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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.

Andrew L. Pincus is Telegraph and Page 1 Editor of The Berkshire Eagle as well as being a music critic. In addition to writing on music for his own newspaper, he has contributed articles to Musical America and is the recipient of the 1983 ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award.

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