Friday, August 26, 2016
Florence Foster Jenkins and Charles Ives
In an earlier post, I referred to Florence Foster Jenkins, portrayed my Meryl Streep in the eponymous film, as a horror. Now, however, the blog Voice Science Works has defended her, or at least her right to sing, because of her enthusiasm and her love of music. "Do we want a world where only a few will sing due to social pressures," the blogger asks, "or one where we all understand that our voices have enormous potential should we seek to find it?"
Personally, I'd go with the social pressures. Ara longa, perhaps, but vita is too damned brevis to put up with incompetence, let alone encourage it. I wouldn't want to waste my time on an execrable singer any more than I would on a juggler who keeps dropping his clubs. Performance might benefit from passion, but it also demands skill.
And yet ... the blogger's defense reminds me of a passage from the Memos of Charles Ives, whose music I have loved since I was a kid and whose ideas have been an ever-present challenge:
Ives spent much of his creative energy trying to capture the spirit behind the sounds, and, looking at the joy in Streep's face as she butchered "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen," I had to ask myself, have I been missing the music? Is Florence Forster Jenkins the embodiment of the Ivesian ideal of substance over manner?
On this occasion, I'm going to comfort myself by saying no. In the first place, Florence would have hated Charlie's music, as well as his idea that dissonance can lead to higher truth. At the end of the film, we hear her as she heard herself, and in her own mind, she sang like an angel. Earlier, when pianists are auditioning to be her accompanist, we find she can't bear loud, aggressive playing, though her sensitivity was likely a symptom of her lifelong syphilitic condition. Volume and aggressiveness were, of course, staples of Ives's repertoire -- as was humor, and while Jenkins's listeners might feel free to laugh, she took herself seriously.
Ives also would have despised Jenkins's choice of material, which for him typified the easy, spiritually bankrupt world he was rebelling against. For Ives, a man singing a hymn off key is channeling God. A woman singing Mozart, no matter how well, is just singing Mozart.
(Zappa, I think, would have loved her, just as he loved the Shaggs, who he insisted were better than the Beatles. But for Frank, wrong notes weren't about the music of the ages. They were about the subversion of information.)
Over the years, hostile or condescending critics have leveled the same charges against Ives that some reviewers leveled against Jenkins -- amateurism, sloppy technique, and the use of wealth as a buffer against reality -- but right or wrong, Ives was an artist, and a skilled one. His dissonances have purpose, often to wonderful effect, and whatever spiritual vision his scores possess comes though more clearly and forcefully through -- dare I say it? -- a good performance.