I wonder how many readers of the New York Times remember Harold C. Schonberg, who died Saturday at the age of 87. He was the Times’ chief music critic from 1960 to 1980, during which time he published two very popular books about classical music, The Great Pianists (1963) and The Lives of the Great Composers (1970), and won a Pulitzer prize for criticism, the first ever awarded to a music critic. Yet he was regarded as increasingly irrelevant even during his tenure at the Times, and though his old paper gave him a proper sendoff, by now I suspect he is best remembered (if at all) for having taken memorably worded but ultimately philistine potshots at Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould, neither of which was quoted in his Times obituary. (It was Schonberg who wrote of an especially flamboyant Bernstein performance that “he rose vertically into the air, a la Nijinsky, and hovered there a good 15 seconds by the clock.”)
A no-nonsense journalist who understood in his bones that a performance is also news–something many working critics never figure out–Schonberg was conservative to the point of reaction in his musical values, and this, I suspect, is what has caused his memory to fade. It wasn’t just that he rejected the avant-garde: The Lives of the Great Composers, otherwise a rather good book, is surprisingly unreceptive to 20th-century classical music in general. But he got one thing on the nose, as he recalled in his farewell column, from which the Times did quote:
I thought the serial-dominated music after the war was a hideously misbegotten creature sired by Caliban out of Hecate, and I had no hesitation in saying so. Nor has it been proved that I was all wrong. Certain it is that the decades of serialism did nothing but alienate the public, creating a chasm between composer and audience.
Schonberg lived long enough to see time prove him dead right about the music of Schoenberg, Webern, and their progeny–although a good many of his fellow critics have yet to figure out what he sensed at once. And as unfashionable as his rejection of 12-tone music was in the Sixties and Seventies, he never hesitated, then or at any other time, to say exactly what he thought.
Not the worst possible epitaph for a critic.