Having a few books of music criticism — the right ones, at least — is an essential part of any serious classical music lover’s library. Good music criticism teaches us how to listen to and think about music.
A great book to start with is Tim Page on Music by none other than my friend Tim Page.
It’s a terrific volume for many reasons, but one of them that I’m always struck by is his prose style. It is conversational in the best sense, but not “breezy” in the way that most people mean when they say “conversational.” No, Tim’s prose has a real warmth, grace and flow. You can read it out loud and it sounds well (probably because Tim does that himself before he publishes a piece). It addresses the reader as if he is as intelligent as Tim, and just as interested in the subject matter.
Sometimes considered a critical no-no, the first person pronoun is used by Tim in a masterly way. He makes its use thoroughly convincing because somehow he talks directly and intimately to the reader and the use of the “I” becomes modest rather than boastful.
Along with Martin Bernheimer and Justin Davidson, he is one of only three living music critics to have won the Pulitzer Prize.
He has an exceedingly wide musical interests. Tim Page on Music contains essays, interviews and reviews first published in The Washington Post, New York Newsday, The New Republic and other publications.
The book include feature pieces on such luminaries as Leon Fleisher, Placido Domingo, Vladimir Horowitz, Ward Marston, Frank Sinatra and many others. There are reviews of Paul McCartney’s “Liverpool Oratorio,” of Pavarotti performing in Central Park, Alfred Brendel, and on and on. Contemporary composers figure prominently: Otto Luening, Michael Hersch, Olivier Messiaen, Ned Rorem, Andrew Lloyd Webber (a slam), Elliot Goldenthal.
Here’s the lead paragraph from a review of the Philadelphia Orchestra:
“The Philadelphia Orchestra is widely and correctly perceived as the aristocrat among American orchestras. The Cleveland Orchestra may be more ‘perfect’ (one balanced, synchronized, infinitely adaptable organism from top to bottom) and Chicago may have more muscle (ferocious virtuosity and a brass section that could have done the job at Jericho). But Philadelphia — caloric, sumptuously blended, and refreshingly Old World — takes the prize for elegance and sheer sonic luster. In a world of lean cuisine, the Philadelphia Orchestra is still pure butterfat.”
Virgil Thomson is also a great stylist of American English. His writing has a homespun quality, balancing eloquent phrasing with colloquial lingo. It is a pleasure to read — it has a tone and what writers call a strong voice — and it is difficult to believe that most of it was written on tight deadlines for The New York Herald Tribune. His music reviews often answer the last part of the five Ws question with “last night,” meaning that they were written right after the concert, the clock ticking, the copy boy waiting and published the next morning. No mean feat in itself, all the more so when the quality of the result is taken into consideration.
It is more than fitting that The Library of America has recently produced this collection of Thomson’s critical writings; it is about time. The volume, Music Chronicles: 1940-1954 — more than 1,000 pages, edited, with extensive notes and appendices, by Tim Page — brings together four books of Thomson’s music reviews and essays — “The Musical Scene,” “The Art of Judging Music,” “Music Right and Left” and “Music Reviewed” — that he put together in his lifetime, almost all of the material first printed in the Herald Tribune from 1940 to 1954. Page adds some previously uncollected reviews and articles as well as eight more from an earlier period, spanning 1922-1938.
What a treat it must have been to pick up the Herald Tribune in those days. As Thomson describes it, the paper, “with a circulation of only 450,000,” valued good writing, especially by its columnists and critics. And “a writer’s distinction,” writes Thomson, “was judged less by his leadership of public taste – high, low, or middlebrow – than by his skill in handling words, sentences and paragraphs.” His editors’ “attitude was that any informed statement could be published if it observed the amenities and was expressed in clear English.”
Thomson’s own statements on music were informed by his composing. Trained in Paris by Nadia Boulanger, he had, by the time he took the job at the Herald Tribune, already written such important and original works as the “Symphony on a Hymn Tune,” the film score for “The Plow That Broke the Plains” and his still-startling opera on a libretto by Gertrude Stein, “Four Saints in Three Acts.” With Aaron Copland and others, he was at the forefront of forging a distinctly American kind of classical music.
So his reviews carried weight; they carried learning, too, but lightly. Thomson had the ability to put complex thoughts on music and music performance across to the lay reader with ease and eloquence. He was as biased as most critics, maybe more so, in that, as a composer, he still had skin in the game (he occasionally reviewed concerts that included music written by a composer named Virgil Thomson) and he had strong likes and dislikes that were based on his own aesthetic principles of musical composition. Musicians, generally, make the least kind and open-minded of critics. Read Tchaikovsky on Wagner.
So, he could be wrong. Mostly, I think, he was right. But the prose, either way, always sparkled. Here he is on Toscanini, hitting the nail on the head:
“He marks the meter so clearly that every down-beat takes on a slight stress – not a pulsation or lilt, as in Viennese waltzes, but a tiny, tiny dry accent, like the click of a well-running machine. This mechanical purring both gives to his readings a great rhythmic clarity and assures the listener that all is under control. It is also, nevertheless, a little bit lulling. One gets hypnotized by the smooth-working mechanics of the execution and forgets to listen to the music as a human communication.”
There is Thomson in a nut: First the keen aural perception of a subtle pattern in Toscanini’s conducting, then the cogent, mostly objective description of it in elegant yet colorful prose – “a tiny, tiny dry accent” is good; so is “mechanical purring” – then, and only then, the description of its effect on him, the listener (lulling).
Thomson believed that pure description was the main business of music criticism, the forging of opinion secondary. He thought that a critic’s opinion would come through naturally in his description, without being forced. He didn’t always write this way in practice, but it was a basic premise that served him well. One reads better description of music, of performers and of performance in Thomson than in almost any other critic. It is the type of description that allows the reader to forge his own opinion, sometimes even opposed to Thomson’s own.