De Gustibus

September 11, 2008

Yesterday I encountered a friend who was returning home from a special event. I’m not usually very attentive to people’s clothes, but I noticed her dress and complimented her on it.

“Thanks, but I almost threw it out. The hemline is so last year.”

While there are few things I’m as ignorant about as what constitutes a fashionable skirt length, her remark came back to me later and made me think of what a pity it seemed that a woman in a fine, extremely becoming dress should feel qualms about some arbitrary diktat of transitory fashion. Why should a woman, even a “lady of fashion,” not feel it permissible — yea, preferable — to wear the length that she finds most becoming or comfortable?

I’m old enough to remember when American men were all — I mean all — required to have very short hair. Then, with the arrival of the Beatles, it became the rage to have longer hair. Then shorn locks became the fashion again. Now teen-age boys I know may have tresses anywhere from buzz-cut to shoulder length, as suits them and without self-consciousness — two best friends perhaps going to each extreme. This seems to me the best of all situations.

As you will probably have guessed, this led me to a musical consideration.

Until well after the Second World War, there was a slowly evolving one-size-fits-all approach to the performance of the classic repertory. You developed a way of playing — often copied or adapted from that of your teacher, who had it from his or her teacher — and you played your Bach, your Schumann, and your Rachmaninoff that way. It is one of the glories of our often dispiriting age that it’s now possible — even advantageous — to specialize. There are, of course, varying degrees of such specialization, but plenty of major careers have now been made on a fairly narrow swath of repertory, as in in a case like that of Gustav Leonhardt or Evelyn Glennie. There are also people who become established in one idiom and then branch out with great success — as with Nicolaus Harnoncourt. A singer, if skilled and lucky enough, can be an Emma Kirkby or a Cathy Berberian without ever uttering a note of Brahms or Strauss. A violinist can either restore his old violin to its original dimensions and ditch the steel strings or can specialize in new music in which he burns his violin at the end of each performance. While any of these modes may be a mistake in any particular case, the addition of more such liberty in performing careers must be healthy to our culture.

Are we coming to something similar for composers? There was a time, and not long since, when many circles rewarded only certain approaches to musical composition — and I’m not just talking about the twelve-tone world, though it was perhaps most noticed there. I remember a composer colleague on a faculty where I used to teach saying of a composer who had just won a Pulitzer: “His music is terrible because it’s beautiful. No one has any business composing beautiful music in our time.” One of our colleagues said that everything that was wrong with modern music could be traced to Nadia Boulanger’s general rejection of serialism and her subsequent corruption of generations of talented musicians. Because, you see, there was only one permissible way to compose.

There are still people who are having very rewarding careers, to all appearance, exploring and expanding the bounds of serialism, even if they usually depend on something other than the concert marketplace for their daily bread. But there are more and more composers who find the style that suits them (either because it feels more natural too them or challenges them fruitfully, perhaps) and have the conviction to stick to it.

I hope we’ll never again come to a point where a master of Scriabin’s piano music will be looked down upon for just not getting the Mozart sonatas, or that a virtuoso on the baroque harp will hang his or her head around those who handle (pedipulate?) those formidable-looking brass devices radiating from the bottom of the symphonic harp. I hope that a singer will be allowed to excel in Britten without being degraded for not having a chance in the Verdi stakes, or to produce revelations in Machaut without having a single thing to say about Tchaikovsky. The talent to put across Messiaen’s art is a gift in itself, and may not extend to the equally but differently intricate music of Handel.

The person who can, with some exaggeration, be called “able to play anything” will always merit our admiration, and we have some wonderfully eclectic composers as well. But I hope the day is coming, if it has not already come, when different styles, techniques, periods, approaches, and instruments can be chosen for their appropriateness to the artist who is to live with them, grow with them, and project them.

And I still think a woman should be free to wear any length of hem that she chooses.

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