Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Guest Blogger: Deems Taylor

"Deems Taylor? He's living?" (Michael exclaimed over my shoulder.)

Deems Taylor wrote Of Men and Music in 1937, but somehow, aside from his constant use of the composer as "he," (who knew in 1937 that someone like me would take issue with such a reference?), his idea that Bach represents the frontier of early music, and the names of the composers he thinks of as modern (because they were at the time), his ideas seem very current to me, so I thought I'd bring him back to life as a guest blogger.
The idiom of art is constantly changing; only the things it says remain eternal. But the trouble is, that in the mind of one who is aesthetically inexperienced, idiom becomes confused with subject-matter. He sees only that the way in which Beethoven expresses himself is not the way in which Stravinsky, or Bela Bartok, or Alban Berg expresses himself; that if a present-day composer were to write a symphony that was developed, harmonized, and scored in the manner of Beethoven, he would hardly get a hearing. What he many not see is that the essential beethoven is utterly independend of Beethoven's medium of expression--a living man in an old-fashioned costume.

The beginner in music, whether he be fourteen years old of forty, should approach it in the only safe way: that is, chronologically. If you begin whth Haydn, Mozart, and Donizetti and Bellini, you will never lose them. You may proceed safely through Verdi and Brahms and Wagner and Strauss and Debussy, straight on to whatever ultra-modernist represents the limits of your musical appetite, secure in the knowledge that the new will never spoil the old for you; that a mind nourished in infancy upon plain, simple food can assimilate richer fare later on, without risk of indigestion.

This is, of course, in violent opposition to the opinions held by many moderns, who annouce that it is better to abolish the past entirely, and have dealings only with the present. It seems a meagre poverty-striken sort of regime to me. If music is a good thing, why not be able to enjoy as many kinds and styles of music as possible? Even a gourmet, it seems to me, must, if he would keep his health, be able to neglect his caviar long enough to take an occasional fling at roast beef.

Music was written to be enjoyed, and we might as well enjoy as much of it as we can. The man who talks of Strauss as being old-fashioned, and Wagner as Victorian, and Beethoven as outmoded, and Bach as a primitive, may be getting himself a great reputation as a connoisseur; but he is certainly missing a lot of fun.
From Of Men and Music, pages 296-297


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