Friday, February 11, 2011

Candied Goethe

I am, normally, totally immune to kitsch.

However, last weekend—while Joshua and I were visiting an antique shop—I picked up a couple of items that probably fit the definition of “kitsch”.

I bought two opera plates from France.

Between the 1880s and 1920s, a French porcelain manufacturer commissioned and produced a set of twelve plates, each plate devoted to an opera then popular with the French public. Production of the plates continued in France until the worldwide Depression of the 1930s.

The plates produced in France are somewhat prized, although they do not command a high price on the collectibles market because significant numbers of the plates were issued. Extreme rarity the plates do not possess.

In the 1940s, the original French manufacturer licensed eight of the series of twelve opera plates to two American plate manufacturers, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast. The plates manufactured in the U.S. acquired astonishing popularity during World War II, perhaps because Americans sympathized with occupied France.

The original French manufacturer also licensed eight of the series to a Japanese plate manufacturer in the 1950s. There are, consequently, four different versions of the opera plates circulating.

The plates produced in the U.S. and Japan are smaller in circumference than the French originals and are of much lower quality both in terms of porcelain and painting. The manufacturer and country of issue are stamped upon all four versions of the plates, so the buyer may ascertain which particular version of the plates he is buying—and the version of the plates I encountered and purchased was that of the original French manufacturer.

One of the plates I purchased was the “Faust” plate.

I have always believed that Charles Gounod’s “Faust” is one of the finest operas ever written—and I have always believed that “Faust” must be performed uncut, that the ballet must be included, and that all four intermissions must be observed. Anything less destroys the structure of Gounod’s masterpiece.

The other plate I purchased was the “Mignon” plate.

I have always believed Ambroise Thomas’s “Mignon” to be a greatly-undervalued opera, a work of incomparable grace and charm. “Mignon”, in my view, should never have disappeared from the active repertory.

My mother loves French opera, and my sister-in-law loves French opera, so I shall offer one plate to my mother and one plate to my sister-in-law. Each recipient shall have the option of hanging the plate in her kitchen—or putting the plate in a drawer, never to emerge.

As for me, my fondness for “Faust” and “Mignon” is genuine—but, in my father’s words, my fondness signifies nothing more than a love for “candied Goethe”.

Am I not as immune to kitsch as I suppose?

(I love Jules Massenet’s “Werther”, too.)


  1. That’s okay, Andrew. I have a few cuddly teddy bears in my own “kitsch cache“:

    Grofe: “The Grand Canyon Suite”

    Khachaturian: “Gayane” (1958 revision)

    Khachaturian: Piano Concerto

    Barber: “Commando March” (The
    composer later denied he wrote it)

    Janacek: Violin sonata

    Khachaturian: Symphony Nr 2

    Adams: “Nixon in China”

    Hovanhess: “Mountains and Rivers without End”

    Ruggles: “Men and Mountains”

    Peterson-Berger: Symphony Nr 3

    Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue

    Celia: “Adriana Lecouvreur”

    Strauss: “Die Frau ohne Schatten”

    Strauss: “Symphonia Domestica”

    Hanson: Symphony Nr 2

    Schreker: “Die Gezeichneten”

    Ades: “Assyla”

    George Lloyd: Symphony Nr 5

    Dali: "Tuna Fishing"

  2. How could I forget Shostakovitch's Symphony Nr. 7?

  3. I like many of those pieces, and few of them would I categorize as “kitsch”. I think “Adriana Lecouvreur”, for instance, is a beautiful work, elegantly and soundly constructed.

    If I study anything long enough, I can teach myself to like it.

    There are exceptions. Is any music more insipid than that of Herbert Howells? And early Verdi, to me, is a profound bore: formulaic and one-dimensional.

    I have lost interest in Adams. I think he has been written out for at least fifteen years, perhaps twenty.