From my years as the chief rock critic of The New York Times in the 1970’s, I am lucky to retain several rock critics, two in particular, among my closest friends. By and large, they are suspicious of Art, classical music especially: to be accurate, one is grudgingly respectful but utterly indifferent, the other hostile. Their suspicions are shared, insofar as they are considered or articulated at all, by the wider swath of rock critics, musicians and pop-culture academics who attended last spring’s annual rock symposium/confab at the Experience Music Project in Seattle. Rock critics are not talking about contemporary classical music, which they never hear. They are talking about the standard repertory, and they consider that music hopelessly irrelevant, odd-sounding and crippled by class pretensions.
Before we dismiss such ideas as ignorant philistinism, and to some extent it is just that, we should stop and think. How vital is classical music as an art form? What is the connection between the comfort food of bread-and-butter standards and edgier (or pitifully pandering) new classical composition? How is classical music supported, especially in this country, and to what extent does it fulfill spiritual vs. crassly social needs? What is the audience, and how old is it? Some of the answers to those questions fuel the rock critics’ disdain.
For classical critics, these issues crept furtively to light during this summer’s “critical conversation,” a communal blog conceived by the intrepid Doug McLennan, founder and guru of artsjournal.com and himself a former pianist and classical critic. And, one might add, an NAJP alumnus and, now, board member.
Doug’s idea was to see if a clutch of critics could identify “the next big idea” in classical music. They couldn’t, which may speak to the sadly fragmented state of classical music today and may indicate that Doug’s question, while properly provocative of a larger conversation, was not quite the right one to ask at this moment in musical history.
A larger conversation it did indeed provoke. We live now in a rather bland period in which everybody professes openness to everything. No more the fierce polemics of the modernists vs. the traditionalists, the serialists vs. the neo-classicists, the downtowners vs. the uptowners, or the minimalists vs. everybody else. Benign, dispassionate, mostly passionless tolerance reigns.
As an advocate of such tolerance in my 1983 book, “All American Music,” I am amused and bemused by all this loving feeling. Amused, because it proves I was a good predictor of the immediate future (and I hasten to add that I haven’t always been so sure-footed, as in my pronouncements in 1980 that rap was a transitory phenomenon, or in the mid-80’s that the CD represented a sonic improvement over the LP). Bemused, because there is something enlivening about a good fight, and some of the lifelessness of the current classical scene may have to do with the dulling of its polemical edge.
But lurking beneath the ripple-free surface lurks Nessie, in the form of the old resentments. Some critics attempted to intimidate the others by all the music they’d heard. Others trumpeted the vitality of pop over the moribundity of classical composition. Still others let their old hostility against commercially-minded vulgarity seep back up to the surface. But in the end, everyone agreed that we need to be more open to everything.
Having fought the high-low, cultivated-venacular, uptown-downtown battles for decades, I’d like to try to hasten over those hoary dichotomies here. Hence the title of this essay, which anyone who knows me will instantly understand suggests that “classical” music has no lock on “serious” music.
What do I mean by “serious”? There are those, aesthetical neo-cons of the Hilton Kramer sort, who lament the loss of standards that any erosion of classical hegemony may entail. That is nonsense. My rock critic friends are among the fiercest elitists I know, rigorously imposing judgments of quality on all the music they encounter.
The trouble with standards, and maybe their greatest glory, is that they remain stubbornly resistant to objectification. Whenever a critic has tried of“prove” the superiority of his or her favorite music, by adducing its complexity or its ingenuity within tradition or its freedom from crass commercialism, the paradigms break down under the most casual scrutiny. Simple music can be great; so can conservative composers (Bach) and radical ones (early Stravinsky); all composers relate, willingly or defiantly, to tradition, no matter how determinedly innovative; the loudest populism can be thrilling (the Rolling Stones). Standards are really the subjective taste of a knowledgeable, compelling person, reinforced by sophisticated consensus.
By “serious,” then, I mean good. By “good,” I mean worthy of our attention and enthusiasm, worthy of being trumpeted by those who like it to those who don’t yet know it or haven’t yet accepted it, worthy of rehearing and worthy of inclusion within a critical tradition that might eventually amount to a canon. I hasten to point out, to cover my intellectual-populist flank, that music that seems proudly trivial, or was conceived as a rebuke to the presumed pomposity of seriousness, like “Louie, Louie” or “Roadrunner,” can be serious too, or at least seriously appreciated.
But mostly by serious I mean music that is important, to its creators and to me. And in our time, that can mean music from anywhere by anybody. Not all(ital) music by anybody and everybody, but some pieces from any genre. Which means a far broader range of music than that which derives directly from the Western classical tradition. It means jazz and rock and rap and Latin and reggae and Indian and African. It means ancient traditions and composition inspired by such traditions. It means the cheesiest pop, from Shania Twain to Bollywood. It means artists from any of those genres influenced by other genres (cf. Shania Twain’s Bollywood excursions).
One index of an art’s vitality is its ability to attract the interest of serious artists in other fields. In recent years, that has meant downtown classical music and pop. A remarkable number of young modern-dance troupes choose pop and rock and rap to accompany their choreography. In the remarkable installation this summer at Mass MoCA, the artist Ann Hamilton used music by Meredith Monk – created for a previous collaboration between the two. A surprising number of the classical critics on the artsjournal blog (and even more of commentating readers) argued that pop had seized the high ground, creatively. Which, in turn, elicited defensive reiterations of the old, Adorno-esque put-downs of commercial music.
It’s instructive to compare the balance between high and low in different arts over time. Mozart was popular in his day, but there was still street and folk music he could happily appropriate. Television, as conceived and covered by its newspaper critics, ranges from more or less serious news broadcasts and PBS programs and HBO mini-series right down to Donald Trump. There is no “pop” subdivision of theater or dance or film; those critics cover the whole range.
In classical music, and in the artsjournal blog, one could sniff the panic. There’s a lot of music out there, and apart from personal taste and training, it's hard enough for a critic to keep up with all the classical composition out there, let alone the canonical and recently exhumed repertory from the past and all the performances and larger issues, like declining audiences (if they are declining) and financially shaky institutions.
When I was writing “All American Music,” which began during my years as both a classical and rock critic for The Times, I could feel the chill of the panic periodically myself. Jazz, for instance, was a field I felt less sure about than classical or rock, which I was actually writing about regularly for the paper and hence for which I felt the need to have some plausible overview. Jazz often seems like a self-contained tradition, with its own artists and impresarios and, especially, critics, all of whom fiercely defend it against all encroaching threats, especially rock. But since I already knew a lot of jazz, I plunged in, seeking to define my own tastes and to get hold of the field in its breadth and, to some extent, its depth.
Ultimately, a critic has to follow his or her tastes, listening to all the music that previous positive experiences (or even grim duty) suggest might be similarly interesting. Again, openness does not mean the abandonment of personal taste, or even standards. But sticking to what you know best and excluding the rest is cowardice or laziness or both (Linda Ronstadt, that most wide-ranging of singers, once argued that all laziness is fear). Music is music. The classical tradition is the aural expression of the larger Western contributions to world history, like modern science, democracy and colonialism. Colonialism and technological innovation have brought the world together, and demoracy has fostered a surge of popular artistic expression. A music critic must deal with all that, not hide from it.
Aside from personal resistance, however, all manner of institutional forces militate against such openness. Classical music has its orchestras and opera companies and trade organizations and publications and a solid core audience that does indeed try to shut most everything else out. The same with jazz and, as I indicated at the outset of this essay, rock. No doubt there are devotees of merengue who care less about other Latin music, let alone Charles Wuorinen’s latest opera. It’s easy enough for a critic like me to proclaim a generously broad expanse of music, on which a happy listener may gambol and play. A DJ or non-commercial, format-free radio can indeed so play, juxtaposing any kind of music with any other.
But even frisky presenters like those at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall or Lincoln Center’s Great Performers run into roadblocks. Their halls are too expensive and too bigfor many kinds of music. The echoing ambiance demanded by classical music blurs amplified music. Many subscribers to one kind of music don’t want to be bothered by other kinds.
The solution for the institutions is to keep plugging away. Like newspapers, they yearn for younger audiences, and younger audiences do tend to be more open. The range of music at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center may still be tilted toward the classical (that’s where these people came from and that’s what they know best). But they are helping to create new audiences before our very ears.
Another institutional roadblock lurks in the newspapers for which most music critics write. Kyle Gann is an avatar of openness, but the Village Voice is not interested in classical music for the same reasons my rock-critic friends disdain it. Allan Kozinn gets to write about the Beatles at The Times, because he would explode if he couldn’t, but should Tony Tommasini feel the need to review on any regular basis the contrasting vocal talents of, say, Alicia Keys, Norah Jones, Avril Lavigne, Beyonce(acute accent) and Ms. Twain, he would run up against a whole pop-music department full of skilled critics who cover that kind of music already. And those divisions, between pop and classical, theater and dance, film and television, are maintained through bureaucratic inertia, born of the vested interests of the critics who hold those jobs and of the editors who perpetuate the divisions through new hires into old slots.
A lot of newspapers, including my own, have stressed pop cultural coverage to an ever greater extent of late, usually to the detriment of classical coverage. The people who make those decisions, by and large, know little and care less about music (or films or television). They want news, because they were trained as reporters. And they want pop culture because they think it will lure younger readers. Which it may or may not do, since young readers usually want to think of themselves as out of the mainstream, and big-city newspapers are nothing if not mainstream.
The trick, once again, is to be serious about whatever it is you’re writing about. Serious does not mean humorless or graceless. But me, I grow real sick real fast of personality profiles of personalities I care little about. Or of newsy little trend snippets and big photos and acres of white space around the ever-shrinking text. Intelligent writing about popular culture, like that practiced by my rock-critic friends and the current pop critics of The Times, is fine with me. As long as it doesn’t swamp everything else.
An astute reader pointed out in the artsjournal blog that when I wrote "All American Music," I was arguing for a place at the table for rock and Latin and jazz. Now those arts have bellied up to the table so greedily that there’s hardly room for anyone else.
Ultimately, a critic owes primary responsibility to the art, however conceived, and to his or her own integrity. Hence the popularity of personal blogs, like those of Greg Sandow and Terry Teachout and Mr. Gann on the artsjournal site. Blogs have their onanistic aspects; not every random thought is worth articulating. But blogs are freedom: freedom from pesky editors, philistine corporate strategists, space constraints. Above all, freedom to write about whatever interests you, however serious and however rarified and however specialized.
Pontifications work best as mirrors. A critic must reflect as well as project. But there has to be a dialogue between the actual tastes of readers and the tastes of supposed cultural leaders. You can’t lead your troops into battle unless they are willing to follow you; otherwise you get fragged -- or, worse for a critic, unread.
Not everyone has to listen to everything, and write knowledgably about it; there’s a place for depth alongside breadth. I myself get enormous pleasure from reading critics, like Andrew Porter on Verdi, John Steane on opera singers, Paul Griffiths on Euro-modern music, Gary Giddins on jazz or Bob Christgau on rock, who plunge deeply into their own fields, finding breadth within depth.
My confidence in my own position is based on my perception of what’s actually going on out there in music-land, what’s most interesting and what everyone from composers to critics to fans want to hear. I don’t mean to sound hortatory or self-righteous. But the current crop of critics, or those who will follow after them, would do better to respond to the reality of serious music by embracing it in their critical conversations, rather than by ignoring it.
William James Henderson’s review of the premiere of Dvorak’s Symphony “From the New World,” in the NewYorkTimes of December 17, 1893, is one of the most impressive feats in the history of American music journalism. Henderson begins:
The attempt to describe a new musical composition may not be quite so futile as an effort to photograph the perfume of a flower, yet is it is an experiment of similar nature. Only an imperfect and perhaps misleading idea of the character of so complex a work of art as a symphony can be conveyed through the medium of cold type; yet when there is no other way, even that must be tried.
There follows a detailed account – of origins and intentions, methodology and programmatic allusions – that to this day may be the most evocative description of Dvorak’s symphony ever penned. No one has more eloquently put into words the polyvalence of the famous Largo, in which the influences of plantation song and Hiawatha intermingle. “It is,” wrote Henderson, “an idealized slave song made to fit the impressive quiet of night on the prairie.” He continued:
When the star of empire took its way over those mighty Western plains blood and sweat and agony and bleaching human bones marked its course. Something of this awful buried sorrow of the prairie must have forced itself upon Dr. Dvorak’s mind when he saw the plains after reading “The Famine” [Henderson here assumes familiarity with Longfellow’s TheSongofHiawatha, whichallliterateAmericansonceknew]. It is a picture of the peace and beauty of to-day colored by a memory of sorrows gone that the composer has given us at the beginning and end of his second movement
But Henderson’s review is most remarkable where it deals with the question most debated about this work a century ago: “Is it American?” Boston’s critics would answer: no. To Philip Hale, of the Journal, Dvorak was a naïve interloper, a “negrophile” susceptible to the notion that “the future of American music rests on the use of Congo, North American Indian Creole, Greaser and Cowboy ditties, whinings, yawps, and whoopings.” New York critics disagreed, none more inspirationally than Henderson:
In spite of all assertion to the contrary, the plantation songs of the American negro possess a striking individuality. No matter whence their germs came, they have in their growth been subjected to local influences which have made of them a new species. That species is the direct result of causes climatic and political, but never anything else than American. Our South is ours. Its twin does not exist. Our system of slavery, with all its domestic and racial conditions, was ours, and its twin never existed. Out of the heart of this slavery, environed by this sweet and languorous South, from the canebrake and the cotton field, arose the spontaneous musical utterance of a people. That folk music struck an answering note in the American heart. . . . If those songs are not national, then there is no such thing as national music. It is a fallacy to suppose that a national song must be one which gives direct and intentional expression to a patriotic sentiment. A national song is one that is of the people, for the people, by the people. The negroes gave us this music and we accepted it, not with proclamations from the housetops, but with our voices and our hearts in the household. Dr. Dvorak has penetrated the spirit of this music, and with themes suitable for symphonic treatment, he has written a beautiful symphony, which throbs with American feeling, which voices the melancholy of our Western wastes, and predicts their final subjection to the tremendous activity of the most energetic of all peoples.
Henderson’s review is today inconceivable in our daily press for three powerful reasons. The first is simply its length: 3,000 words. Our reading and editorial habits preclude such leisurely exegesis. (Were Henderson’s review to be quoted in the Times today, not a single paragraph would survive untrimmed.)
Secondly, Henderson was intimately familiar with the symphony and its composer before he sat down to listen to or write about it. A century ago, New York’s leading musicians and critics were members of the same community of culture. Contemporary accounts tell us that no sooner had the symphony ended than Dvorak’s box was mobbed by music critics falling over one another in their eagerness to be the first to congratulate him. Henderson received the city’s most notable conductors, singers, and composers weekly at his home. His great friend Henry Krehbiel of the Tribune --the acknowledged “dean” of New York’s music-critical fraternity -- was then the leading scholarly authority on plantation song; he was a de facto artistic advisor to Dvorak in America, feeding him samples of “Negro melodies” and Native American chants. On December 15 – the day before the premiere; two days before Henderson’s review appeared -- Krehbiel published a 2,500-word analysis of the NewWorld Symphony, based in part on discussions with the composer and incorporating no fewer than 14 musical examples. Henderson also had the benefit of attending a “public rehearsal” of the NewWorld Symphony, also on Dec. 15. When it came time to file his review, he was ready.
But the third reason Henderson’s feat is unthinkable today is the one that most interests me. Today’s music reviews are mainly about the act of performance. Henderson’s review of the first performance of the NewWorld Symphony is silent on this topic. The name of the conductor, Anton Seidl, is not once mentioned. Nor is the reader ever told what other music was played on the same program. In the proper order of things, it simply did not matter.
It should not surprise us that this great era in American music criticism – the 1890s – was equally a great decade in American classical music. Critics were focused on the creative act – and so were conductors, orchestras, and audiences. By far the most performed composer in New York was Richard Wagner, who had died just a decade before. A living composer, Antonin Dvorak, was widely acknowledged as the city’s pre-eminent musician (imagine such a thing today). Of paramount importance to Dvorak – as to Seidl or Henderson or Krehbiel -- was the creation of an American canon. That is: it was generally assumed that, as in Germany, France, Italy, or Russia, the musical high culture of America would be grounded by a native repertoire of sonatas, symphonies,and operas.
In Boston, the Symphony regularly performed the music of Boston composers. No one pretended that they ranked with Mozart and Beethoven; no one cared. George Chadwick alone was performed 78 times prior to Serge Koussevitzky’s arrival in 1924. In New York, Seidl hailed Edward MacDowell as a greater composer than Brahms. That he was wrong is beside the point.
But no great American symphony was written, and no American canon materialized. Instead, American classical music degenerated after World War I into a culture of performance. Not American composers, but American orchestras, and foreign-born performers resident in America, comprised its spine. The symbol of classical music for millions of Americans was an Italian conductor: Arturo Toscanini. Never before had a non-composer enjoyed such living supremacy in the world of classical music, usurping the place of a Mozart or Beethoven, Wagner or Richard Strauss. Never before had a conductor of such stature and influence been so fundamentally divorced from the music of his own time and place. As if by default, classical music ceded leadership in American musical life to genres more vernacular: popular music proved the more significant, more distinctive American contribution.
Certainly the American composer ceded leadership. However much Aaron Copland, through his writings as much as through his music, tried to redirect attention, Americans remained fastened on the dead European masters. So, over time, did conductors cede leadership. In New York before World War I, a Seidl or Theodore Thomas or Gustav Mahler championed the living composer with missionary fervor. So, in Boston, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis, did Koussevitzky, Leopold Stokowski, and Dimitri Mitropoulos. After 1950, however, only rarely were conductors true tastemakers. Rather, American orchestras became marketing and fundraising machines terrified of alienating their subscribers. Gone, too, were the great classical music entrepreneurs of yesteryear: visionaries like Henry Higginson, who invented, owned, and operated the Boston Symphony; or Oscar Hammerstein, whose short-lived Manhattan Opera bravely defied the elitism of the Met. Instead, the nation’s leading music businessman was Arthur Judson, creator of Columbia Artists Management, who insisted that only the public could lead taste. When the New York Philharmonic’s gutless programming was challenged in 1931, Judson – who was also the Philharmonic’s manager – could write: “I believe within the next few years the Beethoven Fifth, no matter how badly played, will be welcomed because of the message it conveys.” Judson also advised: “There are certain composers like Bruckner and Mahler who have not yet been accepted heartily by the American public. . . . We can only go as far as the public will go with us.”
Today, the leadership vacuum remains. And yet, with the waning of modernism, important American composers (and other American composers alas less important) are reconnecting with orchestras and audiences. The erosion of high culture, the interpenetration of what had been elite and popular arts, may put yet put classical music out of its misery. In my forthcoming history of ClassicalMusicinAmerica, I write:
What does “classical music” mean today? If the term is to retain anything like its old aplomb, it must refer to a moment now past and to its attendant prestige and influence. What comes next in these post-classical times? We will find out. Certainly we will not abandon Bach and Beethoven. Bruckner’s symphonies will continue to furnish cathedral experiences in the concert hall. But this tradition, on its own, can only diminish. Renewal, if renewal there will be, will likely come from the outside – from a postmodernism freed from the pantheon and its backward pull. The possible convergence of old ways and new will greatly depend on composers and other persons determined to lead taste.
What the composers may contribute remains an open question. . . . Equally unknowable, equally crucial is the coming contribution of the tastemakers – the people who run orchestras and opera companies, write about them, broadcast and record them. Traditionally, America’s high-cultural currents have benefited from the shaping initiatives of individuals of vision – or submitted to the vicissitudes of the market. . . .
[Steve] Reich, [John] Adams, [Gidon] Kremer are not “classical musicians.” Rather, they are eclectics for whom neither Europe nor the concert hall represents the measure of all things musical. Unquestionably, they point toward a post-classical music of the future. But there is no predicting the topography of this new terrain, or its crucial impact upon the residual classical music landscape it will diminish or synergistically refresh.
To chart the history of classical music criticism in the United States is to discover a similar trajectory yielding a comparable crossroads. Krehbiel, to my mind, marks the apex: for his intellectual distinction, for his cultural breadth, for his activist role in advising and supporting Dvorak, in helping to engineer an “all-American” concert movement, in studying and promoting the folk and indigenous music of many nations, in annotating the programs of the New York Philharmonic, in translating German and French librettos as part of the fruitless but enlightened campaign for opera in English, in tirelessly lecturing and teaching professionals and laymen: more than a writer, he was an organizer, a doer. The culture of performance sidelined critics as it did composers. In New York, they were reduced to chronicling Toscanini’s concerts as rites of triumph. As chief music critic of the Times, Olin Downes felt called upon to testify:
The first Toscanini concert of the season by the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra took place yesterday evening in Carnegie Hall. This meant an auditorium again crowded to capacity with the most impressive audience of the season --- an occasion when music lovers in all walks of life assembled to hear Mr. Tosanini’s interpretations and do homage with him to the genius of Beethoven.
To his chagrin, Henderson lived long enough to witness this genre of criticism and to groan in 1934: “Critical comment . . . is almost entirely directed to the ‘readings’ of mighty magicians of the conductor’s wand. . . . Can [the public] ever again be trained to love music for its own sake and not because of the marvels wrought upon it by supermen?” Downes was a new critical breed: a populist who advised the layman, in a 1941 essay, to “Be Your Own Music Critic.” This trust-the-public attitude ran parallel to Judson’s wait-and-see repertoire admonitions.
During my own short tenure as a NewYorkTimes music critic, I discovered that I did not believe in the vast majority of the musical events I was sent to cover – and I feel quite certain that a Henderson or Krehbiel would have found New York City’s concert fare of the late 1970s mystifyingly superfluous. I did not think that I was a particularly good Times music critic, nor did I think that a Times music critic was a particularly good thing to be. I could not accept the paper’s capitulation to a degenerate status quo. I could not abide its insistence that critics not write in the first person, and the linked prohibition on consorting with those they wrote about. The latter restriction – more an attitude than a coherent policy – was vaguely understood to be as venerable as the Times itself. And yet Henderson did not keep his distance from musicians and musical institutions – and neither, for that matter, did Olin Downes. As far as I am aware, the arms’ length rule originated with Harold Schonberg, who became chief music critic in 1960. And neither Harold nor anyone else on the music staff seemed to share my discomfort with third-person pontification.
In retrospect, the third person was already a terminally embattled posture of “objectivity” during the years -- 1976 to 1980 – I was forced to employ it. The third person omniscience of a Henderson or Krehbiel was girded by their confident grasp of music’s trajectory and its necessary future. By the late twentieth century, there no longer exited a cultural consensus to do the girding; the mainstream, or what was left of it, was crippled and diffuse. Today, in an even more variegated and confused cultural environment, first person opinion is inescapable even at the Times. Logically, this concession dictates a more engaged critical presence. Granted, befriending the artist or impresario risks imbalanced judgments. But what personal judgments are not imbalanced?
There is a classical music crisis. It is artistic and economic, sociological and institutional. It cannot adequately be surveyed or understood on the sidelines. Those who write about classical music need to know how and by whom orchestras and opera companies are run. They need to discern whether programming is captive to marketing and development or – as at Harvey Lichtenstein’s Brooklyn Academy of Music, where I toiled in the 1990s – constitutes a creative initiative galvanizing marketing and development in its wake. They need – like Alex Ross, in the NewYorker – to command the full cultural landscape, to know where the high-low synergy is cooking. This degree of knowledge is only possible via immersion and advocacy – the charged posture of W. J. Henderson reviewing the NewWorld Symphony 110 years ago.
Our fractured times require leadership: from institutions, from composers, from conductors, from critics – once, long ago, a more bonded community. For all of us in music, the moment is undeniably difficult – but also opportune.
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