Boosters, Reporters, and Critics

It occurs to me that in my fairly frequent excoriation of the musical “critical” fraternity, I’ve been grossly unfair; I’ve been expecting oranges from an apple tree. It may be a devolution, indeed, that so-called classical music is served in the papers by reporters and boosters rather than by critics, but because authentic criticism is so rarely, and in any case only tangentially engaged in by the scrivening class, I need to revise my expectations.

“Only the facts, Ma’am”… that’s where we are. But I question the notion that a concert is essentially an “event”. You can go online and find the pertinent schedules and performers for just about any musical organization in a jiffy. And we know that Daniel Barenboim or Martha Argerich or Maurizio Pollini aren’t going to crumple into a fetal position on stage and protest that they’ve forgotten how to play. Now that would be newsworthy! That scenario does, however, figure in a musician’s dreams (about once every couple of months I myself experience the old-hat nightmare that I go on stage to play a concert and have totally forgotten what notes to play).

So, if conventional reportage of musical events is not really necessary, perhaps the role the “critic” ought to play is that of booster. Lord knows it’s a difficult world out there for musicians and musical organizations trying to make a living. And show some civic pride, you! Our orchestra is the bestest in the whole wide world!

This is parochial and condescending. Sort of like the recent Youtube presidential debates.

We know the people and institutions the reporter and booster serve. But whom does the critic serve? To whom does the critic owe something?  Naturally, to his readers and only his readers. He owes nothing except fairness and reasonable good will to anybody else. A critic should be a philosophical presence, which necessitates subjectivity. And a critic better know how to read a score. I regret to say that I’m pretty sure a plurality of critics are lacking in this respect. And because a critic uses the medium of words, he should have some literary flair. You know, I don’t think I’ve read a joke or humorous metaphor or allusion from any music critic in years. And it’s too bad. Look at the writings of great critics like G.B. Shaw, Romain Rolland, or Robert Schumann.  Puns, allusions, metaphors, and whimsy of all sorts characterize their writings.

Here is a passage about program notes, but equally applicable to music reporters, from the internet commentator Ivan Katz: “It is not merely that I object to being treated like an idiot. I object to the patronizing tone of these annotations. I object to the general lack of research that such notes usually display, and I object to the steadfast refusal of the annotator to say anything even remotely “controversial” let alone “unflattering”…perhaps it is thought that jargon and high sounding mumbo-jumbo will impress the readers. It doesn’t. It merely bores those who it does not insult, and it helps no one.” Blunt words, maybe, but there is some justice to them. Music criticism can be a noble, and in my view, should be an essential, part of a genuinely musical culture; I only wish we had critics, and not mere reporters or boosters. In addition to Shaw and Schumann, I recommend the relevant essays in Schoenberg’s “Style and Idea” and the first volume of the newly released complete writings of Aldous Huxley. A wonderful collection of musical criticism is to be had in Paul Rosenfeld’s “Discoveries of a Music Critc”. Here is a sample from the latter book, concerning Richard Strauss’s Elektra (1908) and its character as a sort of harbinger of WW1: 

“These deadly forces are not the inhabitants exclusively of opera houses or of the private worlds of two artists. [Strauss and his librettist, Hoffmansthal] They are the essences which actualized themselves in the World War. This, before us, already is the World War, the machine guns, the TNT, the mass murder. This is its crater. Red and black, the stage with its plethora of shrieks, screams, groans, and the sounds of dragged bodies and laboring whips, epitomizes a period, the one immediately preceding the inception ot the catastrophe, around 1907, permitting us to revisit it in thorough awareness. It is an overloaded, hysterical one, immense in technical prowess, but luxurious, crass, fat, materialistic, satiated, incapable of sublimation, stewing with explosives that wear the steel caps of projectiles. ..and, crater of this crater of the festering energies of the civilized man craving release in deadly expansion, we recognize, alas, the home…”

Beautifully extravagant, eminently disputable, splendidly literary, this is the sort of thing I’d like to see today. But of course, what we’re stuck with is “Ms. Lehman showed total command of her taxing part, and even when the orchestra was at it biggest fortes, could be heard with ease. The orchestra acquitted its role with considerable aplomb,” etc. etc.