Delicious descriptions from Down under: Murray Bail on composers’ houses

Beethoven's birth house

Beethoven’s birth house

During our recent trip to Europe we managed to follow the trails of a few composers*. We saw statues of JS Bach, CPE Bach, Felix Mendelssohn and Ludwig van Beethoven. We visited Eisenach, where Bach was born and saw the church where he was baptised. We visited Leipzig, where he worked for 27 years and saw the church where he wrote most of his best-known compositions. We visited the house in Weimar where Franz Liszt was based for the last 20 or so years of his life, and the house in Bonn where Beethoven was born. In a previous European trip we visited the house in Salzburg where Mozart was born. We’ve enjoyed this aspect of our tourism, the way it helps put these composers into some sort of geographic and historical perspective.

Given this, and my current interest in the meaning and value of travel, I was therefore rather tickled to read, just this morning, Murray Bail‘s comment in The voyage on composers’ houses:

… the idea of turning composers’ houses into holy houses with perfect wallpaper, bare desk and polished floorboards is more a display of falsity than history, although it hardly deters the visitors who go into every room, wanting to add layers to their general knowledge, mouths open in wonder, in Mozart’s case, amazing how a family with so many children could fit in such a space, how Mozart managed to work with his family around him, making the usual family racket, or the curator’s immaculate recreation of Beethoven’s rooms, not a speck of dust to be seen, though everyone knows he lived in disorder or squalor.

Oh dear, he does have a point!

Franz Liszt's bed

Franz Liszt’s actual bed

Indeed, in our experience, some (many, in fact) of these homes no longer have the composer’s furniture but have been furnished in period style. The curators don’t always even know what sort of furniture the famous inhabitant had, unless there are letters or some sort of contemporary inventory to tell them. In Liszt’s case though, his perspicacious supporter/ruler, Grand Duke Carl Alexander ordered within days of his death that the house be preserved because he knew fans would want to pay homage:

Since […] it can be assumed that Liszt’s innumerable friends and admirers […] will pay homage to the memory of the departed by visiting the rooms which he lived in, the Grand Duke strictly commands that nothing may be changed of the furniture and decorations, that is to the furnishings in the broadest sense, in the rooms in which Liszt lived.  (from the audioguide)

The furniture there really was Liszt’s. Does that make a difference? Do we feel more reverence or awe because we know the great man (or woman) sat on that chair? Is our experience somehow less, if we know the furniture isn’t original? I guess it depends on the tourist.

How does a composer’s house turned into a museum differ from a “straight” museum. Does displaying objects – authentic and/or “only” contemporaneous – in the composer’s own space add value to our experience? Is it better than seeing these objects in an all-purpose museum space, perhaps alongside those of other composers or people of the same time? What sort of experience or knowledge are we seeking? What, to take this to its logical conclusion, is the role of museums? These are the questions I’ve been pondering, in a heightened manner I must admit, since reading Michelle de Kretser‘s Questions of travel (my review).

Bail has discussed museums and tourists in other works – in his novel Homesickness, and in a story that I plan to read soon. Watch this space! Meanwhile, do you have thoughts on the topic? Do you like to visit writers’ homes for example? Why?

* Not to mention writers, and other famous or infamous people, of course.

23 thoughts on “Delicious descriptions from Down under: Murray Bail on composers’ houses

  1. I remember visiting Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford and having similar feelings about that experience — the multimedia show as we made our way through to the house, things set up as it would have been in Shakespeare’s day, guides in their costumes, someone pretending to be a glove-maker like Shakespeare’s father. Then, we went down the street to Ann Hathaway’s family home, which was still as it had been when her family lived there — same bed, same chairs, same fireplace, same everything. Stark and bare and old, but authentic. It had stayed in her family basically unchanged until the early twentieth century. As a traveller, I could still feel her family around the place, whereas at Shakespeare’s it just felt fake. The thing was when I asked my kids which house they liked more, they liked the Hathaway one better, too.

    • Thanks Louise. I’ve visited those two places but before any multimedia presentations were around. I think there was less difference between the two homes than you experienced. I agree though that “feeling” the home as it may have been lived in adds value, and throws light not just on the inhabitant but their times. I generally prefer that to “pretence”. Seeing contemporary glove-making would be good in the context of an historical presentation on old crafts (as we had here recently in a museum “live exhibition” called “Handmade”) but in Shakespeare’s house the focus would not be on the craft would it?

  2. WG: Interesting post this reflection on our modern/not so modern need to visit the sites/places/houses associated with literary/artistic (music included) endeavour. In my latter 20s my wife and I lived – albeit briefly – on a houseboat alongside Battersea Bridge on blue plaque-splattered Cheyne Walk – along there George Eliot/up there Turner/around there James Gilray – you get the picture! A decade later and a month in Greece – Lord Byron was here (the Plaka – in Athens) – visiting Australian writer Gillian BOURAS then living in the village of Arfara to the north from Kalamata – Greek Easter 1988 – calling Sheelagh Kanelli – English writer long domiciled there – walking one morning past springtime orange blossom-heavy orchards to the gate of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s home. Reading Garry Kinnane’s biography of George Johnston – nearly finished as the day-return ferry from Piraeus pulled into the little harbour of the island of Hydra – shoving (well, almost) the photos of the house where he and wife Charmian Clift lived with their children – into the faces of local café owners who pointed out where it was – and running up the road to look at it/photograph it. My Brother Jack had made a huge impact on me – and as a consequence I returned seeking out Charmian Clift’s books and essays. My wife and I are just back from the Turkey trip I mentioned in an earlier post – looking out from the highway above Kas to the Greek island of Kastellorizo – just two kilometres off shore – from whence came the mother of Newcastle (NSW) writer Zeny Giles who will next month launch her latest book: The Daughters of Castellorizo. Out from Bodrum – as the Mediterranean moves to becoming the Aegean – the island of Kalymnos – where Johnston and Clift lived before Hydra – Johnston & Clift’s lyrical book The Sponge-divers written from this sojourn – her other book chronicling their lives on Kalymnos: mermaid singing 1958. Literary pilgrimages. Of sorts. To churches and places associated with Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott in Scotland – or to the home and first climbing kiln in England built by potter/philosopher Bernard Leach and his Japanese folkcraft mate Hamada Shōji. In Japan following the trail of Lafcadio HEARN (aka Koizumi Yakumo – his Japanese name) in Matsue and Kumamoto and in Dublin and in Durham, too. Not yet in Cincinnati or New Orleans or Martinique, though. Why do we do it? It opens us up to ways of seeing – surely – recreation of rooms and furnishings and/or the real things – or the quality of light – the vegetation – the different weather. When I was a young teacher in the Riverina (Hay, Hell & Booligal days) – a time of exploration. To Chiltern – just downstream from Albury/Wodonga – to “Lakeview” childhood home for a time of Henry Handel Richardson. I’ve been back a couple of times over the past two or three years – a town transformed into the imagination of a pretty goldfields village – not quite as it was then – surely – but it doesn’t detract from the knowledge that someone growing up here – of musical and literary talent – absorbed something of what we see. Those huge tall trees overshadowing the house must only have been saplings then – and was the garden established in this way? I don’t care about that. But what intrigues is that in this town lived the father of a former Governor-General of Canada – Adrienne Clarkson (1999-2005 – wife of philosopher/historian John Ralston Saul) – his name was William Poy. His father had been a gold-miner – married an Irish woman. HHR writes near the start of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony of a goldfields scene – an Irish woman calls out across the diggings – a Chinese man bobs up from his workings – one supposes William’s parents. They had a small business – the shop is still/nowadays indicated in the new historic pilgrim’s walks around the town. And nearby Beechworth – where writer David Martin and his wife Richenda made their home for many years till their deaths. Aspects of their stories, their lives become part of our own stories and touchstones in conversations with people of like mind/interest. And so it goes…

    • Ah Jim, what you’ve shown here is that it’s a complicated business – and I think in the end, as I suggested in my post and as you’ve demonstrated, that it depends partly on the tourist and what s/he is looking for, what s/he takes from it. If it’s just awe and reverence it seems (to me) pretty meaningless, but if it adds context to one’s knowledge and appreciation of the author (composer, artist) then it has some value (to me!). I’ve been to Jefferson’s house, Monticello. It’s very well presented, and it hugely reinforced for me the sort of man he was – his intelligence, his inventiveness, his relationship with the other early presidents who lived nearby, his curiosity/open mind/openness to new ideas and ways of doing. That house truly enhanced my understanding of him AND made that knowledge stick.

  3. Some very good questions! I have been to Charles Dickens House in London and it was both fun and disappointing at the same time. Fun to imagine him sitting in a certain room at that particular desk writing. Fun to imagine him walking up and down the very stairs I was treading, etc. But beyond that brief voyeur thrill, it gave me no extra insight into the man or his work and now these many years later all I can really say is, “Yeah, I’ve been there.” I could very easily go visit F. Scott Fitzgerald’s childhood home in St Paul, a couple different Laura Ingalls Wilder houses, Sinclair Lewis’s house and the “Betsy-Tacy” house, but I haven’t because it sort of seems pointless in the light of my Dickens House experience. I think if there was some other historical connection with the houses I’d be more inclined to feel them worthwhile, not only this was so-and-so’s house but this is how people during this time lived. Does that make sense?

    • Absolutely it does. Many houses have done that to me too. I have just responded to Jim above regarding Monticello. It is one house I’ve been too where the house has had a significant, longlasting impact on me. That may be because, not being American, I had come to it with only general knowledge, but, given that, his house had real meaning and value for me. So much so, that when we revisited Virginia around 30 years later, we took our daughter to it because it had has such impact.

  4. Like Stefanie I’ve visited Charles Dickens’ home in London and Goethe’s in Weimar and enjoyed seeing their desks and learning a bit more about them and the period in which they lived. But recently I went up to Central Queensland and used the occasion to visit Springsure where Alex Miller worked as a station hand when he first came to Australia and the setting for his first novel Watching the Climbers on the Mountain (re-issued in 2012 by Allen&Unwin) – which I read while I was there. And that was the best experience ever!

    • Oh thanks for this Annette. I just visited Goethe’s and Schiller’s houses in Weimar last month. Both, as you know, are attached to and form part of an eponymous museum. We enjoyed them both very much.

      As for Alex Miller, that sounds great, particularly so because seeing the place where he worked and actually set the novel must give the novel additional “life”. I can imagine it was a great experience.

  5. Great topic going here! I’ve been resisting visiting Handel’s house in London because it does seem so very pristine online. I do like standing outside of homes though, as usually facades haven’t changed too much. Victor Hugo’s and in Place des Vosges in Paris is rather overwhelming, and it is lovely (though sad!) to walk past Oscar Wilde’s rooms on the Left Bank. I used to love hanging about Picasso’s neighbourhood and all of Simone de Beauvoir’s haunts. I think I’d prefer to do it this way as it begins to feel a little invasive or voyeuristic to visit homes and bedrooms.

    • That’s an interesting point, Catherine. Standing outside, particularly if both the facade and those around it haven’t changed can give some sense of their “place” can’t it? Visiting neighbourhoods (particularly if they haven’t changed a lot) can be meaningful, I agree. Then there’s those haunts, such as cafes where the famous person met his/her friends. A lot of such restaurants (etc) have become known (promoted in travel guides etc) as X’s haunt and they capitalise on it, including sometimes with merchandising etc. Who’s to deny them that right, and why should not all tourists/fans be given the opportunity to visit/drink or eat at the place. I think the trick is to enjoy these places without getting too precious about the experience, if that makes sense.

    • Well yes, Catherine, that’s perfectly understandable! It’s a shame that the church’s interior has been changed quite a bit I believe – updated in the 1800s – but still, it’s the building he worked in for 27 years. (His remains are there, but they were removed to the church from the cemetery which feels a little weird to me, though I suppose they’ll be better protected there when people do the next grave renewal/recycling!)

    • You go for it, Lisa! Why do you think you – we – feel that way? I think it might be partly about paying homage to/paying our respects to a respected creator, rather than about learning. I tend to do it too – as we’ve discussed before I think re books like that Peter Pierce guide to literary sites in Australia.

      • I have to admit that there’s an element of the ‘faint brush with celebrity’ but when I think of my ‘sacred sites’ (which tend to be music, literature, art and occasionally science) it is mainly about paying homage but also a hope that there is something there that was actually used. I remember seeing Beethoven’s tuning fork (with well-established provenance) in the British Library and I was quite overcome by the realisation that this genius who had written so much music that I love, had actually used it.

        • Well then Lisa, you’ll have to go to Bonn one day. They have various things of his including the organ console he played when he was young and composed his first pieces. It has a lovely story. It was in a church whose organ was severely damaged in the war, but they’d upgraded the organ sometime before the war and had already donated the console to the house. It was lovely to see it. Apparently, he couldn’t reach the pedals. (We loved the fact that a few days after we got back we had our next Musica Viva concert and it was, coincidentally an all Bach-Beethoven concert. What an absolute treat.)

        • I’m still cross with myself that I didn’t get to Beethoven’s house in Vienna when we were there. But I was still walking with a stick and rather wobbly after my first ankle op and there were stairs so it was just too hard. But I did visit his grave which was a moving experience.

  6. The veneration of relics is an ancient tradition – and why not? Are you or any of your readers familiar with Julian Barnes’s ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’? It’s a delightful send-up of the subject, in my view.

    • Oh good point Dorothy re relics. I hadn’t thought of that. I still feel a little uncertain about it all, but that doesn’t stop me wanting to visit Chawton again (though, unlike some fans, I wouldn’t go so far as to want my ashes scattered there!).

      Thanks re Flaubert’s parrot. I have of course heard of it and have read a few books by Barnes, but not that. I’d love to read a send-up.

        • Now, I am intrigued.

          BTW It’s completely coincidental that I’ve posted a review of a book by Dorothy within hours of her commenting here. I did have a chuckle to myself when I saw her comment come in.

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