• The last time I had occasion to write about the late, unlamented Edward W. Said in COMMENTARY, I called him “an intellectual thug who poses as a thoughtful, troubled citizen of the world while simultaneously serving as an apologist for Arab terrorism.” Now I find myself confronted with a posthumous collection of his essays on music, most of them originally published in The Nation, and so I suppose you are entitled to take with a stalactite of salt the fact that I didn’t think much of Music at the Limits. Nevertheless, I feel bound by duty to report that Said’s music criticism, next to none of which I had read prior to examining this volume, isn’t very good—though not always for the reasons I’d expected.
Said was, of course, an amateur pianist of what I take to have been considerable seriousness, and when such folk write about music, they not infrequently combine technical understanding with breadth of culture to interesting effect. Thus I was hugely surprised to find that in his capacity as a music critic, he was a merchant of bromides, of which choice specimens can be found by opening Music at the Limits virtually at random. I especially like the clunkingly obvious sentences with which he invariably launches his essays:
Glenn Gould is an exception to almost all the other musical performers in this century.
Pianists retain a remarkable hold on our cultural life.
Reading the brief but intelligent article on festivals in Grove’s Dictionary, you become aware of the deep divergence between premodern music festivals as symbolic rituals connected with religion and agriculture and modern music festivals as commemorations of great composers or as commercial and tourist attractions.
Nearly half a century after his death, Richard Strauss’s role in twentieth-century music remains an unresolved matter.
I have always agreed with Richard Wagner about the Jews.
O.K., I made that last one up. But the first four sentences quoted above really do kick off the first four chapters of Music at the Limits, and there’s plenty more where they came from. How is it possible that the editors of The Nation thought such platitudinous stuff worthy of publication without extensive and ruthless editing? The truth is that Edward Said had next to nothing fresh or individual to say about music, and I can only explain the fact that he was allowed to say what he had to say at such enervating length in so widely admired a publication by the sheer novelty of its having being said by so celebrated a scholar. Alas, that didn’t and doesn’t make it any less boring.
As for the matter of Wagner and the Jews, Said did in fact describe the anti-Semitic views of the composer of Die Meistersinger as “vile” and “despicable,” though he also disapproved of the Israeli ban on public performances of Wagner’s music (no surprise there) and apparently found it impossible to discuss the subject without dragging in the subject of Israeli-Palestinian relations (ditto). He also says pretty much what you’d expect him to say about John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer:
But as you sit there watching this vast work unfold, you need to ask yourself how many times you have seen any substantial work of music or dramatic or literary or pictorial art that actually tries to treat the Palestinians as tragically aggrieved, albeit sometimes criminally intent, people. The answer is never, and you must go on to ask Messrs.-the-nonideological-music-and-culture-critics whether they ever complain about works that are skewed the other way, or whether for instance, in the flood of images and words that assert that Israel is a democracy, any of them note that 2 million Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza have fewer rights than South African blacks had during the worst days of apartheid, and that the paeans and the $77 billion sent to Israel from the United States were keeping the Palestinian people endlessly oppressed?
Whatever else that is or isn’t, it definitely isn’t criticism. Or good writing. Or interesting.