The Musical Tastes of Spring

All traces of snow are at last gone from the picturesque nineteenth-century cemetery in Ithaca, New York. Down below in the nearby the Cascadilla Gorge the creek gathers momentum from late-arriving spring’s rain.

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 monuments), many of their young children; beyond the graves of 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 would have anticipated the spin American fraternities would later put on that sentiment.  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!

Many claim that musical proclivities are a matter of taste, or, as the French baroque musicians put it, le bon gout.  It might seem that “taste” is merely a metaphor, but in fact 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: the Debussy String Quartet serving as a condiment for the foie gras is an insult to art itself, so this line of reasoning goes. But recall that great monarchs required their musique de table, sumptuous sounds as crucial to the feast as the food itself. And I’m 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 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.  Canned music hardly meets the standard set by court musicians performing in flickering candlelight. But even if you don’t have the resources for your private band, it is wrong isolate the senses and deprive them of their own natural talent for collaboration.

The metaphor of taste has long been a common one in writing and thinking about music.  The greatest Musical Patriot of the eighteenth-century, Johann Mattheson, was an advocate of simplicity in music, though I doubt he would have found much to his fancy on from bland 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 kindred 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 with his sauerkraut a roasted canary that cost six thaler, and after he has finished, he would rather have stuffed himself with roast pork.”

Snobbery is endemic to judgments of musico-culinary taste. 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 harmonic recipes of the composer (“a deft evasion of the cadence, Maestro!”) and even describe how food and music complement one another or even partake of the same essence. Know what you are eating and what you are hearing are two 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 in a high state of alert.The greatest of all musical travelers, Charles Burney, often encountered music as if it were food, and vice-versa.

On August 15th1772 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.” The architecture thus dismissed, 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 Burney like complicated, piquant food: “the rage for crude, equivocal, and affected modulation, which now prevails generally all over Germany, renders voluntary [i.e., 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 [cayenne pepper] to eat, instead of plain and wholesome food.” Even if hardly renowned for their adventurousness in the kitchen, the Germans could be ambitious in their contrapuntal and culinary recipes. Both were enough to give Burney indigestion.

The richness or spiciness of food is a theme served up several times by Burney in his seminal 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 that hits did so much to upset the hegemony of Italian opera, to “Homely food.” Then there is the “rich food” favored by 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: seek refuge in the safety of the unthreatened or plunge into the unknown? Burney’s own rumblings against German organists in culinary terms hearkens back to the immediate inspiration for his own musical journeys, those undertaken by the sourest of English travelers, Tobias Smollett, a man 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 Italyof 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 always-lively and highly flavored Music and Manners in France and Germany of 1844, which begins with a classic exposition of a kind of musico-culinary tourism reflecting an attitude towards the traveler’s experience very different from that of the dyspeptic Smollett:

“If we would suit the preparations of dinner to the pleasures of the evening, 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 trattoria 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 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. The food Chorley encounters in Germany is something else entirely, 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 away, 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 food and music are tasted and heard in concert.

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