Biographical notes: does a composer's art reflect his life?

Three musical anniversaries this year prompt the thought that it is the universal rather than the specific that continues to appeal.

Perhaps the job of composer should come with a health warning. That seems, at least, to be the rather grim lesson to be gained from the difficult, sometimes tragic careers of Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann, who were born 200 years ago this year, and that of Gustav Mahler, born 150 years ago. Serving almost as bookends for the beginning and end of the Romantic movement, this trio of great composers have given us some of the most powerful, emotive music in the classical canon. But while there will be ample opportunity over the next 12 months to enjoy their work afresh, much of its pathos will inevitably be linked again to the composers' short, troubled lives. But is it reasonable to interpret their music in this way, as a loose form of autobiography?
In some ways, it is. Romantic music, after all, was often dominated by an illustrative spirit, with composers trying to evoke clear subject matter in listeners to an extent that has rarely been matched before or since. If a Romantic piece such as Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique could openly chart its composer's obsession with his future wife, then why shouldn't the sweet melancholy of Chopin's music be read as reflecting his personal experience of illness and exile? And certainly, there was much in the three composers' lives that fitted brilliantly the Romantic template of the doomed artist that preoccupied their literary contemporaries.
Indeed, all three composers had notably tough lives. Chopin became an exile from his native Poland and spent much of his adult life suffering acutely from the tuberculosis that finally killed him at the age of 39. Schumann's slightly longer life (he died at 46) was overshadowed by mental illness (possibly brought on by mercury treatments for syphilis), the composer voluntarily committing himself to a lunatic asylum in his final two years following a failed suicide attempt. Half a century later, Mahler was relatively lucky to make it to the grand old age of 51. But while he achieved remarkable success during his lifetime (as a conductor more than a composer), his life, too, was dogged with tragedy and frustration. His brother's suicide, his daughter's death at two years old and his wife's open infidelity all left a mark, while he was systematically attacked by those who resented a converted Jew's presence in the world of Austrian high culture.
Beyond this fellowship of suffering, there are also some striking similarities between the three composers' relationships, with each one experiencing long, all-consuming relationships with unusually forceful and talented women. Chopin's 10-year relationship with the taboo-breaking (and very successful) writer George Sand is well known, while Schumann persevered for years against his future in-laws' disapproval to marry his wife, Clara, one of the 19th century's greatest pianists. Mahler, meanwhile, married Alma Schindler, a society beauty and skilled composer in her own right whose inaccurate memoirs of life with the composer have given her her own small measure of immortality.
These stormy lives inevitably found their way into the composers' work. Schumann, for example, constructed his piano work Carnaval with sections named after his two potential fiancées, Ernestine and Clara, with each section starting with the notes A-S-C-H (H is the German equivalent of the note B), which spelt the name of Ernestine's hometown of Asch. It takes no great imaginative leap, therefore, to read the piece's suite of masked-ball interludes as a playful exploration of the composer's emotional excitement and confusion at the time. Similarly, Alma Mahler claimed that the Scherzo in her husband's sixth symphony reflected upon his daughter's death, with "childish voices (that) became more and more tragic, and died out in a whimper".
Such explanations, however, are often misleading. Mahler, in fact, wrote his sixth symphony long before his daughter's death, but Alma couldn't resist spinning a good yarn. It's easy to see why stories like these are popular - they help us to get a narrative handle on an abstract form, to humanise them. But in some ways, this approach sells their subjects short. Music, after all, should be cherished as probably the only form to be completely abstract without ever having caused grumbling among its audience. While composers' biographies can provide fascinating footnotes to their works, the reason 2010's musical anniversaries are important is not because the composers' music still reflects their inner lives, but because it has the potential to reflect our own, even when its creators have been dust for more than a century.

UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets
UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets
UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets
UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets
UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets
UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets
UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets
UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets
UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets
UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets
UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets
UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets
UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets
UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets
UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets
UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets