Of Food and Music

Many think it demeans music to have it relegated 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. Yet lesser princes and greater monarchs paid good money for the their musique de table, sumptuous sounds as crucial to the feast as the food itself. 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.

To isolate the senses is to deprive them of their own natural talent for collaboration. One should instead think like the princes of yore for whom the stewed venison shot in the park was to be savored to the sound of hunting horns and string orchestra echoing off the mirrored walls of the castle, while at meal’s end pastoral flutes might accompany the mousse made with lemons from the orangery.  Canned music hardly accords with peaches artfully preserved to court standards and consumed to the sound of the court musicians performing in the flickering candlelight, yet for most of us Spottify or even a venerable LP is what we can afford.

Whatever the means of musical delivery, be they live or reproduced, those who claim that music distracts from the culinary experience, or argue that the best music by the best composers demands the listener’s full attention are ignoring a long tradition of feeding many senses at once: hearing, taste, and sight. In the aristocratic loges of the baroque opera houses this sensual trifecta was often be joined by fourth—touch, i.e., sex.

Given the close and longstanding relationship between food and music, it should not surprise that the metaphor of taste has long been a common one in writing and thinking about the sonic arts.  The founder of musical journalism Johann Mattheson was an advocate of simplicity in music, though I doubt he would have chosen the bland intensity of Katy Perry and other such fare over the more varied musical menu of his eighteenth century. “Natural” and “pleasing” were Mattheson’s highest aesthetic compliments, and the complexities of composers such as his contemporary Bach, who produced intricate canons and similar marvels of musical combination were for Mattheson akin to wasting delicacies on peasants, whose palettes 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 musical and culinary taste, as well as to their synthesis. A polite eighteenth-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 skill of the composer (“a deft use of the deceptive cadence, Maestro!”)  and even say how they complement one another. 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. The indefatigable 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 a man who was, like Mattheson, a devotee of the natural and pleasing. Artificiality upset Burney like complicated, piquant food:  “the rage for crude, equivocal, and affected modulation, which now prevails generally all over Germany, renders [organ[ 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 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 harkens 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 proclivities: “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 the first volume of Henry Fothergill Chorley’s lively and highly flavored Music and Manners in France and Germany of 1844, which begins with a classic exposition of musico-culinary tourism reflecting an 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, although the food Chorley describes in Germany would hardly light the fires of gastro-tourism: at a road-side Stube in Aschaffenburg above the River Main, Chorley relates that 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.”

There will also be sour harmonies in food and music, both local and foreign. Whether at home or abroad this spring and summer, I will listen while I eat, and eat while I listen, and enjoy not just the solo satisfactions of the senses but the greater delights to be heard when food and music are tasted in concert.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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