Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Music Critics

I'm just finishing a fairly short, though dense, book on the aesthetics of music by Carl Dahlhaus and will put up a post on it when I'm done. It contains a number of interesting observations on music criticism. I also just ran across a blurb about a BBC interview with Jessye Norman that encapsulates rather well the current, contemptuous view of music critics:
“Oh, they might write it, but, darling, I don’t read it. I don’t need it. I know whether or not I have done onstage what I intended to do that night. … And if it doesn’t suit somebody who is sitting there, not having paid for their ticket to be there, and they find it not to their liking – what does it matter? Who are they?”
"Who are they?" indeed! Those contemptible little wretches, sitting there in the hall, clutching their free tickets, what do they have to say about my performance as an opera diva? Music critics have little credibility these days because the very act of music criticism has little credibility. The reason for this lies in four little words standing for another word: "not to their liking" which is proxy for the word "subjective". In other words, if what a music critic says about a performance is based on nothing more than their private preference, then we should pay no more attention to it than we would to the opinion of our gardener or the guy at the Home Depot. "Jessye Norman? I hear she's a pretty good singer?"

I'm quite sure that Jessye Norman is not in particular need of the usual variety of music criticism. She is a very well-established artist far along in her career. But the primary recipients of music criticism are really the audience members, current and future. And good music criticism should be quite different from private opinion. First of all, it needs to be informed opinion, based on a great deal of knowledge and experience. And second, it should be objective opinion, based on fundamental principles and not just on personal bias. I am not at all a fan of jazz, but if I had to review a concert of jazz, I would do my level best to discuss it objectively without any trace of personal bias. Apparently the received opinion these days is that such a thing is simply not possible. And I'm sure, for many of the critics working today, it is not. But that is because they are not good music critics.

Good music criticism is very difficult and there are few if any rewards for it. A certain amount of the posts on this blog count as music criticism and I try to make them as informed and fair as possible. Nearly all of my commentators seem to agree about that, which is gratifying. Even when we disagree, we do so in a civilized manner.

A certain amount of our aesthetic appreciation is certainly subjective, but not all. Another part is objective and the reasons I think so I have outlined in a number of places here at the Music Salon. Probably the most extensive of these posts were three I did taking inspiration from an unusual source: the English empirical philosopher, David Hume. I chose this because my feeling, very much buttressed by reading the Dahlhaus book, is that too much discussion of aesthetics is purely from the German idealist tradition. Hume provides a refreshingly common-sense alternative. Here the the links to the Hume posts: 1, 2, 3.

At its best, I think that good music criticism serves to answer a number of questions that are important to a serious lover of music:
  • What are the elements of a good performance/interpretation? How do these vary with different musical periods?
  • What are the elements or fundamentals of a good composition? How do these vary with different musical periods?
  • Who are some of the relatively under-rated or little known composers, performers or pieces that might be worth investigating?
  • Who are some of the relatively over-rated composers, performers or pieces that might not be worth your time?
Bear in mind that anyone striving to answer these kinds of questions has to be well-informed, an "expert witness" in Hume's sense, who is not just inflicting his own prejudices on you, but trying to make a fair judgement.

Obviously we need to listen to a performance by Jessye Norman to close this post. This is Der Erlk√∂nig by Franz Schubert:

If you want to do a little comparing, have a listen to this version as well:

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