A few years ago Virgil Thomson appeared at one of those entertainments that, in New York, take place the basements of abandoned gin mills and the like, where they let the audience fire questions at the distinguished guest. "What do you need to be a music critic, Mr. Thomson?” was the question. "Well," he said "the first thing you need is a job.”
And how is this done? Surely nobody answering that great grammar school question "What Do You ant to Be When You Grow Up" ever put down "critic," let alone “music critic." And it is doubtful that anybody ever got a job as music critic by applying for it. This is one field in which they ask you.
Some years back—this would have been in 1955 or 1956—the critic of a metropolitan daily, bugged by constant editorial interference, resigned, and I was one of the candidates interviewed for his position. The editor who talked to me—the talk consisted mostly in bawling me out advance for all the things I would do wrong if I got the job—explained that the paper used music coverage a form of public relations, to build goodwill in the community. They wanted a married man with conventional opinions and a wife who would be at least presentable at dinner parties and receptions, and I didn't qualify on any of those counts.
This editor didn't once ask me if I knew anything about music or had any right to write about it. Or, for that matter, whether I could write about anything. He wanted a goodwilinik, and whatever my feelings about this man's regulations, I think it was most admirable of him to spell them out.
But what should a newspaper's editor, or its readers, expect and get from a music critic? Since a newspaper reaches an extremely heterogeneous audience, it follows automatically that a good bit of what appears as music criticism will fall outside the interests and over the heads of many readers. While this is obviously true of the art-music most frequently subject to review, it is also true of popular music and folk music, which have special audiences—not necessarily elite ones, but special nonetheless. There are very real questions of what should be reviewed and, of course, who should review it.
In the fall of 1969, the Boston Herald-Traveler and its music critic had a falling out which is most instructive. The paper is one that you would not likely know unless you have lived in Boston. It has a big sports section, is simply written, and follows a hard line of hard-hat politics. It gives the impression of being addressed to the upward mobile white-working-class, and is the last place you would look for serious criticism.
The critic was George Gelles, who, at twenty-seven, had spent most of his adult life in the Boston area and had written so extensively for other papers that his taste and cast of mind were matters of public record and easily available to the editors of the Herald. He was highly trained in musicology and given to writing well-informed, sophisticated, erudite reviews. He also adopted a schoolmarmish, nitpicking posture and often severely scolded the people that came under his inspection. Young critics will do this, but so do older ones, and in highbrow journals this sort of thing is not out of place. But in the Boston Herald? Gelles roughed up the Boston Symphony considerably and received a lot of protest mail from readers. Then, at the end of November, the paper mysteriously "suspended" him—kept him on the payroll, but assigned him to cover events in which there was no music to review.
In the ensuing flap, the public received the impression that the editors had yielded to public pressure—from the management of the orchestra, perhaps, or from advertisers. Gelles got a bonanza of the best kind of publicity as the fearless, uncompromising young critic who was silenced because his standards were too high. What is perfectly possible is that whoever hired him did so without taking the precaution of reading some samples of his work and decided only when it was too late that the product was not quite what the Herald wanted.
"Editors," said Bernard Shaw, "being mostly ignorant of music, would submit to anything from their musical critics, not pretending to understand it." He was talking about the editors of eighty years ago, but times have not changed that much. There are editors who do not want their critics to be experts. But if a critic has studied music extensively the odds are that, even if he isn't much good, he knows more about the subject than his editor and should not be subjected to harassment. An inexperienced person should not be given a job as a critic until he has been through an adequate trial period. But an experienced reviewer is marketing a chunk of his persona. His tastes, knowledge, style, prejudices, eccentricities, even his professional friendships and enmities, are part of the package. If there are some confining or irritating or cockamamy rules of the house—Shaw's first editor told him that he "should not, for God's sake, write about Bach in B Minor"—these should be explained in advance. But it is ridiculous to give somebody a job in the hope that he will grow up, shape up, mellow, learn to write up or down to his audience, change his listening habits or reaction patterns, or conform to opinions he does not hold. And it is almost impossible to find an excuse that appears more legitimate than a difference of opinion for firing the critic once you have him. So, if you are going to put a man in a position where he can make or break careers—and some newspaper reviewers do have this power—it is important to get the right man.
The indispensable trait of character for a person in this dirty business is, I think, goodwill, by which I do not mean any kind of sappy perpetual affability. A critic is selling opinions, and he must be free to express his own, whether they are positive or not. However, this is a profession that attracts people to it who enjoy being nasty, and such people should not be given a public forum.
When I was twenty years old I was a fine example of a young critic who was full of beans and thought it was his duty to pan. My first target was a piece by Vaughan Williams that I said he had "poured into a harmonic straight-jacket." Actually, it was a perfectly lovely piece and I've enjoyed it repeatedly in recent years. But, at the time, I
sincerely thought that I was performing a public service by attacking it.
Many critics are musicians who have dropped out of the profession, and though some of them are unusually good, others are poisonous. A complete ignoramus is preferable to a disappointed pianist who, having got no place himself, is determined to cut everybody else down to nothing.
Suppose, then, that you have your critic: a reasonably well-informed man who is reasonably candid in his opinions and reasonably fair in his judgments. What is he to review?