Friday, September 26, 2014

I have a Beef with the NY Times Hogwood Obit

I have more than one beef with the obit, actually.

Author Vivien Schweitzer can't be blamed for the terrible, terrible headline; someone else came up with "Christopher Hogwood, Early-Music Devotee, Dies at 73."

Devotee? Really? That makes Hogwood sound like someone who buys dozens of early music records and attends early music camp every summer*, not a world-famous professional musician who worked in the field for nearly 50 years and made an outsized impact.

But let's get to my problems with what Schweitzer did write. She mentions Hogwood's Mozart records, but there's not a word about his monumental, not-quite-complete Haydn symphony set, a groundbreaking long-term project if ever there was one. It's the first thing that comes to mind for me when I think about his career.

Then there's this unsourced remark:
Mr. Hogwood, who early in his career played continuo in Neville Marriner’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, was once referred to as “the Von Karajan of early music” — a reference to Herbert Von Karajan, who in addition to being one of the 20th century’s most important conductors was a famously imperious personality.
Schweitzer follows this with a quotation from a musician who worked with Hogwood, who doesn't quite fall over laughing, but who notes that Hogwood was the farthest thing possible from von Karajan's imperious image, and calls Hogwood a great collaborator who was happy to yield to a musician who had a better idea.

Now, who might have made that remark about Hogwood, and why?

As it happens, it was Hogwood's publicist, according to the Telegraph obit. My guess is that the publicist might have been referring to Karajan's stature in the conducting world, or his enormous repertory. I rather think that an email or two might have uncovered this information for the Times obit. In fact, Hogwood's publicist would have been a valuable contact for someone writing an obit of the conductor.

Lastly, there's this:
Some musicians and scholars now believe that modern instruments allow for greater interpretive possibilities than original instruments — that the wonders of Bach’s music, for example, can be best illustrated on a modern piano. 
What can you say about this? Again, we've got an unsourced assertion about what "some musicians and scholars" think. Who are they, and where did they express this belief? And what about the phrasing? "Some musicians and scholars now believe" makes it sound as though this is something new, something established by scholars after long, thoughtful research.

Well, it's not new, in the sense that pianists have been playing Bach on the piano more or less forever, because, after all, they are pianists. That Bach's music is readily adapted to be played on practically any instrument is hardly controversial or new.** But I'd really like to see Schweitzer back up "now believe" and provide the basis on which scholars believe, and can demonstrate, that there are greater interpretive possibilities on the piano. Sure, you can play louder on a piano than on a harpsichord, but you can't add or remove registers; Bach's music demands interesting phrasing before it demands volume or the kinds of color you can get on a piano.

In the end, Schweitzer is just setting up a semi-straw man for Hogwood to knock down, because here is the next sentence of the obit:
But according to Mr. Hogwood, “the theory that Mozart’s music was simply awaiting the invention of the Steinway is wrong.” 
Sigh. The Times can, and does, do better in the obit department than that. I would have assigned this one - oh, heck, I would, if I could, assign every Times obit - to the great Margalit Fox, who would have gotten the details right. And would not have required the long string of corrections that you can read at the end of this obit.

* I mean no disrespect toward people who attend early music camps. I have done so myself, though not recently; the thriving population of amateurs playing early music in their spare time is one of the great things in the music world.

** And I'm happy to hear Bach played on almost any instrument, provided the performer has interesting and persuasive interpretive ideas. A boring player will be boring on piano, harpsichord, virginals, or organ. An interesting player could be playing an accordion, for all I care.


dsmarley said...

Just for the record, though, Hogwood's wonderful Haydn cycle was never completed -- Polygram pulled the plug on it about three-quarters of the way through.

John Babb said...

This obit shows its ignorance by mentioning he performed modern composers such as ' Stravinsky, Copland and Tippett' without mention of Martinu.
Hogwood was a fine champion of Martinu, recording and performing many works , helping to prepare critical editions of several compositions and for his enlightened advocacy of the composer.

jonathanbrodie said...

Thank you for this clarification:

* I mean no disrespect toward people who attend early music camps. I have done so myself, though not recently; the thriving population of amateurs playing early music in their spare time is one of the great things in the music world.

I would go even further and say that, for me at least, amateur music making is at the very summit of our musical endeavors. I have played tons of professional gigs in my life, and tons of recreational ones. While there have been some wonderful moments in the pro part, there have been myriad annoying ones as well.

As for the amateur gatherings; they have supplied me with consistent pleasure and more than a few moments of radiance akin, perhaps, to what my great-great-great-great- grandfather might have felt when he gazed upon the face of the Baal Shem Tov.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks; I will correct that right away.

Lisa Hirsch said...

(That is, thank you, DSM.)

Lisa Hirsch said...

John, yes, indeed. At least one of the British obits mentions Martinu, who is among my favorite underappreciated composers.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Wow, Jonathan: the Baal Shem Tov. And yes, thank you, about amateur music making.

jonathanbrodie said...

Re: the Baal Shem Tov...

In my first draft I used Milton Berle...but then I revised it.

Lisa Hirsch said...


Dr.B said...

Can't someone be compared to Karajan without it being a reference to his personality?