Quotation of the day

From Joe Queenan’s essay,  “Why Not the Worst?” in the New York Times Book Review, May 6, 2007:

Most of us are familiar with people who make a fetish out of quality: They read only good books, they see only good movies, they listen only to good music, they discuss politics only with good people, and they’re not shy about letting you know it. They think this makes them smarter and better than everybody else, but it doesn’t. It makes them mean and overly judgmental and miserly, as if taking 15 minutes to flip through “The Da Vinci Code” is a crime so monstrous, an offense in such flagrant violation of the sacred laws of intellectual time-management, that they will be cast out into the darkness by the Keepers of the Cultural Flame. In these people’s view, any time spent reading a bad book can never be recovered. They also act as if the rest of humanity is watching their time sheets.

And the antidote to that? Here’s a story that the 19th century British music critic Henry Chorley told, in his book Thirty Years’ Musical Recollections. He’s writing about Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment, a work that, as he says, has gained universal acceptance [and] has established itself as among the brightest and the last of comic Italian operas. There is a careless gaiety amount­ing to merriment — there is a frankness, always military, never vulgar — in this music.

One might fancy it to have been thrown off during some sunny period of high spirits, when the well-spring of melody was in a sparkling humour. It is slight, it is familiar, it is catching — it is everything that pedants find easy to condemn.

I happened once in London to hear it laid hold of by a party of such connoisseurs, including more than one composer, who would have found it hard to write eight bars having the faintest echo of hila­rity in them. Some were decrying it, too, for the poor reason of anticipating the presumed censure of the one Genius of the company. This was Mendelssohn. He let them rail their fill for a while, saying nothing. Then he began to move restlessly on his chair. “Well, I don’t know,” said he, at last; “I am afraid I like it. I think it very pretty — it is so merry.” Then, bursting into one of those fits of hearty gaiety which lit up his beautiful counte­nance in a manner never to be forgotten, “Do you know,” said he, “I should like to have written it myself.”

The dismay and wonderment of the classicists, who had made sure of his support, were truly droll.

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  1. Anonymous says

    Thank you for pointing out Queenan’s article.

    Personally, I have often thought that apart from the dreadful snobism of canonic thinking (what is per se good or bad), the really painful stuff is the third-rate, not the actually bad. That is, when you unavoidably feel the unfulfilled promises, but it’s always undermined by the commonplace, the trite cliché and the pedestrian “filler”.

  2. Yvonne says

    Perfect! As a classical musician and music-lover whose first love was and always will be musical theatre (of which there are, of course, “good” and “bad” examples), I have very little sympathy for the people Queenan describes. Not that one shouldn’t seek out the very best of whatever it is that one likes – life is to short after all – by why be snobbish and superior about it?

    A variant of the story as recounted by Kupferberg in The Mendelssohns: Three Generations of Genius (and also in Wilfrid Blunt’s biography of Mendelssohn: On Wings of Song) refers to Chorley’s visit to Interlaken (c.1847), where he spent some time with Mendelssohn:

    “Previously Mendelssohn had not been known as a warm admirer of Italian opera, but now Chorley found him praising Rossini and even speaking kindly of Donizetti, whose operas were then at the peak of their popularity, although some academicians derogated them. Of The Daughter of the Regiment he said: ‘It is so merry, with so much of the real soldier’s life in it. They call it bad’ – this with a smile – ‘but it is surprising how easily one can become used to “bad” music!'”

    Thanks for the Queenan link. For anyone interested in exploring this whole idea of “good” and “bad” and “taste” in the arts I recommend a long essay by C.S. Lewis called An Experiment in Criticism. The Experiment… principally addresses literature, but he does touch on music and visual arts also. A fascinating thesis (too subtle to attempt to summarise here), argued in Lewis’s wonderfully clear and comprehensible style.

    Thanks for the recommendation. I love C.S. Lewis — who, let’s not forget, wrote wonderful science fiction and fantasy books, alongside his career as an Oxford scholar, and his many books on religion.

  3. Henry Fitzgerald says

    Was Mendelssohn saying: “Yes, it’s bad, but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t listen to bad music once in a while”; or was he saying: “To tell the truth, I don’t think it’s bad at all; I actually think it’s rather good; so there”? I think he was saying the latter.

    I’ve read The Da Vinci Code. Nobody could seriously deny (as Mendelssohn seriously denied of The Daughter of the Regiment) that it’s bad. Did I enjoy reading it? I certainly did. Like almost everyone else, I can all too easily take pleasure in bad art. And this is not, as is usually supposed, an innocent pleasure. What people who think they like trash really like, is to feel superior to the trash.

    If that’s what we like, that’s what we like; we shouldn’t pretend our tastes are other than what they are. But nor should we deny that it would be better if our tastes were other than what they are.

  4. Paul A. Alter says

    What are the criteria for “bad” music and “good” music?

    What are the standards that permit us to say that one compositon is bad and the other good?

    Who established those standards? Were those persons qualified to make such judgements?

    Are the standards for judging bad versus good immutable?

    Why is it wrong to like some bad music and/or not like some good music (for example, I am unable to enjoy Mozart)?


  5. says

    I have several rules I try to observe when judging music.

    1. Always compliment the players. I try to do this to the extent I can get a word to the musician. They may be trying very hard to make a poorly written piece work, and they always appreciate a kind word.

    2. When playing, always try to give what the composer is asking for. I usually find it challenging to play or sing a piece and this gives me a way to enjoy music I would not otherwise appreciate when listening. I don’t care to listen to Mozart, but I enjoy trying to play it well.

    3) When tempted to criticize, try to be constructive and positive. Most players and composers respond well to suggestions for improvement rather than put-downs.

    Ultimately, snobism is unattractive. So best to avoid it. Failing that, humor: “‘Good’ is just not the word for that piece.”

  6. Bill Brice says

    It seems to me a very healthy thing, to be able to find pleasure in both lowbrow and highbrow art without fretting over “browness”. I don’t have the exact quote, but I’m sure I’ve read many places about the sincere admiration Brahms expressed for the waltzes of Johann Strauss. And, think how 20th century European classical music was enriched by its understanding of the “negro music” it heard coming from America.

    Brahms and Johann Strauss — terrific example. Not only did Brahms love Strauss’s music, but they were friends, and drank oceans of beer together.

  7. Dennis says

    It’s sad to see so many supporting of Queenan’s defense of the lowbrow. Life is too short to waste on junk “art” or junk “literature”. Queenan’s diatribe against alleged “snobbism” is really just the lowbrow’s defense mechanism against feeling intellectually inferior for not “getting” really great art and literature. By all means, Joe, revel in your lowbrow taste, if you wish, but don’t pretend to be teaching others a valuable lesson by doing so.

  8. Robert Gordon says

    Among other things about this story, the idea that Mendelssohn was a severe musical intellectual of the highest type, whom one would expect to be immune to the blandishments of mere prettiness — Mendelssohn! — sounds so typical of Victorian England, and probably nowhere else.

    So let us imagine a party at which Boulez astonishes everyone by saying that he rather likes the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture because it’s so pretty and merry, and wishes he’d written it himself. Not very plausible, don’t you think? But if it happened it would make the point more effectively than Chorley’s story.

    It’s difficult for us to put ourselves in another era, long past. But in fact things were very different in Mendelssohn’s time, and in fact he did register to musicians — not just in England, but everywhere — as intensely serious.

    This is because of the split between “classical” and “popular” music that began to grow after 1800. And yes, they used exactly those words. Popular music was opera, and concerts by virtuosos like Paganini. Classical music was music written in the tradition of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. One of the leading classical composers was Mendelssohn. Others were Schumann, and Schubert (to the extent that he was known). And of course many names we don’t remember now.

    Classical music had a tiny audience. Popular music had a huge audience. Rossini was by far the most popular composer in Europe. Someone like Mendelssohn couldn’t even come close. There were very few classical concerts — just a handful of classical orchestral events every year, in a city like Vienna, as opposed to hundreds of popular music events. (In Vienna, many of those would be waltz concerts by the Strauss family.)

    So the advocates of classical music had a chip on their shoulder. They felt they were ignored by the world, and also that they were being buried in a sea of mediocrity. (An additional problem was that most classical music events were performed by amateurs, while popular music events were played by professionals. So the popular music events were — in purely performance terms — a lot better.) Thus, Mendelssohn’s embrace of Donizetti would really come as a surprise. Forget about Boulez endorsing the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, or even deciding to conduct The Barber of Seville. This was like Boulez saying that he loves the Bee Gees. What we think of Mendelssohn isn’t relevant here. But his political position within the culture/music wars of his time made his view of Donizetti a real shock.

  9. says

    I believe this one applies “Unless each man prodiuses more than he receives, increases his output, there will be less for him than all the others”, doesn’t it?