Monday, December 04, 2006

Measuring Maudlin

Being an American, and thus predisposed towards the crudely literal, Duck took exception to my description of his musical tastes as ‘maudlin’ because he looked up the word in a dictionary.

Dictionaries be damned: properly understood, maudlinity is nothing to be ashamed of. Celebrate your maudlinness! Much great art is magnificently maudlin. Maudlinosity lies somewhere in the middle of a sliding scale of sweet sadness, which begins at Melancholy and reaches its darkest depths in Morose. But beware: without care, it is all too easy to fall off the poignant path, the lachrymose lane, and land in the ditch of naffness that is Moribund.

The following examples should clarify matters so that there can be no further confusion about the subject, beginning with a seasonal theme:


Melancholy: In the Bleak Midwinter
Maudlin: Silent Night
Morose: A dead reindeer in the snow
Moribund: Jingle All the Way, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger

Melancholy: Solitary night-hawks at the bar, after hours
Maudlin: A solitary walk in the rain, after the funeral
Morose: Bowling alone
Moribund: Simulating bowling alone on your Nintendo Wii

Melancholy: the life and death of Lenny Bruce
Maudlin: Somewhere from West Side Story, by Leonard Bernstein
Morose: Leanord Cohen singing Hallelujah
Moribund: The German stage production of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

Melancholy: French existentialism
Maudlin: English sonnets
Morose: Russian angst in ballet form
Moribund: Esperanto

11 comments:

Duck said...

Thanks for the clarification Brit. Yes, I do celebrate my melancholy, moroseness, and now properly defined, my maudlinicity. But to be honest, the term is more often than not used to express one's distaste for the level of sentimentality in a piece. It is usually pejorative, reflecting emotion and sentiment that is overdone.

Now I am very particular in my maudlinicity. I'm really not that crazy about Broadway musicals. Shows like "Cats" or "A Chorus Line" with their treacly ballads tend to turn me off. But I am a fan of the maudlin cult classic "Somewhere in Time" with its dreamy score by John Barry and overwrought expressions of romantic longing. Go figure.

Peter Burnet said...

Very good, although I've just added a new item to my list of postmodern hells: Being caught for all time in a debate between those who really, really love Esperanto and those who really, really hate it.

However, your theory falters on the basis that you seem to see maudlin as a quality that attaches to the song or art, like scale or key or colour. True connoisseurs of the maudlin know that, as with romance and Grace, it pulls it's greatest punch when you are unaware and unexpecting. Time and place are all. For example, if you go to a concert to hear some goofy, smiling guy in a kilt sing old Scottish love songs, you will feel like you are being spoonfed refined sugar long before intermission, but if you are trundling around town doing the shopping on a Saturday morning and the car radio suddenly presents a good tenor singing My Love is like a Red, Red Rose, you had better pull over for safety reasons. Just the other day that happened to me with the original recording of Fred Astaire's The Way You Look Tonight from 1926. Blew me away, but I was old enough to face the sad truth that rushing out to buy a CD collection of Fred's songs was not a good idea. As with the girl that got away, you have to feel the pain of loss and inaccessability to reach the seventh circle of Maudlinicity, a very poignant Heaven. I don't think you can't get there if you are listening to your favourite songs over and over on an iPod all day long, which is one of the reasons so much modern music is intended to numb you, not grab you emotionally. I'm surprised Duck isn't into Broadway musicals, because the good ones do it so well.

And now I must fess up to Duck as penance for razzing him so much. I actually turn the car radio up and shush everybody on those rare occasions when The Rain, The Park and Other Things is played. The looks I get are quite something. Goodness knows, Duck, what that is going to do to the psycho-sexual profile you are building on me.

Brit said...

You're quite right - any Universal Theory of Maudlinicity should allow for the situational, or contextual mournfulness of the hearer, as well as the innate melancholy of the song.

Thus, Elgar's Nimrod has far more power as you gaze on Dover's receding White Ciffs from the cross-channel ferry than it does at the Last Night of the Proms; and Judy Garland's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" will only carry a truly devastating maudlin charge if it drifts, liltingly, from the radio of a passing car as you trudge, alone, wet and cold on Christmas Eve, past the local Home for Abandoned Puppies and Kittens, reminiscing about the dead pets of your childhood.

PS. I don't hate Esperanto so much as the humourlessness of its champions.

Peter Burnet said...

...as you trudge, alone, wet and cold on Christmas Eve, past the local Home for Abandoned Puppies and Kittens, reminiscing about the dead pets of your childhood.

I see you've met the missus.

Those of us who have done postgraduate work in maudlinicity have learned that it is not just something you descend to from more rigorous fare. A song can actually ascend to the sanctified state. This happens when you listen for the first time to the lyrics of a melody you have heard often and just thought was cutsy, and discover the artfulness of the rhyme or cleverness of the syntax or even import of the words. Up, up from the mere saccherine you are pulled to the exalted M state. A lot of Rodgers and Hammerstein stuff qualifies, as does even some syrupy ballads like Tammy.

But, Brit, we have to have a little quality control here. I don't know if you have ever heard this sung, but I vote for it as the standard against which all other claimants to the maudlin must be judged. With the right voice it can make a Hell's Angel weep and is a much more powerful argument for belief than anything Paley ever wrote.

Brit said...

Egad! That... that picture!

Oh if only my eyes could unsee it, but 'tis too late! Have you no mercy, man?

Peter Burnet said...

You think that's bad? Wait until you see the dance number that goes with it.

Duck said...

I like some show tunes, I'm just particular. "Try to Remember" from the Fantasticks, "Maria" from West Side Story, the love theme from "Phantom of the Opera", "Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha. Soft and lyrical is good, bold and brassy is bad.

My wife dragged me to "Joseph" starring Donny Osmond. Not one of my favorite memories.

Those of us who have done postgraduate work in maudlinicity have learned that it is not just something you descend to from more rigorous fare.

Yes, what do we call this more "rigorous fare" Brit? We know what you don't like, but what is your theory of what you do like? Where does "No, no, no" fit in?

David said...

I don't know about crude, but I think that England is much more defined by its shore than America.

Hey Skipper said...

In the spectrum of Melancholy to Moribund, where does Seasons in the Sun fit?

If the mere mention of the title is enough to lodge the tune in your head, then this might well be the question too awful to ask.

Oh well, too late.

Brit said...

Skipper:

Seasons in the Sun is worthy of Webster's as a definition of Moribund.

Duck:

I'm not sure any theory could encompass the vast, Catholic, illogical, income-consuming range of my musical tastes, but I do like my pop music to be rough around the edges, often sung by people who can't really sing very well, and played by people who can't really play very well.

I'll do a post on Desert Island Discs soon, which should be nerdy fun.

Brit said...

I don't know about crude, but I think that England is much more defined by its shore than America.

Can you elaborate, David?