Thursday, July 7, 2011

Taste, Character

One of the many throw-away jewels in T. S. Eliot's 1961 essay To Criticize the Critic is a distinguishing between fashion and taste. The point is worth developing particularly because of the trope that "taste varies." Let us begin as Eliot does, distinguishes between fashion, "the love of change for its own sake" and taste, which "springs from a deeper source." The former seems a sensible definition since fashion varies according to life's many vicissitudes. Fashion trends and without any regard for anything. To be fashionable one must simply change from something to something else. Before tackling taste I would posit another category, style. Style rather simply is some particular convention, but in particular it exists without any special regard for the reason behind the convention. It is simply a protocol, of greater or lesser specificity. Thus with this definition one does not have style per se but rather uses a particular style. This may seem an arbitrarily limited usage of the term but it leaves a some necessary room for defining taste.

Indeed taste springs from a deeper source, but more importantly I would suggest taste is unique insofar as it springs from any source at all, because in contrast to fashion and style as we have defined them, taste is a personal attribute. Taste is the reason for some style or blend of styles. Taste requires the active choosing and rejecting of certain styles according to some principles. Whereas style may be principled, accidental, or incidental, taste is always chosen. Taste is always cultivated, that is, taste requires character. To have a particular taste requires an awareness of possibilities and a preference for one way of thinking, of doing, of being. It is unique to the curious blend of influences upon a particular person and the way in which the individual synthesizes them. One might, for example, write in the style of, say Bach or Shakespeare, but one cannot in fact write actual Bach or Shakespeare. Taste then is in fact a component of character, themselves both essentially creative acts though admitting certain variables, namely that does not have control over what he is exposed to.

One is, as we have mentioned before, by nature, of a certain place and time and passing through. By our definition of taste then, to possess taste requires a sense of time and place, of one's tradition, of combining influences in the present, and all towards some future state of being.

To possess taste then is no small feat, requiring as it does a sense of self and other, of principled preference, and of tradition.


  1. I've been cultivating a taste for Bach's sacred cantatas the last year or so, thanks to John Eliot Gardiner. I haven't quite developed enough character to appreciate most of the recitatives yet, and in fact I generally find movements for tenor or bass difficult to appreciate.

    On principle, I choose to prefer this music, despite a few small difficulties. :) However, even in my immature state, I have learned to appreciate much of the gold.

    It's nice to be able to not just appreciate the music, but to tie it to a spiritual tradition and posture.

    Tell Northcutt I'm still interested in his proposed cantata commentary.

  2. Brian,
    Thank you for the encouragement. I was just discussing the Cantatas with Mr. Vertucci. Unfortunately, the last year has been very turbulent for me; this blog has been maintained admirably by Mr. Vertucci. I hope to contribute more in the coming months. And I would like to devote time and space to the Cantatas; I've been listening, week by week, to the Cantatas as appointed by the lectionary and Lutheran calendar. I'm more and more of the opinion that as a body of work they are the most extraordinary musical achievement in Western civilization. That is a heady claim, but they are inexhaustible in their richness, inventiveness, and beauty. And if one adds the B minor Mass, the Passions, the Magnificant, words fail entirely. I'm pleased to see that general knowledge about the cantatas is increasing (thanks to Gardiner and other conductors), but it is still woefully lacking. I was introduced to the cantatas by the excellent ensemble housed at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in NYC. Hearing them in a church, in the liturgy, was a beautiful gift; I'm not sure that a concert performance would have captured my attention and imagination nearly so vividly. I was privileged to hear HT's "renderings" of the Magnificat and the St. John Passion as well. Would that more Churches, and not only the wealthy and well-endowed, were more adventurous in rendering these beautiful works! Good luck in your own listening! And do report your experiences! They hearten both myself and Mr. Vertucci!

  3. T, I remember we talked about the unfortunate expense of the Gardiner pilgrimage series. I guess they're not really so expensive until you decide you want the entire set. But still, I've picked up only 2 of the 26 or so volumes since last year.

    Out of curiosity, what recordings have you been listening to, week by week?

  4. Brian,
    It really depends on my financial situation from week to week; if I can afford to purchase the tracks on iTunes, I do so; in which case, I usually buy Suzuki's recordings. If I don't have the money, I listen to whatever I can find available on YouTube, usually Harnoncourt. However, Mr. Vertucci just gave me the Brilliant Complete Bach, and included are the Pieter Jan Leusink recordings. I've only sampled them, but they stand up to scrutiny pretty well. Suzuki still strikes me as the most satisfying, but Harnoncourt, Gardiner, Herreweghe, Leusink all have their virtues; and if I could, I'd happily assemble all their recordings.