Who are the real classical role models?

Confirmation that geniuses are more often not very good human beings is provided in a highly recommended new book by Matthieu Ricard. Born in France in 1946, Matthieu Ricard's parents were the French philosopher and journalist Jean-François Revel (1924-2006) and the abstract painter and Tibetan Buddhist nun Yahne Le Toumelin (1923-2023). 

As he describes in his memoir Notebooks of a Wandering Monk Ricard grew up in the company of leading French intellectuals. He received a PhD degree in molecular genetics from the Pasteur Institute in 1972, but then abandoned his scientific career to practice Tibetan Buddhism, living mainly in the Himalayas. He is celebrated for his global advocacy of Buddhism as a science of the mind; all his income from books, photographs and conferences is donated to the humanitarian projects run by the Karuna-Sechel Association which he cofounded twenty-two years ago to alleviate the suffering of the most destitute in India, Nepal and Tibet.

The art of conducting provides very good support for Matthieu Ricard's thesis that geniuses are more often not very good human beings when judged by contemporary standards. Would celebrated tyrants of the podium such as Toscanini - above - and Fritz Reiner - below - be tolerated today? Are we now in an era where image off the podium is more important than talent on the podium? Is social media ranking, Slipped Disc approval, and virtue signalling now the key to success in the classical world? How long before we see a conductor on I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here?

Most importantly the extended extract below from Notebooks of a Wandering Monk - copyright acknowledgement to MIT Press - highlights the danger of denouncing geniuses for their alleged behaviour outside their field of specialisation. Which provides a different perspective on contemporary attitudes towards, for instance, Wilhem Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, James Levine, Daniele Gatti, and, yes, even Teodor Currentzis. Now over to Matthieu Ricard:

In my teenage years, I was lucky to meet a great many people who were all remarkable in their own way. In our family apartment on the rue de la Tour, a parade of Parisian intellectuals, writers, and philosophers such as Stéphane Lupasco, Louis Althusser, André Fermigier, and Olivier Todd, to name just a few, as well as painters, including Pierre Soulages and his wife Colette, George Mathieu, Hans Hartung and Zao Wou-Ki, stopped to visit with my parents. My mother cooked beautifully for all of them. On vacation, we were sometimes joined by Jean Delsarte, an eminent mathematician from the Bourbaki group.

I also met many great musicians. At the age of sixteen, I was privileged to have lunch in a Parisian restaurant with Igor Stravinsky and his assistant at the invitation of a friend of my parents, a correspondent of the New York Times who had arranged to interview him and knew of my passion for classical music. He signed a copy of the score for his opus Agon, that I had brought with me, with the dedication, "To Matthieu, Agon, which I am very fond of myself". This ballet contains a brief mandolin section that recalls the most beautiful Bach gavottes. 

As rich and instructive as such encounters might be, I am perplexed, confounded by the fact there seems to be no correlation between the particular genius of such individuals and whether they were or not very especially good human beings. No matter how brilliant someone might be, intelligence, creativity, and knowledge seemed to have no link to goodness or badness, happiness or misery. Some philosophers were friendly, others were appalling. The same was true for musicians, gardeners, scholars, and carpenters. 

Someone once asked who my role model was. I didn't know what to say - the times offered no popular luminary on who to project myself. Pelé is a great reference point for anyone who plays soccer, Sviatoslav Richter for anyone who wants to play piano. Dostoyevsky for anyone who loves literature, and Bobby Fischer for those who are fond of chess. Perhaps, in those days, I may have wished to possess the particular genius of those exceptional people, but not necessarily their quality of being. Who would want to be Bobby Fischer, who, besides being one of the most brilliant chess players ever, was notoriously deranged and obnoxious? We rarely meet anyone who makes us think, "I wish I were like him, or her". 

Matthieu Ricard's musings pose a very interesting question. Who would the classical role models be if we could forget for once the judgemental baggage we heap on them for their alleged extracurricular activities?


Synchronicity! I just wrote a letter of reccommedation for our community orchestra conductor who's up for tenure at his university and made the point that it's the combination of his wonderful music gifts and his equally impressive social/leadership gifts that really sets him apart. It seems far more often the case that someone with great gifts in one area has great deficits in others. And I want to thank you for introducing me to the word "animateur" years ago here on the blog, as that's also something the does well and having the perfect word in my head was great ;-)

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