One should never apologise for one’s tastes. I am not talking about extremes here: if one’s tastes run to murdering and dismembering random members of the public, say, then an apology is, I imagine, the very least that may be expected. No, I mean one’s tastes in reading, in films, in music: no matter how banal or undiscerning or unschooled one’s tastes may be, one is entitled to like or to dislike whatever one damn well wants. That must never be at issue.
But given this, I do not know why I feel I should apologise for enjoying Puccini. When I was loading some of my favourite music on to my i-Pad before going on holiday, there I was picking out from my CD collection La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, in full knowledge that there were CDs containing far greater music untouched on the shelves.
Generally, when we love something, we are quick to refute, or, at least, to refuse to acknowledge the validity of, damning criticism. I love Chaplin’s City Lights, for instance: when it is accused of being sentimental, I am quick to reject the charge, for “sentimentality” is a Bad Thing, and City Lights I know isn’t bad. Or when Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is accused of being melodramatic, I reject that criticism also, and for similar reasons. After all, I do not love these works with that postmodernist irony (is there any other kind of irony these days?) that rejoices knowingly in the work’s weakness: I love these works because I think they are good, and how could something be good if they are characterised by qualities I acknowledge to be bad? But with Puccini, it’s different. However one defines sentimentality and melodrama, I acknowledge La Bohème to be grotesquelysentimental, and Tosca to be absurdly melodramatic. And yet I wouldn’t be without either. And the worst of it is that I love these works not despite these qualities, but because of them.
One may add to these crimes of sentimentality and melodrama that of “manipulation”. Frankly, I have never understood why this should be regarded as so heinous a crime: I cannot think of a single work of art, no matter how great or exalted, that doesn’t manipulate the reader or the listener or the viewer in some way or other into feeling and experiencing certain things. But I suppose it is a serious flaw when the strings are pulled in too obvious or in too mechanical a manner. And even this, Puccini is guilty of. He revels in it. He is so good at pulling the strings, that he makes a show of it – he allows the audience to observe him doing it. When at the end of La Bohème, Rodolfo becomes aware of what everyone else in the room already knows – that his beloved Mimi is dead – the orchestra lets out three loud chords, like the pealing of funeral bells, and then launches with untrammeled passion into that big tune to which Mimi, only a few minutes earlier, had sung to him “There’s so much I’d like to tell you”. And as we realise she never will tell him, goddammit, we weep along with Rodolfo. We weep even as we see Puccini pulling the strings. Yes, we are being manipulated, but not only do we acknowledge it, we find ourselves happy to be complicit in the manipulation; and we continue weeping, quite unembarrassed by it all. And – you know what? – we feel all the better for it. At least, I do.
Those composers who continued composing in a Romantic vein even as modernism was developing and flourishing – Puccini, Strauss, Rachmaninov – were frequently “schmaltzy”. Perhaps we should deplore their music for being so, but for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, I can’t. And neither, I know, can many other music lovers – vast numbers of them, across several generations now – whose tastes in all other respects are often immaculate.
So what conclusion can we draw from all this? That these works aren’t sentimental, or melodramatic, or manipulative? No, that won’t do: I am happy to concede that they are all three. Or that these qualities are not necessarily bad qualities? I have a problem there as well, since there are many works I can think of off the top of my head that I find unbearable for one or other of these reasons. The only other option I can think of is that these qualities are acceptable, and even enjoyable, under certain circumstances. But what these circumstances are, I frankly haven’t a clue.
Last night, unable to get to sleep, I put on La Bohème on my earphones, and was once again transported by the gorgeous voices of Victoria de los Angeles and of Jussi Bjoerling singing the most glorious and passionate of melodic lines, with the orchestra, under the direction of Sir Thomas Beecham, breaking the heart with every manipulative phrase. Yes, yes, I know – this music is everything its detractors claim it is. But I love it – and I ain’t going to apologise!