Schmaltz

Phil Ford

A concept we should all ponder for a moment: schmaltz, defined by Carl Wilson as "an unprivate portrait of how private feeling is currently conceived.” Wilson is a Canadian music journalist who has flown, Icarus-like, toward the annihilating sun of schmaltz, which is to say, he has written a book that attempts to takes Celine Dion seriously. Better him than me, but still, I think I'd like to read this book. Some of the music I treasure most is schmaltz. Right now I'm listening to the recording of Byron Janis playing the Liszt E-flat piano concerto, which is as schmaltzy as anything in the standard repertoire, and which I just love, love, love. I love that it makes such a spectacle of "how private feeling is conceived." Notice I dropped the word "currently" out of the quote. Whatever reflexive emotions and bogus revelations Liszt is promulgating, they find no resonance in contemporary sensibility; that sensibility needs to be reconstructed for the modern listener. The theme of the second movement, with its raised-eyebrow contour, its greasy little chromatic appoggiaturas swinging up the tonic triad to its aspirational apex, confessing a feeling that no decent person could ever have admitted to having. In loving it, I'm not being abject; the trick with Liszt is that you have to kind of power though the schmaltz, staring the reified gestures down. You empty them of their intentions until they seem like empty husks, pure form, and then allow them to fill with meaning again. And then they're beautiful all over, just as beautiful as when you were 12 years old and fell for their tricks the first time. Just because it's schmaltz doesn't mean it's not art. That said, I still don't want to listen to Celine Dion.

Anyway, schmaltz lurks behind every corner. Making too much of a fetish of avoiding bad taste is itself in bad taste. "Punk rock is anger's schmaltz," writes Wilson. Very true.

(Thanks to Graham Larkin for pointing this article out to me.)

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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3 Responses to Schmaltz

  1. Phil, that whole 33 1/3 series is uneven but fascinating and well worth checking out. I haven’t read the Dion yet but have about 15-20 of the other titles, should you ever want to borrow any of them–Landlocked Records carries them, as does the Book Corner. Their brevity (generally 100-150 pages in small format–reminds me of those mini-Disney books with the flip-movie series of pictures in the upper corners of the pages that were around when we were kids) also makes for quick reading…I usually get through them in one sitting.

  2. David Cavlovic says:

    I take umbage (umbrage, I say! but did I even spell it correctly!?!) at Liszt being considered Schmaltz. I find a lot that is anti-romantic, or should I say post-Romantic, in his works, even in the Piano Concertos (Damn, that Janis recording is good!)
    And I have great respect for Céine. I met her once at the Juno’s. She is very nice (and naive for sure), and a very hard worker, and passionate about her music.

  3. Mark says:

    While I generally don’t care for Céline Dion (it seems to me she belts rather than sings) I remember being upset when people commenting on a video of her doing an AC/DC number kept talking about how she made them vomit. As far as i was concerned, it was the best Céline had ever heard; finally, she had found a genre (heavy metal) that suited her voice. The people didn’t bother to listen with new ears, it was simply, I don’t like Céline, therefore this is bad. That bugs me.
    As for schmaltz, like kitsch, the Spanish cursilería, or words like “cheezy,” they’re so hard to define, but we know it when we hear or see it. I would venture “yesterday’s idea of elegance today,” to give it a historical dimension.
    I like Phil’s description of emptying something of pre-assigned meaning in order to refill it with new meaning. Nice.
    I second the first commentator: that 33 1/3 series seems like a good thing. I enjoyed the slim volume on Sly and the Family Stone’s “There’s a Riot going on” very much.

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