Tossing around a word like music is problematical—and culture is even harder to deploy meaningfully. Nevertheless, I am going to give both a try in a revealing juxtaposition that was brought to my attention by that world-traveling anthropologist Henry Radetsky, an academic colleague and a valued friend. Henry is a cultured man I have learned from—he is a man of knowledge and resources. He is the only man I have known who spent a year on the road, going around the world, —and had more money when the trip was over than he did when he started. He is the only man I have known who hitchhiked across central Africa; the only man I know who crossed the Andes five times before getting across the Amazon basin from south to north by hook and by crook; the only man I know who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro; the only man who sent me a postcard written on the roof of a house of ill fame in Timbuktu (the only place in town where he could sleep); and the only man I know whose favorite country is Nepal, where at umpteen-thousand feet only potatoes are served, but always with a difference. I must add that he is the only resident of San Francisco I know who has bitterly objected to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s advocacy of the right of the wealthy not to see the poor, among other policies of a similar nature.
All that is on one side. On the other was Henry’s coaching me through many culinary adventures involving French wines and cheeses and proceeding through various permutations, one of which led me to put him in a footnote to an article, because his consultation was so valuable about so many things: books, ideas, whatever. So on this list also are various favorite films of his, such as They Live (Carpenter, 1988) and the Angie Dickinson trio of Rio Bravo (Hawks, 1959), The Killers (Siegel, 1964), and Point Blank (Boorman, 1967). But then there was music. I vividly remember when we listened to Joseph Szigeti play the Beethoven Violin Concerto after we had heard Kreisler play the same, and he keenly said, “He actually lifts his bow off the string sometimes!” Well, yes. In another episode, we improbably heard in a restaurant outrageous live performances of Kreisler pieces such as “Schön Rosmarin,” “Liebesleid,” and “Humoresque.” When I claimed that the young violinist had excelled even Kreisler himself, he couldn’t, or at least didn’t, disagree.
But I also remember that we were talking about violinists when he used the word humoresque in a challenging way. We had been referring to one of Fritz Kreisler’s old recordings of his own transcription of Dvorák’s piano piece, when all of a sudden I was lost. I had been thinking about the word humoresque and its true meaning, its use as a musical title, when I heard the word toilet—that stopped me. What? “Well, yes,” said Henry. “Some decades ago,” he declared, “Humoresque was a euphemism for toilet. Don’t you remember the old song? It’s authentic, scatological folk poetry.” And he sang the lines mischievously: “Passengers will please refrain / from flushing toilets while the train / is standing in the station, I love you.” In a flash I saw the jeering treatment of the late Victorian ditty as a bitter sendup of the old sentimentality—same music, different words: pre-World War I versus post-World War I. There was music as culture, for the same tune had served for opposing worldviews.
But after that revelatory moment, there were others. One was the presentation in a novel by Kingsley Amis of what I believe was a British army variant of World War II provenance: “Blighters lying underneath / Would get it in their eyes and teeth / And they don’t like any more than you.” I thought the Cockney Briticism “blighters” was a nice touch, but even that was not the end. The obscure author of another variant has never been identified, nor has this verse ever before seen the light of day. You saw it here first, in Chronicles! “Effluent and solid waste / are not to everybody’s taste / So please refrain from flushing—this means you!”
But even that was not the end, because there is never an end. There was the film Humoresque (Negulesco, 1946), which I didn’t get to see until late in life—a strange thing, because my father mentioned it to me several times, but I never had the opportunity. The first time I got my hands on a VHS tape of it, I let a Parisian violinist take it away from me because she wanted it so much. It is the only film noir about a violinist, though there is another about a cellist (Deception, Rapper, also 1946).
Adapted from Fanny Hurst’s novel and from an old silent movie(!), Humoresque has some problems, the biggest of which is that it has two stories to tell—the story of the young violinist who then clashes with the rich married woman who wants to promote his career—and marry him. The social and cultural conflicts are resolved when she commits a spectacular though submerged suicide to the music of Wagner’s Liebestod—and the violinist goes back to the one thing that had always been his obsession. Music demands all, trumping even passion and romance.
But this film does not have the problems you would expect. Hollywood botches the presentation of music over and over, but not here. Music is shown as dramatic, affecting, and important. The hardest thing to present is an actor pretending to be a musical performer, but here the impossible is accomplished. John Garfield’s close-ups as he played were laboriously and effectively faked. Joan Crawford’s martini consumption was easier to present, but equally credible. The fiddling was handled nicely by the young Isaac Stern, so that we would have to say that the outrageous melodrama is the best movie ever made about musical performance—and one of the best about drinking in bars, as well.
The best days of Joan Crawford and John Garfield are long gone, but they were recreated by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg in her vanity project called Humoresque, a 1998 Nonesuch Records CD in which she played much of the music from that bold film. Her recreation of the old soundtrack is an interesting experiment, but it can never eclipse the film, which is the ultimate statement about the fascination of the violin, as well as the boldest assertion I know that “classical music” has tremendous popular appeal. There is no question that in the movie, in the experience of it, the claim is validated. But today I have to admit that the fungus of camp, not for the only time related to Joan Crawford, has crept in around the edges.
Perhaps then, as far as culture is concerned, we may address ourselves also to the word humoresque as we should be able to understand it. Today’s reader would be well advised to remember not Jack Benny or Steve Martin, but rather the four humors of ancient days. Hippocrates articulated the system, which is still used in some forms today. The humors were the fluids of the body, from which we derive such familiar words as phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric, and melancholy. The domination of one fluid over the others was supposed to determine one’s characteristic disposition, so that the melancholic man was controlled by his black bile, which is what the word melancholy literally means. Brutus rebuked Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for his choler, or angry disposition, or yellow bile (Act IV, Scene 3).
Now in the case of Dvorák, his Op. 101, No. 7 in G flat major is one piece in a set of eight piano pieces called Humoresques, written in America in the 1890’s. But what made the piece so famous was Kreisler’s arrangement of it for violin and piano. Kreis ler actually improved on the composer’s work, by imagining more exactly its ideal sound—in effect, he re-orchestrated it. His performances and recordings of this piece were, for obvious reasons, highly successful, and what Dvorák meant by the word humoresque is easy to sense. The ternary form of the piece emphasizes the contrast of the ABA form: The middle section is in a humor different from the outer parts. In other words, it is a romantic character piece that is insidiously memorable, and its name implies correctly a whimsical or capricious character.
The first and most important use of humoresque as a musical title concerned Schumann’s Op. 20, Humoreske. That is by far the most imposing composition to bear the title that otherwise denotes lesser works, as by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Otherwise, we would have to say that a coincidence of rhythm and rhyme and nothing else led to a reconception, or even a subversion, of the music, as it was allied to the language of an American railroad admonition years later.
So reaching as far back as Greco-Roman medicine, we have recovered perhaps some of the meaning of our own experience, as we see how music and culture can be identical or opposed. We have seen that a distinct sentiment could be subverted by irreverent humor, and how a “statement” could come to mean its opposite. Cosy charm and scatology don’t comfortably coincide, but once upon a time, they did rhythmically converge.
As for me, I don’t miss Fritz Kreisler, because what he left behind, I won’t do without. Neither do I miss Antonín Dvorák, for the same reason. But I do miss my friend Henry Radetsky, who absconded for the Left Coast on the flimsy excuse that he had family out there. Fair enough, Henry, but we do think of you when the bow is drawn across the string, and when we reach to pop a cork—whenever we think of having the best of times.