A Case for the Music Critics

newspapersGraduate school field trips are rare.  Gone are the yellow school buses of our youth that once promised a venture to the zoo or the pumpkin patch, releasing us from the confinement of a classroom.  And yet, back in graduate school I had one professor who knew better, taking her opera history class of twenty-somethings on the field trip of all field trips.  We spent an evening in the back room of John Ardoin’s house in Dallas, sitting cross-legged on the floor like a group of captivated kindergarteners.  The walls were lined with hundreds, perhaps thousands of LPs.  John thoughtfully selected one after another, playing us classic opera recordings on a well-loved turntable, explaining what made each of them special.

John Ardoin was the music critic of the Dallas Morning News for 32 years.  He was best-known for his writing about Maria Callas in which he assumed the role of biographer and chronicler of her performances, recordings, and master classes.  Ardoin knew Callas’ singing so intimately that he devoted an entire volume to its analysis in his book, The Callas Legacy.  He also studied and provided extensive commentary on the career and recordings of Wilhelm Furtwängler, principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1922 to 1945, authoring The Furtwängler Record.  Ardoin devoted his life to music criticism because he loved music and didn’t know what else to do.

In an interview with James Jorden of Parterre Box Ardoin stated, “I think when you hear a performance of anything, you have an obligation to say why it worked or didn’t work; how it was different from other performances of the same work or other artists who play the same repertory…above all a critic writes for himself.  You write so you can live with yourself; so that you can, to the best of your ability, convey what you thought and felt, and why.”

Ardoin’s philosophy echoes that of notorious music and theatre critic George Bernard Shaw in “How to be a music critic,” published within The Scottish Musical Monthly in December of 1894. The only man to have won both the Nobel Prize in Literature and an Oscar, Shaw claimed that the three main qualifications of a music critic were 1.) to have a cultivated taste in music, 2.) to be a skilled writer, and 3.) to be a practiced music critic.  He railed against the critic who could not criticize, ignoring the finer points which determined the difference between mediocrity and genius.  Shaw was just an amateur musician himself and largely self-taught, but felt that it was his economic studies and political practices as a leading member of the Fabian Society that made him all the more effective as a music critic.  He discussed the economics of art:  who or what was to blame for the deficiencies of a performance and what would the reforms cost?  Over a third of Shaw’s reviews were devoted to vocal criticism and opera, and of those, 200 reviews were assigned to the music of Richard Wagner.

This was the era of the great Wagner-Brahms debate and Shaw was the perfect Wagnerite. On the other hand, his disapproval of Johannes Brahms’ music was firm and one can find delightful proof in Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective.  Shaw wrote these words about Brahms’ Ein deutches Requiem which appeared in The World on November 9, 1892:

“Brahms Requiem has not the true funeral relish:  it is so execrably and ponderously dull that the very flattest of funerals would seem like a ballet, or at least a danse macabre, after it.”

Of course Brahms’ iconic work was completed more than two decades earlier when its final form was premiered at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on February 18, 1869 with Carl Reinecke conducting.  As it turns out Shaw got it wrong.  His opinion didn’t impact the the Requiem’s longevity either.  Today, roughly 150 years later, Ein deutsches Requiem is one of the most widely performed oratorios, second only to George Frederic Handel’s Messiah.

Meanwhile in September of 1882 George Bernard Shaw’s 19th century literary foil Eduard Hanslick, wrote with fierce conviction about the Wagner Cult within the Neue freie Presse, commenting on Richard Wagner’s celebrity status as “a Schopenhauerian, a pessimist, a foe of vivisection, an anti-Semite, a vegetarian, and a believing Christian.”

Shaw and Hanslick were prominent voices within a conversation about music and musicians that formally emerged in the 18th century.  Journalistic criticism arose during the Age of Reason when man was less interested in the creations of God than in those of his own making.  Musical magazines such as Johann Mattheson’s Critica Musica in 1722 were published in Germany and France.  It was the beginning of an engaging dialogue about musical happenings, but these writings are also significant as they became a useful tool for historians studying ubiquitous tastes and styles of the time. Just as John Ardoin catalogued many of Callas’ recordings and reviewed the progress of the Dallas Opera throughout his tenure for all posterity, many extant performance reviews prove themselves historically important to musicologists and music lovers alike.

Some music critics are wordsmiths through and through and have advanced the music review as a literary form.  Read E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony” and you will be swept away by his eccentric writing, receiving a thorough understanding of Beethoven’s Besonnenheit from Hoffmann’s perspective.  Hoffmann – revered for his fairytale “Nussknacker und Mausekönig” as well as for other romantic writings –  discusses aspects of deliberateness and prudence of composition within the c minor symphony, outlining its structural elements and contrasting Beethoven’s music with that of Mozart and Haydn. Beethoven’s legendary symphony debuted in Vienna in 1808, but Hoffmann’s review didn’t appear until 1810 when it was published in Leipzig’s Allgemeine Musikalishe Zeitung.

“Thus Beethoven’s instrumental music opens to us the realm of the monstrous and immeasurable.  Glowing rays shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we sense giant shadows surging to and fro, closing in on us until they destroy us, but not the pain of unending longing in which every desire that has risen quickly in joyful tones sinks and expires. Only with this pain of love, hope, joy – which consumes but does not destroy, which would burst asunder our breasts with a mightily impassioned chord – we live on, enchanted seers of the ghostly world.”

 The same year that Hoffmann’s imaginative review was published another important German composer and music critic was born – Robert Schumann.  Schumann’s bourgeois literary audience devoured musical culture.  And he wasn’t the only composer that lent his pen to music journalism during the 19th century.  Schumann’s erudite society included Hector Berlioz in Paris, Hugo Wolf in Vienna and Bedrich Smetana in Prague, each composer-critic striving in some way to cultivate and promote the native music of his countrymen.

Schumann’s own Neue Zeitschrift for Musik was founded in 1834 and from Schumann we have a wealth of delightful narrative writings, wholly contrasting the analytic and anti-romantic writing style that Hanslick embodied fifty years later when he was championing the work of Brahms.  Schumann’s germinal piece of music criticism, “An Opus 2” (also referred to as “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!”) was published by Allgemeine musicalische Zeitung on December 7, 1831.  Within it the reader is introduced to Florestan, Eusebius, and Master Raro, the imaginary characters who would dominate Schumann’s descriptive writing, and later possibly represent the bipolar disorder that he endured in life.  Within the essay Eusebius bursts in on his friends with an exciting score written by a budding, piano virtuoso.   The rowdy bunch sits down at the piano to play Là ci darem la mano, varié pour le Pianoforte par Frédéric Chopin.  We learn that Schumann wonders why Chopin chose B flat for the theme, but ultimately that in Schumann’s opinion “genius peeks out at you from every bar.”

“The Editor’s Ball” is another piece by Schumann in which he creatively exhibits how one can review a performance.  Again Florestan is present as the narrator of the story, but we are introduced to two sisters, Ambrosia and Beda, the daughters of a prominent editor and host of this elaborate musical ball. Schumann is interested in the younger, more fetching daughter (whom most likely represents Clara Wieck, Shumann’s future wife) and pursues her all evening while filling us in on the repertoire being played – Grand Dramatic Polonaise Opus 11 by I. Nowakowski, A Chopin Waltz Opus 18, I. Brzowski’s Four Mazurkas Opus 8, and several other pieces.

Indeed current music criticism – what we read in music publications, daily newspapers, and on blogs – should follow Schumann’s lead, enriching the reader’s experience and engaging an audience that might not be aware of a particular cultural happening or genre.   A music critic is a broadcaster of musical events and offers both expertise and enthusiasm (or lack thereof).

After a century of German romanticism and a treasure trove of Italian opera was composed, the twentieth century ushered in serialism, avant-gardism and neo-classicism.  Virgil Thomson, American composer and chief music critic of the New York Herald Tribune for over ten years, believed that audiences should be wary of accepting just any musical trend that seemed progressive and instead seek “innovation through expressivity.”  He wrote an article titled, “Music of Constant Change” for the Atlantic Monthly in February 1959 in which he described Beethoven’s music as the basis for all musical pedagogy, even comparing him to the Sun King, Louis XIV.  Thomson’s writing traced the constant transformation of musical technique from that point, emphasizing the music of Wagner and Brahms.  He believed that while Wagner’s “Music of the Future” peaked at the premiere of Tristan und Isolde in 1865, its popularity declined significantly after the turn of the century whereas Brahms’ music only saw a rising incidence of performance after the composer’s death.  Thomson contemplated these “noble mountains of the past” and predicted that the distribution of phonograph and radio would eradicate the art of music, saturating music consumers with nothing but the classics.

During a pre-concert lecture at the 2014 Rubin’s Institute of Music Criticism Alex Ross, music critic of New Yorker magazine outlined what he believes is the music critic’s function:  writing about what just happened, conveying intimations, and foretelling what future concert audiences might find relevant.  But music critics can also provide perspective and context.  One can look to Ross’ October 2016 essay for the New Yorker called, “Bob Dylan as Richard Wagner” as an example of this. Here Ross addressed the controversy surrounding Bob Dylan’s selection as a Nobel Prize winner in Literature; his approach was to parallel Dylan to Wagner, taking into account Wagner’s 19th century celebrity status, literary and musical significance.  Or read Ross’ May 2017 review of Chaya Czernow’s opera “Infinite Now” which recently saw its premiere at the Flemish Opera in Ghent.  Ross’ effort to provide background – historical, literary and musical – while describing the landscape of sound that Czernow utilized as a specialist in post-World War II musical expressions helps us to understand the framework of her opera and simultaneously piques our curiosity.

Both Virgil Thomson and Alex Ross have elevated the art of music criticism, simultaneously employing intellect with intuitive musical understanding.  Polite, yet opinionated, these journalists have continued the legacy of Hoffmann, Hanslick, Schumann, and even the painfully honest George Bernard Shaw.

When reading contemporary music criticism, some may find it easy to dismiss it as a narcissistic enterprise or question music criticism’s value beyond the writer’s biases.  And yet, there is a 300-year-old body of literature that argues the opposite.   Consider Robert Aloys Mooser’s article, “Works by German Nazi Composers” that appeared in the December 1937 issue of Regards sur la musique contemporaine.  Four years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States intervention in Hitler’s gruesome campaign, a Swiss music critic published a brave statement against the suppression of Jewish music during the Holocaust.  Mooser used the occasion of a concert review at the Musik-Collegium of Winterthur to criticize the aims of the Third Reich. In an official capacity Mooser reviewed the works of Paul Hoffer, Peter Schacht, Helmut Degen, and Hans Chemin-Petit, but his greater purpose in writing this review was to criticize the Nazi’s attempt to “purify” musical life in Germany and beyond, no doubt referring to Joseph Goebbels’ role as propaganda minister in banning the music of Paul Hindemith and Felix Mendelssohn.  Mooser took this opportunity to announce Hindemith’s dismissal from the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin and boldly stated that the Nazis preferred music that appealed to those with a “primitive mentality”. The final paragraph of Mooser’s review reads,

“German music suffers from a deplorable sterility, which can be cured only by an infusion of new blood capable of reviving it and restoring its erstwhile splendour by bringing it back to its authentic traditions.  It is very sick…”

Back in 1997 at John Ardoin’s home, I didn’t realize just how influential he had been as a music critic.  In fact, his collegial relationship with Larry Kelly and Nicola Rescigno, founders of the Dallas Opera in 1957, arguably influenced casting and repertoire choices.  Ardoin’s writing about this fledgling opera company in northern Texas garnered national attention and helped draw singers like Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Teresa Berganza and Monserrat Caballé. And when “La Scala West” saw a change in leadership after 1991, Ardoin didn’t hesitate to voice his criticism of Plato Karayanis and Jonathan Pell, decrying performances that he deemed were “anti-musical” or “moth-eaten.”  Dallas music lovers didn’t know whether to love him or loathe him – even if they did agree with his conclusions.

But, in the long run, what does Ardoin’s writing matter? Is it significant that he commented on the musical output in Dallas or that he studied Maria Callas’ artistry with such devotion?

“Callas’ performance of the “Liebestod” is more a resignation to death than a transfiguration through it.  This memento of her Isolde (sung in Italian) is a very human statement with a great weight of sadness brought to bear on music.  Callas’ deep use of legato throughout is the predominate vocal feature, with Wagner’s long, stretching lines coated in dark tone.  She carefully observes the many rests sprinkled throughout, which are like sighs and are so important in establishing the atmosphere of the scene.  The final impression is of one gigantic phrase embracing the music in a feeling of earthiness.  Basile’s contributions are fairly routine…” (The Callas Legacy, page 6)

In this age of mass shootings, Minecraft, and seven-minute sound bites, music journalists are necessary more than ever.  Ardoin was a disciple of music and knew the difference between genius and mediocrity.  He possessed a cultivated taste in music and had a truth to tell.

John Ardoin is gone now, but a new generation of writers has arisen. As I enjoy, deconstruct, and evaluate the reviews of music critics today – Anne Midgette, Anthony Tommasini, Mark Swed, and so many other elegant writers – I am grateful for the ongoing dialogue about music, sound, and artistry.  It is that tête-à-tête between a writer who prizes music and his readers.  It is the continuation of a conversation about something that is central to our human experience.

-Stephanie Adrian (November 2017)




One thought on “A Case for the Music Critics

  1. Stephanie, this is an excellent commentary on the valued role those who offer expert perspectives provide. Congratulations for hitting it out of the park.


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