Given the aura of mystery surrounding him, Kazimierz Serocki could have become very popular today. Avoiding interviews, not speaking on artistic or private matters – the generation worshipping Banksy and Daft Punk would have probably loved him. Interestingly, Serocki was by no means quiet and cowed. On the contrary, as the composer Augustyn Bloch recalled, “he was exuberant [...] brimming.” The conductor Jan Krenz remembered his broad smile and the pianist Szábolcs Esztényi – his impetuous reactions to music, which resembled boxing moves. The gestures were enhanced by the powerful physique of the composer, who had indeed practised the sport before the war.
Yet this strong artist, always ready to joke, had another face. He was absent not only from the media but also from the stage. After a performance was finished, he usually left the venue so that he would not have to come on stage and receive congratulations. Serocki did want his works to be well received, but he was too shy to publicly accept the marks of the audience’s appreciation. He was reluctant to share his private life with others. For a while no one among Polish composers, even Serocki’s close friends, knew, for example, that he had got married. Serocki, an artist who loved music more than anything else, liked to commune with silence and nature. Visiting his family home in Solec Kujawski, he would go for walks in the forest on his own, and would often return from them with his mind full of new musical ideas.
To say that Louis Andriessen was brought up in a musical family is to say nothing. Both his father and elder brother were composers and his mother played the piano. In an interview for Wondering Sound, the composer recalled that there was no decent record player at home, so music was performed rather than listened to. The radio was turned on only when a piece by the head of the family, Hendrik Andriessen, was to be broadcast. So the composer’s contact with contemporary music was untypical, filtered through the sensibilities of his family members. Especially those of his father, who never respected German Romanticism, an attitude he instilled in his son.
When he was a child Andriessen listened avidly to Stan Kenton, Miles Davis and the Supremes. He did not like the Beatles, who seemed too well-behaved to him. When asked by Cathy Berberian, the wife of Luciano Berio, his teacher at the time, to make arrangements of their hits, he did this with a sneer and large dose of ironic humour. Although Andriessen has collaborated with film, he treats the medium with reserve, seeing in it primarily a form of entertainment. He does admit in interviews, however, that he loves the first seasons of South Park and that he is impressed by the soundtrack to Desperate Housewives. Yet rather than going to the cinema, he prefers to go to an art gallery (he is very fond of Vermeer and admires Picasso’s versatility) or read books (he loves Stendhal for his ability to improvise, among others).
The family home was a big influence in Pierre Boulez’s life, although there was no music making in it. Admiring his father, an engineer, the young Boulez even started to study mathematics. This was during the Second World War. The years spent in occupied Lyon left a lasting impression on Boulez’s later oeuvre. Suffice it to say that the composer never appreciated transcendental, emotional music, as he associated it with works used by totalitarian systems for propaganda purposes.
It was not hard to be blacklisted by Boulez. In his book The Rest is Noise the critic Alex Ross calls Boulez a bully, an opinion with which the Frenchman agreed. The composer did not shy away from criticising his peers and masters. He did not respect the minimalists, considering their music to be insignificant and boring. He called Cage trivial and did not think that Britten deserved to be called a composer. Irritated by Shostakovich’s popularity, he sneered that the Russian’s music was “the third pressing of Mahler”. Stravinsky’s neoclassical oeuvre was a dead end for him. Speaking of opera, Boulez claimed that the best response to the stagnation of the genre would to “blow opera houses up”. Such radicalism attracted young composers, who eagerly listened to the Frenchman’s advice. Boulez liked to be with them, because – as he admitted in his characteristic style – he explored their ideas to steal the best ones.
The composer was an avid reader of poetry and fiction. He tried to return to mathematics later on in life, but, as he admitted, the discipline had moved so far forward that new books were unclear to him. Unlike Andriessen, Boulez had no sympathy for pop music. For him the simple rhythms of pop songs brought to mind wartime marches. What he did have in common with the Dutchman was interest in painting. Boulez thought that visits to art galleries were very stimulating (his favourites included Paul Klee, Joan Miró and Francis Bacon). In his spare time, which he did not have a lot, he liked to go on trips through the Schwarzwald hills.
When compared to Boulez or Andriessen, Arvo Pärt seems to be the most understanding with regard to his polemicists. This may stem from his character or perhaps the fact that he was forced to fight on different fronts. For the first 45 years of his life the Estonian composer had to struggle in the circumstances of totalitarianism, having witnessed 20,000 Estonians, including members of his extended family, exiled to Siberia, and serving one year in Soviet Army.
Pärt was not a favourite of the Soviet authorities. He never joined the Communist Party, which was quite exceptional and courageous move at the time. When he became interested in dodecaphony, he found himself in the hot seat, because he followed Western models. But then he did something even worse from the perspective of the decision-makers of the period – he wrote Credo, a work with clear religious connotations. Unlike Boulez, who was an avowed atheist, Pärt stressed he was a believer. In a 1968 interview for a local radio station he said that his biggest inspiration was Jesus Christ. Naturally, the editor had to cut this section out.
Pärt has never expressed his political views directly in music nor made any anti-Soviet statements in his works. But even many years later we see a simple human compassion and a certain solidarity to the victims persecuted by the totalitarian regimes. As in 2006 and 2007 Pärt decided to dedicate all performances of his works to the memory of Anna Politkovskaya, investigating journalist and human rights activist murdered in Russia; and in 2009 Pärt dedicated his Symphony No. 4 to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russian businessman and philanthropist imprisoned by Putin’s regime.
In his search for genuine creative freedom he was forced to emigrate. In 1980 he went to Vienna with his wife and two sons. In 1981 they moved to Berlin because of a scholarship the composer had received from DAAD. After 1991, when Estonia had regained its independence, Pärt divided his life between Tallinn and Berlin. He returned permanently in 2010 and founded the Arvo Pärt Centre, his personal archive in Laulasmaa, near Tallinn.
Considering the huge popularity of his music, it’s even surprising how rarely we see Arvo Pärt’s persona in media. As Serocki, Pärt too tries to avoid media attention to his personal life and has marked that it is enough when his music reaches the listener.