I’ve said that classical music reviews normally don’t do what a lot of pop reviews do — engage the music (and, even more, the critic) with the world outside the music. But in the past, this wasn’t always true. Here are two examples, from the 19th century, of comments on classical music that absolutely engage the lives of the people who commented. In one way, these are a special case, because they’re about Wagner, whose music really did throw the world into an uproar. You had to be for him or against him, and your position had a lot to do with what kind of person you were, and what your views were on just about everything important about life. But there are other examples, which I’ll have to save for later (I’m away from home, without access to my books), and in any case, the Wagner uproar really did happen, and really did show classical music as a living art, which made people think about the lives they led.
Here’s one example, from a review of a Tannhauser production in New York in 1859 (the first staged production of a Wagner opera in the U.S.):
The general idea … is the struggle between the pleasure of senses and the conviction of duty. It is but a romanticized epitome of the similar trials in every day real life.
A very simple thought, unremarkably expressed. But would anyone say this now? Would anyone say that Tannhauser was, in the end, about the lives all of us lead right now? And if it’s not about that, what is it about? Why do we go to see it? Classical music reviews, as I noted in a previous post, tend to treat classical works as objects, lying outside everyday life, subject to various kinds of analysis that don’t raise questions about how we should live. (I know that people wild about the Ring sometimes do say that it can tell us things about our own lives. But I’ve rarely, if ever, seen anything like that find its way into a serious review.)
Second example — a private letter from M. Carey Thomas, one of the founders of Bryn Mawr College, and later its president. She saw Tristan in 1891, and here’s what she wrote in a letter to an intimate friend:
If I say it seemed to me the most glorious of all Wagner’s operas, flawless from first to last, the most triumphant rhapsody of love ever that, rapturous, soaring, heavenly high, winging thro. the Empyrean, without a touch of earth, all human emotion sublimated into godlike passion & longing panting & throbbing thro. thousands of memories of the splendid things of seas & stars and plains and marble & pictures & poetry until all together are blended into one in the rapture & fire of the music-I never imagined Wagner so great. During the bridal night of Tristam [sic] & Iseult as she lies in his arms while this glorious chant rises & falls one thinks passion has said its last word, but when the dying Trisram hears of Iseult’s approach & tears open his wound in the wildest excitement it rises higher & over his dead body in the death song of Iseult so high that one fairly breaks down under its weight of splendour. I never in a public place came so near to losing my self control…
And later, in another letter:
I think I should be capable of any thing mad and impulsive after a week of Tristam…
Smile if you like (though I think she’s marvelously honest). But would anyone now say that they’d almost lost their self-control during Tristan, or that they’d be capable of anything mad? Is there anything at all in classical music that would make someone feel this way — and, even more to the point, would any classical music critic ever say they felt such things, even if they really did feel them?
(My two examples come from an invaluable book by Joseph Horowitz, Wagner Nights.)