A general point: The larger issue in all of this is all the ways classical music gets written about, not just in reviews, but in advertising copy and press releases from mainstream classical music institutions, and much (but not all) scholarly work. Very little of this gets at what’s really happening as we listen to the music — or, to put it a little differently, doesn’t get at why we’d want to listen.
But returning to the thoughts in my previous post (in which I restated my overall point, and answered some objections to it)…I might mention one last objection, though I haven’t heard it from anyone yet:
Classical music conveys deep and profound things that you simply can’t understand if you haven’t studied musical form, and other classical music complexities. If you don’t understand these complexities, then you can’t understand classical music. But they’re far too deep to be conveyed by any newspaper review.
I don’t believe this, but that’s a discussion for another time. Suppose, though, that I did believe the first two sentences. I’d still reject the last one. Why? Because I think it really possible to convey something about these complexities — and certainly about their effect on people who appreciate them — even in a newspaper, and even to people who wouldn’t understand the technical details. I’ll give three examples. What they have in common is something we should think about (something that, getting a bit ahead of myself, might be familiar to anyone who knows Roland Barthes’s essay “The Grain of the Voice”). All of them talk about the experience of music (or, in the case of the third example, cricket), rather than about objective facts.
First example: Virgil Thomson, writing in 1950 about a Clifford Curzon recital:
The Schubert Sonata in D, opus 53, a far wider and more personally conceived structure [than that of a Mozart sonata Thomson had just been talking about], [Curzon] walked around in. He did not get lost in it or allow us to forget its plan, but he did take us with him to the windows and show us all its sweet and dreaming views of the Austrian countryside, some of them filled with dancing folk. The terraced dynamics and the abstention from downbeat pulsations, just as in the Mozart piece, kept the rendering impersonal at no loss to expressivity, On the contrary, indeed, the dramatization of it as a form, the scaling of its musical elements gave it evocative power as well as grandeur of proportion. And its enormous variety in the kinds of sound employed, its solid basses, and a dry clarity in the materials of its structural filling prevented monotony from becoming a concomitant of its vastness.
That’s a precise and evocative piece of writing, showing how Thomson experiences the complexities of form, and how he thinks Curzon does, and conveying, with complete lucidity, the meaning of that to readers who wouldn’t know the forms that he’s talking about.
Second example: the pianist Jeffrey Denk, in his wonderful blog, talking about playing the Janacek Capriccio:
The Janacek Capriccio is an amazing, impossible piece, and despite my bitter left hand boot camp I am totally wowed by it. [The solo piano part is written for the left hand alone, but takes the left hand into the top register of the piano, where normally the right hand goes, playing the kind of music usually restricted to the right hand. Thus, “boot camp” — the long and painful slog to learn to play the piece.] I am in love with its infelicitous instrumentation. The poor left-handed pianist, playing in the “wrong” register; the flute and piccolo straining to be lyrical; the cloudy oompah band of low brass doing things they normally would never be asked to do.
The Janacek is written for a deeply pitiable ensemble: flute, two trumpets, three trombones, tenor tuba, piano left hand. After I played it, someone asked “is your right hand alright?” and I looked at her for a moment; I said yes yes and waggled it at her threateningly, fingers trembling and shaking. She went away.
The deliberate choice to write awkwardly for the players has a tremendous expressive effect. Everybody is submitting to humiliating requests, performing despite embarrassment. It is Mojo’s Dueling Piano Bar, but the sadness of the audience is “factored in.” Witness polkas, marches, waltzes, sentimental songs: familiar folkish genres hug sonic happenings that are more abstruse, more drawn from outer space, from haunting Janacek-land. Life laughs at the sentimentality of the musicians, then cries. The bits of street-band music are antiques fraught with emotion; when you touch them (hear them) they give you a shiver, they tell you of generations past, of ghosts … the piece often feels like an empty, haunted room … Janacek leaves space open; he wants some vacancy, to people with ghosts, memories, or possibilities.
One of these memories is clearly a beer garden band, oompahing. With the accordion wheezing. Maybe a waltz? Oh, it’s so hard to settle yourself; Janacek won’t let you sit down; he won’t let you perform with comfort; an idea, a memory, never has time to get comfortable, to stretch its legs. He perpetually crossfades from fragment to fragment; every performer appears awkwardly, stumbles on stage, duels with absurdity …
Here we find complexities that go beyond structure — complexities, in fact, that many (if not most) serious classical music scholars wouldn’t know how to explain. But Denk lays them out so anyone can understand, and also puts readers in his own position as the soloist who needs to make sense of the piece.
Third example, which as I said is about cricket, and comes from Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland. O’Neill’s first-person narrator believes that no one can understand cricket who doesn’t know its tiniest quirks and complexities. He further thinks that nobody can learn these quirks and complexities in the US, because American cricket pitches (“pitch” = field) are too degraded to allow proper cricket play.
But look how vividly he evokes precisely what he says we’ll never understand:
What [American cricket pitches] have in common is a rnak outfield that largely undermines the art of batting, which is directly at hitting the ball along the ground with that elegant variety of strokes a skillful batsman will have spent years trying to master and preserve; the glance, the jook, the cut, the sweep, the cover drive, the pull, and all those other offspring of technique conceived to send the cricket ball rolling and rolling, as if by magic, to the far-off edge of the playing field. Play such orthodox shots in New York and the ball will more than likely halt in the tangled, weedly ground cover: grass as I understand it, a fragrant plant wondrously suited for athletic pastimes, flourishes with difficulty; and if something green and grasslike does grow, it is never cut down as cricket requires. Consequently, in breach of the first rule of batting, the batsman is forced to smash the ball into the air (to go deep, as we’d say, borrowing the baseball term) and batting is turned into a gamble. As a rsult, fielding is distorted, too, since the fielders are quickly removed from their infield positions — point, extra cover, midwicket, and the others — to distant stations on the boundary, where they listlessly linger. It’s as if baseball were a game about home runs rather than base hits, and its basemen were relocated to spots deep in the outfield. This degenerate version of the sport — bush cricket, as Chuck more than once dismissed it — inflicts an injury that is aesthetic as much as anything: the American adaptation is devoid of the beauty of cricket played on a lawn of appropriate dimensions, where the white-clad ring of infielders, swanning figures on the vast oval, again and again converge in unison toward the batsman and again and again scatter back to their starting points, a repetition of pulmonary rhythm, as if the field breathed through its luminous visitors.
I’ll grant that few classical critics — very much including me — write as well as Thomson, Denk, or O’Neill. But there’s more than skill involved, or genius. There’s a difference in approach. Classical critics, including me, are generally concerned with a piece of music as an object, which is then interpreted by performers, whose work can be judged on something like a scoresheet. The writers I’ve just quoted are — once more — conveying the experience they have with music (or with cricket), which allows for writing that’s far more evocative and personal.