AJ Logo an ARTSJOURNAL weblog | ArtsJournal Home | AJ Blog Central

« Finding a balance | Main | Absent critic weighs in - later »

July 22, 2005

Absent Critic Weighs In Late

Due to my being in the mountains with only dial-up Internet access for the duration of this blog, I have not had a chance to peruse it too carefully, and my comments are coming out of left field.

But what I didn’t see addressed when I looked over the comments yesterday was something I feel is a defining trait and problem of both criticism and classical music in general in the US: isolationism (dare I say provincialism?). I started out as a critic in Germany, and the job involved traveling all over Europe going to different notable performances. I got to know a lot of different performers, a lot of different house styles. In the US by contrast most of us are confined to one city with occasional road trips out -- and the very fact that New Yorkers think they’re at the center of the universe makes New York one of the most provincial places of all. I was struck when “Meistersinger” returned to the Met a couple of years ago that some people had not seen the opera since the Met last performed it. And sure, the world’s orchestras come through Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center; but hearing the Leipzig Gewandhaus in Leipzig (which I have done), or the Cleveland Orchestra in Cleveland (which I haven’t) is a whole different ball game. This means that American critics have a narrower frame of reference. I would even say that we are more eager to crown stars (thanks, Hugh, for pointing out that Renee Fleming is not seen as such great shakes in the UK -- and dare I add the name of another American heroine, Deborah Voigt?) -- although admittedly I’ve seen English critics effuse madly and prematurely over decent performers as well.

I think the problem of isolation also affects the orchestra world here -- opera houses possibly to a lesser degree because economic pressures are leading to increased co-productions. But American orchestras seem to me each to be trying to invent the wheel and come up with new ways of dealing with the current cultural climate, just as American critics individually sit and pronounce on them.

I have seen an increase in discussions in the last months which may eventually help to countervene this trend, in part precisely because of blogs like this. Is it possible they don’t even need to be public, and that the exchange benefits those of us who participate even more than it does our readers?

Posted by amidgette at July 22, 2005 09:04 AM


It is interesting that the stated focus of this collective blog was to compare American and European journalism, and that almost no one said much about that. The first problem is the Anglo-American orientation. Not a single critic from the continent was included. This is ironic because both Germany and Austria have 23 times more full-time, year-round orchestra per capita than the USA, and about 28 times more opera houses.

These numbers create some astounding results. In any give week, there are probably more orchestral and opera performances in Germany and Austria than the rest of the world put together. So why leave them out of this discussion? The French government spends more per capita on culture than any other country in the world. Little Finland, with a population of only 5 million, is a dominant force in the world of classical music.
The list of examples could go on and on.

The Anglo-American orientation of the blog creates a kind of WASP provincialism that seems to characterize the demographics of American classical music. (Doug, this is a great idea, and the next time I can help you include some critics from the continent if you want.)

I do not think European music journalism has higher standards than America’s, but there are contextual differences that are significant. The first is that the intellectual and political climate on the continent (and even in Britain) is much more varied than in the States. The parliamentary system of government allows for a wider spectrum of active political thought. Parties ranging from Fascists to communists and everything in between usually have at least some small voice. Through the traditions of philosophers such as Adorno, Heidegger, Sartre, Habermas, Derrida, Foucault and many others, the range of accepted political discussion is much wider than in America. This also affects the range of political expression among musicians. Political artists such as Henze and Nono are well-known examples. (In the US, their entire political spectrum was eradicated (exterminated?) during the McCarthy era, even though it been quite vital during the 30s and 40s.) Naturally, the wider spectrum of European political discourse affects music journalism in ways that are probably obvious, and varies significantly from the cultural world shaped by America’s two party system – which at times is almost like a one party “Republicrat” government.

In Germany, for example, some of the country’s major papers are actually party organs, such as Die Zeit, owned by the Socialist Party (which currently governs the country) or Die Tageszeitung which is owned by the Green Party. Die Zeit is Germany’s intellectual paper of choice, a weekly with a position somewhere between The New Yorker and The New York Times. In Italy, several of the papers have an openly acknowledged party affiliation. This is quite normal for Europeans.

Another significant determining factor is the geographic density of cultural activity. In the Ruhrgiet of Germany, there are probably ten full-time year-round orchestras and opera houses within about one hour’s journey. (I don’t have time to look up and list them, though that is easily possible.) In Baden-Wurttemburg, where I live, professional orchestras are everywhere. Freiburg, with a population of 80,000 has a full-time opera including a ballet, a full-time radio orchestra, and a full-time spoken theater, as does Mannheim, Karlsruhe, and Ludwigsburg. Stuttgart, with a populating of 500,000 has two full-time symphony orchestras, one of Germany’s best opera houses, an entire complex of spoken theaters, and a world famous ballet (though it has fallen in recent years.) Constance and Reutlingen, which are even smaller than Freiburg, also have full-time orchestras. There are many others, but I can’t even remember them all. Any of these cities can be reached from my remote town in a couple hours. There are five State Conservatories of Music (Musikhochschulen) in Baden-Wurtemburg alone. They are lavishly funded, even in these hard times. I know it is hard to believe, but since the training is largely one on one, the State spends more training a musician than a Doctor! (In Germany, medical classes are often quite large.)

This plethora of cultural activity strongly affects music journalism, because even papers in small towns need to have large cultural sections to cover all of the activities. Rottweil, the small town near where I live, only has a population of 20,000, but the local paper, The Schwarzwalder Bote, has at least a full page covering “high” culture every day. (Entertainment and media news is in a separate section.) It reports on the various concerts, operas and plays in the region and also address productions in the big houses. The discussion often compares productions in various houses. Try to imagine this sort of thing happening in the States. Even major cities like Tulsa, Toledo, Spokane, Portland, Miami, Atlanta, etc., etc. etc. hardly ever have genuinely professional opera productions, much less the ability to compare the work of several regional houses.

This is one reason the genre of Regie Theater exists in Europe. A mere opera production in Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Holland, or Scandanavia might be a commonplace banality if it were not given some sort of special spin. As so it is, that the Stuttgart Opera did a production of Der Freischutz, and that during the Wolf’s Glen scene, a six foot tall pink rabbit came on stage and masturbated its huge penis. Naturally, this gives the journalists something to write about….. (Fortunately, the music-making was to a higher standard.)

All of these institutions are entirely funded by the State, in stark contrast to the cultural plutocracy in America funded almost exclusively by the wealthy. The US system is in many respects a manifestation of Anglo-American class traditions, and makes the demographics of this blog especially ironic – as if Europe were only the UK. It is exactly the continental perspective that would be of most interest. So where are they? On the other hand, I can understand that Doug would not want to venture into linguistic problems, but there are many journalists on the continent who speak English very well, and could actively participate in discussions such as this.

I could go on and on, but I am in New Mexico for the summer and need to get back to plastering my house – and avoiding the temptation to get plastered myself. But one last thought. Anne Midgette is right about New York City provincialism. I just spent five months there. My conclusion is that it has the most over-blown cultural estimation of itself of any major city in the world. A hokey plutocracy with a big financial nightstick. And perhaps some of you know of my criticism of certain things European.
My apologies for being outspoken. This was written in extreme haste. I forgot to clean my wheelbarrow and I am afraid the plaster will harden in it.

William Osborne

Posted by: William Osborne at July 22, 2005 12:30 PM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

Tell A Friend

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):