A matter of taste

De gustibus non est disputandum – proverb

“Taste” is a tricky concept. It’s easy to countenance differences of opinion when the object of those opinions is something of little import, like T-shirt color. At the other end of the spectrum, where life and limb may be at stake, opinion has no place in the discussion. What we want in those instances are hard, objective facts about the proper way to proceed.

Certainly music is not a matter of life and death. But neither is it as trivial as T-shirt color. Very many people seem content to live life sans the pleasures of visual art or literature (nothing against those endeavors – I’m simply making an observation). But almost no one is very far for very long from their “tunes.” It seems to me music provides a more visceral enjoyment, and is the object of a more primal desire than the other arts are. But that’s a topic for another post. The point is that we have found music to be of some importance. Exactly where on the continuum it falls may not be clear.

Complicating the issue is the question of how to distinguish between matters of taste and matters of more objective superiority or inferiority. Person A may prefer Brahms. Person B may prefer Bach. Both are excellent composers, and we may not be able to discern which is superior. It’s probably silly to try – a sort of “apples to oranges” situation. But certainly we can say that Bach is superior to, say, Johann Gottfried Walther. There is an undeniable greater degree of logic and solid architecture in Bach’s work. We may not have the capacity to measure which peak on the musical landscape is highest, but we can certainly discern the peaks from the valleys. There comes a point at which one is not dealing anymore with “like vs dislike” but with “skilled vs unskilled.” Taste cannot, therefore, be the sole arbiter in the evaluation of a composer, or of an individual piece. We must take into account the intellectual content of the music, the skill with which the deep structure has been elaborated upon and transformed into the surface structure.

Brahms was getting at precisely this when he wrote in 1876:

In some of these you seem to be too easily satisfied. One ought never to forget that by perfecting one piece more is gained and learned than by beginning or half-finishing a dozen. Let it rest . . . and keep going back to it and working over it, over and over again, until it is a complete, finished work of art, until there is not a note too much or too little, not a bar you could improve upon. Whether it is beautiful also, is an entirely different matter, but perfect it must be.

“Whether it is beautiful also, is an entirely different matter, but perfect it must be.” This is such a profound insight. Superficial attractiveness is not sufficient. Conversely, a piece with no superficial hook or gimmick might be much more well-written than a piece full of attention-demanding flourishes and curlicues.

Now, in most cases, the perfect is identical with the beautiful. A piece’s perfection is what makes it beautiful. But even if you find yourself not particularly moved by the surface events in a piece by one of the masters, you have to acknowledge the quality of the writing, of the musical thought, going on at a deeper level.

So I was surprised to see a composer colleague admit that, after years of “not getting it”, he had finally come to respect Palestrina, and that perhaps this meant that respect for Robert Schumann might be forthcoming. Of all people, shouldn’t a composer be able to see the quality present in the music of Palestrina and Schumann, even if the music doesn’t always sweep him or her away? I’ll admit, Palestrina’s music might not be super catchy. But there is an unassailable logic governing the way the voices proceed. And I’m mystified by the Schumann remark. Consider this piece, for crying out loud!


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