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:

Once a nice young man (his musical sense having been limited by three years' intensive study at the Boston Conservatory) said to Father, "How can you stand to hear old John Bell (the best stone-mason in town) sing?" as he used to at Camp Meetings). Father said, "He is a supreme musician." The young man (nice and educated) was horrified -- "Why, he sings off key, the wrong notes and everything -- and that horrible, raucous voice -- and he bellows out at hits notes no one else does -- it's awful!" Father said, "Watch him closely and reverently, look into his  face and hear to music of the ages. Don't pay too much attention to the sounds -- for if you do, you may miss the music."

Uh oh.

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.


Cal said...

I just listened to a short clip of the real FFJ. I'm with you on vita brevis. The question I had (and maybe the film answers this; I haven't seen it) was, Why did anyone go to her concerts? Did they pay? Money? Or maybe she paid them. What was it?

Joe Barron said...

According to the film, which is my only source, she gave away a large chunk of the tickets to servicemen -- this was 1944, remember. Many of them showed up drunk (again, according to the film) and thought they were witnessing a comedy act. They also knew her from her recording, which, despite her husband's best efforts, received quite a bit of airplay.

Cal said...

I'm trying to think of parallels. Maybe Eddie the Eagle. The difference being that, where people appreciated him, they ridiculed her. He, of course, had no illusions about how good he was. He was out there to compete, even though he was clearly out of his league. She, it seems, actually thought she was good and in a league with the great singers of her day. Is that it?