Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Dandy at the Piano

"It is my opinion that Carlyle, with his unimaginative Calvinist estimations, was wrong about dandyism. Indeed it is actually a frustratingly common assertion that “dandies are all about clothes.” The loins of England have produced many a true dandy, but the modern understanding of the term is a little skewed.

Dandies are commonly misunderstood to be men who are merely the fireworks in the dark sky; dressed in absurd cocktails of colour, carrying bizarre paraphernalia and causing small accidents with their dangerously distracting ensembles. In no club on Pall Mall is the common man likely to consider the exquisitely yet soberly dressed man, who cultivates an interest in music performance and creation, bridge and poetry to be anything like the modern paradigm of a dandy. And yet a dandy is exactly what he would be.

Creativity is rarely associated with dandyism in the modern world. Dandies and the idea of dandyism are decried as merely men totally fixated with themselves; Narcissi to the extreme. More likely to receive shouts of ridicule than ripples of applause, the man they all call dandy is almost never considered as one of artistic merit to himself or those in his close or extended society.

As writers have pointed out, dandyism is often associated with self-destruction and not creativity. Edward Hughes Ball Hughes, known by the sobriquet ‘Golden Ball’, was part of the Prince Regent’s set. A remarkably handsome man, dandy, inventor of the black cravat and in possession of a fortune of £40,000 a year, Hughes was an extraordinarily profligate young rake who squandered his entire fortune on wasteful pursuits and incredible levels of gambling. He was a perfect dandy in the eyes of many; his activities echoing of Blake’s observation about certain roads leading to certain palaces. The ‘indulgent destructionist’ is the legacy of dandyism; Brummell and Wilde had creativity, but they garnered as much notoriety for their ruin.

Though apparel oft proclaims the man, it is not at cloth that the dandy draws the line. Though some believe that a true dandy is never made, but born, an aspiring dandy should mark the importance of the cultivation of artistic merits.Whether one is a work of art, whether one is wearing it or whether one is creating it, the joy is in the possibilities of the blank canvas.Choices, variations, touches, soupcons; a keyboard has 88 keys and yet the possibilities are endless, one has 50 ties and 60 shirts and the possibilities are, if not quite endless, very great indeed with the use of the great imagination of a true dandy.

Mozart, though rightfully more famous for his musical genius, was extremely interested in fashion and became something of a minor fop. Michael Kelly, an Irish tenor noted one occasion, in his Reminiscences, on which a sprightly Mozart was “…on stage…giving the time of the music to the orchestra” with “his crimson pelisse…and gold laced cocked hat.”

Chopin too was affected by dandyism. Acclaimed by Schumann as a genius, Chopin was a frail, drawn figure of a man but he was a poetical master. Like Brummell, Chopin had his place among “ambassadors, princes and ministers” and in the true spirit of dandyism, his small incomes from the employment of teaching were used towards exercising his own pleasures, although he once complained that the income from five lessons did not cover the cost of his “cabriolet…and white gloves.” Unlike the professional dandy, for whom music was a hobby, Chopin was a gifted professional; his music, like his “sombre yet richly figured waistcoats” was an expression of his artistic soul. Music itself was the chief outlet ofhis inner dandy. His clothing was a part of the man the world knew, but it was mere extension and of far less consequence to all he encountered. His music was controlled and reflective; the passion in his work was refined and methodical. Unlike contemporaries who were not inclined to his perfectionism, Chopin chose meaningful simplicity over elaboration – a course of thinking which reminds one, naturally, of the Beau. His pieces were short and somewhat minimalist but their enduring style is undeniable and he remains, from his comparatively small body of work, one of the most admired composers of all time.

Celebrated musicians and composers of recent times have had, with the assistance of the camera lens, the wherewithal to express their dandyism in a far bolder way than musical dandies of yore. Creative polymaths like Noel Coward (actually, there was never really anyone like Noel Coward at all) were the new celebrities and their eccentricities were cheered from all parts of the theatre. Though the 20th century, the ‘grown up’ century, disapproved of dandyism among royals and the increasingly unpopular and impoverished aristocracy, they made up for it by nourishing the dandyism in theatrical circles. Ivor Novello himself was a figure of almost monumental fantasy; sublime features, outrageously romantic ideals and a lavishly grand musical style. His dandyism went hand in hand and far from distracting from his creativity, it completed his status as the ‘living myth.’

Cole Porter, unlike Gershwin and Kern, was born into a life of wealth and privilege. Whereas his contemporaries produced musicals in order to live, for Cole, it was rather more of a diversion. His private income allowed him to pursue the arts, though he had originally intended to become a lawyer. In Cole’s case, his musical ambition was purely artistic; everything else that accompanied his success was a bonus. He was known for his natty, tailored clothes, extensive luxury holidays in Europe and his prodigious wit. His life, more than any other Broadway composer’s, represented the dandyism of creativity, and the creativity in the dandy.

Nowadays, musicians are more likely to be absorbed by disposable fashion than dandyism or style. Though arguably there have been dandified user friendly musicians more famous for their outrageousness than their music, Liberace being the perfect example, they do not quite match the ideal of the quiet and refined gentleman of musical skill and versatility. Noise and vulgarity have replaced discretion and whispered wit as the currency of the modern musician. Expression of sartorial style, when once it was so complementary to musical style, is now quite detached and alien. Eccentricity, according to the line-up of the creative heads of the musical world, can be bought and sold. It is no longer real and no longer part of the fabric of the dandy’s soul; commerciality and a greed for fame have replaced the passions for creative purity. Once synonymous with poetry and refinement, musical ‘dandies’ are now coarse and feeble. Packaged with more skill than biscuits from Fortnum’s, the stars of the music world, save a few minor exceptions, are devoid of the dandific spirit of Mozart, Chopin and Coward. In the manner of Prinny, their flame of dandyism is borrowed and poorly adapted. Elton John, though often referred to in dandyish terms, is a screaming example of the wrong side of self-absorption; if Elton is expressing the inner artistic soul through his clothing then I believe we should all be rather terrified.

The happy co-existence of dandyism and musical appreciation, through performance and creativity, depends no longer on the professional musicians. Dandyism can only be pursued by those knowledgeable of what it entails and those gifted in delivery; by definition, he should not wish to be noticed. Attention-seeking is fatal to the dandy and so many professional musicians, apparently so talented, apparently so passionate appear, unfortunately, to be also so desperate. And dandyism has never been tempted by the companionship of desperation. Whereas the dandy must be above all, the commercial musician is subordinate; they worship different gods and as such are incompatible.

The cultivation of music as a leisurely hobby, the word ‘leisurely’ being especially operable, is one of the finest expressions of dandyism. Those whose lives do not revolve around MTV, press conferences, chat shows and pretentious twaddle about ‘pushing boundaries’ are perhaps the ‘amateur’ musicians; candidates for appropriate marriages between dandyism and musical creativity. As with Porter or Novello, one who is drawn to a piano intellectually, who plays what he feels for matters of mere expression, lifting a finger to produce sound is not a dandyish activity borne of avarice or a burning desire for celebrity, but because of his irresistible urge to dabble. Those who seek to master the musical medium, and they often seek through sheer vanity to impress, by performing the most difficult pieces ever written, crashing out chords from Rachmaninoff, miss the point of pleasure. Perfecting and memorising what others have created and passing it off as one’s own sounds a lot like the modern copy of the dandy; the real skill is in initial inspiration and subsequent adaptation. Over a good deal of time, this will qualify, substantially, as invention. And this, in dandyism and musical creativity, is what really matters."

This article was written for a magazine that focused on dandyism in 2008. It was never published.


MonsieurMonsieur said...

I love NC. Thank you for this treat.

Anonymous said...

The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything.