Friday, February 19, 2016

Over The Top Criticism

On the occasion of writing this my 50th (!) blog post since I began in 2011, I am going to have a little fun and talk about a book I have long enjoyed. If you draw any didactic inference from this post, more power to you. And who knows - before I am done, I might give you a hand.

The book is "The Dictionary of Musical Invective - Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven's Time " by Nicolas Slonimsky, published in 1953. Slonimsky was a noted pianist, composer, musicologist and in this case, lexicographer, who died in 1998 at the age of 102. An example of his indefatigable research: Doubting the validity of the Romantic story that there was a blizzard the day of Mozart's funeral, he uncovered meteorological reports from Vienna for December 7, 1791 to  find that  the weather instead had been clear and sunny.

He also liked to have some fun, referring to this work as a " Schimpflexicon" - from the German Schimpf,, originally a nickname for a playful or humorous person. There is also a serious side to this lexicon. In his introduction Slonimksy states this collection of "biased, unfair. ill-tempered, and singularly unprophetic judgments" stem from a psychological inhibition, which he calls  the Non-Acceptance of the Unfamiliar. That inhibition certainly remains an issue today in many sectors of our society.

Many of the critics and publications he cites were not cuckoo but rather at the time respected arbiters of musical taste. Nevertheless, here's a review from a Viennese journal in May 1804: " Beethoven's Second Symphony is a crass monster, a hideously writhing wounded dragon, that refuses to expire, and though bleeding in the Finale, furiously beats about with its tail erect." Or this in 1925 from a Berlin critic on Alban Berg's opera Lulu, now in the Metropolitan Opera's repertoire: "As I left the State Opera last night I had the sensation not of coming out of  public institution,but out of an insane asylum.....I regard Alban Berg as a musical swindler...we must seriously pose the question as to what extent musical profession can be criminal. We deal here, in the realm of music, with a capital offense."

"The Dictionary of Musical Invective" is 250 pages long, but in the final thirty pages, as a delightful aid to the reader, Slonimsky offers what he calls the Invecticon: "an index of vituperative, pejorative and deprecatory words and phrases."   So, under Colossal Joke find Strauss pg.184, Delirium Tremens, see Berlioz pg. 60, Tchaikovsky pg. 209 and Wagner pg. 245. and Giftless Bastard, Brahms pg. 73. The latter is actually from an October 1886 entry by Tchaikovsky in his own diary. There are other citations of uncomplimentary comments by one composer about another.

To relieve the reader of a series of astonishing pans of music we now know and love (mostly), Slonimsky offers anecdotes of composer's rebuttals, if not revenge, or a critic's mea culpa, as in the following case. One H. E. Kreibel of the New York Tribune wrote a scathing review attacking Sergei Prokofiev for a  work performed at a concert he attended, only to discover the next day the piece he thought was by Prokofiev was actually by a S. Vasilenko. Blaming his eyesight and the poor lighting in the concert hall for the mistake, the critic apologized in writing. He then went on to congratulate Prokofiev for not writing the score.

Here is a composer fighting back. Max Reger wrote this to the Munich critic Rudolf Louis:
"I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me."

From  another source (John Julius Norwich's 2015 "A Christmas Cracker - a commonplace selection") comes this anecdote where we find an audience member as the critic.  What's more,  he demands a refund directly from the composer. In May 1872 a Signor Bertani writes Giuseppe Verdi a long letter recounting his attendance at a performance of Aida, in fact two performances, in Parma, to which he traveled by train. He is dissatisfied, but upon hearing praise from other attendees riding with him in his railway carriage, decides to return to Parma and give it another try. No luck. He writes: "When it (Aida) has filled the house two or three  times it will be banished to the dust of the archives." He encloses a bill for two round trip rail tickets, two theatre seats and a "detestable supper at the station."  Verdi instructs his publisher to refund everything but the supper as "he could have eaten at home."  As a condition,  Verdi insists Sr. Bertani has to agree never to attend another Verdi opera, to spare the composer reimbursing further travel expenses.

The "Non Acceptance of the Unfamiliar" is certainly not limited to classical music, It includes art (the Impressionists), science (Darwin, Einstein) , literature (Whitman), popular culture (the  tango and jazz) - almost every form of  expression known to man. But Slonimksy's lexicon creates a special vituperation hall of fame for these music critics writing in the 19th through the mid 20th century. He uses a  verb new to me (but I don't intend to forget it ) to describe their rhetorical style: they vesuviate (cf. the volcano).  Does that description remind you of a current candidate for the Republican Party presidential nomination?

There may be a few different reasons for such invective-hurling in that period. First, the subject matter, music, is, of all the art forms, one that evokes specially strong and immediate emotions in the listener. Secondly, as Slonimksy quotes the critic Philip Hale, the nature of the attacks may simply stem from "a desire to write a readable article as by any just indignation." Sound familiar?

Whatever the reasons, and here perhaps is the "lesson" of this piece, time has a way of healing, especially the egos and reputations of those attacked. Slonimksy cites the example of Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, which 1913 premiere in Paris caused a near riot in the audience and furious critical condemnation. Thirty-nine years after that premiere, in 1952, a Paris performance of the piece, as well as the appearance in the hall of its composer, were greeted with wild cheers. Pierre Monteux, who conducted both the 1913 and 1952 performances, wryly remarked: "There was just as much noise the last time, but of a different tonality."

So, if you are patient enough and value your integrity, jeers may one day turn to cheers, and the unfamiliar morph into the familiar. Time will tell.

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