The definition of good taste changes with the times - but sincerely felt, this may be the most important quality a performer can have
Though most people appreciate the meaning of good taste, it is not that easy to describe it in words. Yet at the very highest level of music making, where technical ability and expressive power are a given, it is taste that defines you as a performer. Good taste reflects Mozart’s romanticism through an 18th-century sensibility, honours Beethoven’s intimacy as much as his rhetoric, prevents Rachmaninov’s sentiments from sounding sentimental, and gives equal weight to Elgar’s Edwardian elegance and his Victorian pride. It is a question of balance, exploring contrasts without contradiction, unifying expression without limitation.
Every society has its own consensus of what constitutes good taste. And with this comes a danger of it being used by performers as an emotional safety net, a substitute for more personal feelings. This is one of the reasons it comes in for such disdain. 'The last resort of the second rate mind,' was Schoenberg’s opinion, whilst Picasso considered it an ‘enemy of creativity’. Brecht felt it ‘more important to be human’. But such vilification arises from its potential to be both self-conscious and insincere. As long as it is neither of those things, good taste is perhaps the most important quality any performer can have.
Musicians have an understandable fear of bad taste. But it is not always inappropriate. Not everyone shares Ravel’s feeling that 'you do not have to open up your chest to prove you have a heart'. Mahler wanted music to express the whole world, a world at times as vulgar as it is sophisticated. What makes up good taste is one thing; whether or not it’s always required is another.
The definition of good taste changes from one generation to the next. In fact periods can be portrayed as much by their interpretations as by their compositions. Music connects the period in which it was written to the period in which it is played, and the taste with which one performs it must do the same. If a work is heard purely within the aesthetic framework of its own time it speaks from behind the glass panels of a museum. To communicate to an audience directly, it needs to be played with reference to now. The distinction between ‘authentic’ and ‘historically informed’ performances is significant. The latter accepts that what was good taste once might not be so any longer. It is a performer’s job to mix the flavours of both worlds.
Good taste is a means, not an end. As a goal in itself it is unattainable, vanishing as instantly as water through a fork. It is too personal to be studied, yet too important to be ignored. Expressing yourself with it is vital, but seeking to do so is dangerous. There is a fine line between manners and mannerisms. Like the salt that releases the goodness of the food, it is an essential, not an extra ingredient. It is the point at which an individual and society come together and no great performance is without it.
Leading conductor Mark Wigglesworth is equally at home in the opera house as in the concert hall – and, indeed, the studio, where his acclaimed Shostakovich symphony cycle for BIS is nearing completion. In 'Shaping the invisible' Mark shares his passion for music and his fascination with the philosophies and psychologies that lie behind it. (Photo: Ben Ealovega)