Music Observed

by B.H. Haggin
Oxford, 297 pp., $6.50

This is a collection of B. H. Haggin’s writings on music, beginning with a 1929 Nation article and concluding with a piece published in The New York Review last March. It differs from his earlier Music in the Nation in that it draws also on Haggin’s writings in Hound & Horn, the Brooklyn Eagle, the New York Herald Tribune, Hudson Review, etc. In part, however, Music Observed overlaps the earlier book: eighteen items appear in both.

The Introduction begins: “As I recall my beginning as a critic, I read, then I heard, or I heard and then read; in either case I found that what I heard was not described correctly by what I read; and at some point I began to express my disagreement in writing.” It is characteristic that the two things Haggin mentions first are the prevalence in criticism of incorrect description and the expression of disagreement. These matters come up again and again in the book. Nothing seems to exasperate him more than the inability of his colleagues to perceive correctly the objective facts of a composition or performance. It annoys him particularly in the work of Virgil Thomson, the one contemporary writer he regards as endowed with critical perception and therefore worth reading.

It is the review of a collection of Thomson’s articles that produces one of Haggin’s rare generalizations about his own ideas of the critic’s duty to:

keep his eyes strictly on the object—the piece of music, the performance, the book—before him, and not let it be deflected therefrom by anything…for it is my belief that Thomson has written his distinguished criticism when he has been able to keep his eye on the object; and that when he has written nonsense it is because his eye has been deflected from the object. I would say that in some instances it has been deflected by the fact that he was putting on a performance—which is to say that his eye has been partly on the effect he was making, and by that much less on the thing he was writing about.

In America music critics do not comment on each other’s work—a custom that to my mind is disastrous—but Haggin quite properly sees that critics and their work and influence are an important part of the musical scene and as such ought to be subject to criticism. He often expresses what many composers and performers must have thought about reviewers: Kolodin’s “‘phlumph-phlumph-phlumph’ on The Meaning of Toscanini,” Lang’s deficiencies in judgment and taste…confusion of mind… [his] atrocious writing and…personal nastiness,” in Schonberg’s review of Glenn Gould, “unprecedented in the ostentatious vulgarity of its writing and offensiveness of its content.”

Haggin points out that musicians do not strike back because of the critics’ “control of the printed page” and the possibility of “revenge on the next work.” He goes on: “Fear, then, has imposed public silence on the composers and performers who have raged in private over what they have endured at the…

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