Yesterday I talked again with the same gentleman whose innocent query as to what classical music is inspired my last column. He said something interesting: “Labels are how we make sense of the world.” Now, this was simply a casual comment, not intended to be some deeply penetrating observation. The efficacy of tidy labels or definitions may be less useful than the hipper eschewing of labels that might be summarized as “Label, Schmabel!”…but who would even remember the name, “Louis Durey” if not for the label, “Les Six”?; who would remember Cesar Cui if not for his inclusion in the Russian “Kuchka”? But come to think of it, who wants to remember Durey and Cui? …Oh, come on, can’t you take a joke, you legion of Durey and Cui fans! In order to tempt fate, which is always a wise policy among free thinkers, I offer thirteen new maxims and arrows:
1. I’ve been told that Ellington opined, “If it sounds good, it is good”; and “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds” is a venerated, if feeble joke. But what music is advocated by these bon mots?
2. In politics, idealogy is a justification for taking more than one’s fair share. Is this true of musical idealogy as well? Idealogy as nihilism.
3. “Schubert’s sonatas go on too long.” Where do you have to be in such an all-fired hurry, Buster? Sit down. They aren’t long enough.
4. What would you listen to if told you had one day to live? Beethoven’s Ninth? Bach’s B minor Mass? Gotterdammerung? My advice: listen to an uncut Handel opera. Then it would seem that you still had weeks left on this fair planet.
5. When alphabetizing your cds, don’t bother separating Johann from Richard Strauss. Whatever you grab, it’ll all be the same in the end!
6. Cavalleria Rusticana is The Bartered Bride gone bad.
7. Has any composer ever engaged the sense of smell like Debussy? No, no, no!… if you’re talking about that smell, you must mean Max Reger.
8. If Wagner’s operas are sins, are Stravinsky’s works peccadillos?
9. John Mortimer’s Rumpole says “Life is too short for Wagner”…we say, life is too short either way. Claude Erskine-Brown for the first and only time in his life had it right. But he shouldn’t have named his kids “Tristan” and “Isolde”. That’s just asking for trouble, now isn’t it?
10. Why are there car horns in Gershwin, sirens in Varese, and ondes martinot in Messiaen? To annoy us? It’s just possible you could have achieved that goal without these expedients, messieurs!
11. I’ve never heard a wind serenade I didn’t like. I’ve never heard a wind serenade I did like, however. (urgent advice to Mozart fans: learn to take a joke!)
12. I’ve never heard a piece by Grieg I didn’t like. I’ve never heard a…wait a minute! I’ve heard lots of pieces by Grieg I liked very much indeed! ‘Tis the season. Get out your snowflake sweater, light a fire, turn down the lights, grab an agreeably potent libation…there. Aren’t you feeling better?
13. They say that Arnold was more “berg” than “schoen”; but are mountains not beautiful? (in honor of Schoenberg’s phobia concerning the number thirteen).