Music and Wine – Some Reflections

 Music and Wine – Some Reflections

by Jancis Robinson

25 May 2016 –  Robert Slotover is a classical music agent with an abiding love of wine, particularly that made from obscure grape varieties. Here he muses on connections between his two great interests.

Music and wine? There seems to be a connection but what is it? Setting ‘Lunchtime O’Boulez’ [the British satirical magazine Private Eye’s music critic] aside, there have been attempts to marry wine and music both in the vineyard and tasting room. Rather a lot has been written about the effect of playing music to the grapes in the vineyard and to the wine in the cellar. Even more about how music might change the perception of wine. Some of these articles sound scientific but looking at the so-called ‘crossmodal correspondences’ (‘Wine and music (II): can you taste the music? Modulating the experience of wine through music and sound’ by Charles Spence and Qian Wang, BioMed Central, 20 November 2015), they look totally subjective and unscientific to me. [You can read more about Qian/Janice Wang in Varsity tasting match – an Asian triumph published earlier this year – JR]

Music recommendations to enhance the flavour of particular varietal wines
These examples are quoted by Spence and Wang.

Cabernet Sauvignon
‘All along the Watchtower’ – Jimi Hendrix
‘Honky Tonk Woman’ – The Rolling Stones
‘Live and Let Die’ – Paul McCartney and Wings
‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ – The Who

‘Atomic’ – Blondie
‘Rock DJ’ – Robbie Williams
‘What’s Love Got To Do With It?’ – Tina Turner
‘Spinning Around’ – Kylie Minogue

‘Nessun Dorma’ – Puccini
‘Orinoco Flow’ – Enya
‘Chariots of Fire’ – Vangelis
‘Canon’ – Johann Pachelbel

‘(Sitting On) The Dock of The Bay’ – Otis Redding
‘Easy’ – Commodores
‘Over the Rainbow’ – Eva Cassidy
‘Heartbeats’ – Jose Gonzalez

I would suggest just as valid could be:

Cabernet Sauvignon = Beethoven
Chardonnay = Mozart
Syrah = Wagner
Merlot = Brahms

Perhaps it would be interesting to know what the great composers drank?
How about these pairings:

Sweets, cheese Champagne
Fillets of fish Bordeaux (St-Émilion, St-Estèphe, Pauillac)
Pastry, mushrooms, turkey Rhine wine
Lean salami, pigs trotters,
Macheroni with caviar, tuna or bottarga Madeira

To which famous classical composer would you ascribe these? Someone a bit avant-garde perhaps? Luciano Berio? Luigi Nono? No, indeed no, these are the combinations of none other than Gioachino Rossini (pictured), the most famous gourmet among the great composers. He was not known for progressive tendencies in music but these are rather bold food pairings to which he gave careful consideration when planning his famous Saturday night dinners in Paris during his long retirement.

What then were the tastes of the 20th-century avant garde? In the period when he drank wine at all, Boulez was not much concerned with what he drank. Stockhausen shared a taste for Rhine wine with Beethoven, which is not surprising since they came from the same area (Cologne/Bonn). Luciano Berio produced his own wine, a Tuscan IGT called Precale, so in terms of wine they were a good deal less avant-garde than Rossini.

Wagner liked St Péray, the Rhône white suddenly back in favour these days. He ordered 100 bottles for Bayreuth. When Verdi set off for an extended stay in St Petersburg to rehearse and conduct the world premiere of his ‘Russian’ opera, La forza del destino, he took cases of Bordeaux with him, not wine from his native Emilia-Romagna.

Schubert is known to have liked a glass or three. In 1827 he visited the castle of Wildbach and was recorded as having very much enjoyed drinking the Schilcher (rosé) from Blauer Wildbacher grapes, a wine still very much appreciated

‘After the weekend, Schubert and Jenger, in the company of Anselm Huettenbrenner and the Pachlers, made a three-day visit to the castle of Wildbach some twenty miles south-west of Graz, which was managed by an aunt of Dr Pachler, Anna Massegg. Again they made music, assisted by Massegg’s eldest daughter, in a beautiful ‘blue room’ with fine views across the garden; and they were refreshed by generous supplies of the excellent local wine, the Schilcher, a light rosé which proved a particular favourite with Schubert.’
 (Franz Schubert, A Biography by Elizabeth Norman McKay, Clarendon, 1996)

Schubert’s favourite wine apart from this Schilcher came from the red Kadarka grape known as the nectar of Szekszárd. There is a legend that it inspired him to write the Trout Quintet.

Liszt had an equal love for the wines of Szekszárd, now considered a rival to Villány as a wine-growing area in Hungary. He adapted a mass for a friend there and called it the Szekszárd Mass. He even sent a gift of the wine to Gustav von Hohenlohe at the Vatican, who was to admit him to minor orders of the priesthood. Liszt wrote, ‘his holiness Pius IX was good enough to give it greater approval than too many speeches by Hungarian bishops’.

The Hungarians have not been slow to realise the marketing possibilities of using Liszt’s image and even spelling Szekszard in a more suggestive way.

There can be no mention of Liszt without also speaking of Brahms of course. I haven’t yet discovered which wine Brahms favoured, but there is an anecdote that suggests he may have been discerning: A wine connoisseur invited Brahms to dinner and in his honour brought out some of his choicest bottles. ‘This is the Brahms of my cellar’, he announced to the company. After taking a sip, Brahms is supposed to have muttered, ‘Better bring out your Beethoven.’

Sometimes composers preferred stronger stuff. Mussorgsky sadly overdid the vodka but he is one of the very few composers to drink himself to death. Stravinsky liked whisky, beginning with Chivas Regal, going on to Ballantine’s 30 Year Old and ending up with Ambassador. Taylor & Ferguson’s Ambassador was hugely popular in America in the late 1960s and 1970s, and was advertised as ‘the world’s lightest Scotch’. Stravinsky’s supplier even traveled to Venice to attend his funeral. He was a good customer, sometimes referring to himself as Strawhisky.

In Mozart’s day, consumption of wine in Vienna was a litre per day for each man, woman and child . We have to remember that water was only for washing and cooking. Beethoven frequently complained about the wine to be had in Vienna. He probably drank whites from what he called Krumpolz-Kirchen and reds from Voslau. He wasn’t known as a particularly heavy drinker; one report has it that he drank no more than one bottle per meal. On his deathbed he begged his publisher in Mainz (Schott Söhne) to send him some good Rhine wine. His last words have variously been reported as ‘Plaudite, amici, finita est comoedia’ and ‘I shall hear it in heaven’ but Anselm von Huettenbrenner, who was present, reported to  Alexander Wheelock Thayer, Beethoven’s first serious biographer as follows;

‘About one o’clock the special shipment of wine and wine mixed with herbs came from Mayence (Mainz), and Schindler placed the bottles on the table near the bed. Beethoven looked at them and murmured, “Pity, pity – too late!” He spoke no more. A little of the wine was administered to him in spoonfuls at intervals, as long as he could swallow it. Towards evening he lost consciousness and the death struggle began’.

Interesting though these anecdotes may be, they prove only that great musicians in the past had a great deal less opportunity to discriminate than we do today. Champagne and Tokay were universally known and loved. Otherwise it was a matter of whatever they could get their hands on. Nevertheless they did when they could.

I’ll end with two quotes, one from the world of wine evoking terms more commonly used in music and the other from music evoking wine:

‘wine is quietly unique in human experience: a creation in which human beings and the natural world have almost equal roles; a creation which is experienced sensually, intellectually and emotionally, and at its best has a spiritual force, too’ Andrew Jefford

‘Music is the wine which inspires one to new generative processes, and I am Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunk.’ Beethoven

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