“The least we can do, then, is see that everything—our culture, our countries, our technology, our religions, even now—are only here because people who should have never suffered and died did in fact suffer and die, and always have, and always will. We are standing less on the backs of giants, than of corpses—and corpses of real people….It does no good to give up caring about history; instead, care about it not as a celebration but a premonition”.

This is Tim Miller discussing matters of war in his essay “Blindness, War & History” (excerpt here). What is striking about this passage is how it translates to music. Much of what we claim as masterpieces have rested on the back of troubled souls with untimely deaths.

Franz Schubert died at thirty one. The magnitude of his work during this short life time is astonishing. Respite only lasts until we acknowledge the senseless syphilitic suffering that he endured at the end of his years. This was the outcome of an actual person who, despite promise of a further creative life, had it put out from a disease which affects many.

Kurt Cobain passed at twenty seven. Nirvana’s impact on the scope of music is undisputed. And yet at what cost? That Kurt Cobain had to be driven to suicide by a host of factors inside and outside of him – factors that could have been mediated or prevented in some way? This too was the outcome of an actual person who, despite promise of a further creative life, had it put out from a complete breakdown by society and self.

To care of music history as a premonition is to realize that, at the crux of music, is the human being. What is made of humanity is sometimes effacing to the grand image we make ourselves of ourselves. And yet one could argue that this acts as a fertilizer for the great music that has and will be created. That much is true.

Lest we forget, however, that manure is made of dung. No matter what we make of it or how we romanticize it, terrible things both within our control and without it happen.

The music of Schubert, Nirvana, and countless others acknowledge this. In some ways, music’s admittance of our fallenness is cathartic. It is as if these musicians are not corpses any more. No, they are transfigured into humans again, conversing with us about the intricacies of the human condition, its joys and sufferings, through their music.

1 comment
  1. CJ, thank you for this, a remarkable connection. I wonder if you took a look at my long essay “There is Only the Trying” (, since it is about just your topic, although it mostly focuses on writers (though Van Gogh comes in), & there is the wonder whether the toil is “worth it”–& of course the conclusion is the same as in the war essay: it’s the wrong question, there is only living with the fire & keeping it lit; but as the enjoying public we would do well to at least recognize what lies behind many of our greatest achievements: solitude & ecstasy, pain but also difficult fulfillment. The story (apocryphal?) of Beethoven saying his Quartets weren’t made for hack musicians to mangle is a clue to creativity, or at least its seed, that before anything it’s compelling urge, even if it most perfectly exists only in one head. Only later does it become a public expression, & the creator a subject of our admiration or pity.


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