Music Versus Digestion

GLADSTONE chewed his food thirty-two times (I think it was thirty-two) and the remarkable Mr. Fletcher chews his many times more. But it is n’t on record that either man has required a musical accompaniment to the act of mastication. On the contrary, I am personally convinced that music at meals is a crime against nature no less than against art; and the glass of hot milk I now have to force down my throat before retiring, and the pills I forget to remember to take during the day, and the stern injunction against fried foods and sweet desserts, are a direct result of that barbaric adjunct to our modern life, the café orchestra. Pick up any newspaper and read the advertisements under the classified head of “Places to eat,” — and following the name of the hotel or café in every case you find the words, “Music,” or “Genuine Hungarian orchestra,” or “Pizzicato’s Gypsy band.” “Places not to eat ” should be their classification. Yet what are you to do ? The trail of the fiddler is over them all, and it is either a case of good food with bad music at a hotel, or bad food and no music at a quick lunch or boarding-house; and in either case the end is indigestion. Modern life may cater to the appetite, but it ignores the stomach.

It will be observed, I fear, that I speak as a bachelor, or at best as one of those waifs of domesticity, those poor blighted blossoms of conjugal dreams, a married man or woman who lives in a hotel. Well, I am a bachelor, though I hasten to add that it is not my fault; so please, Gentle Reader, lend me your ears a little longer and do riot depart from my page at this point, with the words of Mr. Hennessey to the lonely Dooley on your lips: “I’ll lave ye to pay the rale bachelor’s tax.” I have to eat in restaurants and cafés, or starve. My married friends cannot be always inviting me to their groaning boards. I cannot expect to dine every evening in somebody else’s four by six flat, with a steam radiator roasting my back and a charming view of the air-shaft out of the dining-room window. Hence it is that by the stress of fate nightly I swallow oysters at a two-step, munch a roast to the doleful strains of an andante, and eat a caramel custard or chocolate ice cream to the dulcet delights of “Dearie.” Sometimes this programme is varied. I have often spooned up my soup to waltz time, and carved a steak while “ Waiting at the Church” appropriately symbolized my vexation at the delay of the waiter in bringing the table sauce. But perhaps the most thrilling experience is to eat a mutton chop to the Toreador song from Carmen. That even rivals eating squash pie and cheese to Liszt’s “ Second Hungarian Rhapsody.” There are two gastroharmonic combinations I have not yet met with, however, but which I live in hopes of meeting, as a climax to my musical career. One is to eat roast goose to the vorspiel of Parsifal, the other to find honey and the dance of Salome from the Strauss opera in happy conjunction. Somehow I could take a grim sort of satisfaction in the irony of these combinations. But I am still waiting.

Instead, my usual gastronomic accompaniment, I must confess, is the latest “song hit” from the Broadway musical comedies, or a coon song, or a mechanically rhythmic and cheaply melodious dance. If the tempo is rapid I, in common with everybody else in the café, eat too fast, chewdng and gulping in time to the band. If the tempo is slow a lugubrious sensation occurs that makes swallowing difficult, and the act of digestion almost painful. This is not mere idle fancy. It is a fundamental law of psychology that all stimuli to the organism are followed by motor reactions. Now, rhythm and harmony — even such rhythm and harmony as hotel orchestras supply — are particularly “exciting” auditory stimuli, to speak by the text book, and are followed not only by their own direct motor reactions but by the motor reactions from the emotions which they induce: muscular tension in the feet and legs, heightened pulse, short breathing, feelings of gloom and sadness, with a consequent “let down ” of the system, may all result. And in each and every case the attention of the organism is diverted from the real work at hand, which is to look after the food that is being put into the stomach. It is the digestion that suffers every time. This would be equally true if the band played Mozart instead of “The Belle of Mayfair.” In fact, you can sometimes ignore “ The Belle of Mayfair,” but you would have to listen to Mozart.

And on other than physiological grounds music at meals is quite as objectionable. It is loud, insistent, coming at stated intervals. No sooner, in a blessed lull, have you got the conversation turned into pleasant lanes and jogging nicely along, than — biff, scrape, clash, twang, and you are inundated by the Congo on its way to the sea or whelmed in the beauti - ful blue Danube. Some fool at the table invariably hums the words of the tune, which are invariably inane, and all further talk on the topic at hand is at an end. In fact, any talk at all is at an end till the band comes to a stop through exhaustion. It is most vexing as you are leaning across the table over a neglected dessert, to meet a fair face that is leaning toward yours, as words of import are perhaps about to pass those ruby lips, to have suddenly flung at you in shape of a tune, “Why do they call me a Gibson girl, a Gibson girl, a Gibson girl ? ” Your soul is black with curses as you sit back, those silly words dancing to the sillier tune in your head in spite of all your will power, the golden moment passed, the situation all to be worked up to again, if, indeed, it can ever be worked up to again. The best that can be said for music at meals is that it may sometimes be a last resort of those shallow-brained hotel butterflies who have nothing in themselves to talk about. All the rest is bad — is a prostitution of a noble art, a hindrance to conversation and true conviviality, an enemy of the stomach, and an ally of dyspepsia.

It is very pleasant to read in old romance how the master of the thane’s hall rose in his place at the banquet and cried with a flourish, “ What, ho ! Let the minstrels strike ! ” But the forced habitué of the modern hotel restaurant reads a sad evolutionary beginning into the tale, and prays that the modern minstrels may strike, indeed, by vote of the Musical Union.