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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Music-Lover

Guest Blogger Dept.: H. L. Mencken was an unabashed curmudgeon who laced his rants with wisdom. Although rarely recognized as a writer about music (but see here), he nevertheless had insightful things to say. Remember, I didn’t write this one. (But, pace those jazz-bands, I’ve certainly given it contemplation.)

                                                                                                 

H. L. Mencken
OF ALL FORMS OF THE UPLIFT, perhaps the most futile is that which addresses itself to educating the proletariat in music. The theory behind it is that a taste for music is an elevating passion, and that if the great masses of the plain people could only be inoculated with it they would cease to herd into the moving-picture parlors, or to listen to demagogues, or to beat their wives and children. The defect in this theory lies in the fact that such a taste, granting it to be elevating – which, pointing to professional musicians, I certainly deny – simply cannot be implanted. Either it is born in a man or it is not born in him. If it is, then he will get gratification for it at whatever cost – he will hear music if Hell freezes over. But if it isn't, then no amount of education will ever change him – he will remain indifferent until the last sad scene on the gallows.

No child who has this congenital taste ever has to be urged or tempted or taught to love music. It takes to tone inevitably and irresistibly; nothing can restrain it. What is more, it always tries to make music, for the delight in sounds is invariably accompanied by a great desire to produce them. I have never encountered an exception to this rule. All genuine music-lovers try to make music. They may do it badly, and even absurdly, but nevertheless they do it. Any man who pretends to cherish the tone-art and yet has never learned the scale of C major – any and every such man is a fraud. The opera-houses of the world are crowded with such liars. You will even find hundreds of them in the concert-halls, though here the suffering they have to undergo to keep up their pretense is almost too much for them to bear. Many of them, true enough, deceive themselves. They are honest in the sense that they credit their own buncombe. But it is buncombe none the less.

In the United States the number of genuine music-lovers is probably very low. There are whole States, e.g., Alabama, Arkansas and Idaho, in which it would be difficult to muster a hundred. In New York, I venture, not more than one person in every thousand of the population deserves to be counted. The rest are, to all intents and purposes, tone deaf. They can not only sit through the infernal din made by the current jazz-bands; they actually like it. This is precisely as if they preferred the works of The Duchess to those of Thomas Hardy, or the paintings of the men who make covers for the magazines to those of El Greco. Such persons inhabit the sewers of the bozart. No conceivable education could rid them of their native infirmity. They are born incurable.

– H. L. Mencken, from The Allied Arts, Prejudices: Second Series, 1920. First printed in The Smart Set, December 1919.

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