I've been reading Monroe Beardsley's Aesthetics recently with great interest. One point he makes is that there are two basic categories of comments one can make about an artwork. He labels them "external" and "internal" according to whether they are about things external to or internal to the piece. For example, mentioning that Beethoven died in a thunderstorm, or sued his sister in law for custody of his nephew, or complained about Haydn's way of teaching counterpoint is to discuss externals as none of these things are internal to the artworks themselves. Mentioning that Beethoven liked the music of Handel, or worked on themes for months or years in his sketchbooks, or struggled with coming up with definitive metronome markings are, however, internal to the music itself (or could be argued so). All external comments are irrelevant, even if they shed light on the composer's intentions because the composer's intentions are also irrelevant. Now, ask yourself, how much of the liner notes, program notes and reviews you have read recently are actually relevant? 50%? Or maybe more like 5%?The unfortunate truth is that a great deal, probably most, of what we read written about music is misleading and misdirecting. It does not help us understand the music, but rather leads us to misunderstand the music. In this category we would most definitely include all those biographical details beloved of program note writers who want to "humanize" the composer.
This, and some other posts and comments this week about some less-than-stellar music criticism leads me to want to evaluate some of the most active music critics writing in English. Let's start with the chief music critic for the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini. Here is an excerpt from a recent review of a recording:
Fans of Tchaikovsky’s beloved First Piano Concerto will notice something different at the start of this exciting new recording, featuring the formidable pianist Kirill Gerstein. When the soaring main theme breaks out in the orchestra, the accompanying piano chords are rolled, not played in solid blocks of steely sound; and the rising three-chord pattern spans just four octaves, not five. Mr. Gerstein and the conductor James Gaffigan use the 1879 version of the piece, the one Tchaikovsky settled on after making some alternations to the score after the work’s 1875 premiere. But the concerto is known today from an 1894 version, published after Tchaikovsky’s death, which includes tweaks and cuts the composer had never sanctioned, as Mr. Gerstein explains in his information liner notes. The changes, though not extensive, tend to tame and make more conventional some of Tchaikovsky bolder flights.I haven't heard this recording, but that doesn't matter, because I just want to look at what Tommasini wrote to see if it qualifies as music criticism. The answer is yes. He discusses only those things inherent to the aesthetic object in question, namely the new Tchaikovsky recording, and he does so in clear, unambiguous language that is neither too technical, nor too avoiding of appropriate technical terms. I don't know if his comments are correct and exact, but they are appropriate. Let's look at another example. Here is a review of a concert of music by Purcell:
The concert began with excerpts from “The Fairy Queen,” adapted from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The players of Les Violons du Roy, based in Quebec City, brought Baroque-style focused sound and appealing swing to an orchestral Air and Rondeau, which led into a scene for a drunken poet. The bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus was delightful as the poet, slurping his delivery, sometimes bellowing his lines. A chorus of spirits mocked him for his “dogrel rhymes” and prodded two fairies to “pinch him for his crimes” in music that walked a blissful line between gentle joking and intense needling.Again, the focus is on the music and the performance. Nowhere else in the review does he wander into irrelevancies. Let's look at one more example. Here is a paragraph from a recent review of a concert by the New York Philharmonic:
I could devote a whole report to the wrenching, blazing and vehement account of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E minor that Mr. Gilbert conducted after intermission. The composer completed this hourlong symphony months after the death of Stalin. How explicitly it was intended as bitter commentary on Stalinist repression is a topic of debate. Whatever one’s take, Mr. Gilbert led a commanding performance, especially the spacious gravity he summoned during the expansive opening movement and the intensity bordering on sheer terror of the short Allegro.Again, nothing out of place here. Tommasini mentions the controversy over the "meaning" of some of the symphonies of Shostakovich, but doesn't force an opinion on us, commenting rather on how the music was delivered.
Now let's take a look at another very prominent critic, Alex Ross who is the chief music critic for the New Yorker. I've kicked Mr. Ross around quite a bit recently, largely because of a piece he wrote titled "Listen to the Future". Here is one bit I haven't previously quoted:
Can tradition-minded classical listeners ever be made to grasp the crippling contradictions inherent in their hostility toward contemporary music?I think this encapsulates rather well the central problem of Mr. Ross' criticism: he really does want to tell us what to think and he really does think that we must be made to think certain things. In the case of this quote, we must be "made to grasp" that we are just wrong, wrong, wrong to dismiss some contemporary music, because our hostility is based on "crippling contradictions". That kind of totalitarian pomposity is exactly why I intensely dislike Alex Ross' criticism. Let us seek further representative examples, however. Here is description of a recent piece by Thomas Adès:
Adès’s latest creations are anything but circumspect: they are wilder, stranger, and bolder than the intricate, insolent scores with which he first made his name, in the nineteen-nineties. The opening bars of “Totentanz” give us winds shrieking in their upper registers, hectoring brass, whistles and whipcracks from the percussion section, and a splattered G-major chord that lands like a dissonance. It is a sound at once grand and gaudy, majestic and mordant.This is reasonably apt writing, though I am a bit uncomfortable with the "intricate, insolent" characterization which is thinly-disguised propaganda for two of the essential elements in high modernism: that it be maximally complex and that it "épater les bourgeoisie" (insult the middle-class). The "splattered G-major chord that lands like a dissonance" seems oddly uninformative. Mr. Ross always seems to have agendas other than the music itself, though he is quite skilled at making us think otherwise. Here is an excerpt from a piece about singer-composers:
Significantly, this is the first classical genre to be dominated by women. The musicologist Susan McClary notes that “women have rarely been permitted agency in art, but, instead, have been restricted to enacting—upon and through their bodies—the theatrical, musical, cinematic, and dance scenarios concocted by male artists.” When women employ their own voices as vessels for musical thought, they are amending history: the expressivity of the female voice speaks, at last, for female ideas, rather than for male ideas about female ideas. And, whatever the gender of the composer, there is an uncanny charge in seeing someone sing a score that he or she has constructed. The sensual immediacy of the voice merges with abstractions of the mind, until, as in the Wallace Stevens poem, the composer becomes the “single artificer of the world in which she sang.”The feminist dogma quoted from Susan McClary is pretty blatant, of course. The questions that spring immediately to mind are "how can you define 'agency' so that it omits the agency of female performers?" Also, it is an illegitimate smear to refer to artworks by men as being "concocted". The mere fact of women singing does not, of course, "amend history". However would you manage to define "female" ideas as opposed to "male" ideas? There are only ideas--and idiocies, of which this is an example. Mr. Ross' biases come to the fore in many ways. Here is another example:
“Kinder! macht Neues!” Richard Wagner once scowled—“Children! Make something new!” He was berating fellow composers for reworking old pieces instead of delivering fresh creations. One can only imagine how Wagner would have been exasperated by the contemporary classical world, with its sclerotic fear of the new.I'm sure that he in no way sees his view of the classical music world as being anything like a bias. For him it is simply true that disagreement with modernism, of which Wagner was one of the founders, is simply an error. For Ross, "the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream." The only march is the march into the future. Tradition, indeed, aesthetics itself, is really just a sclerosis of the culture. This is the pure propaganda of high modernism and Mr. Ross wants us to accept it as a given.
It's not, of course. This is Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt, which came about as a result of his long meditation on history and tradition: