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February 17, 2020

Sticky Narratives and (Guilty) Pleasures: Exploring the Music of Dvořák


written by Doyle Armbrust

Antonín Dvořák

I’d like to disabuse you of the notion that there is such a thing as a “guilty pleasure.”

Or, more affectionately, attempt to free you from the shame that sticks to this notion like burs to fleece. Most of us have done this at some point: nervously laughing off our furtive love of maudlin rom-coms, torrid crime novels, or late-night Taco Bell drive-thru. Here’s one for you: Every day, I rehearse or perform what is described as some of the most “sophisticated” string quartet repertoire…but if you scorn the music of Phil Collins in my presence, I’ll call for dueling pistols at 10 paces come dawn.

I submit to you that there is no such thing as a “guilty pleasure.” You like something, or you don’t…and the only reason you feel sheepish about admitting to this pleasure is because somewhere along the way, someone or some publication convinced you that it is lowbrow, or lacking substance.

The reason I’ve hopped up on this particular soapbox is that amongst a majority of professional musicians and critics, the music of Dvořák is often referred to by the pejorative, “festival music,” or even more stingingly, “popular.” Take a gander at this excerpt from a 1972 review of a Dvořák compilation album in the New York Times:

“It may not be the most stimulating or the most profoundly moving music in the world, but its unfailing sweetness, melodic inventiveness, harmonic originality, and perfection of scoring cannot fail to find a response in the listener.”

How’s that for a high-five with a taser? This narrative — that Dvořák was “simple” or even a borderline “copycat” composer — is the same one that has shadowed John Williams his entire career. It’s a story youth orchestra musicians almost inevitably encounter and then propagate without ever testing its veracity. Have you ever watched the opening to Star Wars with literally any other piece of music? Or Indiana Jones, or Superman? Dead in the water. And as for Dvořák, naysayers, name me 10 composers that have half his sonic exuberance.

In his exceptional book, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, Lawrence W. Levine provocatively asserts that “…the perimeters of our cultural divisions have been permeable and shifting, rather than fixed and immutable.” Add this one to your reading list (you won’t regret it), but for this moment, the gist is that after the world wars, hierarchies of art began to calcify and “popular” became a bad word. Or as Levine puts it,

“…the adjective popular has been utilized to describe not only those creations of expressive culture that actually had a large audience…but also, and often primarily, those that had questionable artistic merit.”

The most compelling example of this divide arrives with Shakespeare. That particular moment in history witnesses the theater — one of the only venues in which the well-heeled were voluntarily sharing space with the great unwashed — began to split apart as the wealthy demanded exclusive cloisters to take in their entertainment. Suddenly, this once unifying force of Shakespeare becomes “high art” for the privileged. My favorite quote about this shift comes by way of Edgar Allen Poe:

“Your Shakespeare worshipers, for example — what do they know about Shakespeare? They worship him — rant about him — lecture about him — about him, him, and nothing else…They have arrived at an idea of his greatness from the pertinacity with which men have called him great. As for their own opinion about him — they really have none at all.”

It reminds me of my middle school trip to the Art Institute of Chicago, during which a docent extolled the wonders and virtues of Monet’s series of haystacks, which encircled an entire gallery. They just didn’t move me like, say, Ivan Albright’s Picture of Dorian Gray, and I fretted that I just wasn’t erudite enough to comprehend their magnificence.

I want to take a moment to assure you that I am not apologizing for Dvořák, or assuming that you consider his music as inhabiting a lower rung than one of the many other orchestral favorites. I find his music positively buoyant and expertly orchestrated. I’m just responding to a prevailing fiction that somehow it is not “serious” music. Whatever that means.

We reach for certain music like we reach for certain cuisine, television, or literature. At any given moment, we might ache for something to embolden us, or inspire us, or alleviate our current situation. If you’ve just returned home from work after dealing with That Guy again, I’m guessing that Strauss opera is not going to comprise your chill for the evening. If you’ve just welcomed a child or grandchild into the world this week, I’ll roll the dice and risk that Boulez is not in heavy rotation. If Dvořák is “festival music,” in that festivals usually involve temperate weather, a few bottles of wine, and a brief affair with joy, then all hail “festival music.” It’s unabashedly romantic, it’s frequently ebullient, and it’s masterfully written. Why be cynical about glee and effervescence? Then again, comedies don’t win Oscars.

These tacitly accepted hierarchies in music, especially genre to genre, are not just silly, they’re dangerous. Remember when hip hop genius Kendrick Lamar won a 2018 Pulitzer for music — an award historically bestowed on classical and jazz artists? The mainstream classical music community lost its mind on social media, and not in a good way. But what exactly can Ludwig van illuminate for me about coming of age as a black man in Compton? This hierarchical thinking prevents us from experiencing all that musical expression has to offer, and ignores the fact that most of us don’t listen exclusively to what has been embarrassingly titled “art music.” Our priorities shift, and whenever one comes into focus, that is the most important priority for that moment.
Some reading this may be furrowing eyebrows. Am I claiming that all music is equally great? Of course not. But the metric for greatness lies squarely with what you want or need to hear today, not with some sticky, dubious narrative that has barnacled itself across the centuries. Certain types of music are just more perfect for certain states of mind, or flights of fancy, or deep dives into specific elements like melody, harmony, development, precision, feel, swing, wordsmithing, energy, and, and, and.

I’m guessing, if have a ticket in your hand for the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s all-Dvořák program, that you are down with Antonín. I mean, that violin concerto, right? That exquisite elision from the first movement into the second? And Budapest Festival Orchestra with none other than Iván Fischer at the helm? This is going to be a spectacular show — one that boasts as much profundity as entertainment. And that’s what I love about Dvořák…it’s the best of both worlds.

Now, just promise me you’ll stop apologizing for that Great British Baking Show binge. Or blasting Sussudio on the way home.

Doyle ArmbrustDoyle Armbrust is a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 Music, Crain’s Chicago Business, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

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