H.L. Mencken on Music
Louis Cheslock, ed.
New York: Schirmer
A few days ago, as a belated birthday treat to myself and in celebration of the end of a long work cycle, I visited Bookhaven, Philadelphia’s finest vault of used books. This is one of those places in which there is always something to be found, even if it isn’t what was originally sought. On this particular day I had it in my mind to see if they had a copy of Hymns Ancient and Modern, one of three hymnals, all of which are Anglican, which are worth having. No dice there, but in one last desperate attempt to find what I sought, I visited the music section. There was Maynard Solomon’s biography of Mozart, the Grove Dictionary, H.L. Mencken on Music, something about Wagner…..
Hold on a minute. H.L. Mencken on Music? Indeed, and as it turns out it was edited by Louis Cheslock, professor of theory at my alma mater, the Peabody in Baltimore. This was a no-brainer, and it was quickly added to the pile of books I had already amassed that afternoon, books that I did not seek but which nevertheless sought me.
Mencken’s writing is incisive and vivacious, graced with a wit that, while sardonic, never descends into bitterness. He could, at the same time, be fiercely logical, particularly when exploding the various quackeries put forth by congressmen, the Temperance Union, or the Kiwanis Club. All things considered, he seemed to me to be the last person that would be so profoundly absorbed in music. I was wrong, and in my error I found great delight, for Mencken approaches the subject of music with such deep devotion that many of us paid minstrels, who face the same job hazards of frustration and burnout that everyone else does, ought to be put to shame for approaching our art sometimes in routine rather than inspired fashion. At moments, Mencken wrote with such enthusiasm that he had me running for my iPod, and sometimes even my old-fashioned CD rack, to find something that I hadn’t listened to perhaps in years.
To be sure, there is some outdated information in this collection of essays, but that is to be expected from a book that was last edited in 1960. All the same, Mencken speaks with an informed authority on a wide-range of music that makes Albert Schweitzer look like the mountebank that he was. From chant and Palestrina to Bach to Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven to Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms, to Igor Stavinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and jazz (all three of which he detested), Mencken covers all the most important composers of the Western canon that existed at the time he was writing, and he does it with erudition and love.
Mencken himself was a musician of amateur persuasion. He insisted that he played badly, but he also implied at times that he wrote badly. If this is any means by which to measure the situation, he was probably adequate, to say the least. He was a member of the now famous “Saturday Night Club,” a group of music enthusiasts which met weekly in Baltimore. Editor Cheslock was a member as well and does a good job of providing the reader with background information on this band of Renaissance men who clung to a tradition which modern distraction has largely obliterated.
It is tempting to try to say too much about this book. Maybe it’s best, then to stick to a couple of things, the first of which might come as a surprise, given the seeming iconoclastic tendencies of the writer. Today, for instance, people in the main laugh at the ancient Greek notions that music can be dangerous, that its mystical tones can woo us to do good or ill, or just downright tawdry things. Mencken takes up the Hellenic cause, saying that the music a man creates is revelatory of character. “When a trashy man writes, it is trashy music,” he says. In the same vein, while extolling the artistic genius of Franz Schubert, Mencken says that his operas all came to nothing, and that this is because a successful opera composer is half musician and half clown. Schubert, being a man of good taste, was incapable of such nonsense.
More interesting gems are contained in Mencken’s writing about church music. “New Wedding March Needed,” trumpets a headline to one of these essays, written years before it was popular for pastors to ban the now infamous Wagner and Mendelssohn pieces. The author goes on to suggest that these works remain entrenched because of the laziness of organists, for whom each wedding is about as interesting as a new chin to a busy barber. On the very next page one finds “Enter the Church Organist,” a far from inaccurate spoof on a typical character in this profession. (Cheslock explains that, as part of Mencken’s job for the local paper, he was often sent to third rate organ recitals as a reviewer, for which Mencken has my deep sympathies.) Perhaps the most surprising essay in the whole collection is the one on Catholic Church music, in which Mencken lauds the efforts of Pope Pius X to resurrect chant and polyphony and shelve the operatic caterwauling that had been fashionable at that time. It’s not the kind of story one would expect to come from an agnostic, but this could perhaps be the result of the writer’s occasional friendly gatherings with clergymen, including the local archbishop.
Buy this book and read it to find out even more, to discover what Mencken had to say about private music lessons, “Music and Sin” (which is the chapter on jazz), singers (especially tenors), the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, and much more. Amateurs, and even people who yet know nothing about classical music, can enjoy and benefit from this book, and musicians can find great inspiration in the joie de vivre which gallops from every page. If you can read parts of these essays with a dry eye, you’re a better man than I. It is quite clear that to this man of words, one of the most prolific and colorful writers in the American language tradition, music is the ultimate language, a kind of logos. He writes:
“My lack of sound musical instruction was really the great depravation of my life. When I think of anything properly describable as a beautiful idea, it is always in the form of music. I have written and printed probably 10,000,000 words in English, and continue to this day to pour out more and more. But all the same I shall die an inarticulate man, for my best ideas beset me in a language I know only vaguely and speak only like a child.”
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