View from the East: Kitschometer



Greg Sandow

I’ve been listening to a splashy and not very wonderful (though in the end instructive) CD – The Music of Peter Boyer, a collection of orchestral works released this year by Koch. Boyer is an ambitious 31-year-old, who, his press kit says, is "fast becoming one of the most prominent young American composers." He has roots in both film scores and symphonic composition, and to get an idea of what makes his work not very wonderful, take a look at some of his titles (and the ideas behind them): Celebration Overture, Titanic, Three Olympians – which is about three familiar Greek gods: Apollo, Aphrodite, and Ares – and finally The Ghosts of Troy, a symphonic poem based on Homer’s Iliad, with movements like "The Rage of Achilles" and "The Ransom and Burial of Hector."

Note first that none of these subjects holds any surprise. It’s fine to write accessible music, which Boyer is proud to do, but accessible doesn’t have to mean obvious. And these pieces are obvious: We know in advance what we’re supposed to feel about every one of them. That’s most true, of course, about Titanic (which at least was written before the movie came out), and while it’s least true about The Ghosts of Troy – because most of us don’t spend much time these days with Homer – there’s something curiously ossified about making music based on Greek mythology in 2001.

Already by 1858, Greek antiquity had become so hackneyed – so corny, stiff and academic – that Offenbach parodied it in Orpheus in the Underworld, a wicked operetta in which Orpheus bores Eurydice whenever he starts to play his legendary music, and Jupiter, to pursue a woman, changes himself not into something elegant, like a swan, but into a buzzing fly. (Later, in La Belle Helène, Offenbach pictured the heroes of the Trojan War – whom Boyer glorifies – as utter, total fools.) Now, nearly 150 years later, you can write music about the ancient Greeks if you want (who’s going to stop you?), but you’d better have something striking and original to say.

Boyer doesn’t – not about the Greeks, not about Titanic, not about celebrations. We already know, as I said, exactly what we’re supposed to feel about these things, and that’s precisely what he gives us. So Titanic, with its ominous beginning, its ship’s band playing dance music, and a tam-tam crash when the iceberg hits, isn’t tragic, or even mildly sad; instead it’s almost comforting, because it’s so predictable.

In Three Olympians, Ares, the god of war, sounds vigorous, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love, sounds lyrical, but not in any way that makes either figure live. Their qualities don’t seem to come from life, or from an active imagination, but from other peoples’ music. Ares is vigorous, not as a god might be vigorous, but as many tonal works from the last century have been; Aphrodite is lyrical the way film scores are lyrical. Neither sounds remotely Greek, ancient, or anything else (superhuman? primitive? cruel?) that might make them worth writing music about.

Worse still, these secondhand feelings are dressed in secondhand music. The last piece on Boyer’s CD, New Beginnings, commissioned by a hospital in Michigan, to celebrate the opening of a new facility, starts with a figure right out of Carmina Burana (the beginning of "Were diu werlt alle min"). Celebration Overture borrows something a little more highbrow; it starts with a fanfare straight from Stravinsky‘s Agon. "Ares" gets caught in memories of "Gnomus," from Pictures at an Exhibition; the second Troy movement visits West Side Story. I once heard a classical piano piece by Billy Joel; it was competently written, but every bar, I thought, should have had a footnote to piano music by Debussy or Rachmaninoff. I feel the same way about The Music of Peter Boyer; every moment could probably be traced to some earlier (and better) source.

Why does this matter? Not because Boyer ‘s music is middlebrow; so is Massenet‘s, but Massenet is wonderfully elegant and sensual. Nor do I mind that Boyer is ambitious, able to score commissions from the Kalamazoo hospital and from orchestras like the Toledo Symphony (and, most impressively, to raise money to pay for this CD, stunningly recorded with the London Symphony). I can only congratulate him. This is an age, after all, when many, if not most, classical recordings are subsidized, and when major opera companies ask composers to raise their own commission fees (a dismaying fact I’ve only recently learned); Boyer sets an example for all of us.

Nor is it troubling that Boyer is good at what he does, not so much in constructing his works (they tend to be patchy), but in writing catchy themes (even when they’re partly by other composers), and, above all, orchestrating brilliantly. There’s something at the end of Celebration Overture where a piccolo blesses a gloopy movie theme, and sounds like all the stars in the sky bending down to kiss the searchlights at a movie premiere. I wouldn’t quite call writing that an artistic achievement, but still it’s stunning.

No, this music matters, at least to me, for two other reasons. First, I think I can guess why it’s found at least some small success. ("I don’t remember any other time when we did new music that it was received like Titanic," said Andrew Massey, the music director in Toledo. "It got an instantaneous standing ovation from the whole audience.") A large part of the symphony audience likes comfortable music. It likes familiar music. It likes repeating the same familiar music many times. And here we have a composer who repeats familiar sounds, repeats familiar feelings, and even repeats some of the familiar music that (except for Agon) his audience already likes. He touches on safe and tasty motifs from popular culture, even while his Greek themes make his music seem like art. Happily for sponsors, its style makes it sound like advertising. Even if he never gets to the Cleveland Orchestra, he’s bound to get somewhere.

And his music also matters for a deeper reason. I wrote three months ago that we ought to look at our return to tonality, to ask what it means, what it’s doing, why it’s classical, why it’s worth more than advertising jingles. Or, alternatively, why it doesn’t need to be – as long as we know why we’re writing it.

Boyer offers one way to start this discussion. When we freed ourselves from the atonal yoke, we sighed with relief, because now we could write anything we wanted. (No, I’m not saying that atonal music is bad – see my Wall Street Journal piece on Webern on my Web site to see how much I love some of it – but only that it oppressed many of us when it was the dominant, all but compulsory style.)

But where, exactly, did we want to go with our freedom? The atonal crowd, Charles Wuorinen most vocally (but also Pierre Boulez, and Charles Rosen, writing a few years ago in the New York Review of Books), is happy – feels vindicated, I think – to assume that new tonal music is, by its very nature, empty, weak, nostalgic. Boyer shows that this is sometimes true, but what standards do the rest of us have? Or, more precisely, have we ever said what they are? What was the meaning of the tonal music composers like Sibelius, Barber, and Vaughan Williams wrote while the atonal wave was growing higher? We don’t have to accept the old view that 20th-century music progressed to Schoenberg, and then to Webern, Carter, and Boulez, leaving everybody else spinning in backward eddies, but what can we put in its place? I’m not happy simply to say we’re free again to express ourselves, as if self-expression was in itself an absolute good. What’s being expressed? Has new tonal music been shaped by the atonal experience? (Boyer’s doesn’t sound like it was.) Should it be? How could we tell?

I don’t have answers, but maybe I can start to clarify the questions.

II

There’s already a familiar (and not always pleasant) term that might describe Peter Boyer’s music – kitsch. This is a word I’ve resisted in the past, because it’s long been linked, most famously by the seminal modernist art critic Clement Greenberg (in his 1939 essay "The Avant-Garde and Kitsch"), with disdain for popular culture. Greenberg took for granted that all pop culture (not that this phrase existed then) was kitsch, or in other words cheap, sentimental, manufactured trash, and others made that assumption, too. So when he so famously wrote that "The alternative to abstraction is not Michelangelo but kitsch," he was defending abstract art – which needed defending in 1939 – against absolutely all current alternatives: All popular culture, and almost all new figurative art. That makes him the godfather of our own atonal purists. Compare his position to Boulez‘s: Boulez says anyone writing tonal music today is engaged in nostalgia (which would make their work an especially sentimental kind of kitsch), and once, years ago, he told me that all rock songs were alike, presumably because the "culture industry" manufactures them for sale to the masses. (This used to be a dominant idea in culture theory, stemming from the work of Theodor Adorno.)

But luckily a younger generation of culture theorists (not to mention a younger generation of artists, working in the wake of pop art) has freed the concept. Some of them embrace kitsch with real affection; others show how it can be used as a weapon against both high-art pretense and commercial trash. (If Jeff Koons paints something coldly commercial, he’s both showing how offensive it can be to make a fetish of paintings, and also how bad commercial things can be.) Finally, these theorists have noted what by now ought to be obvious, that high culture has married itself to commerce (and also, though this point isn’t made enough, to the crassest self-promotion in the non-profit sector), and that popular culture can often be far more honest and creative. In any case, something very much like Greenberg’s battle gets fought in pop culture, too, though the terms are very different, and the good and bad guys harder to tell apart, even with a scorecard, especially since kitsch gets routinely used as a weapon. When the Pet Shop Boys turned U2‘s "Where the Streets Have No Name" into trashy dance music, combining it with Frankie Valli‘s "Can’t Take My Eyes Off You," they were making fun of both U2 and trash (though from a conversation I had with them – and of course from their music – it’s obvious that they like trash a lot better, except for really flagrant pop-chart junk).

But in any case kitsch – both the concept, and some of the literature about it – makes a good start for the discussion of tonal music I want to have. Why is tonal music, written now or during the growth and reign of atonality, not kitsch? Are there ways in which it can be sentimental or retrogressive? What did it mean when it came back to challenge atonal music in the ’80s and ’90s?

I may not answer all these giant questions, but the theory of kitsch can teach us something. Unlike music critics, art and culture critics discuss these things with genuine depth. They’ve calibrated their vocabulary, by which I mean that so many of them have discussed these subjects that they’ve forged some common understanding of what words and concepts mean. We can use them to calibrate our own thinking, to help us understand what’s really going on. (And the theory of kitsch is just a beginning. Though I’m not going to do it here, we might also look at what art critics wrote when representational art came back. Changes in music haven’t happened in a vacuum, which makes it comical, sometimes, to read Wuorinen‘s complaints. Though simply painting Wuorinen as Clement Greenberg’s heir shows just how out of date he is.)

So what is kitsch? All of us more or less know. In the words of one dictionary, the Random House Webster‘s, it’s "something of tawdry design, appearance, or content created to appeal to popular or undiscriminating taste." But then the American Heritage Dictionary calls it "Art or artwork characterized by sentimental, often pretentious bad taste," which, it’s impossible not to notice, isn’t quite the same definition. Kitsch, it’s clear, isn’t a word with one fixed meaning. Instead, it evokes a constellation of related thoughts – not just that some piece of art is cheap or trashy, but that it’s sentimental and pretentious, and maybe manufactured, deliberately, for people who have no taste. That last notion complicates the word. It’s too harsh for Peter Boyer’s work. He might have bad taste himself, but I doubt he panders to anyone; surely he likes his music as much as his audience does.

Moving onward, here are more words I’ve found attached to the notion of kitsch: "schmaltz," "glitz," "garish," and "gaudy," though of course all of these can describe things some of us adore, like (take your pick) Ein Heldenleben, Star Wars, or Messiaen‘s Turangalila Symphony. But here we run into a delightful ambiguity, because to some of us these words are almost always negative, while others of us might sometimes like what they describe, while in other cases finding it excessive. Take, for instance, the music director of one of our leading orchestras, who conducted Turangalila and then told me with a wicked smile backstage that the piece is really kitsch. And yet he conducted it, which means he must think it has some kind of value. Kitsch doesn’t have well-defined borders; some things can be partly kitsch, apparently, and partly not. (A distinction that needs to be still further refined, because the Pet Shop Boys know what’s kitsch in their work, but Messiaen, if his work really is kitsch in any way, obviously didn’t.)

Heidi Lowe, a student at Unity College in Maine, can help us here with a smart observation I found on her Web site. She says kitsch is a "failed attempt at seriousness," which lets Messiaen off the hook, at least for me, since I think Turangalila is successfully serious, no matter how silly its glitz might seem. The conductor I mentioned couldn’t take the work as seriously as I can; for him, it was just too kitschy, which shows that to some extent kitsch lies mainly in the eye of the beholder. (Lowe, to clarify some of these issues, says art that’s kitschy on purpose isn’t kitsch at all, but camp.)

And here are still more thoughts about kitsch, gleaned from a long search on the Web. (Since I looked only there, maybe my own investigation is nothing but kitsch scholarship). Kitsch is fake art, entertaining, easy to understand, reproduction of something else, easily accessible, full of quick and predictable effects, and built on a sentimental view of the past. Kitsch is also built with forms not appropriate to its content; it delivers predictable messages in stereotyped aesthetic packages (which sounds like my thoughts about Boyer’s music).

More precisely, Tomas Kulka, a much-quoted scholar of aesthetics, set forth three conditions for kitsch in his book Kitsch and Art. These are the most helpful calibration I’ve yet seen of the concept (at least as I’m trying to use it), and might help us decide just how much kitsch is in any piece of art we’re trying to understand:

1. Kitsch depicts objects or themes that are highly charged with stock emotions.

2. The objects or themes depicted by kitsch are instantly and effortlessly identifiable.

3. Kitsch does not substantially enrich our associations relating to the depicted objects or themes.

Boyer, pretty obviously, would pass (or is it fail?) this test, with flying day-glo colors. (Kulka states, far more concisely than I did, everything I said was going on, or not going on, in Boyer’s work.) Turangalila, at least on my scorecard, would emerge unkitsched – some of Messiaen’s musical material might sound kitschy, but the emotions are far too ecstatic to come from anybody’s stockroom, and I come away from a performance very substantially enriched. (But then who says they sound kitschy? I do, but maybe only because I have associations with them that Messiaen couldn’t have. He writes lots of added-sixth chords, which make me think of sloppy pop songs that end with one. But that wouldn’t have been Messiaen’s association. To put the matter much more graphically, I imagined, when I first heard Turangalila, that if Messiaen had lived in an American suburb, his house would have had the most outlandish Christmas lights. Cute, but not literally true, since when Messiaen did visit America, he hated our culture, and only liked the ravaged, noble landscapes of the southwest. He, unworldly as he was, might have said his music sounded like Bryce Canyon. And who’s to say he’s wrong? Here I might quote a lovely thought from an almost despairing study of modern kitsch by Roger Scruton: "The opposite of kitsch is not sophistication, but innocence."

But now let’s look at why kitsch exists… It’s an exaggeration of romanticism, one standard explanation goes. Another says that it emerged together with the rise (in the 19th century) of an uncultured middle class, which demanded art, even if it wasn’t educated, wise or leisured enough to do the work real art demands. This shows how pop culture got lumped with kitsch – kitsch is art for the untutored masses – but what’s more interesting is to see how kitsch is entwined with modernity.

One condition of modern life ("modern," in this sense, might mean everything from the start of the 20th century) is that things keep changing, faster than many people like. Thus kitsch emerged to provide an illusion of stability. It’s comforting, predictable, an "escape [as someone wrote] into the idyll of history where set conventions are still valid." Or, to put that differently, it’s an escape into a vision of an ideal history that never quite existed, one in which familiar, but now obsolete artistic conventions still seem powerful. It’s shallow because it ignores reality.

Or,as Sam Binkley says in his essay "Kitsch as a Repetitive System: A Problem for the Theory of Tastes," kitsch "strikes the posture of meaningful art without departing from a stockpile of tried and true devices." Though Binkley shades his view by suggesting that kitsch has its own kind of honesty, because – rather than being crassly manufactured by people who don’t believe in it – it represents a genuine taste for "derivation, imitation and a faithfulness to the tried and true." A taste, that is, for safe art. It "reduces all the complexity, desperation and paradox of human experience to simple sentiment, replacing the novelty of a revealed deeper meaning with a teary eye and a lump in the throat."

And here we come to something I think is important, one reason why, in art, you can’t literally repeat the past, why you can’t write music in our day the way Rachmaninoff or Puccini did, why (at least in my view) you can’t write tonal music as if atonal music (and all the rest of modernity) never happened. Or at least it’s very hard to do it, in our age, with any kind of innocence. Suppose you love nature, as many of us do. So you write music in which you show how lovely nature is. Beethoven could do that without affectation, because nature, in his day, was still uncomplicated. He just walked outside Vienna and enjoyed it.

But in our time, nature can’t be simple in our art, because it isn’t simple in our thinking. For one thing, we’ve had centuries of music in which nature is depicted. How do we separate our spontaneous reaction to hills and fields from the musical languages in which we’ve heard them painted? And what is our spontaneous reaction? Nature might be disappearing. It’s polluted. It’s attacked by power lines and snowmobiles. A spontaneous reaction, if we’re thoughtful, includes all that. Our love of nature inevitably is tinged with anger, disappointment, nostalgia, a determination to make things better, or much else I haven’t thought of. We might evoke nature in its full complexity, with ugliness and blood and death. And even to depict nature as uncritically lovely is a complex stance, since it means denying, at least temporarily, that there are problems.

Writing tonal music is less complicated. Still, it’s hard to do with total innocence. You can’t help glancing sideways at other possibilities, watching yourself choose a style that isn’t "difficult" or "ugly." Of course, in our age, you can’t use any style without knowing that you’ve chosen it, so many things that once seemed pure can be fraught with irony. (playing an electric guitar solo, or singing, in a country twang, about your favorite honky-tonk). But writing tonal, "emotional," "expressive" music has special dangers, above all the chance of falling into feelings that everyone already knows about, and unconsciously congratulating yourself for doing that. (I’m afraid that I might do this on my website, where I praise myself for writing music directly from my heart.)

In a much-quoted passage from The Incredible Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera describes exactly how all this can happen:

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: how nice to see children running on the grass!

The second tear says: how nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!

It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.

When modernity struck full force, with all its changes, that second tear emerged in art that wasn’t modern. That’s why abstraction (both in painting and, as atonality, in music) seemed so welcome – because it avoided all temptation to be sentimental. Not that abstraction can’t turn into kitsch. When I was a kid in the ’50s, the annual Washington Square art show was, as I now can understand, all kitsch, all landscapes and portraits, safely figurative, free from any ugliness or ambiguity. (The seascapes were the worst, if I remember rightly.) And then one year abstraction was apparently allowed – and the abstract paintings turned out to be mere decoration, as shallow and even gaudy as the landscapes.

In tonal music, we maybe should avoid that second tear.

III

And now a few test cases, so I can start applying all these principles. I won’t come to any grand conclusions, but at least I’ll show, if all goes well, what could be done.

Example 1: Strauss‘s Four Last Songs.

Here we’re clearly in a danger zone, with these pieces bathed in post-romantic twilight, written late in life, in 1948, by a composer who abandoned modernism early on, and who’s known for schmalz, glitz and sentiment. Someone dear to me who loves this music blanched when I said I’d put them in my kitschometer: "I know that they’re a guilty pleasure," she said.

When I put them on as background music, as I might listen to a pop song in my car, with no attention to the words, they seemed to favor only one emotion: nostalgia. That might be the scat of kitsch, if this was music built on a sentimental view of the past, or highly charged with stock emotions.

Then I read the poetry the songs are based on (by Hesse and von Eichendorff), and thought nostalgia had been confirmed. Three of the titles sound nostalgic, or at any rate suggest a world of sunset, heading for the frost of night: "September," "Going to Sleep," "In Twilight." "Summertime shudders quietly to its end," says one line from the second of these. And the first song in the cycle, "Spring," begins as if it’s all a dream.

But then I listened carefully and found a different view. It struck me, first, that nostalgia might have its own detailed geography and in fact the songs supported that. They explored nostalgia, testing territory that it shares with loss, regret and resignation. I can’t say then that the feeling here was stock emotion, or that the music didn’t "substantially enrich [my] associations relating to the depicted objects or themes." It struck me, too, that Strauss had earned the right to be nostalgic (more, maybe, than he had in 1911, when from a modernist point of view he backtracked from the angst of Elektra to the sweetness of Der Rosenkavalier). He was 84, and his world had died, not just because atonality had swept his musical style away, but because it had literally been killed, by the Nazis and by two world wars.

And never in these songs do I feel him thinking that the past was perfect, or even necessarily much better. (Even Der Rosenkavalier is bittersweet.) Instead I feel a sense of loss, intense and purely personal. Nor is the music built with past materials. Strauss returned, as I hear his way of writing, to consonance, but not to traditional tonality. One sign of this in the Four Last Songs and elsewhere are shifts from key to key without any modulation, so that chord changes often feel like shifts of color, not steps in any orderly progression, even if they come home safely to the tonic in the end. The effect can be exhilarating, as if life were constantly renewed, which brings the music ecstasy, but doesn’t always make it comfortable.

Another less than obvious stroke is in the third song, which far more than the others has the kind of tune you might want to hum. But the melody is both modest and delayed. It’s not highlighted in the piece; there’s no second tear, of the kind that might say "Big tune coming!" It just quietly emerges. One oddity is that the contour of the orchestral music at the start of the song seems much like music in the third act of Wagner‘s Die Walk¸re, associated with Brünnhilde’s magic sleep. Clearly there’s a connection to this song, which is titled "Going to Sleep."

The connection might seem arbitrary, one of those fault lines (like Boyer’s memories of West Side Story) that betrays a composer’s lack of any depth. Brünnhilde, after all, is put to sleep by her father, to awaken whenever a hero appears who’s not frightened of the magic fire surrounding her. This sleep is temporary and is meant to have a happy ending. But the sleep in Strauss’s song is death, and even if death has its own happy ending in heaven, that should be grander than Brünnhilde’s awakening, which is merely to love and in fact turns out not happily at all. There might also be an almost random connection in the text, which would be even shallower. Hesse talks about sleeping inside "the magic circle of night"; Brünnhilde’s fire also forms a magic circle.

But so what? Strauss wasn’t exactly a deep intellect, and it’s the feelings here that count. It’s true (and we can hold this against Strauss, if we like) that the melodic contour that’s like Wagner (a rise of a seventh in the middle of a phrase) also gets embedded in the song’s main tune, but it matters more to me that the passage doesn’t feel at all like Wagner. The connection is interesting to think about, but doesn’t distract me from the piece. Strauss might even be quoting Wagner on purpose, much as, in the last song, he quotes a passage from his own Death and Transfiguration. If that’s the case, then he gets points for doing it so deftly.

There’s one last point to make, about the air of resignation in this work, which I think is touched with an unsteady fear at the approach of death. I hear that shiver in the final song, "At Twilight," where a gorgeous landscape, growing dark, provokes the thought, "We must not go astray/In this solitude." At "go astray" ("verinnen"), the music grows uncertain, changing color oddly, and moving softly through the kind of dissonance that, if it had been blasted out fortissimo, might have made everyone think Strauss had returned to the wilder harmony of Salome. Meanwhile, there’s a queasy little rising scale in an inner voice that’s almost like a touch of fearful nausea. The effect is very quiet, with no second tear, no "listen to me grow afraid of dying." In fact, fear doesn’t seem to be what’s really happening. It’s more like somebody realizing, with full clarity, that no one knows what’s really coming.

Near the end of the song, where death at last is named, Strauss also makes no commentary. Instead, the harmony gets lost in one of his extended chord successions. At the very end it settles on a major chord, with distant high flourishes by two piccolos (or that’s who seems to play them; I haven’t looked at a score). These could be kitsch, heaven as depicted on a sentimental greeting card, but maybe not, because they’re so distant and restrained. They might be the promise of an afterlife, but seen only from afar, with no radiance strong enough to touch us now.

Example 2: John Williams, score for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

Years ago I got annoyed at Williams’ music for The Empire Strikes Back, much as I got annoyed at Boyer now. I remember sneering at some passage that, I thought, was really the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.

But this new score doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, I love it. Maybe I’ve changed; maybe Williams changed. Certainly I look at Star Wars more affectionately (though I wouldn’t call myself a fan; I haven’t seen The Phantom Menace). And I’ve developed a soft spot for Williams, because I interviewed him once and found him completely unassuming, a musician’s musician who didn’t glow with any cinematic self-importance. He kept dropping names, but not the Hollywood names you might expect. Instead, they were people I didn’t come close to recognizing. "You don’t know that guy?" Williams would say, in disbelief. "But he was the best bass player in New York in 1956!"

Obviously Williams borrows from 19th-century symphonic works. But what, exactly, does he borrow? I don’t sense that he’s taken much from any work, or any one composer. Strauss would be the most obvious suspect, but I’ve just been listening to Strauss, and I don’t hear any close relationship. (Granted, the Four Last Songs are a very late work, far from the world of Also Sprach Zarathustra, which might be a closer comparison to Star Wars, but there are things about Strauss’s style that don’t change.) What Williams might have done was borrowed only a general kind of composition, a kind of sound, a kind of musical material, and a way of using it.

What I hear most in this score is, first, the movies – all of them, then all the Star Wars films, then my conception, from the music, of what this one might be like. The score sounds spectacularly cinematic, so much so that I almost feel I’m seeing a movie as I listen. And when I hear Star Wars, I’m reminded that one of Williams’s great strengths is his ability to inhabit the world of each film he works on, and for Star Wars he’s developed a sound no one could mistake for anything else.

Three things, maybe, separate this score from an orthodox symphonic work. First is the use of a wordless chorus, a typically cinematic touch of extra personalization, voices that often feel like they’re saying, "Look, we’re here, seeing this with you." Maybe that’s Kundera’s second tear, but maybe it’s also a kind of companionship. The question might be: Do the voices tell us what to feel, or do they simply join us in feeling it?

Secondly, the music somehow sounds backlit, like the extra-bright screen on my little Pocket PC, as if the instruments (especially high solo winds) were glowing. Maybe this is a recording effect, an extra halo of reverb around the sound, creating something (which is easy, with digital FX software) that couldn’t exist in a concert hall.

Finally, there’s at least one moment that couldn’t occur in standard symphonic harmony, three parallel triads at the end of the main Star Wars theme. For the usual reasons I can’t quote it here, but we all know how it goes:

dah dah, di di di dah dah, di di di dah dah, da da da dum

It’s that last “da da da dum” where the triads show up, a dazzling sequence of A flat, G minor, A flat, and F, all in the key of B flat. These just couldn’t occur in the kind of European music that might have had a melody like this. The triads serve as a genetic marker, placing the piece firmly in our own time and giving it some unmistakably contemporary glitz. I used to think they’d pass a DNA test for kitsch, but now I’m not so sure. Or maybe I like the kitsch they represent. All I can say, in the end, is that this clearly doesn’t have the dignity of any concert piece but maybe that’s why I like it.

Example 3: Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 6

The liner notes for the recording I’ve been hearing (a 1991 Teldec release with the BBC Symphony, conducted by Andrew Davis) gave me plausible reasons to respect this piece: The music, or so the notes insist, is full of a despair so intense that it verges on "ultimate nihilism."

And yet what I mostly hear are the rhetorical sinews of a Symphony, with an imposing uppercase S. I’m especially struck by large and very muscular rhythmic gestures, the kind that suggest, to me, anything but despair. I hear the hammer of angry but restrained and always competent fists. And their language (if fists can have a language) is conventional. They’re boxing, with a referee in charge, not losing all control. This is the language any conservative composer might have used in 1948 (the year of this work, like Strauss’s Four Last Songs). It’s also the language of the 19th century.

I hear this even in the last movement, which might be the least orthodox (and has some fabulous pileups of dissonant harmony, though they’re treated, in effect, as a collection of neighbor notes that quickly resolve and have a nearly precise antecedent, in function though not at all in mood, in an ominous motif from Wagner‘s Gˆtterdämmerung).

So no matter how much I try to sympathize with this piece, I hear – or rather feel – its language, and almost never what the language might be trying to say. The language is too conventional, at least to my ear, for anything like despair. The world has ended (an echo, maybe, of World War II), the landscape is strewn with wreckage (an image directly from the liner notes), and yet the rhetoric of a symphony remains. That world still stands. So how bad could things really be?

The liner notes quote something Deryck Cooke, the British musicologist, wrote after this work’s premiere: "I remember my attention was distracted, near the end, by the unbelievable sight of a lady powdering her nose – one wondered whether it was incomprehension, imperviousness, or a defence-mechanism [sic]." But the language of the music really does suggest, to me, the continuity of everything conventional in life, including women’s makeup. The symphony, in its sturdy way, wears its own kind of makeup, especially compared with Mahler‘s Ninth, which did evolve a language of despair.

This makes me realize that Strauss’s rhythms, in the Four Last Songs, flow in a way we’d rarely find in older tonal music. Their bones don’t show, something not true in this Vaughan Williams symphony. The piece, bluff and honest as it is, meets one test of kitsch: It’s built with a rigid skeleton of older musical devices, inappropriate (at least to my ear) for its content.

Example 4: Jake Heggie, The Faces of Love (a collection of songs on a BMG CD)

Solid, highly competent tonal music, sung by a striking array of current divas who all support Heggie’s work: Renée Fleming, Jennifer Larmore, Sylvia McNair.

But there’s nothing original about these songs. That’s most true when Heggie wants to be colloquial, in, for instance, a song about a cat or one about the serpent tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden. Both songs use a vaguely jazzy Broadway idiom, in the manner of "It Ain’t Necessarily So," or (maybe a more direct ancestor) "Whatever Lola Wants," from Damn Yankees. I’m sure this comfortable and in its day delightful sound is one of many things that make Heggie so attractive for so many people, especially including singers. "Look, he’s no highbrow. He’s an artist, but he’s also one of us. He’s an up-to-date American."

He also shows he’s up-to-date by using poetry with modern thoughts, like this passage from "Listen," by Philip Littell in which Eve is speaking:

Do you want to be like God?

How do you mean?

Be old and have a penis?

I don’t think so. No.

But old Broadway musicals aren’t up-to-date, and the problem with the songs is that they fall into categories and within each category they tend to sound alike. All the jazzy songs might as well be identical – the cat, described affectionately, could just as well be the serpent, to judge from its musical speech. The serious emotional songs also seem too much the same, no matter what their poetry says they’re about.

So in the end the enterprise here seems merely to be writing songs, not rendering what the poems (or, more deeply, anything about life) might mean. I hate to say this, since Heggie seems utterly sincere, writes music very skillfully, and is fabulous at the purely musical business of setting words, something I complained about (in this space, a couple of months ago), because most current composers don’t do it well.

For this reason, Heggie might fill several requirements for kitsch, curiously updated because he doesn’t necessarily (thinking back to Kulka’s three conditions) depict subjects highly charged with stock emotions. The poetry he chooses is better than that. But his way of treating it is immediately identifiable (as something done before in many other songs, by many other people), and so his settings don’t enrich the poetry at all. One quick example. The first song on the CD sets a typically brief Emily Dickinson poem, "I Shall Not Live In Vain." If Heggie simply used the words as Dickinson wrote them, his song would be, by conventional standards, uncomfortably short. Maybe that’s why – rather shockingly, at least to me – he repeats the poem. That makes the song as long as he evidently thought it ought to be but kills the poetry.

But I don’t feel like blaming Heggie for this. I’d rather blame the current state of classical music, which as an enterprise is shot through with kitsch because what it mostly does is repeat the comfortable past. Yet at the same time, there’s a longing for something new and for contact with the world outside. Heggie provides these things, but since he still repeats the past, his audience can have its cake, and eat it, too.

Example 5: David Del Tredici, Final Alice

This masterpiece from 1976 might sound like kitsch to many people, and certainly did when it was new and tonal music from academically respectable composers still was new and shocking. Its Alice in Wonderland subject could have seemed hackneyed and sentimental; its tonal melodies, especially the "Acrostic Song" at the end, could have seemed sugary sweet.

But to me the music isn’t kitsch at all. Perhaps it uses kitsch, because Del Tredici knows, just as well as any of his high-culture critics (and probably better), how tired the Alice stories now can be, and of course how sweet his tunes are. That’s one reason he loves them.

But this just makes him modern. He can’t be kitsch, at least for me, because of a word he uses in his own comments on the piece: "pandemonium." There’s a lot of pandemonium in his music, which means that Final Alice isn’t only sweet; it’s wild and noisy. Wild, noisy and lots of fun, I might add, though I’m not sure Jake Heggie’s audience would agree. To them (I hope I’m wrong) it might sound too crazy to be fun, too undisciplined – though really Del Tredici’s compositional technique is stunning) – and too destructive. One thing that gets battered is the initial pretty melody, which serves as the basis for a set of variations. There’s a soprano, who narrates the story and plays all the characters; she has to almost shriek parts of the tune in her highest range, repeating phrases till they sound deranged.

This isn’t only fun; in some ways, it’s frightening. Instead of simply finding in his subject everything that everyone has found in it before, Del Tredici unearths his own vision of Lewis Carroll‘s long-ago craziness, not to mention the unavoidable fright of poor Alice. Maybe she’s a character in a fairytale, but at the climax of Lewis Caroll’s story (and this piece), she’s confronted with an angry Queen who wants to take her head off. That’s not completely funny.

But then we learn it’s all a dream, and when the lovely and serene "Acrostic Song" (so called because the first letters of each line spell out the name of the little girl Carroll wrote these stories for) brings the piece to a conclusion, Del Tredici has earned its serenity. He’s fought through to it from chaos. (The song, I might add, feels like a resolution in part because of one harmonic detail: before the end, the music always comes to rest not on any tonic, but on the dominant). In his final innocence, he does one of many things in the piece that couldn’t occur in any standard tonal work – the members of the orchestra whisper the initial letter of each line of verse, spelling out, by the end, the full acrostic. The sound of their massed whispering is like a benediction. Of course, it could be kitsch; it’s a standard trope in kitsch theory that kitsch steals things from the avant-garde (just as the old Washington Square art show stole abstraction). But here in Final Alice, it’s nothing less than magical.

And here I remember that the opposite of kitsch is innocence, and that even stubborn theorists of kitsch find representational art they like, especially Edward Hopper, who, says Roger Scruton, "worked to purify the figurative image and to see again with the innocent eye." That’s what Del Tredici has done with Alice. He fought his way to innocence, the story’s, his music’s and, more importantly, his own, an achievement all the more impressive because he starts – in his cultural sophistication, his sense of camp and his mastery of compositional technique – with so much weighty knowledge. In this, I feel he speaks for me, and maybe all of us, by showing it’s precisely through modernity, and maybe only through modernity, that tonal writing can be fresh again.

(Further subjects for discussion: Arvo Pärt, Carlisle Floyd, Philip Glass, John Corigliano. And my own tonal music, which I was too abashed and too scrupulous – I don’t want to promote myself, and can’t pretend to be objective – to mention here.)

You might also enjoy…