Substance Located, If not Defined

One of the most fun aspects of writing this Concord Sonata book is going sentence by sentence through Essays Before a Sonata –  a book I’ve read many times starting around 1969 – and determining exactly what Ives was trying to say. (In fact, I’m surprised that I’ve spent almost as much time in my career parsing the literary writings of composers as I have their music.) Ives’s writing is often not at all clear, though his unclarity sometimes has an underlying intention; and he got some historical facts wrong, which it is amusing to correct. One of my main self-imposed tasks is to nail down as far as I can his famous distinction between substance and manner in the Epilogue. Taking all his examples, I’m coming to the conclusion that substance was, for him, a kind of emotional maturity and higher moral viewpoint on the part of the artist that enabled him or her to make art edifying, even life-changing, as well as merely entertaining; in other words, only a highly evolved person is capable of artistic substance. This is, to say the least, easier to gauge in literature than it is in music. One of his more revealing exemplars is the novelist George Meredith (1828-1909), a Victorian whose name I don’t recall ever having seen outside of the Essays, where he is somewhat incongruously contrasted with Richard Strauss (purveyor of mere manner). So I’m reading Meredith’s The Egoist (1879), which certainly does view its characters’ actions from a profound psychological viewpoint. And I was particularly taken by this rather typical passage:

Popularity with men, serviceable as it is for winning favouritism with women, is of poor value to a sensitive gentlemen, anxious even to prognostic apprehension on behalf of his pride, his comfort and his prevalence. And men are grossly purchasable; good wines have them, good cigars, a goodfellow air: they are never quite worth their salt even then; you can make head against their ill looks. But the looks of women will at one blow work on you the downright difference which is between the cock of lordly plume and the moulting. Happily they may be gained: a clever tongue will gain them, a leg. They are with you to a certainty if Nature is with you; if you are elegant and discreet; if the sun is on you, and they see you shining in it; or if they have seen you well-stationed and handsome in the sun. And once gained they are your mirrors for life, and far more constant than the glass. That tale of their caprice is absurd. Hit their imaginations once, they are your slaves, only demanding common courtier service of you. They will deny that you are ageing, they will cover you from scandal, they will refuse to see you ridiculous.

This is substance indeed.



  1. says

    I read Meredith’s “The Ordeal of Richard Feverel” when I was in high school. (It was suggested by a friend, not assigned reading.) At the time my adolescent self was enthralled by the romanticism of it, but I suspect that much of the rest was over my head. You remind me that I’ve been meaning to go back and take another look.