August 2, 2010
I recently heard an all-Stravinsky concert performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. A few days later, a review of the evening by Anthony Tommasini appeared in the April 23, 2010 edition of the New York Times. A comment he made about the orchestra’s rendition of The Firebird Suite caught my eye: “The Firebird’s Lullaby, though phrased with expansive freedom, was elegant and devoid of sentimentality.”
Moments later and in the very same paper, I happened to read a review by Michiko Kakutani of The Lake Shore Limited, a new novel by Sue Miller. Kakutani summed up high praise for the book with this: “The result is her (Miller’s) most nuanced and unsentimental novel to date.” There it was again only differently worded—”unsentimental” rather than “devoid of sentimentality”. I’ve read this opinion expressed in dozens of music reviews over the years. “Mr. Farfala wisely avoided the pitfall of sentimentality in the Andante Cantabile” or, “Ms. Tzimmis chose an unsentimental and straight-forward approach to the recapitulation.” The message was crystal clear about how you should (or should not) play music or write books. I felt an unpleasant chill run down my back as I imagined the review of my next concert: “Mr. Steinhardt played the Schrattenholz Concerto in a distressingly sentimental way.”
But doesn’t “sentimental” mean filled with sentiment? And if so, what’s wrong with that? I looked up â€˜sentimental’ in my dictionary and got these definitions:
- expressive of or appealing to sentiment, especially the tender emotions and feelings, as love, pity, or nostalgia: a sentimental song.
- pertaining to or dependent on sentiment: We kept the old photograph for purely sentimental reasons.
- Weakly emotional; mawkishly susceptible or tender: the sentimental Victorians.
- Characterized or showing sentiment or refined feeling.
Critics apparently are on the lookout for musicians and writers who succumb to definition three. A weak and mawkish rendition? No, that would never do. But what about definitions one, two, and four? When the music demands it, I may feel compelled to play expressively, or tenderly, or with refined feeling. In this age of relative cool, an age in which people flock to Baroque and Philip Glass concerts (no danger of sentimentality there), I worry that the fear of unrestrained feeling has cowed us into neutering anything with emotional substance.
I recently found a welcome ally in the American writer, John Irving. In his essay In Defense of Sentimentality, Irving writes “…and to the modern reader, too often when a writer risks being sentimental, the writer is already guilty. But as a writer it is cowardly to so fear sentimentality that one avoids it altogether. It is typical—and forgivable—among student writers to avoid being mush-minded by simply refusing to write about people, or by refusing to subject characters to emotional extremes. A short story about a four-course meal from the point of view of a fork will never be sentimental; it may never matter to us very much, either. And when we writers—in our own work—escape the slur of sentimentality, we should ask ourselves if what we are doing matters.”
I suspect that things were somewhat different in an earlier age. People probably didn’t worry about being sentimental because there was an accepted, comfortable, even sought after time and place for that sweetly nostalgic feeling. Some examples in music:
A section entitled The Hero’s Helpmate in Richard Strauss’s tone poem, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) composed in 1898, depicts a portrait of his wife, Pauline de Ahna, in music. “She is very complex,” Strauss wrote to Romain Rolland, “a trifle perverse, a trifle coquettish, never the same, changing from minute to minute.” Nonetheless, Strauss instructed the solo violin representing his wife with these words for one passage: “sentimental und sehr zart” (sentimental and very tender).
In a delicious waltz, Who Can Tell, composed by Fritz Kreisler in 1919, he writes: “sentimentally, but with a certain swing.” The marking not only fits the waltz like a glove but in some measure captures the flavor of an entire era.
Arnold Steinhardt, violin, and Lincoln Mayorga, piano. Sheffield Lab SL10063.
In 1935, Duke Ellington wrote his highly evocative In a Sentimental Mood. It enjoyed a wave of popularity in the 1930s and was the theme song for no less than nine radio shows.
In 1944, Bud Green, Les Brown, and Ben Homer wrote Sentimental Journey. Some first thought that the song was not going to connect with young people, but at it’s debut with Les Brown’s band and vocalist Doris Day in the Hotel Pennsylvania’s CafÃ© Rouge the music drove the kids wild.
When did it become uncomfortable to be sentimental? Did those Café Rouge kids realize that when Doris Day sang Sentimental Journey, it might have been culturally correct for the very last time? Perhaps the critics gave Day one last pass before the new age firmly settled in: “Fortunately, Ms. Day sang Sentimental Journey without a trace of sentimentality.”
I listened recently to Ella Fitzgerald singing In a Sentimental mood which begins with:
In A Sentimental Mood I can see
the stars come thru my room
While your loving attitude is
like a flame that lights the gloom
And then to Doris Day’s Sentimental Journey:
Gonna take a Sentimental Journey,
Gonna set my heart at ease.
Gonna make a Sentimental Journey,
To renew old memories.
The songs certainly put me in a sentimental mood; but I assure you only according to definitions one, two, and four.
Sign up to receive new stories straight to your inbox!