Saturday, December 25, 2021

Anthony Tommasini Steps Down

I was not planning to comment on a matter of note over at the NY Times, which is that Anthony Tommasini is stepping down as chief classical music critic and also retiring from the paper at the end of this year. I've said plenty about him and his opinions over the years, and I've just tagged every post that mentions him with "Tommasini." Just click that for more than you might want to read of my opinions of his opinions.

However, an interview at NPR and what I take to be his valedictory column at the Times really do need some kind of public comment. On Twitter, composer Judd Greenstein had a few things to say about the Times column, and I agree with everything he says. A number of other folks chimed in and by and large I agree with them.

I will further note that I find Tommasini's uncritical commentary on conservatories appalling. Conservatories are bastions of The Canon; they are there to school young musicians in "the core repertory"; they preserve a focus on technical ability; they are lineage-driven; they are very white and European in focus; they also train many many more musicians than there are jobs for. They're extremely problematic and conservative institutions, and yet for so many they're the only way into the classical music field as a performer.

About the NPR interview: first, you need to know that Tommasini published a book a few years ago called The Indispensable Composers. It's a brick-sized book discussing the lives and music of composers that Tommasini considers, well, indispensable. I will say that I haven't read it, because I prefer to read more specialist-oriented material about composers and music. This is most assuredly a work for general readers, for people who are just starting out with "classical music" or who are casual symphony attendees. I am not the audience.

Some years ago, Tommasini had a Times article that tried to poll people about the "greatest composers," and he imposed limitations I thought were a particular type of pandering and also bad choices from the chief classical critic of such a widely-read paper: he really did not want to consider any composers born before J.S. Bach and G. F. Handel, that is, 1685. For the book, he did let Monteverdi creep in, but he left out, well, an awful lot of important composers and their music. You can see the table of contents for the book here. (If you're guessing that it's all dead white European guys, well, you're right. And it's a very predictable group. Is Robert Schumann really more indispensable than Janacek? Is Puccini? How can you even decide?)

Anyway, here's what jumped out at me in the print version of the NPR interview. The interviewer and Tommasini are discussing his book:

Q: But then why not put two or three more modern composers?

A: In this crucial opening chapter, I said that the thing I love about contemporary music is that for a moment you hear this new piece and you don't think about where it's going to fit in the pantheon. You're just excited. Will literary historians look back and say, "What was the big deal about John Irving? We don't get it. Why were his books so popular?" But they're good reads and people love them, and he's a good writer. But, is he in the pantheon? So I'm eliminating composers of the last 50 or 70 years. We're just too close to them. And that's another book. And I'd like to write a book on the music of the last hundred years.

I cannot tell you just how bad I think this is. It's nice that he's going to get another book out of this, but what you're reading is the chief classical music critic of the NY Times refusing to take a critical stance on composers active since the end of the World War II.  This is a truly appalling act of critical timidity: our job as critics is to say what we think and why, not make excuses about why we can't render judgment.

Let me put it one way: Can you imagine a critic in 1920 being unwilling to make claims for the greatness of Johannes Brahms, who died in 1897 and had been active as a composer in the 50 to 70 years before 1920? Fortunately, the anonymous author of Brahms's obituary in the Times didn't hesitate to go out on a limb and say that he'd be taking his place among the titans of music.

And I'll put it another way, by listing some of the composers Tommasini isn't willing to place in our, or his, pantheon: Shostakovich, Britten, Cage, Boulez, Carter, Messiaen, Ligeti, Stockhausen, Kurtag, Dutilleux, Glass, Reich, Adams, Saariaho, Harrison, Walker, Berio, Feldman, Crumb, Rautavaara, Penderecki, and more.

He must have opinions about these composers. It's a real failure of critical nerve when the chief classical music critic of the Times thinks he's too close to the composers of the last 50 to 70 years to express those opinions in public.


Unknown said...

I don't read thst passage of Tommasini as "refusing to take a critical stance on composers active since the end of World War II." Rather, he's saying that postwar composers require a different approach, since they're so close to us; he even says in the next sentence that he'd like to write such a book.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I could very well be reading too much into it.

David Bratman said...

I couldn't possibly fit my response to this in your comment box, so it's here. Basically, "Unknown" above is right that you're over-reading Tommasini's comments, but basically I agree with you; I have his book and he is every bit as appallingly timid as you say he is.