When the subject of the arts comes up in social circles, I know it is just a matter of time until that subject will morph into a conversation about reviews. It’s always fascinating how uncomfortable patrons tend to be in voicing their opinion about a concert, film, exhibition or, for that matter, a hotel or a restaurant, but how thrilled they are to tell you what the reviewer said about it. I always thought it interesting that the person quoting the review hardly ever appeared concerned about other reviews by the critic or even about what qualifications said critic has in the area they are sent to critique.
We can’t even agree on the role of the critics, both among the critics themselves, the community of musicians and audience members. Everyone has an opinion; there are even those who think all reviews are valid because everyone is entitled to an opinion. It occurred to me that it’s worthwhile to see where the review came from to find perspective on where it may be going.
Most agree that the first official publication dedicated to the coverage of music appeared in Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal of Music) co-founded in Leipzig by Robert Schumann, his teacher and future father-in law Friedrich Wieck, and his close friend Ludwig Schuncke. Its first issue appeared on April 3, 1834. Note that this journal reviewed works of music, not just concerts. Schumann, already a prodigious composer and accomplished pianist, gladly helped pave the way for the audiences to meet and subsequently embrace Chopin, Berlioz and a very young Brahms. When Schumann wrote, he analyzed the compositional style as well as individual works by featured composers. Audiences would then be armed with information to fully enjoy freshly minted music. New music was expected and welcomed in the era of the composer/performer.
As music criticism became more accepted, it took the form of an essay. Many, such as Franz Liszt, saw music the embodiment of some poetic or literary idea. Using phrases such as “balmy freshness, seeming to exhale copious perfumes,” Liszt conveyed the sense of the music to an audience open to learning what is new. It may be hard to fathom today, but much of the music written in this era was technically and musically beyond the provincial musicians outside of Europe’s most vaunted cultural centers. Often the works strained the capabilities of all but a handful of the most accomplished amateur players. Essays like Liszt’s provided a certain spark and encouragement to the very people most interested in the music written in their time.
The era of critics and performers peacefully coexisting dramatically changed with the emergence of the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, who some today view as the father of modern music criticism. Following the success of his book Vom Musikalisch-Schönen (1854: The Beautiful in Music), he quickly embraced an analytical approach of music and its interpretation, rejecting a purely descriptive approach. One of the more infamous quotes was about the premiere of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and some of the folk melodies in the finale, about which Hanslick snarled, “Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto gives us for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear.” Tchaikovsky was so deeply wounded by this review he allegedly quoted it on his deathbed.
Virgil Thomson was the Hanslick of the United States. A graduate of Harvard and a student of Nadia Boulanger, he was a pianist, choirmaster, a composer and a raconteur with a sharp, dry wit. When taken to task about snoozing during a Wagner opera, he insisted he awoke if anything interesting happened. Living a life of 92 years, he left a legacy of clever one liners worthy of the best borscht-belt comedians of the post World War II era. Some of his more famous jabs described Sibelius’s Second Symphony as “vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond all description.” Toscanini is described as “very little dependent on literary culture and historical knowledge”; Vladimir Horowitz as “a master of musical distortion.” Even the legendary Jascha Heifetz was not immune to Thomson, who reviewed the now iconic recording of the Beethoven Concerto with the Boston Symphony, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky this way: “Four-starred super-luxury hotels are a legitimate commerce. The fact remains, however, that there is about their machine-tooled finish and empty elegance something more than just a trifle vulgar.”
Incidentally, Thompson’s music is virtually unknown in the concert hall, though I doubt there is some sort of conspiracy on the part of the performing industry.
In today’s day and age, many critics have taken Hanslick’s idea of analysis to the nth degree. They carry a torch, whether it is decrying the absence of enough new music on the programs of the world’s great concert halls or complaining about cellphones ringing at the most inopportune time during a performance. Thus the question becomes: is there a standard for music criticism? Is it anything goes (or sells)? Or can the reader demand veracity and content?
The answer is further complicated by the readers. Some want to read about it so they don’t waste time and considerable resources on a concert the critic didn’t like. This is a pretty shortsighted approach because anyone who goes to concerts regularly will have a “did I go to the same concert?” story when reading a particularly raucous review. Others need to make decisions quickly so they follow a publication they consider reputable and make their decisions accordingly. Another contingent care about where to be seen, so a bad review, in their minds, won’t warrant enough “important” people to be seen with to give the concert a chance.
Music criticism, like the performance of music, is an evolving art form. It ought to be different from year to year. It should celebrate creativity and encourage a relationship between the music, the musician and the audience. I personally most enjoy the review that puts me in the seat next to the critic. I want to know what they heard and, more importantly, why it did or didn’t work for them. Once a review morphs into a music history lecture, or worse, how much more learned the critic is than the reader, it loses the reason one reads the review to begin with. In short, we read to find out “how did that performance go?” There is time for philosophy and musings but not in a 300-500 word concert review.
Finally, when it comes to rants it would be nice to know they are warranted. Someone who rants every other review weakens their outrage. They just appear to be angry, thus lessening the reader’s attention when the reviewer wants to have their full concentration. Save the outrage for when it is actually warranted! Constant harping on minutiae is equal to constant complimenting — it dulls the impact of the review and loses the reader’s attention. Instead, let’s hear more about what moved the reviewer in either the positive or negative direction and why. Inquiring minds really do want to know!
» Gary Levinson is the Senior Principal Associate Concertmaster for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the artistic director for the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth, and he helps program the salon concert series Blue Candlelight Music with his wife, pianist Baya Kakouberi, the artistic director.
» Guts & Rosin runs on the third Monday of the month on TheaterJones (or the fourth Monday in the case of February, 2018)
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