Somebody once asked Louis Armstrong what made a piece of music great. \”If it sounds good,\” he replied, \”it is good.\”
Now there is a formula to put art critics out of business, and to embolden college sophomores, nouveaux riches, and you and me to speak our minds about music, art and literature without fear of being found naive.
In a recent New Yorker review of a book about Modigliani, Peter Schjeldahl laments that Modigliani is, alas, easy to like. I was dismayed to read this. Those earthy reds! Those mask-like faces! Those long, long necks! How I used to rest my eyes on them, as a sophomore taking art history, after trying my damnedest to fall in love with Les Demoiselles d\’Avignon! From now on, every time I gaze at a Modigliani I will hear Schjeldahl\’s voice whispering \”easy to like, easy to like.\”
This happens to me whenever I listen to Tchaikovsky, but there the voice I hear is my father\’s, and he\’s saying, \”it\’s a piece of candy, just a piece of candy for the audience!\” Now I happen to love T\’s violin concerto, but when it comes on the radio, and I hum along with those gorgeous melodies, I feel a little ashamed. Here I am, gorging on chocolate-covered cherries, when I should be–what, eating steak tartare?
Last month Anthony Thomassini, the music critic for The New York Times, published a list of the top (in his view) ten classical composers of all time. Bach was number one (Whew! And yet I\’ve always found Bach easy to like…). Number two: Beethoven. What–not Mozart? No, Mozart is third, losing to Beethoven because of what Mr. Thomassini calls his \”facile\” moments. You can bet that from now on, every time I hear, say, the Symphonia Concertante, I\’ll wonder, was that a little facile?
The problem is, of course, that the definition of \”facile,\” or \”easy to like\” or \”a piece of candy,\” varies not only with the critic, but with the times. Take those painters of sweetly naked ladies, Alma-Tadema and Bouguereau. Adored by the Victorians, they became despised as purveyors of eye taffy by the following generations. But now people have been taking a second look at those maidens, those Cupids, and the landscapes behind them, and saying, \”those guys really could paint….\”
For that matter, think of Bach. If it hadn\’t been for Mendelssohn stumbling on a moldy manuscript and muttering \”This sounds good, so it must be good!\” Bach wouldn\’t have made Thomassini\’s list at all, since he\’d been entirely forgotten after his death.
So now you know some of my \”pieces of candy\”: Modigliani, some Tchaikovsky, Gladys Taber….
Gladys who? Gladys Taber lived in the country, bred Cocker Spaniels, and wrote for women\’s magazines in the middle third of the last century, and I think she\’s a fine writer. What are your favorite candies?