Getting to know the composers
While there’s a small handful of composers I know a fair amount about, the majority I don’t, especially information about their personal lives, and the details that make them “real people” not just fossils of an archaic time. As I sit down to delve into a composer’s life, I have no idea what I will find. I typically start with finding information on their important relationships, then I zoom into year 32. Once I have an idea of what they did at 32, I zoom out to the 5ish years on either side of 32 to give context to the lives of the composers. Next I use a combination of Grove Music Online (music encyclopedia) and *gasp* Wikipedia to compile a list of what pieces they were composing at 32. Once I have the blurb on the composer written, I look up the top works for each composer to see when they wrote the works that made them most famous.
I try to find 1 or 2 snippets of information from my readings to look further into to tell a story about each composer. Did you know Schoenberg couldn’t make a living in music at 32, so he borrowed money from Mahler to make ends meet? Mahler, working primarily as a conductor at 32 had great success conducting the music of Wagner, even conducting Tannhäuser, which Wagner wrote when he was 32? Wagner at age 36 played an active role in a political uprising writing articles encouraging people to revolt and (it is alleged) he made hand grenades for the cause!?
I have 11 composers’ blurbs drafted, another 22 to go! (Yes, I realize that is 33 not 32, but I’m giving myself a cushion to veto one composer if I run into a brick wall in my writings). As I’m working on my book, I feel like I’m putting together a jigsaw puzzle, but I don’t know what the finished picture will look like, but the act of discovery is just as exciting as telling the stories for others to join me on my journey!
Why music history?
Three weeks before starting my undergraduate career at Augsburg University majoring in music, I was called for jury duty. Here’s the ensuing facebook status:
Obviously, music history wasn’t my thing. Now the question is, how did I go from relegating music history to the likes of jury duty, to writing a book about… music history?
My interest in music history started when I took a class (as required by graduation standards!) on music of the Classic era. My professor told me music history was just the telling of a story (or something to that effect). That stuck with me, and that’s what I learned to love. These great composers and musicians were just people, living their lives, just like me. They had friendships, loves, enemies, favorite ice cream flavors (ok, that won’t make the history books!), but I fell in love with telling stories.
As I’m writing my own story everyday, I wanted to write “32” to tell a series of stories of people. People like me, who happen to have slightly different stories than mine. What’s in common with all the stories? Everybody is trying to define their place in the world. Some composers were married 10 years with 4 kids by the time they were 32, others living the bachelor/ette life. Some happy, some unhappy. Some with early success, some still striving to gain recognition. Everyone has a story waiting to be told.
I'm working on a book with the working title: "The Year They Turned 32"
I'm looking at the lives of 32 composers and what they were doing in their lives around age 32. Here is the opening paragraph of the introduction of my book:
"I am a modern, classical composer. In September 2022, I turned 32. At a turning point in my life, I was starting to make a living in music, newly married, and generally finding my place in the world, but I began to feel like I was behind where I 'should' be in life. This led me to the question, what were other composers doing when they turned 32? In this book I will explore 32 composers in the years (and the surrounding years) of when they turned 32."
I have a working (but ever-changing) list of the 32 composers I'm going to study. I have a format for each composer I'm following, and have drafts of chapters for 9 composers plus the introduction. I'm looking to write short vignettes on each composer, about 500-600 words each. My goal is to have the first draft of the manuscript done by the time I turn 32 mid-September! While it's about music and music composers, I'm hoping to appeal to a broader audience (so I'm trying not to be too technical and nerdy!!).
The year 32 is turning out to be an interesting year. (From later in the introduction):
"For some composers, 32 marked the early stages in their careers, while others, such as Mozart, 32 represented their late periods, but most fell somewhere in between, with 32 marking the transition from young adulthood to full-fledged adulthood."
It is interesting to see how each composer navigated this period of transition... Stay tuned!
AJ Isaacson-Zvidzwa is a (soon-to-be) 32 year-old composer and amateur historian who is dipping her toes into the world of historical non-fiction writing. This blog will chronical her journey writing her book "The Year They Turned 32" that looks at historical musical figures and what they were doing in the year they turned 32.