Naive and Sentimental

by Mark Isaacs

The great contemporary composer John Adams wrote a wonderful orchestral piece called “Naive and Sentimental Music”. It was brilliantly polemical titling on his part as he proudly described his music in terms that were complete anathema to the modern art movement (both in classical music and jazz) where the right thing for art to be doing – especially post-WW2 – was being tough, edgy and cynical. Or at least world-weary.

Adams pointed out that the word “sentimental” has only quite recently come to mean tacky. It used to mean filled with human feeling, a pretty good call for an artist. Similarly with “naive”. It has a patronisingly pejorative tone now. It used to mean “without pretension”, not a bad thing at times. Modernism has a lot to answer for and art can be enriched by the taking down of some of its received wisdoms (without necessarily rejecting its very real fruits).

The Italian composer who recently died Gian Carlo Menotti despaired thus about the artistic times he lived in: “To say of a piece that it is harsh, dry, acid and unrelenting is to praise it. While to call it sweet and graceful is to damn it”. He found that odd. I think it is odd.

To me there is room in art to welcome the sentimental as there is room in life for the sentimental. We quite readily recognise how cold-hearted it would be to reject all sentimental gestures in life, but not always so easily in our aesthetic stances. All of us are moved regularly by the sentimental in our personal lives. My wife cut carefully and lovingly around the body figures in a photo of my daughter when she was six sitting on my knee with her arm around my shoulder. She then superimposed the figures over cut-out pictures of flowers so that Dad and daughter looked like they were floating in an enchanted forest. She then framed it and presented it to me. Everything about it was sentimental in the extreme. And I love it.

From the personal to the artistic: much music I love is sentimental. Schumann, Chopin, Ravel of course but also some of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart who are not thought of as “romantic” but still managed to include it with everything else they do. Bartok can be sentimental. So can Prokoviev. And Schoenberg. The entire so-called Great American Song Book is sentimental and I consider it one of the major treasures of twentieth century music, to rival any collection of art songs of any time. When Coltrane plays “My One and Only Love” and Johnny Hartmann sings it the song is of course elevated greatly from its pop origins. But to me that elevation has the effect of making it even more sentimental along with everything else it does. The song expresses an incredibly sentimental idea – the deep wells of unflinchingly steadfast devotion and adoration found in long-term romantic love – and when Coltrane and Johnny do it I feel that the sentimental core of the song is even more strongly brought to the fore, along with the more powerful intellectual and spiritual content they bring to it. One doesn’t cancel out the other. They don’t improve the song by taking out the sentiment – they do so by ultimately making it even more sentimental and in a more lasting and multi-dimensional way.