s (or, for that matter, Modest’s) homosexuality is unknown–although I consider some possibilities in Imagining Musical Pasts–she was certainly aware of the tension between the biographer/theorist as expert and what remained unknown about a composer or musical work. In “Confessions of a Programme-Writer” (1928), she claims that a well-written analysis can serve as a kind of psychological intervention into a piece of music, yet also cautions readers that “hints are not facts.” In the opening paragraph to her biography of her friend and frequent collaborator conductor Henry J. Wood, she remarks:

In writing of the man who apart from creative artists is unquestionably the central figure in English musical life, I am conscious of all the disadvantages which beset contemporary biography. To write of living celebrities needs the special gifts of tact and an impartial temper, to which most probably I have no claim whatever. When, as in the present case, the writer enjoys the privilege of friendship and frequent intercourse with the subject of the book himself, there is always the risk of saying more than should be said in a man’s lifetime. On the other hand, the study of a living personality written from an entirely objective standpoint must necessarily lack the intimate glow and sense of actuality which give its chief value to a contemporary record.

Rosa Newmarch, Henry J. Wood (Lane, 1904), 1.

I am reminded here of the “ten rules for biography” that literary biographer and researcher in critical biography studies Hermione Lee discusses (and dismisses) with some humor in her Biography: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2009). These include moral concerns of truth, objectivity, and public good, but also questions if (and how well) a biographer should know their subject and how a single book-length narrative can and should go about representing an entire human life. Lee concludes this list with Rule #10: “There are no rules for biography,” arguing that biographies are by “a mixed, unstable genre, whose rules keep coming undone” (18).

Many of Newmarch’s works are biographical and a few contain tantalizing hints of the autobiographical, either where she lets the subject speak for themselves or where she discloses a personal connection to a particular subject or topic. For all that her outlook is critical and rooted in facts, she is left again and again biographical subjects and biographies that are ambiguous, shifting, and unstable. There are always things she does not know or cannot say. Perhaps it is significant that she ends the narrative portion of her first Tchaikovsky biography with speculation about those documents in his archive that remained inaccessible to her:

Upon this episode [a sealed packet of documents] I am not able to throw any further light. When the authorised life and correspondence of the composer appears, his relatives may possibly clear up the mystery which surrounds it. On the other hand, it is more than probable that they will not take the public into their confidence upon a subject about which Tchaikovsky himself preserved an almost unbroken reticence.

Rosa Newmarch, Tchaikovsky: His Life and Works (Grant Richards, 1900), 110.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *.