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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 hands of horrors like Henry Krehbiel, Olin Downes, Noel Straus, Jerome Bohm, Irving Kolodin, and now Harold Schonberg and Lang.” This denial of the critic’s code—once tellingly summed up by Schonberg as “Dog does not eat dog”—has led Haggin to assume a position of some isolation and a chronic state of exasperation. The last, brief paragraph of his Introduction begins, “Since I may have given the impression that all I have had from readers is objections and dissents…,” and, indeed, the preceding six pages are strikingly defensive in tone. It is a defense that Haggin has been obliged to make before. The Introduction is reprinted from Commentary, but what appeared in Commentary is in fact a literal repetition of material that first appeared in The Nation between 1943 and 1946. The recurrence of ideas, often expressed over a period of years in the same phrases (which is itself a token of Haggin’s characteristic honesty), serves sometimes to draw attention to the weaknesses of his criticism.

While explaining that his dislike of much of Brahms is not due to prejudice, that at one time he was in fact “intoxicated…by everything [he] heard of Brahms,” he describes how once, when playing through the Cello Sonata, Opus 99, he “suddenly became aware, at some point in the slow movement, that what [he] was hearing was synthetic and sterile substance being manipulated by formula to fill out structural pattern.” But neither there, nor in the Nation articles of 12 September 1942 and 8 September 1945, where he deals with the same problem, does Haggin make clear what he means by “synthetic and sterile substance,” by [manipulation] by formula,” or, for that matter, by genuine “artistic creation” in place of which this Brahms Adagio offers only a “pose.” This is not criticism of the Brahms Sonata—whereas Arnold Schoenberg’s essay in Style and Idea is—but only the announcement of a personal reaction. Haggin’s statement in the Introduction (previously published in The Nation, 29 June 1946), certainly is not convincing: “As though criticism properly was something other or more than personal likes and dislikes, and as though such likes and dislikes were mere whims.”

Since Haggin is remarkably perceptive, I find his likes and dislikes interesting. Moreover, he is capable of first-rate criticism, for example his dissection of the unmusical and intellectually unscrupulous career of Ernest Newman. Haggin is apt to be least good on music itself: he can sometimes communicate wonderfully his enthusiasm for Haydn or Schubert or Berlioz, but he often uses formulas to describe music he does not like. That is what makes his adamant rejection of most of the twentieth century so infuriating. When I discovered nearly twenty years ago works like Pierrot lunaire, the Berg Violin Concerto, some of Bartok, I found this music beautiful, but then saw it described by Haggin in The Nation as “ugliness…horrors…aridities.” But Haggin did nothing to explain why this was so; nor why Schoenberg, or even Roy Harris, should be described in the same terms as Bartok.

With musical performance, the situation is sometimes reversed. Haggin is most convincing when demonstrating what is wrong to his ears about the interpretations of Koussevitzky, Bernstein, Heifetz, and others; but I am not sure that I can infer from phrases like “plastic continuity” the virtues that make valid for his ears the performances of Schnabel, Toscanini, and a few others. And his writing about other writers is not always valuable: the statement, for example, that “anyone familiar with the last movement of Beethoven’s Quartet Opus 130, and the last movement of Schubert’s posthumous Sonata in B-flat, is in a position to see that Einstein’s assertion of their relation is…nonsense” is more a reflection of Haggin’s distaste for Einstein’s writing in general than of a genuine inability to hear the obvious. Elsewhere Haggin writes, “A friend told me of being taken to see the manuscript of Don Giovanni…by a composer who showed him important changes made by Mozart that Einstein failed to include in his list of such changes in his edition.” I should enjoy reading Haggin on the subject of an author who so irresponsibly based his criticism on hearsay.

Tovey is an author frequently quoted by Haggin, and something Haggin particularly likes is a remark made by Tovey about Schubert, which “Warned against regarding Schubert’s weaknesses and inequalities as evidence of his being an artist of less than the highest rank: ‘Even if the artist produces no single work without flaws, yet the highest qualities attained in important parts of a great work are as indestructible by weaknesses elsewhere as if the weaknesses were the accidents of physical ruin.”’ Haggin once applied this remark to the criticism of Virgil Thomson, and I would now apply it to Haggin. He is important, and he can be inspiring and exciting, because, with vigor and a precision that makes his prose memorable, he has for years said things one has not been able to read anywhere else, and which have badly needed to be said. Also—and I wish this compliment meant more—there isn’t one of us in the profession who is doing a better job.


Critic January 28, 1965

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