Homage to Capon: Jazz as Ferial Cooking


The news of Father Robert Capon’s death this week reminded me of a suspicion I have long harbored about one particular part of his thought: the distinction between festal and ferial in cooking was a particularly useful way of understanding music. So in this post I want to try to explain how these concepts could map onto music in more than just a superficial analogy.

In this Julian Johnson-Ken Meyers age, we are getting a lot better at understanding the differences between High music and popular music and appreciating those differences. But there are distinctions inside those distinctions that are important too, and I want to suggest that festal and ferial are useful ways of describing High music in the early 20th century, festal being Classical and ferial being jazz. As Capon would stress, both can use the same ingredients, both can be gourmet, but they require different preparation.

Ferial, he says, is the school “that involves the wholesale and deliberate manufacture of leftovers, the creation of all of one’s dishes from carefully precarved and precooked meats.” On the other hand, “to the extraordinary or festal cuisine are relegated all roasts, joints, chops and stakes, and, in general, any meats that are cooked in large pieces and carved at the table,” which differs from ferial because ferial cooks “cut it up small, and make it go a long way.”

This distinction, he says, comes down to economy. Crassly put, festal is a rich man’s cooking and ferial is a poor man’s. Festal cooks are content to use only the prime cuts of an animal and throw away fat and bones and less palatable parts of the animal; ferial cooking insists on using it all, for broth, for sauce, and will serve up a single animal in five meals. That is why sauce is a specifically ferial thought: “A generosity of sauce,” he says, “kept pace with [the cook’s] stinginess of meat. The glory of ordinary cooking began to dawn.” One of ferial cooking’s basic principles is re-use: “If you can possibly do so, contrive to make even a part of anything come to the table twice.”

Over on the other side, festal cooking is all about your budget. “Should your family, however, begrudge you your victory—should they rail against you, calling you Soup-waterer or Chicken-stretcher, several rejoinders are possible. For the first, remind them that if it’s festal cooking they want, they had better provide you with a more festal food allowance.”

Finally, Capon emphasizes that festal and ferial don’t imply any relative worth, in aesthetic terms, of either dish. “[T]he excellence and exquisiteness of the dishes is in no way involved. It is not that festal cooking is best and ferial second-best. Some of the most discerning palates in history have pronounced a good boeuf Bourguignon or tripe Niçoise the full equal of any steak in the world.” Your budget does not determine your status as gourmet, but instead, as Capon elsewhere says, “the presence or absence of the loving eye,” which is to say, in cooking as in theology, love bestows loveliness, and a cook’s love of food will inevitably result in lovely food.

And so with music of the early 20th century. Classical music of the 19th century had been a class affair: you needed money and status in order to get admission to a concert, and very likely both in order to get on stage or even get a place at a conservatory. This began to change in the early years of the 20th century when recordings emerged, radios broadcasted performances, sheet music and four-hand piano transcriptions became increasingly popular, and pianos got cheaper. In eastern Canada and the U. S., this produced an intriguing musical fermentation. Two minority groups—blacks and Jews—were simultaneously provided access to the works of 19th century classical music through technology but sometimes barred access to the usual training that was required to get into the musical scene. And this surplus of musical education, paired with a lack of the infrastructure of Classical music, produced jazz.

And jazz cooks with the same ingredients Classical music is. There are basic things it has in common with Classical music—it uses chords, it uses ABA formal structures, it relies heavily on ii-V-I. But those things can be said of a great deal of popular music of the time and today as well, and jazz and Classical bear a closer affinity even than that. At a time when Classical music insisted on becoming modal, jazz became comfortable with the dominant sonority used as a tonic (i.e. ending a piece on a C7); at a time when Classical insisted on the inclusion of augmented chords in the palate, jazz took an interest in raised 11 and flatted 5 degrees; when parts of Classical began returning to the voicing of chords used by the Viennese school of the 18th century, jazz employed a system of walking bass and comping.

Blues scale

The ethnic side of this is intriguing as well. Many have pointed out that the blues scale’s lowered 3 (E-flat here, the first so-called “blue note”) is a trade-mark of the African-American sound, as is, to an extent, the lowered 7 (B-flat). But the raised 4 (F-sharp) many ethnomusicologists trace to Jewish music, which you can hear if you play the whole scale on a piano and remove the F-natural.

And the theoretical maps onto the historical pretty nicely. There is no need for an endless list that would show how jazz piano or big band was dominated by black musicians, but the lesser known side of the jazz equation is that, with the notable exception of Cole Porter, next to no Broadway composers were not Jewish between George Gershwin and Stephen Sondheim. Whence come the massive canon of jazz standards.

Think, then, of the festal side of the equation. Think of Classical music and the venerable tuba. Over the course of a concert, if the tuba is used at all, the tubaist will not play too many notes, either in 19th or 20th century literature. He might come in during the loud parts of the first movement, a bit in the third, and toward the end of the fourth. And he will get payed, in his cushy professional orchestra, a six-figure salary for doing all of this. (And it’s a good thing too: regardless of how many notes he played, he has to pay off all that student debt from Julliard.) This is festal cooking. It is totally unconcerned with resources. It employs 100 players a night at high salary, some of whom play just a handful of notes for the whole evening.

Jazz, on the other hand, is the music of leftovers. Think of the jazz standard as the dish and the jazz solo as the sauce. You can serve Satin Doll five times with five different sauces and not get tired of it. It is, as well, making-use-of-everything-you’ve-got music. Instead of an orchestra of 100, you have a combo of four. Each solos, each has a distinct role, each has an aversion to being merely supplementary. Think, too, of how Art Tatum stretches the limits of what a human left hand could conceivably do, a mere five fingers producing an entire big band comp at a lickety-split clip. Think of his inexorable desire to see every single one of those 88 keys get hit at some point by his roving, wild right hand.

A lot of our trouble in understanding the relationship between 20th century Classical and early jazz stems from these two things: (1) we imagine they are cooking with different ingredients when they are not and (2) we misunderstand that the difference is not of aesthetic quality but of economy. Jazz is the inevitable result of the Classical zeitgeist given only a piano, a trap set, a guitar, and an upright bass. Nothing could be more boorish of a music-lover than to out-of-hand dismiss jazz because of its ferial preparation. Don’t pass up the boeuf Bourguignon.

Steve Reich on Musical Lying

Stockhausen, Berio, and Boulez were portraying in very honest terms what it was like to pick up the pieces after World War II. But for some American in 1948 or 1958 or 1968—in the real context of tailfins, Chuck Berry and millions of burgers sold—to pretend that instead we’re really going to have the darkbrown Angst of Vienna is a lie, a musical lie.

An Educated Audience

“In my youth, living in the proximity of Brahms, it was customary that a musician, when he heard a composition the first time, observed its construction, was able to follow the elaboration and derivation of its themes and its modulations, and could recognize the number of voices in canons and the presences of the theme in a variation; and there were even laymen who after one hearing could take a melody home in their memory.” (Arnold Schoenberg, New Music, Outmoded Music, Style and Idea)

Manifesto of Futurist Musicians

In an inflammatory piece written October of 1910, an Italian musician named Balilla Pratella defended the music of a Pietro Mascagni as the only person really breaking past the musical stagnation present in Europe at the time. It’s a fascinating article for many reasons, but primarily for my interests, Pratella is really excited about Debussy’s music but has reservations about the degree to which he’s really modern. He says,

“He resorts in his operatic formulas to the obsolete concepts of the Florentine Camerata, which in 1600 gave birth to melodrama, but has not achieved a complete reform of the art of music drama even in its own country.”

Which is just fantastic. All of Classical music goes back to this incredible moment in 1600 when the Italians tried creating secular music. Of course, Pratella was wrong—it’s Schoenberg who ends up really creating “futurist” music, but he was right about where it came from.

What We Mean by Classical

Well, maybe not “we”, but “I”.

First, take a look at how Classical music, as we use the term, got started. In the last decade of the 16th century, a handful of aesthetes gathered together in the home of a wealthy Florentine aristocrat to discuss the future of music. They all wanted a style of music that could support serious poetic drama. Their big models were, surprisingly enough, the masters of drama from ancient Greece—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The Florentines’ happiest dreams saw themselves writing music that could communicate the same powerful emotion that the ancient Greeks did. So these men experimented around with putting complex poetry to music, but the whole philosophical approach to music that they were familiar with—polyphony—just wasn’t working. Having a tenor and a soprano and a bass and an alto sing a cryptic sonnet all at different times on top of each other on different notes is just a little confusing. As one of the Florentines, Girolamo Mei, put it, “When several voices simultaneously sang different melodies and words, in different rhythms and registers, some low and some high, some rising and others descending, some in slow notes and others in fast, the resulting chaos of contradictory impressions could never deliver the emotional message of the text.”

The Florentines decided to scrap a centuries-old approach to music and start anew. Their brilliant idea was having just one melody—whence came their name, the Monodists—and accompaniment underneath that melody. This revolutionized the face of music. Suddenly, the emphasis was on making that melody sound more interesting, which they did by putting juicy harmonies underneath it. And that’s something that Classical composers wouldn’t stop doing until the 1970s. Now, why is understanding Monody important now?

It’s important now because it’s important now. The emphasis on harmony in music goes unobserved the same way air goes unobserved—we’re in it so much that we aren’t aware of it anymore. Second, this ubiquitous approach to music has been entirely dictated, from the first, by secularists whose purpose was to create a vocabulary of music entirely divorced from religious connotation. It was fine art, not, as Mortimer Adler points out, in the sense that it was “refined”, but in that it was its own end. It was music for music’s sake.

But perhaps this wasn’t always the case. Didn’t composers like Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven write sacred works? Well, in a way, yes, and in a very important way, no. Classical composers who wrote pieces with sacred texts—Masses, Requiems, Psalms, and the like—were still writing with compositional techniques they had from secularists. It’s a case of lyrics and music not quite lining up. Both are admittedly glorious, but both are organic outgrowths of opposed traditions. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, when writing sacred music, are speaking one language with their music and another language with their texts. They’re like Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World—they can speak French, in Russian, except that I’d say their French ends up a little garbled.

In any case, despite the sincerity of many of these men, the mask gets thrown off entirely during the Romantic period of Classical music. This is where Classical music moves from potentially dangerous to actually dangerous. Again, it’s still glorious music. It sounds fantastic. It’s complex. Wagner’s music is symmetrical. It’s chiastic. It’s proportional. But, above all, it’s a blatant revolt against God. Entirely apart from the story of Wagner’s personal life, which screenplay writers wouldn’t even have to jack up to get an R rating, he tried to make his harmony so juicy that it fit the illicit love scenes he loved portraying. He found a way to release music from the bounds of a specific “key”; instead, his harmonies would wander endlessly, never, ever, ever resolving. It was perfect for Tristan and Isoulde, for every story that had exciting, tense, wistful, sweet, adulterous romance.

Where does this finally take us? I mentioned before that Monody shifted the emphasis onto making harmonies more interesting. For Classical composers since the early 17th century, it was like running the 100-meter dash. They were racing to try to make their harmony juicier, more complex, more interesting. Wagner’s innovation was an feat of inhuman proportion, breaking all known records. But shortly after that, one of the heirs to his great tradition manages to run this 100-meter dash toward ultimate harmonic complexity in zero seconds. His name was Arnold Schoenberg.

Schoenberg wrote what he called “pantonal” music, which is just a scary word for including all possible harmony at once. If you think about it, it’s only the logical thing to do, if you’re moving toward greater and greater harmonic interest. Of course, just like a pluralist trying to add together contradictory truths and coming up with nothing, Schoenberg put all tonalities together and came up with atonality. The biggest temptation is to scoff at his music and think that it’s only fringe Classical music. Surely it’s not really what we’re talking about when we say Classical music. But that’s a deadly mistake. A rudimentary education in Classical music sees atonality as its pinnacle, as indeed did almost all music composition departments after Schoenberg. This is not a two-year-old-banging-on-the-keys music, although it sounds really similar. It’s incredibly complex and a logical conclusion of where things were headed.

It’s also worth noting that Schoenberg was a sort of a nihilist and existentialist at the same time. That would have bothered most people, but he was a musician, so he was really bad at philosophy. Again, this shouldn’t make you scoff at his music; it should make you really want to understand it. He’s a brilliant musician. His knowledge of music could eclipse almost any man’s alive today. If anyone is good at communicating nihilist philosophy through music, it is not the head-banging junkie recording Satan-worship songs. It’s Schoenberg, who knew too much about Mozart and Haydn for his own good. That should make you wary of him, but it should make you eager to make the acquaintance of his music.

Tom Wolfe on Schoenberg

Admiration flows out of me for Tom Wolfe. Not a musician, and yet he shows a proper attitude toward Schoenberg. A thorough understanding and plenty of derision. In From Bauhaus to Our House, speaking of when European artists moved to America and their reception in America:

Arnold Schoenberg, the white god of all the white gods in European music, arrived as a refugee in 1936. For the next forty years, serious music in America became a footnote to Schoenberg’s theory of serial composition. There was considerable irony here. Many European composers looked to American jazz and to American composers such as George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Ferde Grofé as liberating forces, a way out of the hyperrationalization of European avant-garde music as typified by Schoenberg. But serious American composers, by and large, were having none of that. …They wanted the real thing—the European thing—and they fastened onto it with a vengeance. Thereafter, Gershwin, Copland, and Grofé were spoken of with condescension or else plain derision.

None of that detracts from the fact that Schoenberg is vastly influential and in need of thorough understanding. Tom Wolfe couldn’t have made such an educated statement had he not a grasp on the musical situation, something so many social critics fail to have with music in the 20th century.

Vaughan Williams’ Music History

Ralph Vaughan Williams in “The Romantic Movement and Its Results” (written in response to Brahms’ death) sketches music from 1750 to 1900 in terms of “classical” and “romantic”. These were not, for him, mutually exclusive in the chronological sense, only in the stylistic sense. In other words, he could easily make the case that Schubert was romantic and Beethoven was classical, although they were contemporaries or that Brahms was classical while Wagner was romantic, again, even though they were contemporaries.

Vaughan Williams defines his terms pretty neatly. “Beethoven was a classical composer—this does not mean that he was not imaginative, but it does mean that he was a musician and nothing else—that the emotional gem of his music was simply a musical pattern in his mind, which was translated into an analogous musical pattern on paper. With Beethoven, then, abstract form and emotional expression were inseparable, because they both sprang from the same source,” (Vaughan Williams on Music, 14).

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