The Confessions of a Music Critic

MUSIC critics, unlike musicians, are made, not born. The man born a poet cannot help falling into verse any more than Mr. Wegg could. Robby Burns, who had no education to speak of, Byron, who had too much, the late Bloodgood Cutter, and all their kind, itched like mad until their thoughts were set down on paper. Schubert wrote immortal melody atop a beer barrel in a Vienna cellar. From Bach to Wagner, through the long list of the tone poets, all wrote just because they could n’t help it. The air, the opera, the symphony, kept humming through their heads, and the only relief came in inscribing melody and harmony on ruled paper.

With music critics it is quite different. An eminent authority on baseball may have found it necessary to pad out his space string in winter by taking up a side line; or the same motive may have actuated a distinguished special writer on yachting. Such a genius as Berlioz became a critic in order to feed the divine fire of his inspiration, finding it impossible to buy the fuel with music. I, who am not a genius, became a music critic because I like to hear good music, and being a newspaper writer, should otherwise have neither time nor money to indulge this taste. If I could write a good book, I would not write book reviews. If I could write a good play, I would not write dramatic criticism. If I could write music, I would n’t write music criticism. But as between writing editorials, subject to the policy of the paper and suggestions from the business office, or police court news assigned by the city editor, — between that and getting as much money by writing about the things one likes, there is n’t much choice, is there ? Some critics, you see, are made by force of circumstance rather than by divine inspiration, or by a desire to elevate the standard of taste, or to pose as authority.

It may be I take the rôle of music critic, which I have played for some years, too unseriously. If so, there are enough of my colleagues having a higher opinion of their own importance to tone up the collective average. Indeed, I fancy that in the little room at the Metropolitan reserved for critics there might be found a double quartette to chorus the opposite view, forte, animato, maestoso, con fuoco; and it is well that it should be so. I fancy the man who looks upon his department as the most important of any publication and upon himself as the most important personality in any such department, will do his very best to bolster up this mistaken estimate. I know a society editor afflicted with this delusion; but he works so hard that he cannot enter a restaurant without spreading out abundle of “copy ” between the dishes at table.

At the risk of making this an apology as well as a confession, I venture to express the hope that I may some day have the means to enjoy the best music without need of telling three hundred thousand or more readers why: whether Carubonci had tears in his voice; how Madame Sembrich-Eames looked and acted; whether the second soprano was off key; the basso dependent upon the prompter; the conductor too fast or too slow, according to actual stop watch and metronome; how the lights were managed; whether the audience was large and appreciative or otherwise, and whether the music was good, bad, indifferent, and why.

Frankly, I have never either written or read any music criticism which seemed to me of great value. At last it is one man’s opinion, — that of an expert, if you will; but the verdicts of experts are frequently reversed by public opinion, the court of last resort for all workers in the arts. I have never complained that Hofmann does n’t understand the soft pedal, that Paderewski has too much rubato, that Rosenthal is too muscular. It has seemed to me that these gentlemen do the best they can, and I love to hear them, not to lecture them. And when my good colleagues are overheard at the chop-house, telling how they slated Herr This and Madame That, how Signor S―is coming in for a roast along with M. F―, I think of the little mistakes we ourselves have made.

I recall with delight the kind letter I received from a singer who had been featured at a concert I reviewed, and of whom, knowing her voice and songs full well, I had said some pleasant things. It informed me that she would doubtless have justified my praise had she not been called away from town by the illness of a relative, and forced me to admit I had been drinking Rhenish with the manager when she should have been, according to the programme, captivating her audience. It is fresh in my mind how the newspaper having the largest circulation in New York printed an elaborate review of the wrong opera, some years ago, written and signed by an eminent American composer who had got his matter in type in advance, but had neglected to go to the performance, and could not well know that the bill had been changed at the last moment. I remember a concert of last season where an aria from an unknown opera by an unknown composer was on the programme, and the critic of an afternoon paper remarked next day in all seriousness that this opera ought to have a complete performance, as the aria showed genuine talent, wholly oblivious of the fact that the soloist had substituted Ach Du mein Holder Abendstern!

But there is one thing to be said in favor of music criticism as a trade, certain of the musicians and music journals to the contrary notwithstanding: there is no bribery of critics. Managers have either done me the honor to assume I cannot be bought, or that my opinions are not worth purchasing. In an honorable career, which is, I trust, yet far from its close, only once have I been tempted (this really begins to look like a confession), and then I fell. At the début of a new singer I neglected to comment either upon voice or method, confining myself strictly to justifiable enthusiasm over personal beauty, elegance of costume, and judicious programme-building. My friends, who were her friends, had taken me, a lonely Bohemian, into their home for dinner. I had dined well, a habit I have when occasion presents itself, and the daughter of the house took advantage of post-prandial good humor. She offered, on my promise not to “roast ” the singer, to bake me another pumpkin pie, similar to that I had enjoyed at dinner, and send it to the office. Mea culpa! And the crime thus publicly confessed, I hope for forgiveness, and promise to sin no more.