Commentary Magazine

On Being a Music Critic

As I recall my beginning as a music critic, I read, then I heard, or I heard and then read; in either case I found that what I heard was not described correctly by what I read; and at some point I began to express my disagreement in writing. When, for example, I heard Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique I discovered that it was not the arid and banal work Richard Aldrich of the Times had said it was; in the same way I discovered that Mahler's Symphony No. 2 was not the horror Olin Downes had made it out to be in the Times. And the earliest of such discoveries concerned the music of Brahms.

Now and then, in the years that I have been writing, readers have deplored my prejudice against Brahms, some calling me opinionated and dogmatic and contending that such personal aberrations were something for a critic to keep strictly to himself, not to mislead others with in his writing. Something could be said about my correspondents' confidence that rational judgment of experience must lead to an estimate of Brahms as high as their own, and that my lower estimate must represent irrational prejudice; but I will limit myself to pointing out that actually—going for the first time, in 1915, to hear a symphony of Brahms, the Second, and going with the idea of it as a formidable musical labyrinth that I had got from Pitts Sanborn's writing about Brahms—I was intoxicated by what I heard, as I continued to be by everything I heard of Brahms, regarding his music as the greatest of all. This love affair continued for a dozen years, until one day when I was playing through the Cello Sonata Op. 99 I suddenly became aware, at some point in the slow movement, that what I was hearing was synthetic and sterile substance being manipulated by formula to fill out structural pattern. Once I had heard it in this work I began to hear in others this pose of artistic creation, with its pretense of great emotions communicated in mechanically contrived large structures. And I was left with a few works—the sets of variations on themes of Haydn and Paganini and the final passacaglia of the Fourth Symphony, with a few other movements in the symphonies and a few of the songs—which I continued to like for the same reason as W. J. Turner, who explained once that he rated the Haydn Variations and the passacaglia of the Fourth highest in Brahms's work because in them Brahms is not “being a poet (in the Aristotelian sense) or a great creator; he is merely being a musician”—i.e., a musical craftsman—and that he liked Brahms when he is “entirely natural and self-forgetful” and “is not obsessed by the tramp of Beethoven behind him.”

Since I liked these few works of Brahms, it seemed to me that my dislike of his other music couldn't be said to represent prejudice against him. Nor could I accept what my correspondents' position seemed to reduce itself to: that where my years of listening to the music and thinking about it led me to judgments different from theirs, and I refused to give up mine and accept theirs, I was prejudiced, opinionated, dogmatic, and should be silent. A long-developed and reasoned judgment, even when unfavorable, is not a prejudice; and though it is likely to be a strongly held and strongly expressed conviction, a man whose strongly held convictions are long-developed and reasoned judgments cannot be called opinionated, and his strong expression of such judgments cannot be called dogmatic. Not only must he be granted the right to his reasoned judgments, but his function, his duty, his sole usefulness as a critic, if he is one, is to state them—to state, that is, the reasons with the judgments. For criticism is not the mere opinion that this piece of music or this performance is good and that one is bad; it is the reasons for the opinion, in which the critic applies to what he has heard the insights that constitute his value to his readers.


There have been letters also in which readers accused me of having fallen for the Toscanini ballyhoo; and here again I will say that my high estimate of Toscanini's work came rather late, and that what I thought of him, early and late, represented my own response to what I heard. This began with a performance of Madama Butterfly in January 1914; and I wish I could say it so impressed me that I heard every subsequent performance of Toscanini's I could get to; but actually what impressed me was Farrar's looks, and it was her performances of Puccini and worse that I went to. Now historic performances of Un Ballo in Maschera, Il Trovatore, Aida, Orfeo ed Euridice, Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, conducted by Toscanini, with Hempel, Destinn, Matzenauer, Fremstad, Homer, Caruso—these were available to me; but all I heard him do that last year before he left the Metropolitan were a few performances of Giordano's Madame Sans-Gene with Farrar. When he came to the New York Philharmonic in 1926 I argued against what I regarded as the excessive excitement over him—not that I didn't hear the marvelous contours, textures, and sonorities, but that I thought Mengelberg's shaping of the sound-time continuum produced more effective statements of Beethoven and Brahms. As late as 1933, when I had learned to dislike Mengelberg's plastic distortions, I contended that Toscanini produced beautiful sounds but the same beautiful sounds for all music, whereas Koussevitzky gave the right character to the music of each composer—not only of Tchaikovsky but of Beethoven and Brahms; and it took a few more years for me to find Koussevitzky's italicizing distortion of Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky impossible to listen to, and Toscanini's statements of their works the most deeply satisfying. What happened was that I learned to appreciate and require plastic economy and subtlety in performance; and I learned by hearing them long enough—which is to say by my own experience.

Something similar happened with solo instrumentalists. A reader once attributed my criticisms of Heifetz, which he characterized as “snide and ill-mannered impertinence,” to personal animosity; accused me of attempting to tear Heifetz down in order to elevate Szigeti, for personal reasons again, and of doing the same thing with Koussevitzky for the benefit of Toscanini and Beecham; and assured me that only the musical public, which had put Heifetz and Koussevitzky where they were, could remove them. Actually Heifetz, when he first appeared here in 1917, was added to the celebrated performers I had begun to hear in 1913—Ysaye, Godowsky, Elman, Kreisler, Hofmann, Paderewski, Casals—who were the deities of that period, and whom I continued for years to accept as such. The inadequacies of perception and taste that caused me to be impressed by Hofmann kept me from being impressed by Schnabel when he first played in New York in 1923; and when, in 1930, I went to Brooklyn to hear him in Beethoven's Concerto No. 4 with the Boston Symphony, it was with no expectations but only out of curiosity; so that I was totally unprepared for a performance which produced the effect of revelation—in which, that is, as in a Toscanini performance of a Beethoven symphony, the clarifying articulation seemed literally to reveal the structure and expressive significance of the work for the first time. This and subsequent Schnabel performances made me aware also of the distinction, in a performance, between the playing of the instrument and the playing of the music, and thus of the distinction between a Hofmann who used the music to show what he could do with the piano, and a Schnabel who used the piano to illuminate the music. Similarly, Szigeti's performances—with their use of the violin in a powerful sculpturing of each large-spanned phrase with continuity of tension and outline from note to note, their creating of further continuity of tension and shape from phrase to phrase in the large structure—made me aware of the distinction in Heifetz's performances between his playing of the violin, with its dazzling tone and technique, and his playing of the music, with its mincing, wailing little swells on every two or three notes that kept breaking the line of the phrase, and its alternation, in a passage that should flow evenly, of now holding back and now hurrying forward, in a mannered and exaggerated expressive style that was as sentimental and vulgar in Beethoven as it would be in Liszt's Liebestraum. And I might add here that Toscanini's plastically coherent shaping of music made me aware of the distinction between the miracles of orchestral sonority that Stokowski and Koussevitzky produced with their orchestras, and the distortions and vulgarities they inflicted on many of the works they performed.

But as my reader's letter indicated, these were distinctions most people didn't make and didn't understand when someone else made them: what else was performance than the producing of the notes the composer had written; and how could a performance be wrong in which those notes were produced with dazzling beauty? For these people, all performances by celebrated performers had equal validity; so that one could say Szigeti played Beethoven differently from Heifetz, or Beecham played Mozart differently from Koussevitzky, but not that one played the music well and the other poorly. And for them, therefore, my statement that Heifetz was guilty of phraseological vulgarities was “snide and ill-mannered impertinence.” In this they failed to understand that I wasn't paid to genuflect before eminences or before the limited perceptions of the general public, but was paid, instead, to give the non-professional listeners who read me the benefit of my professional listener's sharper perceptions, by pointing out what those readers might otherwise not notice; and that if any of them couldn't hear what I pointed out or preferred to ignore it, this didn't mean I was wrong in hearing and reporting it.

Nor was this the only thing most people didn't understand about the critic's operation. A reader sent me one of my columns with Records crossed out and Likes and Dislikes written at the top, and with each statement that I liked or disliked something underlined throughout the piece. As though criticism properly was something other or more than personal likes and dislikes, and as though such likes and dislikes were mere whims. Actually criticism is as personal as the art it deals with: it begins with the critic's experience of, and response to, the work of art with his particular resources for the purpose; it ends with a formulation of his judgment that is a reasoned statement of like or dislike. My reader had underlined my dislike of Brahms's Violin Concerto and of Szigeti's performance; but he had paid no attention to the subsequent statement that “music as pretentious as the first movement, as saccharine as the second, should not be played with fussy, tremulous inflection that exaggerates its faults,” which made the dislike not mere whim but reasoned judgment of my experience of the work and the performance.

And when, finally, I have commented on a statement of another critic, I have usually received a letter questioning the propriety of my doing so and contending that the proper activity of a music critic was to write about music, not about another critic's writing. Even an earlier publisher and editor of the Nation, who took it as a matter of course that the Nation should editorially rebuke the Times for a news report or an editorial she disapproved of, deplored my practice of criticizing the writing of other critics (I should add, however, that she lived up to the Nation's proclaimed tradition by publishing what I wrote). But having begun to write my disagreement with what I read, I have continued to do so; and I have considered this part of my proper activity as a music critic—as it was part of the proper activity of the Nation to comment on something in the Times, and as it was part of the proper activity of a historian or a literary critic to discuss the writing of other historians or literary critics. The tradition among music critics in this country—that one never mentions a colleague except to pay him a compliment—may be a good one for the critics, but it has no other merit I can see, and it is a bad one for the public.

Since I may have given the impression that all I have had from readers is objections and dissents, let me add that there has also been evidence that my writing has counted for something in its readers' minds. And this is of course the return for his work that means most to a writer.

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