Spring Break Cocktails

Patches of snow cling to the muddy earth in the city’s picturesque 19th-century cemetery just to our north. Down in the gorge immediately to our south the creek builds momentum ever hour as the thaw proceeds.

Just beyond the graveyard the fraternity brothers will soon emerge from their beer-soaked dens to bask in the spring sunshine and advertise themselves to the world in general and the nearby sororities in particular. The sound of boom box and the scent of grilling meat will waft over the tombs of city fathers and their wives (as the subterranean female residents of these twenty acres are almost always referred to on the family grave stones), many of their young children, escaped slaves, Civil War dead—and down to us.   “If music be the food of love, play on!” is how Shakespeare put it in the opening lines of Twelfth Night, though I’m not sure he had American fraternities in mind.  These college students often serve up current musical fare with the burgers, but there is also a strong classical impulse among them: often I’ve heard the Rolling Stones’ “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” hammering the charcoaled air. Taste is not just a sense of the tongue and nose, but of the ear: rock ’n roll is the music of the college barbecue, and long will it be so.

Before wheeling the grills and kegs out onto the patio and filling the 1,000 gallon tubs with cans of beer cooled with the last of winter’s ice and snow, many of these students will journey south next week for Spring Break. Shakespeare’s iambs apply there, too, from Fort Lauderdale to Mazatlan. One Spring Break playlist I just pulled up on-line is topped by “Strobe Light” by  Jason Derülo (né Desrouleaux): the chanteur is more diacritically adventurous than musically, but he does have his finger, or more likely his tongue, on the youth pulse of today with this frenzied mix of synth-sounds, neo-disco beat, and breathy, nasal crooning. The hit begins with a well-aimed vernal salvo: “Lose Your F•••cking Mind!”—perfect music for a poolside dance party fueled by shrimp-on-a-stick washed down with Sex on the Beach or other sweet cocktails like the trendy Redheaded Slut comprised of that diacritical classic, Jägermeister, peach schnapps and cranberry juice. I haven’t had one; dredging it up from on on-line list of top Spring Break drinks is probably as close as I will come.

With so many youthful peregrinations being undertaken around me, my thoughts also turn to travel, and in particular foreign offerings of musical and culinary fare to be had on the road. Music and food are inseparable;  many of the distinctions made between these vital senses are illusory.

Many think it demeans music to have it reduced to the background: reducing the Ravel String Quartet to a condiment for foie gras is an insult to the art of music itself — so this line of reasoning goes. But recall that lesser princes and greater monarchs required their musique de table, sumptuous sounds as crucial to the feast as the food itself. And I am not referring to the literal approach to the genre proposed by the contemporary Belgian director and musician, Thierry de Mey in his Musique de tables. No, what I mean is stewed venison shot earlier that day in the park savored to the sound of hunting horns echoing off the mirrored walls of the royal lodge, and, later with dessert, pastoral flutes accompanying the mousse made with lemons from the orangery.  True, canned music hardly meets the standard of the court musicians performing in the flickering candlelight, but to isolate the senses is to deprive them of their own natural talent for symphonic collaboration.

The metaphor of taste has long been a common one in writing and thinking about music.  The greatest Musical Patriot of the 18th-century, Johann Mattheson, was an advocate of simplicity in music, though I doubt he would he would have chosen the bland intensity of Derülo from the infinite musical menu of our own time. “Natural” and “pleasing” were Mattheson’s highest aesthetic compliments, and the complexities of composers such as Bach, who produced intricate canons and similar marvels of musical combination were for Mattheson akin to wasting delicacies on peasants, whose palette were not properly attuned to high culinary art:

“Most musical listeners are uninformed people with respect to art.  What a great deed I have done when I know how to disguise an art-piece from their ears, so that when they hear it they don’t notice it at all.  What a miracle!  Just as when a farmer unknowingly swallows along with his sauerkraut a roasted canary that cost six thaler, and after he has done this, he would rather have stuffed himself with roast pork.”

Snobbery is endemic both to musico-culinary taste. A polite 18th-century eater and listener will be able to comment on the seasoning of the fowl (“the hint of nutmeg is exquisite with the canary!”) and the melodic gifts of the composer (“a deft use of the feminine cadence, Maestro!”)  and even say how the complement one another or partake of the same essence. Know what you are eating and what you are hearing are two of the most crucial lessons of the Enlightenment.

When the English ventured to the continent in search of new forms of musical experience they often did so with their sensual prejudices on red alert. The greatest of all musical travelers, Charles Burney, often encountered music as if it were food, and vice-versa:

On August 15th 1772 he arrived in Augsburg at seven in the morning after a long night spent in the coach. Indefatigable as ever, Burney quickly took himself off to the cathedral for the morning mass which began an hour later.  In contrast to most travelers of our own day, Burney’s first order of business was often visiting the great organs of the European city in which he found himself.  The Augsburg Cathedral was, in Burney’s view, “a small and ordinary building …richly and tawdrily ornamented.” After curtly describing the architecture, Burney turns his attention to the “two large and elegant organs, one on each side of the west end of the choir. One of these was well played, but in a way more masterly than pleasing.”  Excessive complexity inevitably comes in for critical rebuke from this devotee of the natural and pleasing. Artificiality upset him like complicated, piquant food:  “the rage for crude, equivocal, and affected modulation, which now prevails generally all over Germany, renders voluntary playing so unnatural, that it is a perpetual disappointment and torture to the ear; which is never to expect any thing that comes, or to have one discord resolved, but by another. A little of this sauce, discreetly used, produces great and surprising effects; but, for ever to be seeking for far-fetched and extraneous harmony, is giving a man that is hungry, nothing but Chian to eat, instead of plain and wholesome food”—Chian being Cayenne pepper. Even if hardly renowned for their culinary adventurousness, the Germans could be ambitious in their contrapuntal and harmonic recipes, and both were enough to give Burney indigestion.

The richness or spiciness of food is a theme served up several times by Burney in his General History of Music, the first of its four volumes appearing in 1776. In the treatment of the age’s greatest musical star, Farinelli, and the rage for Italian opera in London, Burney argues that “Man tires of dainties sooner than of common food, to which he returns with pleasure after surfeits. The English appetite for Italian friandises was certainly appalled by plenitude.” Elsewhere Burney likens The Beggar’s Opera of 1728 —  the English-language pastiche of musical theater premiered that did so much to upset the hegemony of Italian opera —  to “Homely food.” Then there is the “rich food” of that glutton Handel. Turning to fugues and other “Gothic” pedantries of “old music” Burney writes that: “To lovers of Music who have heard much in various styles, little is new; as to others who have heard but little, all is new. The former want research and new effects, which to the latter, old Music can furnish. Palates accustomed to plain food find ragouts and morceaus [sic]  friandes too highly seasoned; while to those who have long been pampered with dainties, simplicity is insipid.”

How to deal with food on a journey is one of the perennial problems—or perhaps fascinations—of the traveler: to seek refuge in the safety of the unthreatened, or to plunge into the new and unknown? Burney’s own rumblings against German organists in culinary terms harks back to the immediate inspiration for his own musical journey, those of that sourest of English travelers, Tobias Smollett, who was never vague about his culinary tastes: “For my part, I hate the French cookery and abominate garlick, with which all their ragouts … are highly seasoned,” he wrote in his Travels through France and Italy of 1766.  Smollett loathes not only French food, but the love they lavish on it:  “If there were five hundred dishes at table, a Frenchman will eat of all of them, and then complain he has no appetite.”

Compare this with the entrée to first volume of Henry Fothergill Chorley’s always-lively and highly flavored Music and Manners in France and Germany of 1844, which begins with a classic exposition of musico-culinary tourism reflecting a new attitude towards to the traveler’s experience so different from that of the dyspeptic Smollett:

“If we would suit the preparations of dinner to the pleasures of the evening,” writes Chorley, “an old fashioned beef steak and a pint of port should prelude one of Shakespeare’s plays; the risotto and the macaroni of a genuine Italian tratteria introduce the languid voluptuous cavatinas of the Donnizettis [sic] and the Bellinis; a modicum of champagne tune the spirits to the gay pitch of the Opera Comique, an exquisite French dinner (why not at Verfour’s?), unspoiled by barbarian English, be performed as a reasonable prologue to a first night at L’Académie Royale.” This notion that the all the senses should be receptive to foreign fare—culinary, visual and musical—is a fundamentally different approach than that of Burney and certainly of Smollett, though, of course the food Chorley describes in Germany is something else, as he perhaps most picturesquely described at a road-side stube at Aschaffenburg (above the River Main) into which he was “invited for refection by a dirty toad-complexioned old crone, who had promised ‘eye of newt and toe of frog,’ rather than good coffee or clean bread.”

So this spring, whether at home or abroad, I will listen while I eat, and eat while I listen, and enjoy not the solo satisfactions of the senses but the greater delights to be heard when they food and music are heard and tasted in concert.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu



DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com