Critics and the Public

When it comes to judging culture, there are very real questions of what should be reviewed and, of course, who should review it.

By Robert Evett

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?

This is a surprisingly controversial question and causes great trouble to practicing critics, their editors, and their readers.

A critic writing for a learned journal normally works within his specialty, whatever that is. A critic who works for a magazine also enjoys a privileged status in that he can write about pretty much what he pleases. But the music critic of a metropolitan daily has a split-level job. He may find that, in the ordinary performance of his duties, he has to listen to music that is of no interest to him and to make judgments that are entirely beyond his competence. The music page lives off the land. Any event that is open to the public is subject to newspaper coverage.

Some editors, and some critics, too, assume that the events of general interest, and therefore worth the space, are those that attract the largest ticket-buying public. A moment's reflection would show that even very large facilities, such as the Tanglewood Music Shed or the Hollywood Bowl, can hold only a few thousand people—few compared with the thousands that can be squeezed into a medium-sized football stadium; and that, in any case, the poll count in a community of a million souls or more will inevitably be a minuscule fraction of one percent of the total population. Events of great importance—the debut of a brilliant fiddler, the premiere of a major work—can take place before an audience of a hundred. So, why bother with percentages?

For many listeners, evidently one of the pleasures of attending a concert is finding out, by what they read in the paper the next day, that they had a good time. If some clown didn't like it, and says so, and gets paid for saying so, so much the worse for the clown.

The truth is that there is very little to say about the performance, if the performance alone is the whole show, of a famous artist who is in good form. It is difficult to attain a reputation for excellence, and most big-name performers have earned their reputations, even if the reputations have become inflated out of all reason. For a critic, nothing is more difficult than anointing a famous name with still more goose grease.

However—and the public seems to be indifferent to this—there comes a point in every great musical career at which an artist no longer has do a good job in order to satisfy his following. Often a star performer gets the notion that he is above art of music and can continue to a success for years and even decades after he should have retired.

One of the great careers—and I mention it only because it was such an embarrassment to the critics—was that of Marian Anderson, “The Lady from Philadelphia,' as her press agents called her. She got off to a pretty good start in 1955, give or take a couple of years, when Arturo Toscanini, in a flight of Italianate rhetoric, said that her voice was the voice of the century. By the time I first heard her, it no longer was, but she must have been pretty good at one time.

There was an episode in 1939 that made Miss Anderson a living legend and was the first in a chain of extenuating circumstances that made her immune to negative criticism. The DAR refused to let her sing in their hall because the Daughters were white and she was not. Anderson then sang one of the most famous concerts of all time, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where she drew an audience of an estimated 75,000 and made a political gesture as grand as the sing-in at Woodstock thirty years later.

At about that time, Anderson began to sing flat. She was flat all the time, and the older she got the flatter she got. Years later, it emerged that she was gravely ill with a growth on the larynx. This accounted for the deterioration in her voice at such an early age.

She had the growth removed surgically, and began to sing again, though not very well. For a few years, she became famous for singing spirituals, or what, in those days, we called "Negro" spirituals. She used dreadful arrangements, sentimental and bathetic, and the housebroken, whitewashed tunes she sang were designed to tweak the white conscience ever so slightly while perpetrating the stereotype of the black man as a shiftless creature but amiable, stupid, endowed with a natural lyric gift and a conviction that he is "Gwine to Hebbn." Well, when Anderson gets to Hebbn, that chance that she will be torn limb from limb by a pack of resurrected black militants who will have thrown Dem Golden Slippers right over De Pearly Gates is one that she will have to take. But in the fifties, the cad who would admit that her rendition of "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord" left him unmoved simply didn't exist. It would have taken more guts than most reviewers have to say in print what people were saying in private: It was time for her to stop singing in public.

At ninety-three, Pablo Casals is still teaching and conducting and will, if pressed, play the cello. By 1930, Casals had the reputation of being the world's greatest cellist and for many years supported this reputation by doing nothing at all, in protest against the Franco government. Casals was silent, and a who1e generation of musicians grew to maturity without any clear idea of what they were missing. Then around 1950, he emerged as a conductor. The recordings he made were technically ragged and full of stylistic improprieties. You would never have guessed from his later performances that he had ever been the great musician they say he was.

But he has a reputation for being a great humanitarian as well as a man who has sacrificed a great deal for his principles, and he is very old. Nobody wants a reputation for abusing a nice old man.

It sounds cruel, and it is, to say that an artist who doesn’t know when it is time to stop should be silenced. This practice may go back to the era when it was the custom to lug the old folks to an uninhabited region and leave them there to starve or rot or be eaten by wild animals. But somebody has to shut these old parties up, and more often than not, it is people on the working press who have the thankless job of doing it.

Far more touchy is the matter of what is to be played. Everything about the star system and the related systems of concert managements and concerts and operas by subscription is geared to make it seem that only performance counts, and that repertory is nobody's business but the performer's. Most critics believe that much more music should be in circulation. Many concert managers seem to feel that if there were more variety the audiences would dwindle. There is a standard of what is acceptable, but it would be hard to find two people who agree on what it is.

On her recent American tour, Joan Sutherland put on a program that was close enough to several border lines to stand some scrutiny. Miss Sutherland is no longer a young woman, and her powers of interpretation are not beyond dispute, but the lady can sing and should be one of the best coloratura sopranos going for many years. Compared with other singers, she has been adventurous in her programming and in her choice of operatic roles, bringing attention to a great deal of offbeat music. She is also one of the artists whose fan club will sit still for almost anything.

Sutherland sang from score, an unusual thing to do. I wouldn't have cared if she had been reading the music in Braille, but at the performance I attended, many people in the audience and one excellent critic were outraged that she did not sing from memory.

I thought that the piano playing, by the singer's husband, was beneath any professional standard I knew. Whether it was or wasn't, a strong draft kept blowing the scores off the piano and into the pianist's lap, so that there were lots of hiatuses and missing notes. Will the public accept this kind of playing? Obviously the answer is Yes, if the singer is Joan Sutherland. People who pay to hear her—as opposed to critics who are sent—must be oblivious, largely, to the accompaniment, except as a pleasant, pastel sound that, if it doesn't support the singer, at least doesn't get in the way.

Toward the end of her program, she sang a group of pieces that were listed carelessly on the program as five "Scottish Folk Songs." They were, in fact, rather ordinary pieces of nineteenth-century British popular music: "Annie Laurie." "My Luv is Like a Red, Red Rose." That lot. Again, the audience response was Yes. 

Well, is popular music in place on a formal concert? Suppose that Miss Sutherland, as a compliment to the foreign country in which she was a guest, had decided to sing a group of American popular songs from the thirties, and had selected "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," "Stormy Weather," "Stardust," "The Good Ship Lollipop," and "Over the Rainbow." These pieces have long been absorbed into the cultural bloodstream of the republic and have given enjoyment to untold millions. But would a concert audience sit still for this list? There will never be an answer, because these pieces are so far out of place at a formal concert that no singer would dream of programming them.

What about a difficult modern work, such as Schoenberg's Hanging Gardens songs or Hindemith's Marienleben? These pieces are rarely heard, and Sutherland is one of the few front-rank singers with enough technique for them. For her audiences, music as complicated as this would be a bad bet, since many of her admirers couldn't possibly enjoy listening to it. A great soprano has a responsibility to her public as well as to her art.

I have not gone into all this detail to make a great thing of a not-very-important event that took place months ago, or to give the needle to an artist for whom I have great (but not boundless) admiration, but to demonstrate that what is under review is the whole show. Every aspect of a musical event is the legitimate concern of a reader. Whether a reviewer's first duty is to his boss, or his readers, or his art, or his own conscience, I don't know, but it not possible to write a balanced review without balancing all of the elements.

Newspaper reviews, most of them written under pressure, do not always say precisely what the reviewer meant. They are ground out in the middle of the night, usually under pressure, and are sent to the printers in the first draft. Even if the draft makes good sense, typesetters, night editors, and emergency cutters can make hash out of it. This being the case, it’s hard to understand why so many people take the stuff so seriously, reading it over and over again for innuendos that were probably never there, and memorizing the key words and phrases as if they were revelations. But they do, I do it myself.

Since any kind of recourse, legal, or otherwise, is bad form for someone unfairly mauled by the press, the critic must be his own disciplinarian. The point seems to be to say what he feels he must, and as little as possible that he will later regret.

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