Civil liberties; varieties of anti-Semitism; musical interpretation.
Terror & Freedom To the Editor: In “Civil Liberties After 9/11” [July-August], Robert H. Bork demolishes several straw men but gives readers few clues to what is troubling about the policies of the Bush administration.A0One example: to illustrate what he portrays as knee-jerk criticism, Mr. Bork cites an ACLU ad charging that the Patriot Act goes “far beyond fighting terrorism.”A0But the ad simply makes a factual assertion—and an accurate one at that. The Patriot Act includes over a dozen provisions enlarging government power in routine investigations unrelated to terrorism. Mr. Bork apparently does not know, or does not want his readers to know, these details.
As for his discussion captioned “Treatment of Captured Terrorists,” it poses a nonissue.A0There is some (though not much) debate over the treatment of captured terrorists; the controversy centers instead on the treatment of suspects.A0By referring to the captives as “enemy combatants,” Mr. Bork assumes away the problem.A0Military tribunals lack many important safeguards, but most suspects are not being offered even a military trial; the administration simply plans to hold alleged enemy combatants indefinitely. In defending this approach, Mr. Bork goes beyond considering the captives “guilty until proven innocent.”A0He apparently considers them guilty, period.
Of course, someone seized on a foreign battlefield should not get a jury trial to determine what he was doing there.A0But it does not follow that such a person, if he claims to be a bystander, should (as Mr. Bork insists) have no right to a hearing at all. Under the Geneva Conventions, such a person has the right to a rudimentary military hearing; the administration knows this but maintains that the Geneva Conventions do not apply.
Mr. Bork moves quickly from the battlefield, where commanders need flexibility, to the case of JosE9 Padilla, the alleged enemy combatant arrested by FBI agents in a Chicago airport.A0Mr. Bork’s suggestion that the Padilla case is “similar” and should be subject to the same flexible rule is a staggering non sequitur, with staggering implications.A0His conclusion is that an American citizen suspected of aiding al Qaeda can be held in a military brig for years, with none of the safeguards of the Bill of Rights, no access to courts, and no chance even for a hearing in the military-justice system.A0Mr. Bork incorrectly claims that Padilla was “indicted.”A0But an indictment is precisely what the administration is determined to avoid, because that would give Padilla the rights to counsel and a speedy trial. Detention under these circumstances is unconscionable and unprecedented. Padilla argues that a person arrested on U.S. soil is entitled to counsel and a trial.A0The defendants in Ex parte Quirin, the Supreme Court case cited by Mr. Bork to support his own position, were afforded those privileges. No case, including Quirin, suggests that captives can be treated as “unlawful combatants” without affording them a hearing. And Quirin is beside the point in another respect: in that case, the Court ruled that the hearing could be in a military rather than a civilian court because the defendants were “admitted enemy invaders.”A0That prin ciple applies to Padilla only if there is no difference between an admitted enemy and an accused enemy.A0By treating Padilla’s alleged terrorist involvement as a known fact, Mr. Bork again assumes away the question that should be uppermost in everyone’s mind.
JosE9 Padilla has been held incommunicado for over a year, and his lawyers seek only the chance to respond to the charges against him. The administration would deny them that opportunity, and Mr. Bork’s essay obscures the stakes in the case. Commentary readers deserve better.
Stephen J. Schulhofer New York University Law SchoolA0 New York City To the Editor: Robert H. Bork’s defense of the Bush administration’s antiterrorism measures is rather weak.A0First, it is misleading to frame the policy debate in terms of “how much individual liberty should be sacrificed.”A0By jumping to that question right away, Mr. Bork skips over other relevant matters, such as whether we have the right people in place in our intelligenceA0and law-enforcement agencies.A0In these very pages, Gabriel Schoenfeld recently exposed serious deficiencies in one of these agencies, in an article titled “How Inept Is the FBI?” [May 2002]. Before Americans are told that they must surrender more of their freedom and privacy, policymakers must seriously examine how well the government has been exercising the vast powers it already possesses.
Second, the extent to which Mr. Bork defers to the government is shocking.A0According to Mr. Bork, “giving someone like [JosE9] Padilla a lawyer would frustrate the very purpose of his detention” because a lawyer would only “create delay and confusion.”A0This is not something one expects to hear from a former nominee to the Supreme Court.A0Anyone inclined to join Mr. Bork in his disparagement of defense lawyers and the presumption of innocence should read Dorothy Rabinowitz’s No Crueler Tyrannies, which details how innocent people have been railroaded into prison by overzealous prosecutors.
Third, it is ironic to see Mr. Bork, the leading champion of the “originalist” school of constitutional interpretation, argue that American citizens can be whisked away to military brigs on the say-so of the President because of a Supreme Court precedent set “as long ago as 1942.”A0The counterargument is much more plausible: if the safeguards in the Bill of Rights can be ignored by any President who decides to invoke his powers as “commander-in-chief,” the Constitution never would have been adopted in the first place.
Mr. Bork is certainly right when he says that al Qaeda represents a threat to our civilization and that our leaders need to take “appropriate” measures in response.A0The challenge, however, is to defend our great country without defeating ourselves.
Timothy Lynch Cato Institute Washington, D.C.
To the Editor: Contrary to Robert H. Bork, no citizen has any way of knowing the extent to which fundamental freedoms have been abridged on account of policies implemented after 9/11. Nor, for that matter, can we evaluate the degree to which those policies may have made us less vulnerable to terrorists. Our inability to make such judgments stems from a lack in this instance of the oversight, accountability, and checks and balances that are essential to effective government. More over, the lack of careful deliberation on these issues in Congress and in public forums has denied us the corrective tonic that comes from vigorous debate and dissent.
The administration’s efforts to promote an aura of beneficial silence may explain why Mr. Bork mentions the Patriot Act—by far the single greatest source of alarm—only in passing. That act, passed six weeks after 9/11, greatly expanded the authority of the executive branch to conduct surveillance operations, carry out clandestine searches and seizures, and compel businesses to turn over records. To date, the Justice Department has provided Congress with only cryptic and incomplete information about how it has implemented the act, leading even the conservative Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, James Sensenbrenner, repeatedly to express concern about the resistance to oversight of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s department. Sen senbrenner’s concerns clearly were shared by other members of the House, which on July 22 overwhelmingly rolled back the provision of the act that allowed the Justice Department to search suspects’ homes secretly without informing them that they had a warrant to do so.
The dangers of insufficient oversight are meticulously documented in a Justice Department report which found that of the 762 illegal aliens rounded up in connection with the 9/11 attacks, only one was ultimately charged with terrorism. Many detainees were physically and verbally abused, impeded from retaining lawyers, treated as criminals accused of capital offenses, and held in custody months after it was established that they posed no threat. These abuses occurred in large part because no one outside government had any idea of what was happening. Six days after 9/11, the chief administrative judge of the Immigration and Naturalization Service instructed immigration officials to close to the public all hearings related to the detainees and to keep information related to those cases secret. Even the names of those incarcerated were not released—a decision Ashcroft claimed was intended to protect their privacy. Why not just ask their permission? Although we disagree with much of Mr. Bork’s article, we applaud him for writing it. There has been far too little public debate since 9/11 about the balance between security and liberty.
Richard C. Leone Greg Anrig, Jr.
Century Foundation New York City To the Editor: I am impressed with Ro b ert H. Bork’s almost childlike faith in the wisdom and benevolence of the executive branch of the federal government.A0Mr. Bork seems to harbor no particular concern that the government might act stupidly or maliciously, falsely accuse someone of terrorist crimes, imprison people without cause, or misuse information for political rather than for security purposes. Much of Mr. Bork’s ra ther quaint faith seems based on the fact that the current President has an “R” rather than a “D” after his name. I would gently suggest that threats to the Republic arise from unexpected quarters, Americans switch parties every so often, laws stay on the books, and agencies dedicated to enforcing those laws need to justify their payroll.A0At some point in the near future, there will likely be a Democratic President who will face threats that we cannot foresee,A0and those who chastise squishy-minded liberals for daring to oppose George W. Bush may be shocked when that President starts using their laws in ways that drive them crazy.
Barton L. Jacka San Diego, CaliforniaA0 To the Editor: Robert H. Bork correctly states that terrorists are distinguishable from regular criminals or lawful combatants, and that granting them full civilian or Geneva Convention rights is both impractical and unnecessary.A0But he may be oversimplifying when he claims that Quirin and other Supreme Court cases settle the issue of military tribunals.A0Never before has the government declared a war that may never end on an enemy that has no static definition, and thus there are legitimate distinctions between previous “wartime exceptions” and current ones. Existing precedent does not necessarily free the executive branch from judicial checks on naming, holding, and trying alleged terrorists; nor should we necessarily want it to.
Joseph A. Cua Lutherville, Maryland To the Editor: I must take issue with one point in Robert H. Bork’s otherwise excellent article. I agree that the vast majority of actions taken by the Department of Justice to protect Americans from terrorism are authorized by statute and are well supported by the Constitution and by precedent.A0But I strongly disagree with the claim that establishing formal ethnic and national-origin criteria for security checks would enhance our security or would have averted the attacks of 9/11. Indeed, by focusing our attention on just a few classes of individuals, it would run the serious risk of leaving holes in our defenses that can be easily exploited by our enemies. I do not believe that anyone in the government has seriously argued that 9/11 could have been prevented if the prescreening criteria endorsed by Mr. Bork had been permitted. Moreover, employing such criteria would subject millions of innocent and loyal Muslim-Americans and permanent residents to frequent and humiliating security checks.A0This is not only unfair, it also risks antagonizing some of the very people who can most help us in our battle with radical Islamists. Congress has enacted laws granting the government sufficient authority to take any and all actions reasonably necessary to protect us from the threat of terrorism.A0But these laws are neutral with respect to ethnicity.A0To introduce ethnic criteria would undermine public support for an already controversial law and would violate the constitutional requirement that such criteria be used only when required by a compelling government interest.
Geoffrey Kent Chappaqua, New York To the Editor: I too believe that much must be done to deal with the terrorist threat, but I disagree with Robert H. Bork that the Terrorist Information Awareness program (TIA) is necessary for the security of the nation. He is right that most of the data that would be gathered under TIA are publicly available. Yet data (merely a resource) are not information (a source of power), which is precisely why the government wants the new program. TIA would gather all such data on all American citizens into a searchable database, transforming it into readily usable, and abusable, information. Instead of a directive from, say, the chief of the FBI’s anti-terrorism group to gather data and generate information on specific suspects, anyone with access to the database could ask questions about the general populace. The questions need not be restricted to terrorism; they might be related to political and social affiliations, travel and spending patterns, telephone contacts—anything at all. With such a tool it is but a small step from queries on terrorists to que ries on one’s political foes and the common citizenry.
Erik Eason Austin, Texas Robert H. Bork writes: According to Stephen J. Schulhofer, the ACLU ad I mentioned simply makes an accurate factual assertion. That ad, as I wrote, stated that the Patriot Act goes “far beyond fighting terrorism” and has “allowed government agents to violate civil liberties—tapping deep into the private lives of innocent Americans.” Aside from the falsity of that claim, it is not true that a charge of civil-liberties violation is simply a factual assertion. Mr. Schulhofer, who cropped all but the first four words quoted, and accuses me of ignorance or duplicity, might reflect that it is not a sound tactic to level an accusation of misrepresentation by beginning with a misrepresentation of one’s own. He then asserts that the Patriot Act enlarges government power in investigations unrelated to terrorism, but cites nothing that might be worrisome.
I will not repeat my explanation of the reasons for detaining unlawful enemy combatants, their lack of rights under the Geneva Convention, or their ability to challenge their detentionsby petition for habeas corpus. Mr. Schulhofer is right that JosE9 Padilla was never indicted—my slip—but the essential point is that both he and Yaser Esam Hamdi have had habeas petitions brought in their names, and both courts of appeal involved in their cases have held that the President is authorized by the Constitution and by law to direct the military to detain enemy combatants. Mr. Schulhofer’s complaint is with the Constitution, the laws, and the courts.
Nor can the Supreme Court’s 1942 decision in Ex parte Quirin be so easily brushed aside. The German would-be saboteurs were afforded counsel in the military tribunal precisely because they were being tried on charges. Padilla is not. He is held for intelligence purposes that are inconsistent with judicial trial. If he is charged with an offense, he will have counsel and a trial. Timothy Lynch’s arguments are beside the point. The effectiveness of our intelligence and law-enforcement agencies is an interesting subject but not what I was writing about. Defense lawyers and the presumption of innocence are important in a criminal trial, not when an enemy combatant is held for interrogation. In the latter case, habeas corpus is proper. The argument becomes laughable when Mr. Lynch says that an “originalist” should not rely upon a 1942 decision. That decision itself rests upon the original understanding of the Constitution. The power to detain unlawful enemy combatants and to try them before military tribunals is ancient and, in this country, goes back at least to George Washington.
In the judgment of Ri chard C. Leone and Greg Anrig, Jr., we have no way of knowing the extent to which freedoms may have been eroded or security enhanced. But since September 2001 and through the end of July 2003, Congress exercised oversight by holding over 100 hearings into Justice Department anti-terror activities. We have, in addition, a determined opposition party and a free press. As for the “greatly expanded” authority to conduct surveillances, clandestine searches and seizures, and so forth, this is, in fact, a moderate extension of existing authority and is in any event subject to control by judges who must authorize each action taken. The Justice Department has long had the authority, subject to judicial oversight, to search premises without telling the owner that a search has been conducted. It would be ridiculous to inform a suspected conspirator and risk destruction of evidence, intimidation of witnesses, flight, or violence, not to mention losing the ability to gather necessary evidence and disrupt terrorist operations.
Barton L. Jacka foresees the dark night of authoritarianism, but, as he has provided no details about what in our present security arrangements so affrights him, it is impossible to respond. To Joseph A. Cua, who believes the legality of military tribunals has not been settled, I would say that a consistent course of conduct over a period of better than two centuries, plus Quirin, does settle the issue. Given the superior performance of such tribunals and the safeguards built into them, we have reason to be grateful that they can accomplish fairly tasks for which civilian courts and juries are frequently ill-suited, not least because of the sensitive information that must often be dealt with. Geoffrey Kent’s disapproval of ethnic and national-origin profiling may be due to a misunderstanding of what is involved. For one thing, statutes require the Immigration and Naturalization Service to treat differently aliens from countries listed as state sponsors of terrorism and/or with a history of breeding terrorists. Since the countries identified are populated by Muslims and Arabs, a degree of profiling is built into our laws. For another, profiling merely means that ethnicity is one factor to be used in a total assessment; it is not sufficient in itself to warrant government action. But it is clear that ethnicity and national origin are correlated with terrorism. Given the stakes involved—the possible deaths of thousands or hundreds of thousands—it seems excessively politically correct to insist that no attention be paid to a factor we know to be relevant when present with other indicators.
Erik Eason’s concerns about the Terrorist Information Awareness program can be dissipated by judicial control of access to the names of persons whose behavior suggests a need for further inquiry.
I have tried, not wholly successfully, to avoid repeating points made in my original article but ignored by some of my correspondents. As a rule, these letters speak of “the government” or “the executive branch” as not to be trusted with the powers necessary to combat terrorism. It must be remembered that exercise of the powers granted is subject to continuing oversight by Congress in general, and by the judiciary on a case-by-case basis.
Varieties of Anti-Semitism To the Editor: In his review of my book Terror and Liberalism [July-August], David Warren com plains about my discussion of the Islamist phi l osopher Sayyid Qutb and of Islamist anti-Semitism. Referring to me, Mr. Warren says: “He [Berman] cites such curious notions as that, in Sura 5 of the Qur’an, Allah ‘transforms’ the Jews of Medina ‘into apes and pigs,’ which suggests the magic of Circe; the received view, I believe, is that the curse was intended figuratively.” Mr. Warren also argues that Qutb’s anti-Semitism was “different in kind from the anti-Semitism of Christendom,” and conjures its spirit in this fashion: “‘Of course the Jews are pigs and monkeys, but it’s nothing personal,’ might be a good way to caricature Qutb’s position, and that of many others.” I believe that Mr. Warren ought to be a little more cautious in advancing these points. Conventional interpretations do indeed cast a figurative and somewhat tolerant light on certain Qur’anic passages about Jews. But the whole purpose of Islamism is to make a decisive break with conventional interpretations in order to create a revolutionary social system. Qutb argued against tolerant and figurative interpretations. It is true that, in one passage or another, he offered figurative interpretations of his own; his Qur’anic commentaries, In the Shade of the Qur’an, are vast, and as in any gargantuan work, the arguments lean every which way. Even so, it is not impossible to identify the principal thrust of Qutb’s doctrine about the Jews. (I make this point on the basis of having read seven volumes of In the Shade, about half of the total work, which is all that I have been able to find in English translation, together with three of Qutb’s other works in translation and a Pakistani biography containing a few excerpts.) Qutb wrote at length and repeatedly about the Jews, and his opinion was nearly always harsh and frequently hateful. Nearly always he insisted on choosing the severest possible Qur’anic interpretation. He explicitly warned, in the course of discussing Sura 5, against relying on the more tolerant passages of the Qur’an itself. Mr. Warren may suppose that Qutb’s anti-Semitism, because of its Islamic origin, was “different in kind” from Christian anti-Semitism. But Qutb drew on Western sources, too. If we turn from Sura 5 to his commentary on Sura 6, we find Qutb saying about Zionism: “it tries to demolish the basic foundation of human life, so that no human community other than its own can take it as a basis for its code of living. This they state in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” This is not different in kind from the anti-Semitism of 20th-century Europe; it is precisely the anti-Semitism of 20th-century Europe, in its extreme-Right version. Qutb’s anti-Semitism, in sum, downplayed or excluded the more tolerant and traditional Islam-ic views, emphasized the harsh er interpretations, and salted the results with classic Western anti-Semitism. Mr. Warren expresses an enthusiasm for Bernard Lewis’s new book, The Crisis of Islam, and especially for Lewis’s analysis of Qutb. But Mr. Warren’s enthusiasm may lead some readers to conclude that, in drawing a sharp line between Qutb’s anti-Semitism and the anti-Semitism of the West, he is faithfully treading in Lewis’s scholarly footsteps. That is not the case. Years ago, in his book Semites and Anti-Semites, Lewis did make a point similar to Mr. Warren’s in regard to Qutb. But in The Crisis of Islam, Lewis adopts a new and different position. As he writes in the notes at the end of his book, “it seems likely that Sayyid Qutb’s inspiration” for certain of his writings hostile to the Jews was “European or American.” One of the consequences of Qutb’s mix of Islamic and Western anti-Semitism has been a cult of random slaughter—something new and heretical in the history of Islam, though old and hoary in the history of Christian Europe. The Qur’anic passage about Jews as monkeys (or apes, depending on the translation) and pigs, from Sura 5, has turned out to be significant in this modern cult. That is why I discuss the phrase in my book. One of Qutb’s ultra-radical ideological heirs in the Islamist movement in Egypt, Sheikh Abel Omar Rahman of the Islamic Group, set up headquarters in Jersey City in the 1990’s and denounced tourism in Egypt; and, in Egypt, Rahman’s followers duly massacred tourists. In 1996, after eighteen Greek tourists were slaughtered at a Cairo hotel in the belief that they were Israelis, Rahman’s organization issued a communiquE9 denouncing “the Jews, sons of monkeys and pigs.” Mr. Warren may dismiss the temptation to regard the phrase about monkeys and pigs as anything worrisome, and he may reassure the readers of Commentary that the received interpretation is figurative. But, among the more extreme followers of Qutb, the phrase plainly expresses the kind of dehumanizing hatred that leads people to commit massacres. Let us recall that Sheikh Rahman and his group were the very people who conceived the idea of destroying the World Trade Center, which they tried to do in 1993. Errors like these on the topic of anti-Semitism have, I believe, led many people to underestimate the dangers of our present age. I can understand why someone with an “area specialty” in Islam might be prone to make such errors (not that Bernard Lewis has done so), on the assumption that sound and conventional interpretations from the past will surely be sound and reliable for all time. But that is why it is good to draw on other literatures, too—the literature of antitotalitarianism, to begin with. Mr. Warren makes a wisecrack about a troop carrier containing George Orwell, Sidney Hook, and Ar thur Koestler (and he might have added Albert Camus, a main influence on my book)—all antitotalitarians of the mid-20th century, “left-flank variety,” in his phrase. But the left flank and its literature have something to tell us about totalitarianism, not just in the European past but in the Muslim present. That is my principal point. A0 Paul Berman Brooklyn, New York David Warren writes: Paul Berman seems to be arguing that in my review of his book, I, unlike Bernard Lewis, overlook the degree to which Sayyid Qutb has bought into a very Western species of anti-Semitism. Most tellingly, he mentions Qutb’s use of that old libel, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Let me start from bewilderment. Even in the 19th and 20th centuries, as I am sure Mr. Berman will agree, anti-Semitism has taken many different forms in the West, and individual anti-Semites have worked from many different motives—often vastly different in turn from those of earlier centuries. Western fanatics have tended to leap at the Protocols, simply because it is there. Ditto the fanatics in the East—I was not denying that Qutb was a fanatic. He reached for any weapon available, and imported Wes tern bigotries as the terrorists have imported Western technology.
Let me make this point plain. From the fact that Arab terrorists flew Western commercial jets into the World Trade Center, it does not follow that they have embraced a Western ideology. They reach for the weapon that is available.
Next, the ideology itself. That the received Islamic worldview of the terrorists has indeed been substantially twisted by contact with totalitarian traditions in the modern and post-modern West is something on which Mr. Berman, Lewis, and I all agree. But as only Lewis and I seem to agree, the main thrust of Qutb’s writing, and of the terrorists, is against jahiliyya—the paganizing of the Muslims. This is vastly different from the main thrust of Western totalitarian movements, which themselves aspire to paganize.
We see where we are going with this when Mr. Ber man says the “cult of random slaughter” is “something new and heretical in the history of Islam, though old and hoary in the history of Christian Europe.” That is simply not true. Arab and Muslim history is replete with pogroms against Jews—as against Buddhists, Hindus, Copts, Bahai, Armenians, Spanish Catholics, and so forth. It is foolish to grant Christians a monopoly on po groms. (And let me assure Mr. Berman that any “cult of random slaughter” would be extremely heretical within Christianity, too.) Moreover, the Arab rejection of the state of Israel today is flavored by a belief in the inferior, dhimmi status of the Jews that goes back to the Qur’an. The very acceptance of Jews (and Christians) on the part of Islam was predicated on this subordinate and humiliated status. They are “protected,” yes; but so, in principle, are zoo animals.
It is the spectacle of Jews getting “out of their place” —by winning independent self-government—that strikes the deepest note within the distinctively Is lamic anti-Semitism. This is different from the “Christ-killer” impulse behind much Christian anti-Semitism. It is not necessarily less virulent, or potentially less personal, but it did not arise in previous centuries because an independent Israel did not arise.
Notwithstanding my wisecrack, I, like many political conservatives, have a great deal of respect for George Orwell, Sidney Hook, Arthur Koestler, and Albert Camus. They were very helpful in the fight against Communism, and provided many useful insights into the nature of totalitarianism in general. But I do not think they are going to be a great deal of use against what we are now facing. So, on his “principal point,” I am afraid Mr. Berman and I must agree to disagree.
By the Book To the Editor: In staging his match between the performance styles of Vladimir de Pachmann and Rudolf Serkin [“Romancing the Score,” July-August], Terry Teachout distorts the facts to such consistent ends that we would like to offer a few corrections. 1. Mr. Teachout claims that Serkin played “no Liszt at all.” Not true, as our book (Rudolf Serkin: A Life, 2003)A0documents, most obviously in the listing of Carnegie Hall recitals (Mr. Teachout mentions only those from 1970 on). 2. Nor is it true, as Mr. Teachout writes, that Serkin played Chopin only on “rare occasions.” Works of Chopin appeared in seventeen of Serkin’s Carnegie Hall recitals from 1937 to 1969. 3. When Serkin played Chopin, Mr. Teachout says, “he almost always programmed an entire book of the Etudes or the complete Preludes, Op. 28.” Again untrue. In the seventeen Carnegie Hall recitals in which Serkin played Cho pin, he performed entire sets of Preludes or Etudes six times, and played individual pieces by Chopin in eleven concerts. 4. Mr. Teachout claims that Serkin “did not admire the playing” of Artur Schnabel (in fact he admired much in it, though not everything) and that he “disdained Pachmann’s delicate, sensuous tone.” We do not know how Serkin regarded Pachmann, but we do know that the two 20th-century pianists he admired most were Sergei Rachmaninoff and Vladimir Hor o witz. A0 Mr. Teachout’s portrayal of Rudolf Serkin is a crude caricature of the complicated, intelligent, and deeply interesting musician he was. Stephen Lehmann Marion Faber Swarthmore, Pennsylvania To the Editor: I agree with Terry Teachout that unless musical interpretation is “interesting,” it is worth little, no matter how “correct” it is.A0Still, even if interesting, a performance must be convincing.A0I would suggest that the range of legitimate interpretations becomes narrower the farther back in time we go. We are unlikely, for example, to tolerate much rhythmic or dynamic flexibility in a performance of a Bach Partita, no matter how interesting it is.
The rubato of the romantic era, coupled with the emerging supremacy of the melodic line and the great enhancement of the piano’s tonal range, brought with it liberties in—and thus diversity of—interpretation that had not existed before.A0 Indeed, the very concept of interpretation, as opposed to simply “playing the notes,” may well be traced back to the romantics. Liszt’s (and later Rachmaninoff’s) scores sometimes offered two alternatives to playing a given passage. Beethoven, in contrast, went so far as to do away with the age-old concept of the improvisational cadenza, insisting on spel l ing out his every note. In gauging the persuasiveness of a performance, we are guided, I believe, by our perception of the composer’s aims.A0A “romanticized” Beethoven is unconvincing for the same reason that a rhythmically rigid and tonally dry Chopin is unconvincing—we just know that this is not what the composer intended.A0 Oleg Rivkin Teaneck, New Jersey To the Editor: In “Romancing the Score,” Terry Teachout won ders “whether the ability to play Chopin and Beethoven convincingly might be mutually exclusive.” He suggests that the rhythmic flexibility and creative liberties of romantic-era pianists may be anathema to successful interpretation of the Austro-German literature, and that the neo-classical approach espoused by Ru dolf Serkin, emphasizing fidelity to the score, cannot convincingly convey the depth and vitality of music by Chopin, Liszt, and other romantics. He writes that only with today’s “international style,” best exemplified by practitioners like Van Cli burn and Murray Perahia, has this chasm been bridged.
But Mr. Teachout’s analysis ignores certain pianists of earlier generations who were indeed great interpreters of both Beethoven and Chopin. Mieczyslaw Horszowski (b. 1892), a pupil of Theodore Lesche tizky—and perhaps not coincidentally Serkin’s overlooked colleague at the Curtis Institute—produced supple, passionate, and free readings of Chopin, but also left us with some of the greatest recordings of Beethoven’s sonatas and Mozart’s sonatas and concerti. Wilhelm Backhaus (b. 1884) is justifiably considered one of the most esteemed interpreters of Bee thoven’s piano literature, having left two recorded cycles of the complete sonatas. But his solid, objective interpretations of Beethoven did not prevent him from producing lyrical, romantic, and heartfelt performances of Chopin. One can add interpreters like Wilhelm Kempff (b. 1895), who was renowned for his Mozart and Beethoven but also left incomparable readings of Liszt’s AnnE9es de PE8lerinage, and the Chilean Claudio Arrau (b. 1903), who was a profound Beethoven interpreter but who also performed Chopin’s Nocturnes and Impromptus and Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes with depth and inner strength. A0 None of these interpreters was afflicted with the “love of self” that Serkin so dubiously derided in Artur Schnabel. They were, rather, caught between the end of Vladimir de Pachmann’s romantic era and the beginning of the modern one. They cared deeply about the integrity of the score and their readings, yet maintained recognizable and individual styles—unlike many pianists of the so-called “international style.” Just because Rudolf Serkin could not perform both Beethoven and Chopin convincingly does not mean that it is impossible. Justin Urcis Los Angeles, California Terry Teachout writes: Sometimes the pieces we write in our heads fail to resemble in each and every particular the ones we set down on paper. I thought I had made it clear that in describing Rudolf Serkin’s choices of repertoire, I was referring to the mature Serkin, but as I look back over “Romancing the Score,” I realize that I failed to draw this distinction. Given that qualification, however, the generalizations I made about the music Serkin played turn out to be perfectly accurate. Stephen Lehmann and Marion Fa ber may well be guilty of the same sin, since the references to Artur Schnabel in their book appear to tell a different story from the claim they make in their letter. It is in no way clear from reading Rudolf Serkin: A Life that Serkin “admired much” in the playing of Schnabel (though he clearly liked Schnabel personally).
Oleg Rivkin’s very interesting letter asserts as fact what I believe to be true, but I am not prepared to put forward my taste as a universal law. I myself prefer as a general rule to hear romantic music played by one kind of interpreter and preromantic music by another, but I can easily think of enough exceptions to be suspicious of going any farther than that. What possible relationship, for instance, does the amazingly compelling harpsichord playing of Wanda Landowska have to currently prevailing views of “correct” Bach style? On the other hand, I do not hear what Justin Urcis hears in the playing of Wilhelm Backhaus and Claudio Arrau, both of whom have always struck me as earnest but rather dull. (Mi eczyslaw Horszowski was a different story.) So far as I know, Wilhelm Kempff recorded no Chopin, and his Liszt playing, while quite beautiful, is nevertheless rooted in a Germanic performance tradition that has little to do with “conventional” ideas about how to play Liszt idi omatically.