As far as I can recall, I’ve never previously posted a chain of paragraphs here or anywhere else on February 14, and therefore always managed to avoid having to definitively put something in prose about Valentine’s Day, a holiday I have rather mixed feelings about. Nowadays I usually enjoy a quiet romantic dinner with my wife Trudy, but when I was younger I frequently didn’t acknowledge the day at all. I always found the de rigeur “Hallmark card, roses, and chocolates” quality of the day somewhat trite. Although today when I walked into my office building and was handed a complimentary chocolate bar from the building’s management, I was amused and mildly charmed. Guess that’s yet another sign of having grown up.
But the one thing I can’t help thinking about on Valentine’s Day to this day—some old axes will always grind—is how irrelevant new music is to it, and to romance in general. While to me it seems a completely off-putting cliché, I know that many couples have specific “songs” that they associate with their relationship and which they listen to on important days, e.g. anniversaries, Valentine’s Day. But I’ve yet to meet a couple who make such associations with contemporary long form score-based compositions. Whether it’s Elliott Carter’s solo piano piece Night Fantasies, David Del Tredici’s song cycle Love Addiction, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Romance for violin and piano, or even Milton Babbitt’s The Joy of More Sextets, folks don’t seem to turn to this stuff when their minds turn to thinking about romance.
Might the fact that this music is not generally something that folks get sentimental about be one of the key reasons it hasn’t reached a larger audience? Many people talked about the ability of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings to provide comfort and solace after September 11. But the associations assigned to that particular piece seem more the result of how it has been previously used in soundtracks for motion pictures such as Platoon, not because of anything innate to the abstract notes that Barber put on the page.
Most people who love contemporary music, at least in my experience, do not love it because of the way it makes them “feel.” Or have I been talking to the wrong people? Do you have a Valentine’s Day go-to piece? And if not, may I suggest this timely classic by John Cage?