Is Everyone A Critic? (1990)
Many of you in this audience who are musicians will be familiar with “Essays in Musical Analysis” by the incomparable English critic, conductor, composer and program annotator Donald Francis Tovey, who died in 1940. If you look in the index of the sixth volume of the essays, you will find this entry: “Critics: see Experts.” So you look under Experts, and what do you think it says? Yes, you’re right. It says, “Experts, see Critics.”
Critics, you see, are not very popular people. Sometimes they are even figures of fun – pompous, finicky, fault-finding, mean and nasty self-appointed experts on everything. They may, on the other hand, be respected, admired, perhaps weird, and sometimes regarded as really worth paying attention to. But loved? Rarely, if ever. If you tell anybody anything you don’t like about them, to their face or at least in print, you are not likely to retain them as friends.
And what do artists really want? The story is told of a famous singer who is awakened one morning after her recital by the maid, who said, “Madam, I have the newspaper here; does Madame wish to read the criticism?” “Criticism?” roared the prima donna; “Criticism? Praise is good enough for me!”
Whatever else critics are supposed to be, if not experts, it is certain that their function does not include being publicity agents for artists. In fact, they appear to be pitted against artists, which is unfortunate. But surely, they are not expected to produce puffery or flattery or undeluded bravos. What then, is their function, beyond reporting who, what, when and where? Then there comes the how, and sometimes the why.
A pianist once wrote a note to a critic after the morning paper came out. The note said, “Dear Sir: If you know so much about it, why don’t you come up here and play the recital?” The critic wrote back: “My Dear Sir: It isn’t necessary to be able to lay an egg to smell a bad one.”
That’s pretty brutal but it touches the core of the issue. The critic’s job is to evaluate what he has seen or read or heard. But don’t we all do the same thing? Are we not all “critics”? Don’t we put a value on everything—on what we eat and drink, and what we wear and what other people wear, and cars, and houses, and women if we are men, and men if we are women, and any other way you want to set it up? Is not just about everything we do and think based on a system of values? Now who sets up those values? Who decides what is good, not so good, bad, worse or just plain horrible? You remember the wonderful old movie, “The Scarlet Pimpernel” with Leslie Howard. In it, a British lord says about something: “Not so bad, not so bad.” And another lord responds, “My dear sir, nothing is quite so bad as that which is not so bad.”
The dictionary tells us that criticism comes from the Greek word krinein, which means “to judge, to discern.” A kritikos is someone who is able to discuss the subject, to observe it, perhaps to censor it. The dictionary calls criticism the act of criticizing, especially unfavorably; but the second entry is this: “The art of judging with knowledge and propriety the beauties and faults of works of art and literature; hence, consideration of moral and logical values.” That’s quite a challenge! But then, on the same page, we find the word criterion, which is evidently from the same root. It means “a standard for judging; a rule or test by which anything is tried in forming a correct judgment respecting it.” In simplified form, a standard of values. Now who sets that? Who says something is correct and something else is not?
We are approaching at this point the study of aesthetics and indeed of philosophy. The issue of value is one of the central problems about aesthetics and philosophy, and I couldn’t pretend to deal with it thoroughly in the course of such a talk as this. To put it most concisely, mankind has developed a whole series of quality judgments about all aspects of its life; but different people and nations and ethnic groups may not be in agreement about what is good or great or acceptable or even useful or useless, especially in the area of the arts. We are likely to say, “This or that is a great painting;” but someone highly educated but from an entirely different culture may have no feeling for it at all, may even find it offensive. Now even within our cultural circle there are different degrees of education, of literacy, of aesthetics, of sensitivity, and (most important of all) of experience. It is absolutely possible, even likely, that the majority of today’s concert audiences are hearing for the first time a piece that listeners of long experience have known for years or decades. The critic is expected to be one of these, and we pay attention to what he or she says because it just may add something to our knowledge and our understanding.
Everybody, you see, has an opinion about everything. All of us form opinions the moment we experience anything. The performance of a piece of music will instantly evoke in us a whole series of responses. They may begin with “I like it” or “I hate it” or “I don’t get this” or “OK, but so what” to “that’s fabulous.” We may share these feelings or responses with our wives or husbands, our friends, our seatmates; but we are not responsible for our opinions. The critic, on the other hand, is a professional listener; he or she is responsible for what appears in the review, to the extent that the critic must be able to defend his opinion with reason as well as emotion. The critic’s review is a document of sorts; it says, this is how I heard it, this is what it was like. It would be grand if every review could be headed with luminescent letters that say “In my opinion.” But in any case, that should be understood by the reader. It is an opinion.
But on what is that opinion based? It is not absolutely necessary that the critic who describes and evaluates a work of art have some solid experience to bring to the concert in the first place? Ideally, he or she should have studied music and be able to read musical notation; it isn’t always the case, but it would help. The critic should, if possible, have heard the piece in question before, or if it is brand new, have read about it, studied the score and found out what the composer himself intended to do. The critic should measure the composer’s work by that composer’s intent and standard, not only against some imaginary and Olympian commandment. The critic should be aware how the piece has been done by other performers, so that he (for convenience, let me call the critic a “he”) has been able to develop some kind of vision of how the piece might go, and then be confirmed, or perhaps surprised—happy or unhappy. In short, the critic tells us also who he is, as a musician, as a sensitive listener, as an observer, and as a literary figure. The critic has to have not only well-founded opinions, but must also be able to express them effectively. When asked one day by a student how the young man could become a music critic, the great critic Virgil Thompson replied simply, “study music and learn to write.”
It would lead us too far afield to discuss at this point the career of music criticism, to see what happens after you have studied music and learned to write. Let it merely be said that if anyone has talent for writing about music, that person could also aspire to be a record and book reviewer, a program annotator, an author of special scholarly or entertaining articles. He or she could do interviews with noted artists and publish them; do articles on arts funding and labor management issues. He or she could become affiliated with a classical radio station; do previews of new works coming up; write jacket liners, music publicity releases, and so forth and so on. What counts is talent, persistence, and a great deal of good luck. At the Cleveland Institute of music, there is now a course in program annotation taught by Richard E. Rodda, who is also the annotator for the Dallas Symphony; and his students are writing the excellent notes for every program of orchestral and chamber music given at the Institute. Good writers are being trained in that process, and we are discovering talented young people.
Not the least of a music critic’s rewards, once his career is underway, is the discovery of new talent, drawing attention to gifted people by providing them with favorable mention. I still remember with pleasure the early career of Leontyne Price, and being among the first half dozen critics to herald a great young artist. And the life of the music critic? It’s hard, I can tell you. How many of us are at our intellectual best between 10:30 PM and midnight?
It is sad to consider how many critics of the past have been stick-in-the-mud reactionaries. Their remarks—proved ridiculously wrong by the passage of time—make sobering reading today. It should be one of the greatest pleasures for a critic to be not only an admirer of the past, a sympathetic observer of the present, but also an eager and helpful proponent/advocate of the future.
We mentioned criteria of quality. What are they? Or at least, what are some of the most important? When we evaluate a piece of music, new or old, we look for substance rather than surface. We look for a real style rather than fad or fashion. We look for individuality and originality rather than to rule or custom. We expect a sense of integrity rather than quick-success effects. We ask whether the piece is fresh or stale, whether it is shapely or shapeless. We prefer a consistency of style to borrowing from all-and-sundry, an eclectic mélange. We determine, at least for ourselves, if it has anything to say, whether it conveys an artistic experience that is meaningful to us and, we hope, to others. Does the music communicate or bore? Is it alive or dead? Does it have a future or a past? Are there not pieces that seem extremely well constructed but seem hollow inside? And how can we tell? Well, that’s where experience and insight come into the picture.
When we evaluate a performance, we first expect that it will be technically well done. That’s basic. If a performer is not competent, the chances of a performance being worthwhile is much diminished to say the least. Then comes the question of fidelity to the score, to the written evidence of a composer’s intent. When we have a piece of 18th Century music, or even earlier, we cannot be absolutely sure what the composer wanted us to do. But if we have studied sources in musical history, we have a pretty good idea. We can have a very good idea of style—whether or not the performer understands and conveys it. The whole authentic (original instruments) movement we ought to at least know about, and develop our own ideas. Does the performer observe the spirit as well as the letter of the law when it comes to expression markings? Can we tell the difference between sentiment and sentimentality? Is it all tastefully done or exaggerated and pulled out of shape?
We must also be aware that there is simply not one way to perform a piece. If there were only one way, why don’t we record it, say “that’s it” and allow no more performances by anybody? Of course, there are many different approaches; we should respect them and see how they work for us. In art criticism, comparisons are not odious but necessary. But we must be aware of comparing apples and pears. Comparisons between performances tell the reader important things, also about the critic: who he or she is as an observer and student of musical art.
Constant self criticism is a crucial part of the craft and art of composition, the craft and art of performance. Good criticism not only describes accurately and sensitively what happened, but it makes us think. It causes us to consider aspects we may not have thought of during the performance; it may confirm our opinion or contradict it. But I feel sorry for the person who, when asked what he or she thought about the concert, replies “Well, I can’t say; I haven’t read the review yet.” No, we must learn to form our responses, our opinions right at the moment, and then see how they stack up against those of an experienced concert goer who has been a member of the audience along with us. The fact that a critic is often a shaper of opinion must make him all the more responsible.
Now basing one’s opinion on some solid background and actual experience in music making would seem to be a necessity for anyone who steps forth in print. But you can easily understand that, on the whole, it is a good idea for critics and performers not to be personally acquainted, not to mention being personal friends. That’s hard to do when critics are also composers or performers themselves. It is more difficult to write honestly about the work of someone you know well. When I worked as a critic, I observed that unwritten rule as far as practically possible; but there was at least one interesting case where I broke the rule. I tell you the story because it has to do with that issue of “on what is an opinion based?”.
A young diploma student at the New England Conservatory, a Frenchman about 19 years old, decided to give a public recital at Jordan Hall in Boston. He sent tickets to the press. The Christian Science Monitor, the paper for which I was writing at the time, sent me to cover it. Well, the young man was just dreadful. He came onstage as if he were Rubinstein and Horowitz all rolled into one, and proceeded to annihilate the music with amazing thoroughness. Oh, he had technique to burn, but for what was it used? So before I went home, I left a note at the desk of the conservatory that said, “if Mr. So and So would like to talk to me when the review comes out at noon the next day, I would be available.” After all, he was 19 and a student, not a well-established performer. At 12:30 the phone ring and a voice said, “you wanted to see me?” I said, “no, but if you would like to talk to me, here is where I am.” “I’ll be right over,” said the voice. Now my brief review had simply stated that the young man had evident talent and good fingers, but he would have to become an artist before he gave any more recitals in public.
I was in my office in the Boston University library when the young man arrived. He came in with fists virtually clenched; I thought he was ready to knock me out. I said, “Hi; nice to see you. Sit down; let me ask you a few questions.” I open the score of the Mozart Sonata he had played. “Look here,” I said; “In this spot, Mozart has a chord on the first beat; and then there are three beats of rest, clearly marked. Why did you hold the pedal down through the whole measure?”
His jaw dropped open. You see, he thought he had been personally attacked without just cause, and for that reason I had it in for him. This kind of conversation he had not expected. “Look,” I continued. “Here Beethoven has a scale running up, crescendo, and right at the end the highest note is marked “subito piano”: ‘suddenly soft.’ Why did you hit fortissimo?” There were a few more examples, and he became as meek as a lamb. He thanked me profusely for my time and effort, and promised as if on a stack of Bibles that he would thenceforth mend his ways and become the best artist he could. He left and, as far as I know, no one has ever heard from him again. Perhaps I am wrong, but his personality may have got in the way of an artistic career.
Technically speaking, a critic ought to be able to do this kind of thing, to back up his opinions with musical facts without becoming a kind of Oracle or super teacher. If he claims that so-and-so played a piece much too fast, and that isn’t factually true, a sort of lie has been spoken. Now if the critic has said, “The tempo taken by maestro So-and-So seems to have been faster than the orchestra could manage, then that makes sense. If the critic says that the tempo was so slow as to be lethargic, he may (a) be quite right or (b) unaware that that was generally accepted tempo or (c) have felt that slowness in this case was not broad and dignified and impressive, but just dull. If you ask him about it, could he talk about it with some conscious awareness of how he came to that conclusion?
In one of our seminars this week we played a movement from a Mozart symphony in several performances in different tempos. Which was “right” and which was “wrong?” Were any of them wrong, or did they all have some justification within the context, and within the general musical character of the peace and the conductor? Did it work or didn’t it? Were there extremes of tempo, or was it within an acceptable area of speed? Was there something to learn from these different approaches? Was there something interesting about the courtly and civilized approach taken by Sir Thomas Beauchamp versus the rather brusk but exciting one of Serge Koussevitzky?
And here, of course, we enter the area not only of tempo but of interpretation itself. Interpreting, in diplomacy, means translating one language into another. The pianist or violinist or conductor, in turn, “interprets” the written musical score as he understands it. He brings to life a blueprint, the way an architect does. He follows the written instructions but he also filters them through his personality. It is simply not possible to take a written score and make it sound without some sort of personal touch. If you do it mechanically, the result will be like the early electronic performances of Bach on the Moog—some of you will remember. They were artistically dead; the breath of life, the touch of humanity, was not upon them.
Now the critic must try to enter the feeling world of the interpreter. He must attempt to understand what the performer is doing; he may disagree with the results but he must—he absolutely must—be open to new impressions, to new experiences, to different approaches from the one he’s used to. If he insists on squeezing everything into a space of his own limitations then he will miss the performer’s attempt to reach him on a new level of feeling. It is quite true that we all, and the critic especially, may have developed a kind of an ideal vision of certain pieces, and we tend to demand that everything conform to that vision. It is good to have a concept of what is good, what works, what is superb, what sets the standard for others. But we must be able—the responsible critic most of all—to hear things freshly, to be surprised, to discover new and unexpected aspects. The critic may say, “Maestro So-and-So brought out so many inner voices and counter lines that the principal themes were quite obscured; the balance was all wrong.” Or he may say, “Maestro So-and-So found for us many details in the score which we had never noticed before; it was a fascinating exposition of the texture in that thrice-familiar symphony.” You see, the same thing is said but in different ways and from a different starting point.
Which brings us to the issue of critics disagreeing with one another, leaving the reader confused and perhaps annoyed. Who is right? Who is wrong? Have we not all had the experience of saying, “He must’ve gone to a different concert from the one I went to!” Is it true that the reliable critic is the one who agrees with our opinion? But what if we were not there? What are we going to do with diametrically opposed reviews of the same piece or the same performance? Or the same movie! Just watch the TV film critics Siskel and Ebert!
The famous English critic Neville Cardus dealt with that question in an essay in the mid 1950s: “It is generally supposed to be a severe indictment of music criticism that if six critics deliver a judgment . . . there will usually be six different versions. Even supposing this charge were always to contain a deal of truth, it would not necessarily mean that a music critic’s profession is less useful than others . . . There’s little unanimity of opinion on anything. Put six people in the same railway compartment and you’ll hear six different views about the temperature and the stuffiness, and nobody will agree whether or not the window should be dropped. If disagreement is common when the human mind is grappling with matters as simple and objective as draughts of air, we are bound to fall into profound relativity as soon as we consider the subjective problems of taste and quality in music. But it is not true that six trained critics would most probably disagree fundamentally about the same work. There may be small differences, touching only surface aspects of a masterpiece, such as the B Minor Mass of Bach—but no qualified critic, knowing the music fairly well, would miss the essential greatness. But there’s the rub: knowing the work.” Fine; but what if the work under discussion is not an established classic? Or if it is a new work not known to any of the six? Or if it isn’t the work that’s on trial anymore, but the way it’s performed?
Cannot the critic himself become an interpreter, one who brings the composer’s intent to a wider public, and become in the process a kind of mediator between the creative artist and the consumer? In this way the critic is not only a super listener, but a fellow artist of the composer, who speaks for him, defends him against performers who seem to do him an injustice, and thus becomes not only an observer but a participant in the magic circle of composer/performer/listener.
Here are four reviews of the same Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Munch from April 1956. The critic of The Boston Herald wrote: “Until the later stages of the melodramatic choral finale, it was a very fine performance indeed. Mr. Munch did the scherzo with particular effect, catching the lightning tempo without rushing and bringing out its heroically playful measures with great sensitivity.” But the critic of The Christian Science Monitor, my editor and colleague at the time, wrote this: “if Mr. Munch wishes to take the second movement, marked Molto Vivace and Presto, as fast as these markings permit, then he should discipline his players until they can play the music that fast. There was the confusion of imprecision more than once. On the other hand, Mr. Munch took the Adagio Molto so slowly that the woodwind section nearly fell apart . . .” The critic of The Boston Post seem to agree in part: “The conductor has removed all restraints. He shouts, sinks, shutters, stamps, leaps and lunges . . . Tempi are pushed almost beyond physical endurance, details ignored, and whole phrases swallowed in the mad long rush . . .” Now was that really so? And if so, what are we to make of the review in The Boston Globe? “Every measure, every page sounded with the devoted simplicity, the precise care for the smallest details, and the continuity from section to section, movement to movement, which is the quality of the man as interpreter . . . always in proportion, all sounded with the beauty of a rich deep sonority . . .”
Now really, they can’t all be right or all be wrong! So ultimately it comes down to a few counter questions. (a) Were are you there and formed your own ideas? (b) If you were not there, whom do you believe? (c) Do you read only one paper and rely on that critic’s word? (d) What do you know about the four critics as musicians and writers? Was it perhaps worth knowing that the critics from the Herald, Globe and Monitor were all highly experienced writers and professional listeners, while the one from the Post was an assistant renowned for obtuseness and frequent missed statements even of fact?
So a variety of quite extra-musical considerations enter the picture if you want to criticize the critics, review the reviewers. They bring to criticism mainly themselves, who they are, what they are, what they know. And we begin to realize that we should read criticism not so much for what conclusions the writers draw, what stern or benign judgments they deliver, but for what they give us that is literature. The great literary critic John Mason Brown wrote in the Saturday Review nearly 40 years ago, “Naturally, the opinion stated in a review is part of its interest. The real interest, however, should lie elsewhere. It should center not in the conclusions reached but in the manner in which that conclusion is justified in the reasoning and the writing of the review. Daily reviews are not meant to be the death sentences they too frequently become. They should be read for their writing, for the pleasures they make give, and for the skill and perceptions they may show.”
In short, Mr. Brown told us, criticism is literature. And that is why our view must first of all be well written. Time pressure and deadlines certainly make it difficult to do that; but the critic must be aware not to repeat the same adjective three times in his story, like “beautiful” or “brilliant;” he must not go over the same idea twice so that you feel, “but he just said that”; he must look at his story as a public performance, and as a small work of art.
He may also consider how he says it, when he wants to be critical in the sense of a negative assessment. I remember very well my own first review for the Christian Science Monitor, almost exactly 40 years ago. A pianist played a Chopin piece and badly over-peddled it. I wrote, “passages that should have been strings of pearls turned out instead to be pots of Boston baked beans.” Well it didn’t get printed that way. I was a young beginner, trying to be funny at someone else’s expense, and my editor insisted the sentence be changed. He said to me, “Now look; in principle, at least in reviews for the Monitor, never say anything that essentially you would not be able to say to that person’s face. In principle, that’s a good rule at least to keep in mind.”
The artist, he implied, is not your implacable enemy whom you have to demolish. The artist also has rights, as a performer, as a composer, as a human being. Have some respect; just because you have the power of the printed word behind you, don’t abuse it by abusing someone else. If you must criticize, do it without sarcasm, without meanness. You do not gain respect by holding people up to ridicule. Also, my editor said, remember one very important principle when you write: “never underestimate your readers’ intelligence; never overestimate their information.” That is to say, don’t hand a newspaper-reading public technical details that few of them can deal with; account for factual matters, like dates, that would be helpful; don’t use big and complicated words when simple ones will do. But at the same time, don’t patronize your readers, don’t “write down,” don’t aim for the lowest common denominator. Remember that criticism is a noble calling—if you make it so.
Of course, there are times when a well-aimed barb is in order, especially when the critic feels that a work he loves has been mistreated by a performer. Occasionally, the situation can become very comical indeed. In Vienna about 30 years ago, a well-known critic wrote this: “Mr. So-and-So, who appeared as Lohengrin last night at the State Opera, is without question the worst tenor ever to have trod the boards of that venerable stage.” The tenor sued the critic, on the basis that this was slanderous, and furthermore that he could not prove such a claim. He won and was awarded a shilling or so in nominal damages. The next year: the same constellation, same tenor, same critic, different opera. The critic’s review read as follows: Last year in this space I wrote that Mr. So-and-So was without question the worst tenor ever to have appeared at the Vienna State Opera. This year I can only report that he was not up to his usual standard.”
The following review appeared in the German magazine Signale in March 1844: “The pianist played in such an unnatural, perverse, unmusical and offensive manner that the audience became indignant and showed it by shaking their heads. He never produced a truly attractive piano tone because he kept lifting his hands in the air and pecked at the keys from above, perpendicularly. He never played four consecutive measures in time, never performed a passage without speeding up or slowing down. He made tapeworms out of figurations and indulged in hollow, insincere affected musical rhetorics. Such piano pounders will ruin the art and, if his method catches on, piano playing will be nothing more than a memory years hence.” The pianist’s name? Franz Liszt.”
The principle of exercising some respect for an artist is generally sound. You remember the old saying, “don’t shoot the piano player—he’s doing his best.” But it also is true that some of the most brilliant music criticism has been written by people who didn’t believe that at all. In fact, what may make news is devastating wit, and often it is that kind of review that becomes part of the lasting literature. One music critic who broke all the rules of so-called civilized critical conduct was the great playwright George Bernard Shaw, who wrote on music in the 1890s. “The fact is,” he once replied to someone, “justice is not the critic’s business; and there is no more dishonest and insufferable affectation in criticism then the impersonal, abstract, authoritative air which is so easy to assume and so well adapted to rapid phrase stringing.” Shaw absolutely deplored what he called “inoffensive, considerate criticism.” His most outspoken statement on the issue was this: “People have pointed out evidence of personal feeling in my notices, as if they were accusing me of a misdemeanor—not knowing that a criticism written without personal feeling is not worth reading. It is the capacity of making good and bad art a personal matter that makes a man a critic. The artist who accounts for my disparagement by alleging personal animosity on my part is quite right; when people do less than their best, I hate them, loathe them, detest them, long to tear them limb from limb and strew them in gobbets about the stage or platform.”
Well if you happen to be George Bernard Shaw, perhaps you can get away with that; but better be sure you really can tell bad art from good, and know all the find shadings in between. If you’re not so divinely sure, you had better allow for the possibility that you may not be infallible.
Again there’s a fine line between being honest and being rude—between saying frankly what you feel and believe and being ready to destroy or besmirch someone’s standing or reputation without a touch of mercy or humility. Should the critic express his disapproval in anger or in sorrow? The votes are not all in and the decision is not at all clear cut.
Of course, it is true that critics have personal biases, have a wide range of interests, and myriad long-standing likes and dislikes (prejudices). In that sense, “prejudiced” means pre-judging, having your opinion before you have the facts, or even saying afterwards that “my mind is made up, don’t confuse me with facts.” But prejudice, seen another way, can be a positive factor. The noted critic George Jean Nathan wrote in 1957 that “prejudices which are the consequence of critical education are among the most forceful weapons in the critic’s arsenal. A good critic can no more keep his personality and all it stands for out of his criticism than he can keep it out of his speech, his politics or his lovemaking. Impersonal criticism, if there can be any such thing, is like an impersonal fistfight or an impersonal marriage, and as successful.”
One might call “impersonal,” instead, “objective.” And that has long been regarded as virtually impossible in criticism, for the same reasons. All good criticism is “subjective;” it says, “this is what I believe about the work in question and about its performance. Critics can be objective in the sense that they should not have a personal axe to grind, have extra-musical reasons for preferring one composer to another, one performer to another. The reasons for that preference must be artistic and in that way “objective;” but the artistic preference comes about “subjectively,” in the sense that we may prefer one Beethoven symphony to another, or an artist who is small-scaled and refined to one who is virtuosic and powerful—if that is what the music itself seems to demand.
Oscar Wilde once said, “One can judge objectively only those things which are of no concern to him. That is also the reason why an objective judgment never has value.”
Now as to the question of the space given in a review to the work versus its performance: This is not an easy matter to decide. Critics usually assume that if it’s a Beethoven symphony everyone knows it anyway, so let’s only talk about how it was performed. Perhaps that’s a mistake; not everybody is so familiar with the piece that it can’t stand some more intelligent discussion. What the piece is really like, at least in the critic’s opinion, is precisely what shapes his view of the performance; and maybe that kind of description can come out in the way the playing is described. If we are talking about Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, for instance, we would have, as critics, to deal with the question of whether the driving rhythmic motion of the piece was conveyed . . . of whether the conductor shortchanged the vigor and vivacity of the music by the tempos he chose or the basic pulse he adopted. Essentially, the critic must know the piece, and discuss whether or not the playing of it satisfied him, how, and why. Then he will engage the interest of his reading public, even of those who were not at the concert, but enjoy a good and lively piece of writing. The reader may say, “I’m sorry I missed the concert; I trust that critic’s opinion and I’m sure it was the way he described it.” Or, the reader may say, “well, it’s just as good I didn’t hear that performance; my favorite critic says it was awful, and he’s usually right on the button.” Of course, in the case of concerts, a negative review may not be a disaster if people have already bought their tickets for the next night; but in the theater, a scathing review can virtually close a play overnight, with untold thousands of dollars down the drain. So critics are part of the economic picture of art as well, and their power, for better or worse is considerable. And of course we know that critics have often been disastrously wrong, especially about new music. [On this subject] consider reading Nicolas Slominsky’s “Lexicon of Musical Invective Since Beethoven’s Time.”
Another point on the subject of “objectivity”: Consider the case of “Die Fledermaus” performance here this weekend. I was asked to “review” it for a group of students and faculty after the Sunday performance. Now as a critic, I am not here as a free agent. I am a guest of this institution, and that fact influences not only my style and manner of expressing opinions, but my perceptions as well. There is indeed such a thing as “constructive” criticism, as opposed to “destructive” criticism. There are different ways of saying “in my opinion,” depending on the situation and the context.
A critical opinion here is not meant to be a stern judgment—a valuation on an Olympian scale. A student performance of a work with such a tradition as “Die Fledermaus” must be evaluated against its own potential. What can a student production of it achieve? What should be expected from it? What should not be expected from it?
The critic in this context considers the local facilities, the singing, the playing, the staging, the costumes, the direction, the concept. Should not a student production find an approach of its own—one that is new and fresh and individual? Will the sense of bubbly champagne be as musically intoxicating as we are used to? Most important of all, what has been the value of introducing young performers to this classic operetta; what value has it been to them (not only to the audience) to give a demonstration of “learning by doing?”
In the 1950s, when I established a course in music criticism at Boston University, I began to prepare a set of 3 x 5 file cards with anything on music criticism I could find. There are hundreds of these. Let me share with you at least a few of them: those that concern the critic’s evaluation of work that he does not know; in short, “new music.” One writer says “It is an intellectual impossibility to give a considered, reasoned and detailed account of a complex piece of new music after a single hearing in the midst of a lot of other new music and without so much as a preliminary glance through the score.” But the experienced critic will be able to form a reasonable response to an unfamiliar piece if he is acquainted with the whole spectrum of music today, if he has a clear conception of what works and what doesn’t, what contributes something fresh and what is rehash, and even how well or badly it was done. Most importantly, the critic must have the proverbial open mind and open heart (no surgery suggested) if anything is to be said with sympathy and fairness.
“It is important,” said one writer 100 years ago, “that if a work is to be charged with fairness or even with intelligence, we should measure the artist by his own standard. We must know what he means to do…Much recent criticism fails to hit the mark because it fails to distinguish between the artist’s conception and the artist’s execution.” Now go back another 60 or 70 years before that to the beginning of the 19th Century and you will find the same thought expressed by the composer and practicing critic Carl Maria von Weber: “Most listeners criticize our work uncharitably or harshly because they do not measure it by the standards according to which it was written, or they do not view it from the standpoint from which the composer can see it by virtue of his talent, culture and the conviction and purpose stemming from them…Criticism is desirable and truly helpful when, looking through the composer’s eyes (or hearing it through his ears) it directs him and unravels his secret, thereby revealing him to himself, since in every human being there exists a pardonable natural bias in favor of his own horizons and capabilities…To judge a contemporary work of art correctly (and remember, we are talking about the time of Beethoven, Schubert and Weber) demands that calm, unprejudiced mood which, while susceptible to every impression, carefully guards against preconceived opinions or feelings. It requires a mind completely open to the particular work under consideration. Only when his work is viewed in this way is the artist fully equipped to go forth in the world with those feelings and visions which he has created and which he allows us to experience with him and through him: pain, pleasure, horror, joy, hope, and love. We can very quickly and clearly see whether or not the artist has been capable of creating a great structure which will endure, or whether he caught our fancy with details only, thereby causing us to forget the work as a whole…”
Among my collection of quotes, I find one by the late music critic of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, also a distinguished composer, Herbert Elwell: “A reviewer, trained by habit to listen to four or five concerts a week, manages, if he is lucky, to escape the saturation point…No one can live on a diet of chocolate fudge sundaes and expect to enjoy good health… Music is something special in life—an occasion. It must be approached, certainly not with a long face and a furrowed brow, but with an eager, receptive mood. It must be approached even with some degree of reverence, though on that point there is much misunderstanding…”
Let us sum up this complicated matter of criticism. There are numerous books on the subject, countless articles, and of course, a daily abundance of new reviews to read and discuss and raise more questions. In November 1955, a man from Bristol, Rhode Island, wrote to The Christian Science Monitor: “What are the prime functions of a music critic on a newspaper? To whom are his reviews directed?” The answer was not signed, but I know that it was written by the chief music critic of the paper, Harold Rogers. It is as definitive a summary as you will find: “The music critic functions both as a journalist and as a member of the musical community; but since he is by profession a journalist, his reviews are directed primarily to his readers. These he serves as a reporter, giving his news of the event; as an educator, providing information that will enable his readers to appreciate more fully the music played; and as an experienced listener, whose judgment may be of some value. “As a member of the musical community, the critic serves by his efforts to keep the standards high in the fields of composition and performance; by providing what should be (personally) objective observations; by championship if justified; and by constructive criticism. He also serves to lessen the gap, through educational means, that exists between the public and the avant-garde composer. The critic is not arrayed against the musician; he is driving to elevate, through the means at his disposal, the art of music.”
And finally, let us ask again the question, “why criticism?” The best, and surely the most eloquent, answer comes from the French poet Paul Valéry. “All the arts resonate in words,” he wrote. “Every work demands a response. And a ‘literature’—written or spoken, extemporaneous or contemplative—is inseparable from man’s creative drive. Art criticism is the literary genre that condenses or amplifies, that stimulates, that codifies, or that attempts to harmonize all the thoughts that spring to mind in the presence of artistic phenomena.”
The distinguished Viennese-born critic Max Graf, in his book about the history of this art and craft, published in 1946, makes a powerful claim. “Criticism,” he says, “is one of the greatest spiritual forces of the human mind.” And in 1948, the noted American critic Alfred Frankenstein said this in Musical America magazine: “Perhaps the important thing about criticism is not so much its conclusions as its temperature. If we can only convey a little warmth and enthusiasm, we shall have done our job.”