In 1970s, Critics Saw Job as Guide For ‘Virgin’ Public

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(Editor’s note: This article is a blast from the past, a reprint of a Washington Post article about an Aspen symposium with leading critics and performing artists more than four decades ago. It originally appeared on page 1 of the Post’s Sunday SHOW section, Sept. 3, 1972, at a time when cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax were emerging artists and conductor James Levine had only recently made his auspicious Metropolitan Opera debut.)

By Louise Remmey, Special to The Washington Post
Top stories of the early '70s: James Levine's Met debut (Metropolitan Opera, 1971)
Stories of the early ’70s: James Levine’s Met debut (Metropolitan Opera, 1971)

To the average concert-goer, the life of a music critic must appear glamorous indeed: Two free seats on the aisle for every opera and concert, champagne receptions, expense account luncheons and a public podium from which to make or shake careers.

But that is only part of the story. A small part. And the seven young critics and arts writers who were chosen to attend the recent Music Critics Institute in Aspen and Santa Fe (organized by the Music Critics Association and funded by the National Endowment and the Corbett Foundation) discovered that the lot of the music critic is not an altogether happy one.

The writers attended and reported on musical activities at Aspen and Santa Fe and met in daily sessions with senior critics Howard Taubman (New York Times), Irving Lowens (Washington Star); Michael Steinberg (Boston Globe), Martin Bernheimer (Los Angeles Times), Elliott Galkin (Baltimore Sun), Frank Hruby (Cleveland Press), Gail Stockholm (Cincinnati Enquirer) and Boris Nelson (Toledo Blade).

Sign of the times: Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax at Marlboro (Marlboro Music)
Emerging artists then: Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax (Marlboro Music 1971)

From these senior critics, the junior writers learned about some of the problems music critics face: uninspiring concerts, unenlightened editors, unrealistic deadlines, unfathomable modern music and unending challenges to one’s integrity.

When he is an old man in a rocking chair, Bernheimer says, he hopes to write the great American novel about a person who wants (1) to be a good music critic and (2) to be loved. The book, he said, will document the critic’s suicide.

Composer Roger Sessions also offered his condolences to the group. “Critics have an absolutely hellish job,” he said. “You have to go to concerts whether you want to or not – and have to make a deadline. It doesn’t appeal to me at all.”

Then why do people become music critics? Usually because they are dedicated to the art of music and as critics they feel they can serve that art.

Over the past 200 years, at least half of the working critics have also been composers. The other half shifts from time to time. In the early 18th century they were pedagogues and theoreticians; during the Napoleonic wars they were poets; and in the late 19th century they were ornamental journalists who wrote genteel and witty essays.

Virgil Thomson
Composer and critic Virgil Thomson

Guest speaker Virgil Thomson presented this capsule history to the group. He noted that “by happy accident” there was practically no music criticism during the last quarter of the 18th century – and Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven “were interfered with hardly at all.” Thomson drew no conclusions from this, nor could he discern what music criticism was up to today.

He did give his conclusions on another subject however – that a music critic must be a musician first and a journalist second.

“Be the best musician you possibly can,” he said, “and if you once make an allegiance to the world of music then you can be depended upon to describe the world of music and be on the side of it. Musicians work from consecration and you should too.”

Thomson’s advice to critics: “Save the big guns for the over-publicized – Beverly Sills, for example. She sings off pitch a great deal of the time.”

(Thomson himself is not only a composer, author and conductor but served as the distinguished music critic of the New York Herald Tribune from 1940-1954.)

Most senior critics at the institute agreed that their responsibilities were threefold: reporting, educating and entertaining. In a review, a critic must tell what took place; he must help to interpret the work – particularly in the case of a new piece of music; he must write in a colorful manner – otherwise the most brilliant musical scholar will remain unread.

Thomson warned the participants not to act like school teachers giving grades to performers. “You are not giving an exam.” he said. “You are taking one. You have an hour to write an intelligent essay about the thing you are covering, and the public will judge you. The least important part of a review is what you thought about the performance – particularly if you are under 40.”

Several other critics also expressed concern that music criticism is beginning to follow other journalism by becoming increasingly personal – reflecting merely the feelings of the critic. Steinberg attacked that approach, holding that “criticism is not a record of the reviewer’s fever chart – it must be done on the most solid kind of musical grounds.”

Samuel Lipman at Aspen, '74 (Aspen Times Weekly)
Lipman at Aspen, ’74 (Aspen Times Weekly)

The young pianist Samuel Lipman spoke to the group and emphasized the critic’s opportunity to educate the public. With the dying out of the refugee audience – those musically sophisticated Europeans who came to America during the ’30s – there is a new concert-going public that badly needs guidance, Lipman pointed out “They are dying for it,” he said. The critic may have little influence on an artist but he can have tremendous influence on the audience – which Lipman termed “virgin territory.”

In Taubman’s view, music criticism has a much broader scope than rehashing last night’s performance. A critic can write not only about what was done but what should be done. He should look into every corner of a community’s musical life to find things that deserve support or censure. Sometimes the mere act of reporting constitutes censure, Taubman noted.

Pianist Claude Frank’s advice to critics: “If it’s a rave, it should be long.”

A critic must be alive to what’s happening in the world of music and provide his editor with stories that will excite him. By exciting, Taubman doesn’t mean hair-pulling fights and sensationalism pour épater le bourgeois. But he advised the writers to look, for example, into how aid money for the arts is being spent at the local level; and to investigate the make-up of boards of directors of local arts organizations.

Howard Taubman, New York Times
Howard Taubman, then at N.Y. Times

Taubman said the attitude of editors and publishers is all important. “They don’t have to be artists or musicians,” he said, “but they must be cultured persons who understand what standards should be, and who will encourage a good person to come in and speak out”

How does a critic acquire this credibility with his superiors? “The answer is to be a very, very good journalist and make the news of the arts exciting,” said Taubman.

He told of his own role in changing upper echelon attitudes at the New York Times – where it used to be that the only big music story of the year concerned the opening of the Met, and even that was written off as a piece of social news.

Taubman lobbied to do an article for the Times Sunday Magazine about Charles Ives. The reaction from his editor was, “Who’s he?” but Taubman was allowed to do the piece on “spec.”

So touched was Ives by Taubman’s seeking him out for an interview that at the end of the session the composer – then gravely ill – literally crawled about on all fours to assemble a stack of his manuscripts to present to the critic.

Times Sunday Editor Lester Markel found the Ives article “one of the most beautiful” he’d ever read and ran subsequent stories on Stravinsky and Bloch in the Sunday Magazine soon afterward. It was a break-through.

All the critics bemoaned the chore of writing about performances that are neither ghastly nor exciting – but simply boring. Steinberg estimates that as many as 70-80 per cent fall into that category. “It is a burden I cannot possibly describe,” said Taubman of those times after a performance when he wants only to dig a hole and crawl in rather than go back to the office and write a review. But it is the test of a good critic, he said, to be able to communicate a perfunctory performance in a non-perfunctory way.

That is the place where good writing counts, and he advised the group members to study good writing – beginning with the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton and Faulkner as well as the good critics: George Bernard Shaw (“often as wrong-headed as they come, but a writer of grace, sparkle and wit”), Ernest Newman, Donald Tovey and Virgil Thomson.

Savagery in a review was discussed. Most critics were against it. They pointed out that while Claudia Cassidy’s eat-a-conductor-for-breakfast style delighted her readers, Chicagoans eventually paid a high price for her rapier pen as artists bypassed that city rather than expose themselves to attack.

Thomson advised critics to be as generous as possible to young and little artists. “Don’t crush them,” he said. “Save the big guns for the over-publicized – Beverly Sills, for example. She sings off pitch a great deal of the time.”

Pianist Claude Frank
Pianist Claude Frank

Bernheimer, too, believes in lambasting only the pretentious artists who set up grandiose expectations and then fail to deliver. The recent visit of the Vienna State Opera Ballet was a case in point, and he quoted the lead from his review with relish: “Hippety-hop. Galumph! Galumph!”

The institute participants had the opportunity to hear what performers thought about critics also. Pianist Claude Frank – whose wife Lilian Kallir is also a noted pianist – had probably the most candid words on the subject.

As a performer, he said, he honestly wants a rave review. “If it’s a rave,” he laughed, “it should be long.” If it is critical, he hopes the reservations of the reviewer will at least coincide with his own.

A New York Times critic once chided him in print for not paying attention to piece endings – and the point was well taken. “I was studying with [Artur] Schnabel at the time, and we never got to the ends of things.”

Louise Remmey
Louise Remmey

If the review is a rave, Frank pays no attention to its style and syntax; but if it is critical, he will examine it closely and conclude more often than not: “Look here that dummy doesn’t even know how to write. How can he criticize my music?’

Louise Austin Remmey, a longtime MCANA member, wrote for The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun. A Fulbright scholar, she earned an arts administration certificate from Harvard and in the 1970s would join the staffs of two nascent arts entities, first the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and then the National Endowment for the Arts.