Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Bert and the Duke


I just read Terry Teachout’s biography of Duke Ellington. The most prominent theme of the book — beyond Teachout’s efforts at a clear-eyed appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of Ellington’s music — is an elucidation of Ellington’s, to put it charitably, magpie tendencies. Throughout his career, Ellington compensated for his own deficiencies — little talent for melody, inability to write for strings, extreme procrastination — by poaching the inventions of his sidemen, often with minimal compensation and little or no credit. This tendency reached its acme in Ellington’s wholesale subordination of Billy Strayhorn, who was almost completely subsumed into the Ellington persona.

This reminded me of another fascinating biography that I read many years ago, John Fuegi’s Brecht & Co.  That book portrayed Bertolt Brecht as a kind of literary parasite, who seduced brilliant women and enslaved them to write plays for him. Just to mention one of the most egregious examples, Elisabeth Hauptmann appeared on the original publication as co-author of The Threepenny Opera — even there, only as the “translator” of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, with “German treatment by Bertolt Brecht” — though almost certainly a substantial majority of the text is by her. Brecht later sold off the international rights entirely on his own, under his own name. Similarly, Mother Courage and The Life of Galileo  were cowritten with Margarete Steffin — and again, her contribution is not minimal, the same not being entirely clear for Brecht himself — but are invariably described as works of Brecht.

These sound like clear cases of abuse, they seem to undermine the stature of the great artist — perhaps worse in Brecht’s case, where erotic seduction was being abused as well, and the weak social position of women vis-à-vis intellectual property. And yet… it’s clear that both Ellington and and Brecht produced brilliant, world-changing work with a variety of collaborators, while none of the collaborators produced great work apart from the master. (Billy Strayhorn is an interesting possible counterexample, in part because Ellington’s thefts from him were so extensive — some of the “collaborations” were entirely Strayhorn’s work, or almost so — and in part because the collaboration with Ellington subsumed almost his entire career.) Elisabeth Hauptmann, at least, always denied that she had been ill-used by Brecht.

Part of the problem may be with the romantic image we have of the lone genius. As Fuegi’s title suggests (perhaps ironically), the image of the “workshop” may be more appropriate to some — perhaps most? — artistic creation. There is a special skill required to recognise the flashes of creativity in others and shape them to a whole — as Ellington did (Strayhorn excepted) — or to provide a framework to which creative artists can contribute their own genius wholeheartedly. This was the job of the master of a Renaissance workshop, and it’s not clear that we should think less of “Brecht” or “Ellington” as creative artists, to know that these names are, at least in part, fronts for a collective. While they were alive it would have been good to redirect some of the material rewards — though Ellington, at least, directed everything he had to maintaining his orchestra — but now all that remains is esteem for the work and its creator, however the latter is defined.

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