Friday, January 10, 2014

Miss Pommery, and middle C

"You see Mr. Kittredge, it really wasn't Tracy at all. It was another girl, a Miss Pommery,  '26 ...."

The line comes towards the end of The Philadelphia Story, in a scene in which heroine Tracy Lord's friend tries to explain to Tracy's stuffed-shirt fiancé why the bride behaved rather extravagantly at the party the night before. "You'd had too much to drink," the stuffed shirt grudgingly allows. I like the line so much I made it the tagline to my blog (even though I can't fit it all in the header anymore, since changing to "Dynamic Views." But that's another story).

Here is Miss Pommery herself. She's a champagne. 


Actually there are many of her -- you might call her a family of sisters, Brut Rosé, Brut Grand Cru Millésime, etc. -- this being Brut Royal. The modern equivalent of Tracy Lord's vintage Pommery '26, though a bit above our everyday price range, would be the house's prestige bottling, Cuvée Louise. That's a family of sisters, too.

How can I describe the way Pommery tastes? I sipped it at an Easter party a few weeks ago. The word that came to mind was "full."  The appropriate French words on Pommery's website are more graceful, but they say almost the same thing. Finesse, rond (round), vif (life, lively). While sipping this flute of golden depth and richness, I found I didn't want to bother discerning much else, or making the usual mental notes about apricot or biscuit or whatever. I simply kept on sipping. It is delicious, its complexities beyond what I understand.

Beyond what I understand -- and there are many more like it, or better. The world of wine begins to remind me of the world of great music. You remember I went out on a limb recently and bought myself a clock radio. I have been enjoying it ever since, especially at night when I can set the timer and go to bed listening to the strains of whatever WFMT is playing. (Recently some friends and I agreed that bedtime has become a delicious ritual, what with a glass of wine beforehand and lots of pillows and a cat or two, and a clock radio with a timer. We agreed also that all this must amount to the most comical signs of galloping middle age.) I can savor my radio and bed routine every night except Saturday, when the station still broadcasts that hoary and insufferable old Midnight Special. If you have never had the pleasure, let me warn you off. It's lots of self-adoring folk singers twanging guitars and congratulating themselves on how they, marvelous creatures, "don't hate anybody." Shock, then brave loud cheers and applause from the audience, and then more twanging and strumming about injustice, and Our Voices "singing louder than the guns." Yes, do try that in Syria very soon, won't you?  

Anyway, for most of the rest of each week WFMT regains its senses and does fine work  teaching me about fine music. When I hear something I like, I go to YouTube to hear it again, and perhaps see old video clips of opera performances or piano recitals. Robert Schumann's "Andante and variations for two pianos, two cellos, and horn" made me feel I was in a nineteenth-century drawing room, complete with horsehair sofas, vases of pampas grass, and carriages rattling past outside the window. And look at that woman pianist's big, fat, hammy hands. That is strength. Richard Strauss' oboe concerto was hypnotizing and lovely -- I thought he only did loud crashing "Also Sprach Zarathustra" stuff (think 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Elvis' big Vegas introduction theme). And if there is music more beautiful than Barbara Bonney singing Mozart's Laudate Dominum, I don't know it yet. The text is a Latin translation of Psalm 117, whose short five lines begin "Praise the Lord, all the nations." I wonder if some musician could sometime "transcribe" it, is that the word? -- to be sung in Hebrew.


What with my clock radio and my Pommery and so on, it struck me. The difficulty in learning about great music is that, as with wine, one starts from nothing. I couldn't find middle C on a piano to save my life, I don't understand what great singers or players are doing with their trills and "arpeggios," and I certainly don't know what any long-dead composer wanted them to do with a key or scale or anything else. Earlier eras must have been wise to lay it down that music be a part of everyone's education, not only music appreciation but playing and singing too. Surely knowing how to pick out a simplified version of Laudate Dominum even on a hurdy-gurdy would help in understanding "what Mozart was trying to do." Certainly I can't tell who, in all the YouTube videos, is sublime and who is very very good.

As with wine: we start from nothing. Rieslings might be red or Pinot Noir a brand name. You can't tell what, in any bottle, is sublime and what is very very good. This matters because it's all very well for a more knowledgeable person in either field to say "how marvelous, isn't the homework fun, what a world of delight opens up before you," etc. etc., but that is not the same thing as knowing what on earth you are about now. Ever since starting my wine career in a little suburban shop, I have noticed how anxious novices are to be perceived as instinctively liking the best. They also want to be perceived as instinctively recoiling from flaws and humbug or even good yeoman product. As with wine, so, I suspect, with music. The middle-aged novice especially has so much ground to make up.

There is nothing for it, of course, but to carry on listening and learning, just as there is nothing for it but to carry on drinking. (You know what I mean.) Upon being introduced to both pleasures, one finds they speedily become necessities. So now if you have three minutes to spare, do go to YouTube and savor, for example, the English horn solo from Act III of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. This is what Lucia is talking about in E. F. Benson's The Worshipful Lucia when she says, "it's like the last act of Tristan, when the shepherd boy goes on playing the cor anglais forever and ever." Type in "Tristan cor anglais" on YouTube's search bar and you will find half a dozen performances to choose from.

That done, set aside a little cash for your Pommery brut royal. It will retail for about $35.

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