Sunday, November 02, 2014

Tell Us What You Think, Joshua!

Joshua Kosman has a few thoughts on music criticism, George Bernard Shaw, and Virgil Thomson, the latter of whose music criticism is collected in a new Library of American volume, edited by Tim Page.

It's the kind of review that makes me want to re-read some Shaw and dip my toe, at least, into the Thomson collection.


Michael Strickland said...

If ever there was something you should be reading on your mobile device(s), it is the ginormous three-volume set of Shaw's music criticism. He wrote the criticism fast and furious for money as a London journalist, and he's the great, funny, brilliant writer about Western music. Nobody's written better about Mozart's music, ever. And his constant bashing of Brahms becomes hilarious, particularly his description of the German Requiem as something only the corpse could love.

Agree with Kosman about Thomson's criticism. I think he's a better writer than Kosman gives him credit for, but his Francophilia turns into dogma and his disinterests limit him as a critic or an interesting thinker. Thomson's autobiography, on the other hand, is fascinating, and I like his music a lot too.

Robert Gordon said...

Shaw's music criticism is actually in four volumes: the first called "London Music in 1888-1889 as Heard by Corno di Bassetto", containing his writings for The Star in those years, published under that pseudonym, with in addition a major autobiographical preface written in 1935. This is followed by the three volumes Kosman refers to, called "Music in London, 1890-94", containing his writings for The World, this time published under his own name.

The initial volume is interesting, not only for its content, but also because in it you can follow him as he finds his voice as a writer. The following three volumns are masterly from beginning to end.

All four volumns were published as a boxed set in 1973, by Vienna House in New York. I have no idea if they are still available, since I bought my copy decades ago. But if you can find them, don't hesitate -- I've read them front to back and re-read portions of them many times. I can't recommend them highly enough.

Berlioz is his equal as a writer and an observer, but the thing about Shaw is that he was writing in the place and at the moment when the canon of classical music as we know it now had just recently coalesced (congealed, I was about to say). So most of the music he writes about, and many of the artists, are known to us, and the issues that concern him are still alive.

kalimac said...

To answer Kosman's question, " What about Sibelius’ music earned it those epithets?", I have a guess, which I put in a review once:

"Sibelius’ finale is an odd duck. Its characteristic cohesion of themes out of fragments makes it seem as if it’s always just about to get going, and its repeated emphatic cadences simultaneously make it seem as if it’s always just about to end. The critic Virgil Thomson infamously called this symphony “vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond all description,” and I suspect that this clash is what Thomson hated most about it."

Lisa Hirsch said...

But what of the other three movements? And what you describe doesn't naturally translate to "vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond all description." It translates to a formal characteristic that Thomson doesn't like or doesn't understand, and which he has to condemn rather than describe.

Thanks, Michael and Robert, for the Shaw and Thomson commentary.

I got half-way through Berlioz's memoir a couple of years back and pretty much fell over laughing every time he wrote about music - really wonderful stuff. I published some excerpts here, and really I should buy myself Cairns and start all over.

I will roll my eyes a lot when Shaw bashes Brahms, of course.

Lisa Hirsch said...

The Vienna House set is readily available, at least as individual volumes, used via

Aleksei said...

I don't remember where I found this anonymous quote:

"Critics of words use words. Critics of music use words. Those 13 syllables are as perttieent as any I can make on the matter. If the final comment on a work of art is another work of art, might some critcical prose equal, as art, the art it describes? Yes, but that very prose is independent of the art it describes. The best critical writing is superfluous to its subject, and musical criticism is the most superfluous of all...."

Lisa Hirsch said...

I disagree deeply with that anonymous quotation.

Aleksei said...

I found the source:

Joshua Kosman said...

Pretty much every sentence of that essay is inane (and of course, like every word Ned Rorem has ever penned, suffused with self-obsession and self-pity).

But the key is here: "As a sometime critic my duty is to every composer." These are the words of a man who has not the slightest understanding of what criticism and critics are for. The critic's duty is to her fellow audience members, no one else.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you for so succinctly summing up the essay while I was still rolling my eyes.

kalimac said...


1) I'm not trying to defend Thomson's writing or his lack of specificity, I'm trying to explain his reaction.

2) Not every single moment of a work has to embody one's overall reaction to the work as a whole.

3) I said "most". There may have been other things.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I understood that. I was speaking rhetorically to Thomson's approach to criticism.

Robert Gordon said...

I just thought I'd add a favorite Berlioz quote, not from the Memoirs but rather from Evenings in the Orchestra (9th Evening): his description of what goes on at the Paris Opéra (meaning Meyerbeer, I suppose).

"High C's from every type of chest, bass drums, snare drums, organs, military bands, antique trumpets, tubas as big as locomotive smokestacks, bells, cannon, horses, cardinals under a canopy, emperors covered with gold, queens wearing tiaras, funerals, fètes, weddings, ... jugglers, skaters, choirboys, censers, monstrances, crosses, banners, processions, orgies of priests and naked women, the bull Apis and masses of oxen, screech-owls, bats, the five hundred fiends of hell and what have you -- the rocking of the heavens and the end of the world, interspersed with a few dull cavatinas here and there and a large claque thrown in."

(tranlation Jacques Barzun)

Lisa Hirsch said...

That is fantastic, or perhaps I mean fantastique.

kalimac said...

After hearing Tommasini speak, I thought I'd check to see what his biography of Thomson has to say on this. I learned:

1) Thomson wrote his newspaper reviews on a one-hour deadline, so infelicity of expression isn't surprising;

2) The Sibelius comment was in his very first review;

3) He got a critique from his editor afterwards (a regular proceeding while he was new) criticizing his Sibelius remarks, not for their vagueness and certainly not for the opinion, but for being unnecessarily antagonizing;

4) Tommasini contrasts Thomson's review with Olin Downes' rave for the same concert. He says, "Downes's praise is vague, emotive, and unconvincing, whereas Thomson's reproof is incisive, immoderate, and engaging." I agree that Thomson's comment is all these things, but it seems to me that it is also vague, emotive, and unconvincing.

Lisa Hirsch said...

K, the loud noise you may have heard last night was me, banging my head against the wall after reading your account of Tommasini's talk.

Joshua Kosman said...

Kalimac's point 4 is absolutely spot-on.

Incidentally, here's one of my favorite mystery texts from music criticism. This is Andrew Porter writing about Martinu's First Symphony in 1986 (reprinted in Musical Events:

Virgil Thomson hailed the First Symphony (when Boston brought it to Carnegie Hall, soon after the première) as "a beaut," and went on to explain why it was one, in a review headed "Smetana's Heir": the symphony is "wholly lovely"; it "shimmers"; and "it is like Smetana because the shining sounds of it sing as well as shine."

To me, this represents an unbeatable take-down of Thomson's utter vacuousness as a critic, with the stiletto-like "explained" as the crowning touch. Yet I've never been sure whether I'm reading it correctly, or imposing on it my own agenda. Porter's zinger is so dry, so deadpan, that I doubt his intent. I'm not aware that he was ever quite so witty about anything, nor that he ever gave any hint of seeing through the Thomson-is-God mythology. But if not, then what could he have meant by it? Discuss.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Andrew Porter's reviews as critic of The New Yorker were a huge inspiration to me way back when, but it's a long time since I read any of it. His wit is certainly on display in his wry and very entertaining essay on the issues facing anyone attempting a singing translation, into English, of the Ring. That said, I have absolutely no idea how to divine what he is saying, or not saying, about Thomson.

He's still around, though in his mid-80s now. You could send him a note.

kalimac said...

Lordy, anyone who bought into the "Thomson is God" view of criticism would probably think that did explain it.

I came across a discussion of that review in Tommasini's book also. It sent his editors into eye-popping fury. Why? The word "beaut." They told him that if he ever used slang like that in the Herald Tribune again, it would be a firing offense.

Lisa Hirsch said...

A great opportunity exists to corner Tim Page at the Rubin Institute - nobody edits a volume of someone's reviews unless they like the stuff. I think.