April 13, 2010

Bearded Composers

I can't say I'm a big fan of beards. Or I should probably say, I'm not a fan of beards that extend more than half an inch from the skin. I do however think that some beards are able to say a lot about the people wearing them, and I particularly enjoy the beards of famous composers. Face it (!), some beards are just meant for greatness.

Unfortunately, the lady composers will have to be left out of this discussion, but after all, this has absolutely nothing to do with how much I actually like their music, so maybe the ladies will be glad to be left out. I'll dedicate a blog post sometime to all the lady composers I like. But for now, onto the subject AT HAND!

I can't talk about musical beards without mentioning Johannes Brahms, whose facial clippings were the saplings from which other composer beard-trees grew:
This particular photo was on display in the house of my high-school piano teacher and I always liked it, not just for the Santa-Claus aspect of the famous Romantic, but more because it looks like it was taken at the Mystery Spot in the Wisconsin Dells (RIP)

The most impressive facial hair on a composer that I know of belongs to Jacques Offenbach. It may not quite qualify as a "beard" but it certainly goes above and beyond the call of duty for a simple label like "mustache" or "mutton chops". I think it really deserves its own title.
The Offenbach
I don't know if you can tell, but those chops extend all the way down to his neck. Impressive right? Other composers who tried such neck-chops included the likes of Richard Wagner who I think really failed in his attempt.

Russian late-Romantic Modest Mussorgsky has the dubious honor of being named one of the only alcoholic-pirate composers in history, as evidenced by this famous painting:
 Less of a choice, more of an accident.

I'm finally getting to the guys that inspired this post in the first place: American mid-20th century avante-garde composers. Inspired by everything from paint drying to Indian classical music, composers such as LaMonte Young (left) and Terry Riley (right) set a standard not only for incredibly zany music, but also for ratty beards that look like they could've been taken off of an albino yak's butt.

Don't get me wrong, I love these guys but those beards don't exactly demand respect the same way Brahms' beard does. Actually, in retrospect, after spending all this time digging up these beard pictures, I'm not sure anyone can hold a match to Brahms' facial stylings. If I'm going to pick a 20th century avante-garde (or minimalist or WHATEVER) composer, I'm probably going to pick one without facial hair, look at Steve Reich, the man has absolutely no facial hair and he looks like he really knows whats up (he also kind of looks like he could join the Beastie Boys). Or Joan Tower, she doesn't have a beard and look how happy she is (also, Beastie Boys).

There is one composer that I forgot that's worth mentioning, mostly because I love him, but also because he totally set the precedent for the facial stylings (not to mention eyewear) of other upright d00ds.
Between Erik Satie and Les Claypool the link is obvious, yet deeply profound.

My advice to future and current composers (of the male persuasion, or beard-enabled female persuasion): grow a beard with caution. Think of the men (and maybe women, Hildegaard von Bingen I'm looking at you) who came before, and whose hair you are now directly competing with. You will be judged against all of the beards in composition history (a more exhaustive list of which would take a long time to create). But if you decide you should like to wear a mustache, mutton chops, handlebars, fu-manchu, or even a scraggly neck-beard.....I believe in you.


  1. "Alcoholic pirate" is probably the most accurate and poetic description of Mussorgsky ever.

    Alex Woller got close to achieving The Offenbach when he was in a production of "Pirates of Penzance"--it's out there on Facebook.

    Finally, Wagner...I have seen that picture of him plenty of times, but I have never seen the (attempted) beard. Probably because it looks vaguely like a disease.

  2. Interesting post! A shame that you're in the USA though, as I think you'd probably enjoy our 'Free entrance with a Beard Like Brahms' policy...http://www.cottierchamberproject.com/beards.htm