Writing tips

Juilliard students these days don’t seem to be interested in music criticism, or in music critics. I think that’s partly because, if they’re like most others their age, they may not read newspapers. And thus don’t often read critics.

But it’s also because they don’t think critics do a good job.

This continues my previous post, about the course on how to talk and write about music that I’m teaching at Juilliard this fall. And about the online version of it I’m eager to teach, as soon as I get five or six people to enroll in it. I’m happy to say that I have three since yesterday. (See my last post for details.)

Of course we could debate the students’ view. Critics (myself included, when I was one) can easily miss important things that musicians hear. In class this week, one student brought in a New York Times review of a concert he’d played in. The review was an all but gushing rave, but the concert, the student said, had been a mess, with the musicians even stopping at one point, in sheer confusion, unclear about what the conductor was trying to do.

But it’s also true that critics can hear things that musicians don’t hear, about the character of a performance, especially, what kind of impact it makes, quite apart from technical details.

My students, though, made an important point. They respect critics who cite specific musical details. They might not, for instance, be much impressed if a critic said that — at a big climax in the Tannhäuser overture — the trombones played the pilgrim’s march with deep expression. Said this, I mean, without adding anything more specifc.

But they loved it when George Bernard Shaw, in a review I assigned them to read, wrote this (in 1894):

We all know the overture to Tannhauser by heart by this time. Well, have we not often shrunk from the coarse and unsatisfactory effect of the three trombones at the climax of the pilgrims’ march in the first section of the overture? With Richter [a London conductor] it is rather worse than with the others, since he insists on the full power of the fortissimo. Mottl [a German conductor visiting London] effected a magical transformation. The chant was as powerful as Richter could have desired; and yet it was beautiful, broad, easy, with a portamento which an Italian singer might have envied.

How was this brought about? In the simplest way in the world. Instead of keeping strict Procrustean time for the florid work of the violins, thus forcing the trombones to chop their phrases so as to fit the accompaniment, Mottl gave the trombones a free hand, allowing them to give the time to the whole band, and making the violins wait, when necessary, between the bars, so to speak, until the slow-speaking brass instruments had turned their phrases with unembarrassed majesty. The effect was magnificent. In exactly the same way, and with still more splendid effect, he gave us the great passage at the end of Die Walkure, where the trombones reaffirm the last words of Wotan.

The students — including one who plays the trombone — thought this was exactly the kind of thing that comes up in orchestral performance. And they could imagine the passage played exactly as Shaw describes. So they believed him when he said it happened that way, and had the effect he said it had.

Which supports a point I’ve often made, that critics should, as a general rule, attach general comments to specific details. Don’t just say the trombones played beautifully. Cite a beautiful passage they played. Or in other words, tie your subjective impressions to something objective, something someone who’d heard (or been in) the performance could think about, to see if she’d felt the same way.

The furthest I’ve taken this, in my own writing, would surely be this, from a review (published in 1998 in the Wall Street Journal) of the New York Philharmonic playing all the Beethoven symphonies. I was talking about which sections of the orchestra seemed strong, and which less so:

The first violins are weak; they sounded crude and prosaic in the slow movement of the ninth, in great contrast to the violas, whose purity was a high musical achievement. Incredibly, the back stands of the first violins sometimes dragged behind the rest (especially in the sweeping upward scale at bars 210 to 212 in the slow movement of the seventh.)

Though at the same time, if I’m to believe my students  —and myself! — I failed in what I wrote about the violas, and also about the basses, which I said

are the strongest section — noble, precise and always true to the music’s inner meaning.

I could so easily have given examples, especially from the slow movement of the Eroica. I should have done that. (I later learned, by the way, that Kurt Masur, music director at that time, who’d conducted these concerts, was working hard — though sometimes brutally  — to purge the first violins of players he didn’t think were good enough.)

You don’t have to be as detailed as Shaw, or as pointed as I was, when (because I wanted to make sure people believed me about the first violins) I cited specific bars in the score. It’s enough, most of the time, to just say something like this:

I especially liked the new piece on the program, above all because halfway through there’s a trumpet solo that seems to rise to the skies, bringing the whole work together.

Critics can never persuade the whole world that they’re right, but at least, if you write in this way, someone else can say, “I didn’t like the piece, but I didn’t notice that trumpet solo, so maybe the critic heard the piece better than I did.” Or: “Yes! I loved that trumpet solo. So I’ll believe the critic in future reviews, when she says something’s wonderful.” Or: “That trumpet solo was nothing! Poor critic — she just got carried away.”

This gives you a taste of what we talk about — or one of the many things we talk about — in my course. We also listen to music, and try to describe what we hear, simply and clearly.

If you’d like to sign up — three 90-minute sessions for $200 — please contact me.


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