In 1991, American composer Morton Gould wrote the following to a publisher: “If you believe what you write, this letter must surprise you even more than my surprise at reading my obituary in your new Penguin paperback Music Dictionary.”
Gould was alerted to this startling fact by board members at an ASCAP meeting over which he was presiding. His note continues, “I must tell you how singularly impressed they were (as was I) at my ability to still function against such odds. It was the highlight of that particular meeting.” In the next paragraph Gould explains that he wrote this note by hand to buttress his case that he was still alive.
About 100 years earlier, Mark Twain confronted similar rumors concerning his demise. He is recorded as saying, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
Both are humorous responses to an inherently funny situation. Twain uses seven words; Gould writes two paragraphs.
You may or may not agree, but I would suggest Twain’s much briefer reply is more effective, particularly his use of “exaggerated,” which highlights the absurdity of the false claim. After all, one is either dead or alive. There is no space between that can accommodate exaggeration
These examples open an interesting aesthetic question: whether less is more. I don’t pretend to have a definitive answer, but I can offer a couple of other examples.
Keeping our focus on music, Emperor Joseph II famously complained that Mozart’s "The Marriage of Figaro" had “too many notes.” Modern audiences, as did I, probably heard that line in "Amadeus," and concluded that the emperor didn’t know what he was talking about. But apparently he was expressing a common criticism of the great composer. Clearly, nobody now would agree with the notion that Mozart’s ”many notes” are an artistic disadvantage.
In contrast to the complaint about too many notes is the comment I heard on Interlochen Public Radio and attributed to the pianist Andras Schiff that Franz Schubert did more with one note than most composers managed with many more.
A lot of notes, or a few highly effective ones?
Robert Frost in a sonnet and Herman Melville in a chapter in Moby Dick both explore the idea that although we usually think of the color white in positive terms, as opposed, let’s say, to black, there is yet something troubling about whiteness.
Frost’s “Design” is a poem of fourteen lines, each containing 10 syllables. He describes how on a morning walk, he saw a white spider sitting on a white heal-all munching its breakfast of a dead white moth. These are three unusual instances of white. Spiders are not usually white, heal-alls are blue flowers, so this one apparently is dead, and moths, like spiders, are not generally pure white. The poem ends by asking whether an appalling “design of darkness” produced this white trifecta of intensified death.
In “The Whiteness of the Whale” Melville composes a 469-word periodic sentence listing the positive associations of whiteness, with examples from a variety of different cultures, each expressed in a subordinate clause beginning with the word “though.” He concludes this extraordinary sentence in its main clause that declares that in spite of all this evidence, there is something about white that “strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.”
William Faulkner in 1950 and Ernest Hemingway in 1954 won the Nobel Prize in literature, Faulkner by writing in great probing detail, Hemingway by understating so that his point is easily missed.
Similar contrasts can be found in other art forms, such as painting, or dance, or acting. Rather than decide whether more or less or something in the middle is most effective, let’s just say that the best is what works best.
Stephen Lewis, originally from Brooklyn, New York is a retired college English professor and writer whose novels include two mysteries set in northern Michigan.