Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The utility composer

with 2 comments

In literature, the man who has neither the vision, the imagination, the sense of beauty, or the wit that are popularly supposed to go to the production of a poem, novel, or play, can turn his literary skill, such as it is, to the production of advertisements, book reviews, and crime reports. He is a utility or workaday writer. In painting, the same type of man, able to use a pencil and brush with some skill without attempting to be a Cézanne or a Picasso, can profitably and pleasantly spend his time in such varied ways as the designing of book jackets, the faking of old masters, and the painting of presentation portraits. In the three-dimensional arts one can distinguish even more clearly between art and craft, and the carpenter who makes a chair can claim to be satisfying a universal demand which is not met by the sculptor. A chair is undoubtedly more comfortable to sit on than all save a few examples of the sculptor’s art. But in music there can be no such thing as a chair opposed to a painting, or the craftsman opposed to the pure artist.

The whole theory of utility music is based on the misconception that one can distinguish between the aesthetic and the useful in this particular medium. Apart from music for organized and non-aesthetic action such as military marches and foxtrots…music is only useful if it is good music, whether light or serious. Unless it provides one with some vital experience which no other art can convey it is not only useless but a nuisance. The objective craftsman that Hindemith sets up as an ideal is far more of a sentimental luxury than the despised aesthetic “tone poet.” His daily covering of music paper is a task as essentially fruitless as those strange tasks assigned to the innocent dupes in the stories of Sherlock Holmes, the man in “The Red-Headed League” who copied out the Encyclopedia Britannica or the stockbroker’s clerk who was set to making a list of the pottery firms in Paris…

With an altogether praiseworthy modesty Hindemith appears to imagine that by ceasing to write for his own satisfaction he is necessarily writing for the satisfaction of others. There is an old and trite saying “If you don’t believe in yourself, nobody else will,” and in music it may with equal truth be said that if a composer is not interested in his own music he can hardly expect others to be. Even the most nauseating of popular tunes, that would appear to be written solely with the desire to satisfy the public taste at its least critical and most mawkish, must mean something to the composer, and be primarily written for his satisfaction, if it is to “get the public.” Purely “occasional” music whether deliberately vulgar or deliberately refined always brings boredom and distrust in its wake. Unless the composer has some definite reason for putting pen to paper, he had far better play patience or do a little gardening.

Constant Lambert, Music Ho!

Written by nevalalee

March 25, 2017 at 7:01 am

2 Responses

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  1. Good god, Alec. How did you, a 21st century American, find out about poor old Constant Lambert, who — if he is remembered at all — is recalled only as the prototype for Hugh Moreland in Anthony Powell’s A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME?

    Ah. You’re a fan of Powell and Pressbuger, aren’t you? Was it the Helpmann connection?

    Mark Pontin

    March 25, 2017 at 3:34 pm

  2. @Mark Pontin: When you’ve published more than 2,000 quotes of the day on a blog, it takes you into odd places.


    March 27, 2017 at 9:52 am

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