Blind spots

My immediate reaction when the question ‘Whose music do you really hate?’ popped up in my Twitter feed was one of weariness. I grow tired of the culture of moaning that seems to assail me from all directions. If it’s not people in Real Life, it’s pathetic television programmes where smug and fatuous Z-listers grumble and grouse about the way these youngsters wear their jeans or how organic produce is a total swizz. It is profoundly tedious to read other people’s complaints. I am aware of the irony of this paragraph.

When Stephen Fry appeared on the programme Room 101 some years ago (it was before the programme was cancelled, I recall), his final choice was Room 101 itself. He and Paul Merton imagined themselves in an alternate reality, on a programe called Room Lovely, where Fry then talked for a few minutes about things he really loved – the iMac, libraries, Kathy Burke… It was such a pleasant relief from the negative emphasis of the rest of the programme that Merton had no choice but to acquiesce, and duly sent Room 101 into oblivion.

I’m a positive person, blithe to the point of Pollyannaism, and so when I see an article called ‘Hands up! Whose music do you really hate?’ I despair slightly. But it turns out to be really rather a fun piece by Jeremy Nicholas about those blind spots we all have, in music as in everything else. Tests have revealed, for instance, that I am medically incapable of becoming interested in The Lord of the Rings or anything related to Star Wars. You will have a similar blockage somewhere (I hope not a physical one).

Where music is concerned, however, I’m not unlike the blessed triumvirate of Andrew McGregor, James Jolly and Rob Cowan, cited by Nicholas in his article, in that it often feels to me that I like more or less everything. If you had asked the ten-year-old Gareth to name his favourite composer, he would have said Ravel and that he was particularly disposed to like French music. Now I’m more of a Germanicist, with Bach and Schubert and Brahms at the top of the tree; but my tastes have broadened generally. I don’t have a favourite composer, still less a favourite time period. Musically, I embrace everything.

But one cannot love all things equally, and there are some objects that seem to resist affection in the most stubborn of manners, no matter how positive one’s intentions. For the purposes of argument, let’s take it as read that all the music generally considered ‘great’ is so – even the dreaded Four Seasons (though as Julie Walters says in a Victoria Wood sketch, I prefer the original – Quattro Formaggi). Disregard Karl Jenkins and Ludovico Einaudi (always a good rule of thumb), and stick to the composers who have incontrovertibly earned their places in history. From these composers, who are the ones we cannot get on with, and why?

The composers Jeremy Nicholas names as among his personal blind spots are, almost without exception, from the twentieth century, and tending towards the modernistic: Lutyens, Tippett, Nono, Bartók, Hindemith, Birtwistle, Boulez, Stockhausen, Carter, Babbitt, Janácek, Bridge, Wagner, Schoenberg. I think there are three indisputable geniuses in that list, and a good handful of others who might justifiably claim to be in the top rank. Certainly none of them I’d gladly dispense with entirely, and Bartók, Stockhausen, Wagner and Schoenberg I would miss enormously. I suspect my own blind spots come principally from earlier times.

Rossini - born on Leap Year Day. The most interesting thing about him, probably.

I believe I am hardly alone in thinking that a little Vivaldi goes a long way, but I have recently found myself coming around to his brand of predictable but sparkly writing. This is not the case with Italian opera from Rossini onwards. I can see much to admire in Rossini’s craftsmanship, but little in the content of the music engages me. Bel canto bores me. Apart from brief periods when I feel in the mood, I can never get very worked up about Verdi either. So the gap of about 100 years between Mozart and Puccini is a closed book at present. My loss. I fully expect my feelings to change one day.

I’m not alone either in the apathy I feel towards Schumann’s orchestral music. A superb writer for the piano, and one of the greatest songwriters the world has ever known, but the symphonies are frankly a bit of a drag, aren’t they? More unusual is the confession that I don’t really get Beethoven’s symphonies. Perhaps this is an illusion created by my mind. The idea of the Beethovenian symphony is sufficiently unattractive to me that I haven’t sat down and listened to one for quite some time. There is very great music in them, and not just in the most celebrated ones, but the sound they make simply fails to appeal. If I could explain these feelings satisfactorily, perhaps the barriers would disappear and I would fall in love with them (as, I think, I was in my teens, particularly with the seventh – I can’t think about the majestic slow movement for too long, or this flimsy theory falls apart entirely). But then there’s not that much disparity between the symphonies of Beethoven and those of Brahms, and the Brahms symphonies I always think of as being among the greatest masterpieces ever committed to paper. Odd.

Come to think of it, I find quite a lot of 19th-century orchestral music plodding and turgid – Berlioz, Liszt and Mendelssohn spring to mind, though there are exceptions in each case. The orchestra swelled in size, and nobody quite got the hang of how to use it until Wagner. I can back none of this up with facts. Mendelssohn peaked around 16, I think, but that’s hardly a criticism when his octet is the greatest piece of music any 16-year-old ever wrote (please offer contradictory evidence in the unlikely event that you have any). I think Vaughan Williams spread himself too thinly. I have never been entirely satisfied by anything he wrote lasting longer than a quarter of an hour.

I wonder if there is a discernible link between my objections to this wide range of composers. It’s probably an indication of superficiality that my assessment of music seems generally to be broken down into two elements, namely surface and content (or, if you prefer, style and substance). There are many composers I love who offer one but not both, or at least not both in equal measure. Take two of my favourite composers, Bach and Respighi. It’s not unfair to suggest that the former has more substance than style (though still plenty of style) and the latter more style than substance (though still more than enough substance to maintain the listener’s interest). With Rossini, the style is there but not enough of the substance; with Beethoven’s orchestral music, it’s the other way around.

Until a few years ago I’d have put Mozart on my list of blind spots, but I am coming quickly to love him. Similarly Handel. In my childhood I didn’t like Bach. (Was I ever that young?) These things do change, as we do ourselves. 99.9% of the time the last thought on my mind is to put on the old Quattro Formaggi, but that still leaves room, however little, for doubt. And so, try as I might, and in spite of the promptings of Jeremy Nicholas, I cannot think of a composer generally acknowledged as one of the greats whose oeuvre has so little effect on me that I would dispense with him altogether. There may come a time when Rossini is exactly what I need.

I’d be delighted to hear about your own blind spots.

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5 Responses to “Blind spots”

  1. argumentativeoldgit Says:

    Generally, if one has strong loves, one has strong hates as well. But, as you say, there’s little point going on about them. leaving out stuff that is obvious pap but that is treated seriously for no better reason than that it is immensely popular, I think most of us are prepared to see our blind spots as just that – blind spots, limitations in our own capacity to appreciate.

    I’m with you on Rossini, and also bel canto operas (except for a few set pieces – but only if sung by Maria Callas), but Italian opera does pick up for me with Verdi. Liszt I never really got, I’m afraid. Prokofiev doesn’t mean much to me, Rachmaninoff sounds far too schmalzy to my ears, and Shostakovich symphonies merely sound like a bloody racket. (Sorry to pick on the Russians: to compensate, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky are among my top favourites!) And I never got into French baroque – Couperin, Lully, Rameau: I’m sure they’re very good, though. But all that’s a comment on me, not on the composers.

    And as you say, tastes change. You have to allow certain things to permeate through. If we go to literature, i have, as you know, long found Austen’s works very resistible, but, having revisited them, having conversed with admirers, and having thought about them over the years, I think I may be quite close to coming to terms with her novels. I doubt whether she will ever rank with Dickens & Tolstoy in my personal canon, but my view of her works now is quite different from what it had been only a few years ago.

    I also find that I am usually less perceptive about what I dislike than about what I like.

  2. mikealx Says:

    Very hard to think of composers whose entire output I dislike; but I can think of some fairly famous & popular works that irritate me quite intensely. Tchaikovsky’s 6th, for example. There’s something a bit corny about a lot of Tchaik’s output, but this one I find excruciatingly so. Yet it’s hugely popular. Give me his 5th any day. Or the violin concerto for that matter.

    I’m afraid I have a similar reaction to much of Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite (which I loved as a child). Just a bit lightweight, and I don’t like the orchestration.

    I suppose I have failed to by engaged by anything much by Britten (I know this will be sacrilege for you Gareth!) but I suspect this is mostly due to lack of effort on my part.

    I can’t get cross with Brahms, but I can’t get excited about him either. Listening to Brahms for me is a bit like looking at a piece of furniture which has been exquisitely well-made, but is not at all to my taste.

  3. crosseyedpianist Says:

    “hate” is a very strong word. I prefer “dislike”. My musical tastes seem ever-changing, especially now that I am exploring more varied repertoire at the piano AND having the great privilege of being able to go to much more live music courtesy of my reviewing job. What I really don’t like in music is overblown or false sentiment. One tends to find this in the schmaltzy “soft classics” that are oft-times broadcast on ClassicFM, the sort of musak that has Jane Jones raving about “laahvely melodies” and collapsing, on air, in a paroxysm of swooning.

    As far “real” classical music, most false sentiment comes from the performer rather than composer: take Lang Lang at the Last Night of the Proms. All that Liberace grinning and gurning at the camera and then Chopin reduced to sugar plums garnished with saccharine.

    A year ago, I never imagined I would enjoy Pierre Boulez’s 2nd Piano Sonata, or vast swathes or Messiaen, but now I am hooked. So much so that my next piano project is Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis. A lot of one’s musical taste is shaped simply by allowing one’s ear to remain open and alive to whatever is flung at it: the Radio 3 Breakfast show is particularly good for this – though it has got rather too populist, with cosy interviews with old ladies, since Petroc Trelawny took over the helm.

    I’ve always claimed to “hate” Wagner, but I suspect I will come round to liking him when I am about 75.

  4. Gareth Says:

    Thank you all for your contributions.

    Himadri, I don’t always have a great deal of enthusiasm for Liszt, but at his best I find him thrilling. Having derided his orchestral writing, I really respond to the tone poems like Les Préludes or Mazeppa (also one of the more exciting of the Études d’exécution transcendante. And I love his piano transcriptions. It’s the rest of the piano music I haven’t got my head around yet. As for Shostakovich, his output is very uneven, but the 5th symphony and the 7th and 8th quartets, for instance, still excite me. I just have less of an appetite for him now than I did in my teens. These things probably go in cycles. I think you may come to love the French Baroque, as you have Handel (which I believe was one of your blind spots until relatively recently? or I may be imagining things). Your apathy to Prokofiev is reprehensible, but I’ll let it go this once. You write “I also find that I am usually less perceptive about what I dislike than about what I like.” I empathise with this entirely.

    Mike, I haven’t listened to either for a few years, but I know I used to prefer the second Peer Gynt suite to the first. It’s not as well known, which is probably why. The fact that one hears the same old music from the first over and over again is a bit of a bore. I’m very fond of Grieg in general. I think liking Britten may depend on finding the right way in. I have had countless conversations with people who have expressed an interest in Britten, but feel frustrated at not really ‘getting’ him. I tend to recommend the folk song settings, whose brilliance is obvious, and things like the cantata Saint Nicolas, which should ideally be seen in performance (and requires a modest amount of audience participation). As for Brahms, well, horses for courses. Jeremy Nicholas claims in his article that he feels he could never really be friends with anyone who didn’t love Mozart. It’s a familiar sentiment, but bollocks of course. I am friends with people who presumably listen to the most godawful tripe. Still, reading the trash Bernard Shaw wrote about Brahms, for instance, does prejudice me against Shaw generally. I don’t think I’d have got on with him. Tchaikovsky was also rather rude about Brahms, but I have a vague idea that they patched things up.

    Fran, it’s very exciting that you are discovering this new music to play and love. I don’t know Ludus Tonalis, but I’ve always found the idea of it appealing, as I did Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues before I knew them. And the Szymanowski mazurkas, which I know you’ve been learning – exquisite. I had an analysis supervisor at university who was a Szymanowski specialist and gave us a movement of his Métopes as an assignment. It was eye-opening. Like a cross between Liszt and Ravel and Scriabin. Immediately I was in raptures. I saw someone ranting about Radio 3’s old ladies online recently. I don’t know what it’s coming to. Broken Britain…

  5. argumentativeoldgit Says:

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    Apparently, when tchaikovsky was in Dresden (I think it was) to rehearse his 5th symphony, Brahms made a point of meeting him. Brahms liked the symphony except for the last movement. The two of them then went out on the piss together, and apparently got in really well. But Tchaikovsky never did take to Brahms’ music.

    Brahms & Tchaikovsky make a fascinating comparison. I have always been a Brahms fan, but Tchaikovsky I have only come round to comparatively recently, when I decided that open and direct depiction of intense emotion need not necessarily be “bad taste”. Indeed, the older I get, the more I value – in all the arts – direct depiction of powerful passions, and the less I care for all this “decorous restraint” business.

    Incidentally, didn’t Bernard Shaw later retract some of the things he had dsaid about Brahms? Or am I just imagining that?

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