Some people harbour strange reservations towards anything and everything pop. In such circles, a deep-seated belief exists that things popular among the people (Latin: populus) and loved by the masses simply can’t be good. Supposed proof of this thesis is said to be embodied by the biographies of artists who are universally esteemed and counted among the greats of their fields, despite not having been recognised as such during their lifetimes.

Van Gogh, Kafka, Schubert: just three examples of wholly underestimated geniuses who lived sad, unsung lives and met their ends lonely and misunderstood by the clueless masses. But myths about artists are tricky things—especially when all their contemporaries are as dead as said artists themselves. Rumours take on lives of their own, and everyone invents this or that little titbit—a common “whisper down the lane” effect among artist biographers. Here and there, however, one does find an author who sets out to deconstruct such myths with detective-like care.

As does British tenor Ian Bostridge in his captivating book on Schubert’s Winterreise, in which he ascertains on the basis of extensive research that the common myth about Schubert’s having been poor and unsuccessful is just that: a myth, uncritically passed on from generation to generation. In actual fact, Schubert was the first freelance artist of his era who attempted to do without the typical noble benefactors or a permanent church job. He was a freelancer, we’d say these days. And Schubert did, in fact, make quite decent money from his appearances in high society salons—and was respected highly by those who knew him. Only thing is, the number of people who knew him was too small—which was in part due to the distribution channels available at the time. If iTunes had existed back then, he would have been a superstar. Because for something to become popular, “the people” need to have access to it.

A good example of this is Mozart, who was something like the Michael Jackson of his era: a child prodigy and all-round genius born into an ambitious family that worked hard to have their son heard by as many people as possible even at a very young age. Mozart was especially popular among the common people, thus offering a nice counter-thesis to elitist snobbery … so a thing needn’t necessarily be bad just because it’s widely appreciated.

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