Friday, February 6, 2009

Critiquing the critics

There is this neat story on the site Slate by Jan Swafford, about a book about music critics and music criticism. I read it because I like Jan Swafford's book on Johannes Brahms. It has this dreamy picture of Brahms on the cover. It is a lot like the painting pictured above.

We do love pictures of Johannes Brahms on this blog! We do not often resist the opportunity to run one.

Swafford's book was written beautifully, I thought, not like a lot of composer biographies that you find. Isn't it terrible when you are very interested in the person someone is writing about, but then it turns into work just to slog through every page? I have had that experience frequently.

You can read Swafford's Slate story here. He talks about a 1953 book by Nicholas Slonimsky, "Lexicon of Musical Invective," that chronicles acerbic critics through the ages. In the book, Slonimsky chronicled the scathing reviews that greeted many pieces that subsequently turned out to be masterpieces.

What about the flip side of that: pieces of music that get great reviews but turn out to be crud? Someone should write a book about that.

Back to this essay. Swafford found in Slonimsky's book a review someone wrote about Wagner calling his music "this din of brasses, tin pans and kettles, this Chinese or Caribbean clatter..."

And he puts that the legendary critic Eduard Hanslick, who loved Brahms and hated Wagner, wrote about Tchaikovsky: "We see plainly the savage vulgar faces, we hear curses, we smell vodka..." He was writing about Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto of all things.

Does vodka have a smell? I did not know that.

Here is a picture of Eduard Hanslick in case anyone is wondering what he looked like. I always like knowing what people looked like.

Swafford raises a number of interesting points but I am not sure I agree with his conclusion. Which is: "The great lousy reviews arose because critics and audiences truly cared about music and its future. Critics were sometimes reactionary, boneheaded and cockamamie, but music mattered to them. If we no longer enjoy the uproars and the withering screeds of yesteryear, it's mainly because people no longer care passionately enough about what they hear in the concert hall to want to murder somebody over it."

That is a nice argument but he misses something. He forgot to take into account our P.C. era. We are all forced to be far more worried about hurting someone else's feelings than they were back in the day. A lot of what these people wrote in the paper 100 years ago -- even 50 years ago -- you cannot write in the paper any more.

Imagine if you wrote that business about vodka and vulgarity, playing on the fact that Tchaikovsky is Russian! Or that you referred to Chinese or Caribbean clatter!

You would lose your job, I will tell you that right now.

1 comment:

  1. Well, one of the nice things about blogging is that one can be as politically un-correct as one wants, and if a reader protests about anything by launching a personal attack, the blogger can simply remove the comment.

    As for 19th and 20th century critics, sometimes one has to dig. Henry Krehbiel's attacks on Mahler, when Mahler was conducting the NY Philharmonic, were relentless. Recent research brought to light the fact that Krehbiel was a faculty member of a music school run by Walter Damrosch, who was music director of the rival New York Symphony. Conflict of interest, or artistic disagreement?

    I don't know if this is in the Lexicon, but a perfect comeback once came from violinist Nathan Milstein. Rehearsing the Tchaikovsky concerto with Fritz Reiner, Reiner said, at the end of the rehearsal "This piece stinks!"

    Milstein replied "Write one better."