A reader writes:
I find the older I get, the less critical I become. As a young man, I held every new work up against the greats and naturally found it wanting. If asked, I would give the thing a thumbs-down. My stance was essentially dishonest, since some of the stuff I blew off gave me pleasure. Today, I’m far more willing to credit even a seriously flawed work for whatever satisfactions it has to offer. Along with that has come a greater willingness to judge a work on its own terms rather than my own. Perhaps my standards have declined. But I prefer to think that I’ve achieved a mature recognition that a thing doesn’t have to be great in order to be good (or at least to give pleasure). That proposition seems perfectly obvious, but it took me a while to apprehend it.
Anyway, I suspect from some of the things you’ve written that a similar process has been at work in you over the years. (I’ve definitely noticed it in certain other critics I’ve followed for a lot longer than you’ve been on the scene, such as John Simon and Stanley Kauffmann.) Am I right? Do you think this critical mellowing comes naturally with age or is there some other explanation? I’d be very interested in your views.
My correspondent is quite right, and it surprises me to admit it–or at least it used to. I was going to hold forth at length on this theme, and then I remembered that I already had. What follows is an essay called “First Time’s a Charm” that I wrote for Fi, the now-defunct audio magazine, back in 1999. It wasn’t widely read at the time and I forgot to include it in A Terry Teachout Reader, so I’ll reprint it here in lieu of a reply….
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“I don’t understand acquired tastes,” a friend told me the other day. “Why would I want to learn to like something that tastes bad?” Though we were talking about sushi (I love it, she hates it), the conversation soon worked its way around to opera, an art form to which she believes herself hopelessly allergic. Granted, she is only 24 and has heard a grand total of three operas to date–Macbeth, The Rake’s Progress, and Orfeo et Euridice, none of them exactly mainstream–but she’s still certain that opera is not for her, and though I hope she changes her mind someday, I admire her certainty.
My first encounter with the slippery concept of acquired taste came during my undergraduate days, when it was widely taken for granted by the intelligentsia that Elliott Carter was a great composer and Tchaikovsky a lousy one. To be sure, everybody loved Tchaikovsky and nobody loved Carter, but that didn’t matter: in fact, it proved that everybody was wrong. The theory was that anything you liked at first hearing was too simple to be good–or, to put it another way, that there was an inverse relationship between quality and accessibility.
I bought into this theory at first, but then I had a revelation. It was a revelation on the installment plan, actually, for it occurred in stages, the first of which took place when I bought a copy of Peter Pears’ recording of Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. This was in 1975, at which time I hadn’t yet heard a note of Britten’s music, not even The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. I don’t remember what moved me to buy that particular LP, since Britten was still in bad critical odor back then (though the worm was already starting to turn). Whatever the reason, I bought the record, took it back to my dorm room, put it on…and was overwhelmed. Suddenly I realized that I was listening to a masterpiece, and that was that: the intelligentsia didn’t matter anymore, at least when it came to Britten.
The second installment came a few years later, when the Juilliard Quartet came to Kansas City and performed the Schoenberg String Trio, which they were about to record for Columbia. By then, I was the program annotator for the concert society that brought the quartet to town, and I knocked myself out over that particular set of notes; I saw it as my mission in life to awaken the benighted music lovers of Kansas City to the delights of late Schoenberg. Though I no longer have a copy of the program, it isn’t hard to imagine what I wrote about the String Trio–it must have sounded exactly like Paul Griffiths raving about Milton Babbitt in the New York Times–but when I went to the concert, I didn’t hear what I expected to hear. Instead of music, I heard…nonsense. Suddenly I realized that I had talked myself into believing that Schoenberg was a great composer, ignoring the evidence of my ears, which had been telling me all along that serialism had as much to do with music as “Jabberwocky” has to with poetry. The spell was broken, and never again did I take serial music seriously.
The third and last installment came when I heard Eugene Ormandy’s 1960 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. If Schoenberg was the household god of my undergraduate years, then Sergei Rachmaninoff was the antichrist, a composer played only by those poor grinds who slaved away in the downstairs practice rooms while the rest of us musical eggheads went about our more elevated business. Empty virtuosity! Notes without content! Syrupy sentimentalism! Or so I thought…only this time, I listened with my ears instead of my intellect, and suddenly I realized that this was a real piece of music, tough-minded and sardonic, and I was enthralled.
The lesson I learned from these three experiences was not quite as simple as you may think. Around the same time as my first encounter with the Britten Serenade, I had an instructive conversation with a wise old music critic to whom I blithely announced, apropos of nothing in particular, that I’d never much cared for Schumann. “That says more about you than it does about Schumann,” he replied mildly. By the time I’d picked myself up off the floor and pulled the arrow out of my forehead, I’d formulated a credo from which I have never deviated in the past two decades: trust your first impressions–but don’t be afraid to change your mind.
One of the most surprising things that has happened to me in recent years is that I now like far more music, as well as a wider range of interpretative styles, than I did as a young man. This is not at all what I expected to happen as I grew older. “I have devoted myself too much, I think, to Bach, to Mozart and to Liszt,” Ferruccio Busoni wrote to a colleague in 1922, when he was 56 years old. “I wish now that I could emancipate myself from them. Schumann is no use to me any more, Beethoven only with an effort and strict selection. Chopin has attracted and repelled me all my life; and I have heard his music too often–prostituted, profaned, vulgarized….I do not know what to choose for a new repertory!” When I first ran across this fascinating letter (Harold C. Schonberg quotes from it in The Great Pianists), I felt as if I were gazing into a crystal ball. I was certain that I, too, would become more and more intensely involved with less and less music, until the day came when I was left with a half-dozen supreme masterpieces to which I would return constantly in search of enlightenment.
Needless to say, it didn’t work out that way. Now that I stand on the brink of middle age, I find that I am more open as a listener than ever before, so much so that I even find myself enjoying pieces and performers that don’t naturally suit my taste or temperament. I used to dislike Ella Fitzgerald, for instance, but today I listen to her records with great pleasure, even though my reasons for disliking her haven’t changed. I still don’t think she had any feel for a lyric; I still don’t like the sound of her voice, which always struck me as pinched; I still think she skimmed lightly over the emotional content of the songs she sang. Yet none of that matters to me any more. Is she my favorite singer? No, not even close–but now I can appreciate the virtues of her singing, and that’s what matters.
Does this mean that I have somehow “acquired” a taste for Ella Fitzgerald’s singing? You could say so, but I prefer to think of it not as a conscious act of will but as a natural process of growth. It isn’t as if I sat around my apartment listening to Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! with furrowed brow, waiting for the sun to rise; it never bothered me that I didn’t like Ella, just as it didn’t embarrass me when I changed my mind about her. I simply accepted my taste for what it was–a matter of personal preference–and when it changed, I accepted that, too.
At the same time, I believe devoutly that criticism is not merely a matter of taste, that it is rooted in objective perceptions of fact; I also think that some critics are more perceptive than others, just as some pieces of music are better than others. I suppose it would be more stylish to put the word “better” in quotes, but the awful truth is that I unhesitatingly accept the existence of a meaningful standard of excellence in the arts. The art critic Clement Greenberg once shrewdly observed that all canons of excellence are provisional–but in saying so, he never meant to suggest that there is no such thing as excellence. This is part of what that wise old music critic was getting at when he told me in so many words that it didn’t much matter what I thought about Schumann: it is the responsibility of the listener to rise to the level of the great masterpieces. If you don’t like “Mondnacht,” it’s your fault, not Schumann’s.
How to reconcile these seemingly contradictory points of view? The answer lies in a subtle remark made by Kingsley Amis, who was both a great comic novelist and a passionate music lover: “All amateurs must he philistines part of the time. Must be: a greater sin is to be coerced into showing respect when little or none is felt.” I wish those two sentences could be carved in stone and set in the middle of Lincoln Center Plaza. In matters of taste, the most important thing is not to pretend. To go through the motions of “acquiring” a taste is very often to engage in an elaborate and protracted pretense, one that may well be not merely insincere but sometimes just plain wrong. I now know that I was wrong when I pretended to like the Schoenberg String Trio, and even more wrong when I pretended not to like Tchaikovsky.
As for my young friend who thinks she doesn’t like opera, that’s just fine with me. I plan to keep inviting her to the Met from time to time (La Traviata is next on the list), and I doubt she’ll turn me down, so long as I don’t insist that she pretend to enjoy herself. But should the day finally come that she decides to give up completely on opera, that’lI be fine, too. For who knows what might happen once she turns 40? She might just hear Der Rosenkavalier on the radio, and suddenly realize what she’d been missing all those years. That’s the wonderful thing about taste: it’s never too late to change your mind. I might even start liking Schoenberg again–after all, deafness runs in my family.