- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: WW Norton; 1 edition (Aug. 1 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 039332009X
- ISBN-13: 978-0393320091
- Product Dimensions: 14.2 x 2.3 x 21.1 cm
- Shipping Weight: 281 g
- Average Customer Review: 5 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #174,129 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults On Composers Since Beethovens Time Paperback – Aug 1 2000
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About the Author
Nicolas Slonimsky, pianist, composer, conductor, author, lexicographer, jingle writer, and parent who spoke Latin to his daughter, died in 1996 at the age of 100.
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2) The criticism is howlingly hilarious and innovative, working language to its limits to express the writer's distaste. There is virtually no writing of this calibre in a newspaper today.
3) Some of these composers actually are rather obscure today, so critics can get lucky. I shouldn't say anything to encourage them, but its a fact.
4) The criticism tends to be about the same thing from era to era - no melody, no theme, etc. etc. - from Beethoven right through to Schoenberg. So it provides perspective on taste.
5) I think in a sense the progression through the Romantic period pushed music further and further toward the limits of what we naturally tolerate. Listeners find Beethoven far less revolutionary than what he was in is time, but I think most people's ears will still find Schoenberg to be a difficult adjustment. So while the complaints stayed similar, there really was a movement towards the limits of what people are able to tolerate and round about the beginning of the 20th century Schoenberg found it. The temptation to think that all criticism is the same and that time will discredit it and people will accept the music . . . not true.
In a nutshell, this book is a collection of excerpts from reviews, commentary and correspondence regarding the music of forty-three composers over a 150-year span, beginning with Beethoven and ending (approximately) with Bartók, Schoenberg, Shostakovich and Stravinsky. While most of the composers are well-known, some (Henry Cowell, Roy Harris, Wallingford Riegger, Carl Ruggles, Edgar Varèse) are hardly household names. For the most part, the commentary closely follows, in time, the premieres of the works described. (In some cases, this may be years after their original premieres. It often took, in times past, years for the works to get from "the country of origin" to the venues that were the domains of the reviewers and critics. History - and this book - have shown that this extra time was not necessarily an asset in evaluating the works more accurately.)
A quick page count by composer shows that Wagner (at 27 pages), Schoenberg (at 20 pages), Stravinsky (at 19 pages), Strauss (at 16 pages), and Debussy (at 15 pages) come under the greatest critical scrutiny, or, in retrospect, the greatest "fear of the unknown." Surprisingly, other "true revolutionaries" come off somewhat better: Berlioz (at 5 pages), Mahler (at 4 pages), to name two. Even "universally-loved" composers who wrote music which these days is commonly considered accessible don't escape the critics' wrath: Bizet, Brahms, Puccini, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky are some who didn't exactly become accepted overnight.
It's not as if these music critics "who blew it" didn't know their field appropriately. More than a few (César Cui, George Templeton Strong, Virgil Thomson, to name three) were themselves composers, writing about the new music of their contemporaries. Others (Olin Downes, long-time music critic of the New York Times, Henry E. Krehbiel, similarly of the New York Tribune, and Philip Hale, similarly of the Boston Herald) were highly-respected music critics of their time, not normally given to "blowing it" as far as making a bad call against a new piece of music was concerned.
But that is what this book is about: "Blowing it, major-league big-time," usually with style and panache to spare, as well as all the buzzwords and "tricks of the trade" that suggest expertise. Then, along comes the unsuspecting reader of "the next morning's dailies." He (or she) reads the critique, and the die is cast: Wagner (or Strauss or Stravinsky or Debussy; enter a name of your choice) has just composed music that is: cacophonous; caterwauling; noise, non-music; not fit for human consumption (pick one). The reader has fallen victim to this "expert opinion." It is hard to shake this initial "expert" impression. It may take years. It may never happen. And it might have been the fault of the critic in the first instance.
There is one significant omission, perhaps curious only to those who are unfamiliar with some of the other "alter egos" which Slonimsky had: Charles Ives. Now, Ives was America's first "modern" (or, in terms that I think fit him best, our "first-and-only romantic pre-post-modern"), and his music just barely found acceptance within his lifetime, even if this acceptance came many years after he stopped composing and was quite infirm due to a variety of ailments. Slonimsky had been a friend and champion of Ives well before Ives's music caught on with the concert-going public, and I like to think that omission of Ives as a subject of such invective was a conscious decision on the part of Slonimsky, perhaps as a gift from a friend. But it is also true that much of Ives's music went unperformed during his lifetime, thereby escaping the invective it might otherwise have garnered.
I almost thought that there might be a second significant omission, that of Hector Berlioz as music critic (something which he did for the better part of forty years). But the index at the back of the book did turn up one comment of Berlioz's (in a letter [dated 1861]), brief but to the point: "Wagner is evidently mad." By 1861, Berlioz and Wagner had already known each other quite well for some six years or more. Berlioz - despite trying hard - couldn't fathom the chromaticism in Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," this despite the fact that Wagner wasn't at all bashful about borrowing some of Berlioz's better ideas in his "Romeo et Juliette" for "Tristan und Isolde."
Also curiously absent is any mention of twentieth-century British composers (Vaughan Williams, Holst, Britten, Brian, Bax and so forth). Neither Slonimsky nor Peter Schickele (of P. D. Q. Bach fame, and the writer of a fresh Foreword to this edition) posits why this might be so. There is no shortage of criticism by British critics; they have plenty to say about the musics of composers of other countries. And sheer accessibility cannot be the explanation; the Fourth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams hardly fits the mold of "instant acceptance and accessibility." Curious.
It wouldn't surprise me if every working composer already has a copy of Slonimsky's little masterpiece tucked away for "rainy day" encouragement. And if they don't, they ought to. Music lovers would do well to read how initial critical thinking can affect acceptance of new music, and how critical opinion can change "once the dust settles."
But those who stand to benefit the most from reading this book, as a cautionary tale, perhaps, are the working music reviewers and critics. They (or at least their predecessors) are the ones whose flawed judgements at the time have not withstood history's judgement, resulting in these screamingly funny "critiques."
Good for much more than just a laugh or two! Pick your favorite composer. He's probably been picked apart by someone anthologized in Slonimsky's screamer.
The radio show turned out to be but a small sampling of the many hundreds of classical music reviews that were collected by Slonimsky into this volume. In its entirety it is really amazing how many different negative reviews have been written about music now often considered masterpieces, and what amount of wit and creativity went into these insults. However, the radio show had the advantage of being able to play recordings of the music along with the reviews to highlight the disparity between how we hear these pieces today and what they sounded like to selected critics when they were new. So although many readers may gain amusement merely from reading these reviews, much as my friend who watched Siskel and Ebert just for the enjoyment of hearing them argue, they are much more amusing and insightful if you are somewhat familiar with the composers and music reviewed or if you pick up some recordings of the pieces described. It would be even better if it was possible to get an audio version of this book with music samples, perhaps based on that radio program.
This is not a book for reading straight through in one sitting, but for checking out a few reviews at a time. One of the best features of the book is an "Invecticon", a type of index where you can look up key phrases like "incomprehensible", "pretentious rubbish", or "savage modernistic mockery" and find a list of composers described as such with the page numbers of their reviews. Mr. Schickele's new forward puts this all in good perspective.
I was, of course, exaggerating before when I said that all of the works described here are clearly masterpieces and implied that the reviewers were therefore incorrect in their opinions, but I'd like to point out a significant importance of this book, the fact that it provides ample evidence for a sobering thought, that in this age where a Broadway show can close after 6 days due to one negative review, there is always the remote possibility that the reviewer might be wrong.
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not in the way the author intended. What he DID intend
was to poke fun at music critics for their...Read more