The Critic's Dilemma
by Andrew L. Pincus
Why does so much music criticism in today's newspapers and magazines seem like a dog
chasing its tail?
I don't ask the question idly. As a practitioner of the trade,
I face the problem every day. If I write about the performance, I second-guess
musicians who, I have to assume, know more about the score than I do. If
I write about the music, there is little I can say that is new or helpful,
unless the piece be recently composed, in which case 95 per cent of the reading
public doesn't want to know about it. I am irrelevant.
And if this is true for me, it must also be true for my fellow
chroniclers of the previous evening's glories or follies. What use is there
for a critic or reviewer?
The English musicologist Deryck Cooke had an answer. In an
essay called "The Futility of Music Criticism," he argued for giving
up criticism of all music of the dead masters, "for three reasons: it
cannot establish the objective standards it hopes to; it is overriden in
this respect by the majority opinion of performers and audiences, which is
the only valid criterion; and it is bad for the soul, since it encourages
pride, in the form of petty self-esteem."
True, every word of it true. But Cooke, you will observe,
was a critic-a critic, moreover, who wrote about the dead masters.
Criticism, in other words, refuses to go away. It's like
smoking. Everybody knows cigarettes will kill you. Yet the world goes on
puffing away. Criticism-not just of the dead masters but of the living ones,
too, and those who perform the notes on the page-continues to get written,
published and read. It must fill some definable need.
As a matter of fact, it fills several needs and that's why
it won't die. At its most basic level, it serves approximately the same purpose
as the baseball or football story appearing in the same day's paper: it tells
whether the team won or lost and who scored the points. At a more elevated
level, criticism stimulates interest, improves taste, brings in audiences
and thereby helps to pay musician's bills. Some critics regard themselves
as policemen. Others try to be advocates of this or that, historians, wiseguys
or kingmakers. Others seek objectivity, like scientists. All, as Cooke suggested,
go on one assumption: they know more than the composer or performer. Unless
you're Virgil Thomson, who only one of us can be, it's a lie, of course.
What can a critic do?
Harold C. Schonberg, for 20 years the country's most powerful music critic, says in his latest book, Facing the Music, that a critic, at best, "can do nothing more than throw ideas around and make his readers think." Schonberg is too modest (though his reputation is for anything but modesty). Before his retirement from The New York Times, and occasionally now as a roving correspondent for it, he did something more. At best, he infused his writing with a sense of time, place and occasion that lifted it out of the ordinary. He could be a stickler for detail, particularly when a pianist ventured into the nineteenth-century repertoire, which was posted Schonberg property. But when you read a Schonberg review, you often felt you had experienced the concert he did, albeit with his eyes and ears.
Schonberg says something else significant about the making of a critic. For two years early in his career he worked as a city reporter as well as critic on The New York Sun, covering
"everything from City Hall to the Bronx Zoo during the day, and concerts
at night." It is that quality of good reporting that makes his writing
so pungent, that brings music and performances to life. Schonberg is interested
not just in his reactions to music but in composers, performers, instruments
and auditoriums and what makes them tick. The critic throws ideas around
and makes his readers think, but he also whets their interest.
It's a curious thing. Most critics no longer come out of
the newsrooms but from the universities. The first qualification, stressed
by the Music Critics Association in its meetings and missionary work, is
not the ability to communicate with a large audience but training in music.
Critics become the journalistic equivalents of those conservatory whiz kids
who can play all the right notes but convey only a fuzzy notion of their
sense of poetry. No one is going to argue that the amateur is likely to make
the best critic. (George Bernard Shaw, however, looms as a powerful argument
to the contrary.) But neither is a broad background in music enough.
If you look closely at reviews in publications like the Times, most fall into one
of two categories. Either they are attempts, usually buttressed by technical
terms difficult for the layman-sforzando, aleatoric, rubato and the like to
evaluate a performance, or they try to place a piece of music or a performer
in a historical continuum. Both types of review, if done well, have their
value and place. But to the mass of literate readers, who have not been to
a conservatory and want mainly to know whether they should be interested in an opera or concert,
and why, they are often a foreign language. They read like essays in musicology,
which they often are.
What can a critic do? He can't tell performers how to play their instruments or the
music on the page. Not only do they already know better than he does, but
if they look to anyone for guidance, it's probably to their colleagues, teachers
and friends. A critic can try to suggest how a piece of music comes across-lyrical,
choppy, ardent, dull and the rest. A composer or performer might find some
guidance in that, though most in my acquaintance have maintained that they
know what they are doing, even when it doesn't work.
A critic on a newspaper or magazine of general circulation can address the reader
as a fellow adventurer in music, relishing the good and regretting the bad.
The critic will recognize that most of his judgments are subjective, and
offer his knowledge, listening experience and personal reactions as guideposts
for the reader. The reader, learning to trust the critic, will accept these
opinions as those of a partner, with whom it is natural to disagree. (The
praise a critic longs or should long to hear is not "I agreed with you
100 percent" but "Gee, you made me see it in a different light.")
Criticism shouldn't be for the specialist only. Nor should it duck the hard
questions of standards, faithfulness to the score, and truthfulness of artistic
expression. And certainly it shouldn't be a vehicle for displays of ego,
vendettas or puffery for favored artists.
An Andrew Porter's boundless knowledge and precision with words are admirable indeed.
But even Andrew Porter, with his lengthy articles giving the pedigrees of Handel and Verdi operas, sometimes seems to fall into the trap of irrelevancy, at least in a magazine like the New Yorker. How do opera pedigrees and exegeses on performing practice help the non-specialist reader? In most cases, they don't.
What the critic can do is give up his pride in his expertise-his
"petty self-esteem"-and treat music as an art whose deepest mysteries
are neither technical nor historical but simply its ability to touch our
innermost feelings. The critic then becomes part city reporter and part poet.
He reaches his readers and-so I have found-pleases his editors. There is
no need to worry about offending the memory of the dead masters because in
the critic's hands every master, whether living or dead, lives again. It
isn't easy and many critics, whether by training or temperament, aren't able
to do it. But it can be done.