This is likely to be a somewhat dicey week for me. On Tuesday night I started ramping up to my usual performance-going schedule, even though I’m still a bit shaky from the bug that bit me last week. (Alas, Broadway openings wait for no man!) So in lieu of a freshly written posting, I’ve pulled another vintage essay out of my electronic hat, a column I wrote for Fi, the now-defunct audio magazine, a few years ago. I hope you find it interesting.
* * *
The best thing written about classical music this past winter was, believe it or not, an essay by a music critic about another music critic. William Youngren’s “Haggin,” published in the winter issue of The American Scholar, is a remarkable memoir of the man most responsible for forming the tastes of postwar American record collectors. It is also a cautionary tale of how a great critic fell victim to the occupational disease of his profession–paranoia.
I doubt B.H. Haggin is especially well known to Gen-X audiophiles, but for those who came of age between the ’40s and the ’70s, his name will trigger vivid memories. Haggin was as influential as any American music critic who has ever lived, and he exerted much of his influence, unusually, through a book written for novice music lovers. The Listener’s Musical Companion, published in 1956, was acquired by school libraries across America, there to be read by innumerable teenagers who swallowed whole its sternly compelling myth of interpretative rectitude, in which Arturo Toscanini was God and Wilhelm Furtwängler the Antichrist. More than a few critics who now publish in Fi, myself included, cut their teeth on The Listener’s Musical Companion, and its echoes can be heard to this day in everything we write.
Haggin also shaped the face of American musical journalism in an even more unusual way: by answering his mail. Many of his readers wrote to him over the years, and he always wrote back–usually on a typed postcard–to defend or amplify his views. Those exchanges not infrequently led to face-to-face encounters, and sometimes to friendship. That was how I got to know Haggin, who later recommended me to Ted Libbey (then the editor of High Fidelity), the first editor ever to ask me to review classical recordings. If you don’t like my stuff, you thus have B.H. Haggin to blame. And my experience was far from unique: indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Haggin did more than anyone else of his generation to encourage young music critics.
But Haggin had a dark side, one described candidly by William Youngren. Though he affected to believe that “criticism does not, as some people think it must, offer the one possible and correct opinion,” he was in fact dogmatic to a fault, and his penchant for writing bluntly and insultingly about other critics with whom he disagreed got him in hot water time and again. Starting in the ’60s, he also picked fights with most of the writers and musicians he had befriended over the years, and by the time of his death in 1987, the people with whom he was still on speaking terms could probably have been numbered in single digits.
Haggin’s violent contentiousness was no secret in the music business, and it led many to wonder if he was entirely right in the head. What was not generally known prior to the publication of Youngren’s essay was that there was concrete reason to be concerned about his sanity: as early as the ’50s, Haggin’s psychiatrist put him on such major tranquilizers as Thorazine, a drug commonly used to treat schizophrenia.
Once I learned this fact, the weirdly aggressive tone of Haggin’s post-1960 writings suddenly began to make sense to me in a way it never had before. We use the word “paranoia” casually nowadays, but in the context of mental illness it has a precise meaning: It is the overwhelming feeling of persecution experienced by schizophrenics whose delusions have loosened their hold on reality. Surely there can be no doubt that this was Haggin’s problem: His own sense of reality was threatened when people–especially people he respected–disagreed with him about musical matters. Hence the queer outbursts of near-frenzy that mar such later books as A Decade of Music (1973) and Music and Ballet, 1973-1983 (1984). They are expressions not of anger, but stark terror.
Haggin’s story is interesting both in its own right and as a reminder that all critics, great and small, are prone to paranoia. The reason is simple: we don’t always agree. Especially in New York, where four daily newspapers cover the classical-music scene, it is an unsettling business to pick up the morning papers and read four different opinions about a concert–unsettling not just for readers, but also for the critics themselves. To be sure, I take some critics more seriously than others, but it always shakes me when a colleague loathes a performance I loved. (The converse is for some mysterious reason less disturbing.) If only for a moment, I feel what B.H. Haggin must have felt at all times: am I losing touch with reality?
I should add that this feeling, while it can be unpleasant, isn’t necessarily unhealthy (unless you happen to be schizophrenic). Critics need constant reminding that criticism is not an exact science–or, indeed, any kind of science at all. As for those frustrated performers who find themselves on the receiving end of contradictory reviews, I can do no better than to quote from No Minor Chords, André Previn’s wonderful memoir: “It is perfectly correct to disregard all the bad reviews one gets, but only if at the same time, one disregards the good ones as well.”