> MUSIC CRITICS AND WRITERS David Wright - Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Personal thoughts and self-examination


Dr David C F Wright


There is an awful lot of nonsense written about 'serious' music and the subsequent tragedy is that it is often believed.

It causes us to wonder why these untruths were ever pronounced in the first place and why they are subsequently perpetuated.

The point of this brief essay is not to decry any composer or writer on music in any way whatsoever but simply to state examples and to be objective.

In addition, there is often information about composers which is not widely known and left out of books which books you would expect to contain this information.

I recently read a book about Brahms which made no mention of his Violin Concerto. This was supposed to be a full account of his life and work and yet for the author to omit one of Brahms's finest works was unforgivable and would leave readers, perhaps new to Brahms or to music generally, with the belief that Brahms never wrote a violin concerto.

There has been a great amount of talk and articles recently about Shostakovich being rediscovered. Even a cursory thought about the expression 'Shostakovich rediscovered' instantly reveals what an absurd remark that is. If you have discovered something you cannot rediscover it.

Discover means to find out for the first time. Columbus discovered America once. He did not rediscover it. He had already discovered it. If you think about it there should be no such word as rediscovery. It is rather like the word reinvent.

Can we rediscover the wheel? Can we reinvent the wheel?

I remember when I discovered the music of Roger Sessions. It was one of his symphonies. I acquired a recording and, some months later, heard it for the second time. That second time was not a rediscovery. It was a second hearing.

Those of us with years of experience in music and music making may go for long periods of time without hearing any music by a particular composer, and it could be a famous composer at that. Then, after months, perhaps years, we hear a piece and we may say, "I had forgotten how good a piece that was and how fine a composer he was!"

This is not rediscovery but opportunist reassessment.

Someone said that Walton was Elgar's successor. Whatever that means it implies that Walton followed in Elgar's footsteps, that he was a disciple. This then raises the odious thought of comparison and that the follower, Walton in this case, was inferior to Elgar. This is the 'disciple is not greater than his lord’ syndrome.

Comparisons can be very misleading, dangerous and have the effect of creating lies.

Similarly, I have heard people refer to a particular composer's work as Waltonesque. And when I have listened to that work with a score before me I see no comparison at all. I refer it to my colleagues and they respond that the suggestion that this piece being Waltonesque is as absurd as it is untrue.

Why do people make such ridiculous comparisons? What is their hidden agenda?

Writers on music and music critics are entitled to their views which, of course, includes personal likes and dislikes but they must be impartial.

I was at a party after a concert once when music critics were imbibing their Pimms and talking about the performance of a cello concerto we had just heard. The male writers were going to give glowing reports of the performance because the cellist was 'very pretty and had damn good legs'. The fact of the matter was that the performance was very poor. The cellist's entries were often too early or too late and the tempi were painfully slow. A female critic gave an accurate account of the performance in her newspaper but was regarded as biased because she did not agree with all the male critics.

But the cellist was pretty and had damn good legs.

All writers about music can make mistakes. I have. But when I write critically about a composer I am prepared to back it up with musical examples and evidence.

There has always been a curious tendency to malign modern composers but not the established ones. In simple terms and as an example, Mozart could do no wrong and Webern could do no right. Incidentally, Webern's glorious Passacaglia for orchestra, Op. 1 is atonal but not serial.

If someone says that Webern's Symphony Op. 21 is rubbish that is deemed acceptable in some quarters but if someone were to say that Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony is rubbish there would be a hue and cry.

We move the goal posts. We are unfair. We do music a great disservice. Our judgements on music are often not musical.

But it is the same in other art forms. John Wayne was not a great actor but certainly he was a very popular one. On the other hand, Robert Donat was a great actor but not as well known or as popular as John Wayne.

Sir Malcolm Sargent, and others, said that Schubert was not a great composer but a very popular one!

We manufacture greatness where it is sometimes unmerited. We sometimes set precedents which should never be set. We create falsehoods and illusions.

Music critics are akin to musical competitions in that they are often unfair.

While I am pleased that 12 year old Jennifer Pike won the BBC Young Musician of the Year Final for 2002 and genuinely wish her well she was not the best player on finals night. I say this from both a technical and musical point of view not from a personal or prejudiced point of view. My opinion was that I wanted the pianist to win but her performance lacked something. Musically the best player was undoubtedly the clarinettist, although I did not like her histrionics or her choice of piece. But I have to judge the performance. I do not disqualify her for her excessive movements or for the piece which I do not like. Impartiality must be applied.

I said earlier that books on composers should contain all relevant information. All the books I have read on Walton omit one of the most vital facts of all. After the war Walton studied extensively with Humphrey Searle and regularly for about two years. This is expanded in my article on Walton on this website.

But why do the books not say this?

Is it because their research is sadly lacking? Is it because of some hidden agenda? Is it that they do not want to give Humphrey Searle the position he deserves?

Whatever the reason it is a vital piece of information.

There is a published book about the friendship between Elgar and my great uncle Sir Ivor Atkins compiled by his son Wulstan Atkins. While I do not wish to be either offensive or difficult I have evidence that they were not friends. In fact there is a great deal of evidence from many other sources, which sources have no connection with my great uncle himself, that Elgar was a very unpleasant man and did not have real friends. I once heard a brilliant lecture about the Enigma Variations and the friends of Elgar 'pictured within' and incontrovertible evidence was produced to show that they were not friends at all but examples of Elgar's toadying and using people for his own selfish ends. Elgar's attitude was that he never had to please anyone but he considered it was everybody's duty to please him.

It is not just music critics and writers on music that are sly. I have heard concert pianists condemn piano concertos by say Prokofiev and Bartók as 'tuneless rubbish' and 'spiky music' and 'not worth playing', whereas the truth is that they cannot play Prokofiev or Bartók since their respective concertos are far more technically demanding than say Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven, great though these composers are. We elevate some musicians as specialists in early music when it is sometimes the case that they are such specialists because that repertoire is more straightforward and less demanding. However, a note of caution: there are early composers who occasionally wrote very difficult music, difficult to play that is. Locatelli is one.

As indicated in my essay What makes a great composer? writers on music can be misleading. In a recent article of mine about the composer Irving Fine I have made it clear that I regard him as a great composer. Now this is not hero worship and I have quoted the same views as expressed by Copland and Bernstein.

I had a letter from someone in reply to this article tearing me off several strips and writing: Irving Fine is not a great composer. How dare you say so! If he were a great composer I would have heard of him and CDs of all his music would be readily available.

For the purpose of this article I will call those of us who review CDs for the website music critics and that is not to be taken as derisory in any way.

I have read reviews with factual mistakes. I have made some too. My recent talk on Locatelli which has been published on this website contained a mistake which my friend, Richard Noble, graciously pointed out. This information I had acquired from Grove but it was still wrong! But I have also read some articles and reviews with musical mistakes. In one musical journal I read that Dvořák was influenced by Britten!

My late friend the Irish composer Gerard Victory had his global requiem Ultima Rerum reviewed in one magazine as Brittenesque. The reviewer also said that the work was completely atonal and so on. All of this is completely untrue. I worked with the composer on this score. I have the score. I know the work. The musical information in this review was false and ludicrous.

I wrote a gracious letter to the reviewer. He replied as follows: "I did not appreciate your arrogance. I have been a reviewer on this paper for 40 years and I do know what I am talking about. I am well known and respected whereas no one has heard of you."

My own judgement is that CD reviewers should be factual and impartial. They should not major on comparisons. They should be competent to review the discs from a technical point of view expressed in musical terms. Music reviewers, in my view, should be musical, not necessarily musicians, but those who can talk musically about the items being reviewed. Someone once said, "You cannot judge unless you have expert knowledge; the world is full of ignorant experts."

I recently read a review of a performance of that most sublime of cello concertos, that by Dvořák, in which the reviewer, a well-known writer, spoke of a clearly identified passage as being beautifully played on the D string. It was not. It was on the A string.

I think that as far as possible reviewers should avoid writing about works and composers they do not like or about music that they do not understand.

I have to put my hand up and I say that I have done this. I once reviewed a recital of music of William Byrd which I admired but did not like. I should not have done so.

Similarly I have read reviews of 'modern' works, the understanding of which is a real speciality, in which the reviewer hadn't a clue but wanted to sound important by writing about an unfamiliar work as if he knew it and was therefore superior!

Reviewers should adopt a ‘horses for courses’ policy and review works that they know and, in addition, write about styles of music which appeal to them.

But sometimes there is a conflict of interest.

I do not like the music of Elgar, and for purely musical reasons which I could demonstrate in detail to evidence my position. However, I knew the conductor Bryden Thomson and admire his work. If I were to write extensively about 'Jack' Thomson or review all his recordings I would be faced with the Elgar series of recording which he made for Chandos.

I would have to be impartial. With scores open before me I would have to comment on his accuracy in realising the score etc. but I would have to bite my tongue on other aspects. Ideally I would not want to review any Elgar.

Similarly, if someone does not like Webern they should not review discs of his music. But I would! I never cease to admire the genius of this composer, one of the most original voices for centuries!

Not everyone has the next problem but I do. I am sometimes criticised for moralising. Perhaps that is right. But without morals we would have anarchy.

There are composers, some of whom I knew personally, who were thoroughly unpleasant if not evil.

The scope and purpose of this essay does not merit my naming them but let me present a case.

I knew a composer who was sexually interested in children. There is no doubt about that. He was a predatory and a disgusting individual. It was known but suppressed.

I am not a violent man but if I saw someone abusing a child I would want to thump him!

If I purchased his music or CDs I was making a financial contribution to his perversion and therefore encouraging it. If no one bought his music or CDs he could not pay for his addiction or it would be more difficult.

Nonetheless, the majority of people will say that we are to judge the music not the man, that the world is full of artistes and people who may be rogues and villains but their art is good.

If this composer had lived on certain estates in some of our cities he would have been subject to abuse and perhaps physical outrage which, in my view, would also be wrong and unwise. Do I buy music and support an evil man even though he may be a good composer?

I was once present at a musical competition where the judges had already decided who was going to win because that competitor had 'connections'. All the competitors paid an entrance fee and the audience had to buy ticket for the concerts. A lot of money was spent on a forgone conclusion. If you had been a competitor and knowing this prearranged result would you have paid to enter?

As a comparison one may say that 'Joe Bloggs' is a brilliant footballer. He is very successful. He has scored the most goals in a season and it is his contribution that has won the title for his club. Yet he is a dirty player and vicious with it. He has had more yellow and red cards than any other player in the league. In fact his manager has often substituted him in games to prevent him getting another red card.

I am moralising am 1? But is he a good player? How does he compare with my unnamed composer?

I am also told that controversial articles on music are more welcome than merely honest ones. People love controversy as they do gossip. That is how tabloid newspapers are sold.

I do know that some of my articles and reviews have been deemed controversial and annoyed people. But I know from my days in the legal profession shallow people do not like to be challenged with the truth. And another curious fact is that often lies are readily accepted and truth dismissed. There needs to be integrity in music journalism. But there I go again. I am moralising.

Copyright David C F Wright 2002

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