Sentimentality in music

Assessing sentimentality in music seems to be rather subjective (more on wiki here and here). I offer these random jottings largely as a reflection of my personal tastes.

It’s hard to police taste. In our times the term “sentimental” has come to have pejorative connotations—as wiki suggests, “a reliance on shallow, uncomplicated emotions at the expense of reason”; meretricious (and a Happy New Year), trite, even false. Other items on the word-cloud of sentimentality include maudlin, mawkish, tear-jerking, schmaltzy, manipulative, heart-on-sleeve, and self-indulgent—restraint being a virtue fraudulently claimed by the elite. Apparently emotions, and the declaration of sentiment, have to be earned (Oscar Wilde: “A sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it”).

Gender is a major element in the discussion, with the often-unpacked trope of rational/repressed men and emotional/communicative women. The “sentimental novel” (indeed, empathy itself) is often associated with the rise of female authors, although Dickens is a notable suspect, as well as some poetry of Wordsworth. In daily life, while objects of “sentimental value” seem exempt from censure, much-noted contexts include family, cute pets (the main content of social media, grr), teddy bears for Princess Diana, nature (the sentimental/pathetic fallacy; think sunsets), and Christmas cards. For a brilliant antidote, do listen to Bill Bailey’s Love song!

I note that my own playlist of songs is heavily weighted in favour of women singers, who seem most capable of emotional expression. By contrast with bubblegum/wallpaper music, at last the songs I’m considering are intense. Apart from the lyrics (even assuming we know or care what they mean!), much depends on the framing, the dramatic context. Irrespective of genre, one would suppose it difficult to “earn” the declaration of sentiment within the limits of a song lasting only a few minutes; but it’s perfectly legitimate to plunge right into a mood, as do many WAM songs. Performance is also crucial, the establishment of rapport: the vocal quality of the singer, the arrangement, harmonies, instrumentation (smoochy strings being a giveaway), and tempo. Some may find “the same song” sentimental (or not) according to such variables.

I’m not entirely fascinated by philosophical discussions, such as this from Charles Nussbaum (I’m somewhat thrown by his idea that “passion excludes sentimentality”—really?). He distinguishes sentimental music from the musical portrayal of sentimentality, which is OK, apparently. While critics defend such music by detecting layers of irony, detachment, and distance, isn’t it just those qualities that expose a song as false, a device for feigning passion? Surely we want sincerity; there’s nothing intrinsically superior about ironic detachment. It seems that a song can be both denigrated and excused for being fake.

I’m wary of Posh People claiming the cerebral high ground of lofty moral sentiments, trying to belittle the experience of the Plebs, moving the goalposts; as if their own emotions were noble, but those of the lower classes unworthy of expression. Corduroyed Oxbridge professors (and perhaps even the “tofu-eating wokerati”) pretend to more legitimacy in channelling feelings than a hairdresser from Scunthorpe, but if there was ever a time when this mattered, then fortunately it has receded. Responses to music can’t be policed (cf. What is serious music?!).

So the term is often used as a simple dismissal of a nuanced spectrum. WAM is a broad church, within which pundits make distinctions. Some more austere ideologues, still hooked on “autonomous music” (debunked by Small et al.), might claim to relegate emotion entirely, but WAM is full of it. Puccini is a classic case who appears to need defending (see e.g. here, and here), such as O mio babbino caro:

Predating anxieties over sentimentality, while I refrain from considering the courtly love of medieval ballads, we might now find sentimental some elements in the music of Bach (“O Jesulein süß, o Jesulein mild!”)—set within a religious frame. In WAM (as in Sufism) the portrayal of divine love can be controversial; some critics shrink from the sumptuous string harmonies that are part of Messiaen‘s unique musical lexicon. Baroque arias such as Handel‘s Lascia ch’io pianga, or Purcell’s When I am laid in earth, are never rebuked for sentimentality. Mozart arias too are presumably “rescued” by dramatic irony—such as La ci darem la mano (cf. Holding Don Giovanni accountable), the Terzetto from Così, or the Countess’s aria:

But many audiences, even “high-brow”, are presumably moved by such arias irrespective of the dramatic context.

Mahler 5 tune

Moving on to the Romantic era (generally considered OK, you gather), the OTT pathos of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony is clearly “earned”. For Mahler, the kitsch of popular folk music made an essential and utterly moving counterpoint to his more metaphysical strivings. But he weaves layers of “sentiment”, such as the slow melody that contrasts with the monumental opening of the 5th symphony (above). The Adagietto, of course, is easily co-opted to what we might consider sentimental ends—a not uncommon fate, like Rachmaninoff in Brief encounter. Again, a lot rests on interpretation: conductors are often praised for toning down the sentimentality in Mahler’s music—WAM pundits are dead keen on restraint (cf. Susan McClary on the denial of the body). Returning to gender, this article by Carolyn Sampson on performing Schumann songs may also be relevant.

Modern times
Modern times (1936).

Just as in opera, music manipulates us strongly in film (e.g. “weepies”), such as The way we were or Cinema paradiso. Again, our dour WAM pundits tend to disdain the art of film composers such as Korngold.

Turning to popular musics, I revisit my (not to be missed!) playlist of songs. Again, in such pieces a certain dramatic distance seems to help. Charlie Chaplin’s Smile is a parody of the domestic bliss of which most people are deprived. The nuanced ballads of the Beatles seem sacrosanct—besides Yesterday and Michelle, She’s leaving home is a masterpiece of empathy. I’ve sung the praises of Dream a little dream (again, “elevated” by Mama Cass’s delivery, by contrast with that of Kate Smith). Am I “allowed” to relish Michel Legrand’s You must believe in spring? “Am I bothered?” Country music is more anguished than saccharine (indeed, the lyrics of the Countess’s aria could be from a Country song!)—I like the tone of this post. In jazz, the ballad was blown away by bebop, but survived despite recastings in a more edgy manner, like Coltrane‘s My favorite things. But while the modern reaction to sentimentality has been quite widespread, I can’t help wondering that it’s a handy slur used by the elite to denigrate popular culture.

While such concepts change over time, they clearly vary by region too. If WAM and popular musics share a considerable affinity in conceptual and musical language, the context broadens out widely with folk musicking around the world, where sentimentality doesn’t seem to be A Thing, confounding our narrow Western concepts. In the Noh drama of Japan, a transcendental message and austere sound-world pervade the common recognition scenes at the scenic site of an ancient tragedy. Conversely, the cante jondo of flamenco, its “brazen, overwrought, tortured, histrionic” style expressing “self-pity, posturing machismo, and hypersensitive adolescent egos”, doesn’t quite fit within the norms of sentimentality; nor does the heartache widely expressed in the anguished nostalgia of saudade and sevda. As in WAM or the sentimental pop song, the performance is exorcistic, cathartic.

So for some reason I seem to be requesting permission to be moved by certain songs—Pah! By contrast with some WAM-lite singers like Katherine Jenkins, Billie Holiday had a unique gift for singing sentimental lyrics without ever sounding remotely sentimental—such as Lover man, or You’re my thrill (“Here’s my heart on a silver platter”):

What knots we tie ourselves up in! In both WAM and popular genres, it’s worth positing all kinds of fine distinctions, and interrogating them; but pace the self-styled arbiters of taste, there’s little consensus on what is “legitimately” moving, and I’m reluctant to exclude any music along the spectrum of mood. Hmm, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like”…

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