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Dr. Shaw’s Music Lessons

Shaw, of course, was not alone in these sentiments. The affectionate connection between such modernist artists as Pound, Gide, Aragon, Webern, and Picasso and the nearly religious beliefs in the destiny of the masses found in communism and fascism is one of the puzzles of our modern age. This fascination of some modernists is particularly paradoxical because, as Shaw’s case indicates, such evolutionary beliefs often seem to contradict the iconoclastic and individualistic gestures of modern art.

Shaw’s Nietzschean beliefs, then, may have been similar to those of many modernists, but his vision of the Life Force may have also prevented him from passionately embracing the more refined products of musical modernism. His tastes, at any rate, are quite similar to those of most contemporary audiences when he celebrates the evolution of the Life Force in nineteenth-century music without finding its continuation in the twentieth century.

At the end of the twentieth century, as the split between the contemporary audience and the composer has developed, it is clear that ideas about “torchbearers,” or the Life Force, or the “progress” of an art can no longer be supported. And if we discard those notions, and consider the monotony of current musical life, Shaw’s ideas of music and criticism may seem remote.

Virgil Thomson reflected a change in perspective over forty years ago when he became the critic for the Herald Tribune. Like Shaw, he said “the critical performance needs to be based on passion.” But the main concern of his advocacy was more general than Shaw’s. “My quality as a reviewer,” he wrote in his autobiography, “came from my ability to identify with the makers of music.”

By the 1940s this simple identification was enough to challenge the musical culture that had grown since Shaw’s day. Thomson wrote of that period, “The time was not for massive creativity, but rather for taking stock.” It was necessary, he continued, to “reveal the manipulators of our musical distribution for the culturally retarded profit makers that indeed they are.”

Despite the strength of his passion, since Thomson reviewed concerts, musical institutions have grown more stalwart, concert life more stodgy, the infusion of funds through broadcasts and grants more imposing, the need for analysis greater, the position of the critic more peculiar.

Of course for the concert-goer there is still the thrill of the unusual, the revelation of little-heard works, the excitement of a star’s personality, the soothing graces of musical patter. And each generation can well afford to rediscover the great music of the past, which should never fade from the scene. But it is important to sense what has changed. Shaw’s music may be our music, but our musical world is not his.

The music Shaw wrote about was fresh. Brahms was a contemporary, Beethoven as close to him as Schoenberg is to us. But the same music has become the core of our museum culture, revised and edited and filtered through hundreds of performers’ batons, fingers, voices, and records since Shaw wrote. While Shaw had to fight to hear certain works—Mozart’s “Jupiter,” and Beethoven’s Ninth—today a moratorium on performance of these works might be a relief.

In Shaw’s day Beethoven had a major impact because of his scarcity. In 1927, the centenary of Beethoven’s death, Shaw commented: “Thanks to broadcasting, millions of musical novices will hear the music of Beethoven this anniversary year for the first time.” Twenty years later, at the age of ninety-one, Shaw said that radio had made symphonic music available anywhere at any time, while “my own familiarity with the orchestral classics was gained by playing arrangements of them as piano duets with my sister.” Today’s audiences are larger than ever; far more people see a television broadcast “Live from the Met” than have seen any previous live performance of an opera. But personal contact with the making of music is largely nonexistent. Today music is more often heard but less often experienced.

Thomson also noticed this over forty years ago in his brilliant 1939 study The State of Music:1 “Enormous quantities of music are consumed but none of it means much…. The concert world is taken over by incompetent soloists and by overcompetent orchestral conductors who streamline the already predigested classics to a point of suavity where they go through everybody like a dose of castor oil.”

New music, in the meantime, has become such a specialty product that it can hardly be considered part of the main culture. There have been a large number of twentieth-century master-pieces of astounding breadth and insight. Many works by such composers as Berg, Bartok, Boulez, Carter, and Stravinsky have as much power as anything from the last century. But for a variety of reasons they remain largely alien to the performance culture. New music is followed by a small cadre of dedicated composers and interested listeners, much as “early music” has also developed its own independent small audience. As far as the “mainstream” is concerned—the Philharmonic orchestras, the major opera houses, the virtuoso soloists—music might as well have stopped when Shaw did.

There has also been a change in the new music scene itself. Most new music is and always was poor—the new works Shaw wrote about that rest in the dustbin of history far outnumber the great new works he heard. But he felt some sense of historical adventure—the Life Force manifesting itself. A similar sense could have been felt in Paris or Vienna in the 1920s. Today, even to a close follower of contemporary music, there is no such promise of an “avant-garde” bringing music and man into a new era. New music asserts itself in isolated bursts of achievement, in eclectic and individual manners. The only place where I have felt some communal sense of historical adventure is in the performance lofts of Soho—but that is because there one tends to hear experiments, many growing out of the rock music and romanticism of the counter-culture.

One result of the explosion of listening audiences, the constriction of the repertory, the blandness of performance, the lack of grand adventure in new music, is that criticism is in as much of a crisis as the music world itself. This can even be seen in the universities, where music is taught as a technical discipline with little connection to society and aesthetics. Joseph Kerman, in a cogent essay in On Criticizing Music,2 writes that, almost exclusively, the criticism practiced in the university is “analysis.” And analysis—what Shaw called Mesopotamianism—“has produced relatively little of intellectual interest.”

As Kerman points out, analysis has become more prominent as the life of the tonal musical tradition has expired. Meanwhile, he writes, “the question of artistic value is at the same time absolutely basic and begged, begged consistently and programmatically.” One result is that no music critic or musicologist can be compared to Lionel Trilling or Edmund Wilson in stature or cultural range.

In journalistic criticism, the problem of formula is just as great. Music requires metaphors for its discussion; the professional reviewing metaphors now considered “proper” for music reviews are vastly different from the metaphors of Shaw, Berlioz, Hanslick, when music was a genuinely vital art.

In fact, a concert review serves a particular function in contemporary musical life which helps to determine its vocabulary and perspective. As concert life has developed, as audiences have grown, so have the stakes. Just the mention of a concert or an artist in print takes on economic value. The journalistic “musical notice” for example, used simply to report on who played what, where. These reports become part of the complex publicity machinery attached to contemporary musical culture. As music has grown more stagnant and more a business, the position of the critic has also been transformed.

The reviewing of debut concerts in New York is one example. There was a time when newspapers were plentiful and our performance culture in better health, and a debut was the presentation of a young artist to be judged as a professional. Now international competition is the major means of access to the upper echelons of performing society, while debuts continue with only one New York newspaper covering the concerts.

Anyone can rent a hall, present a “debut” recital, and probably get reviewed. The “debut,” in fact, has become one of those peculiar events that exist almost solely to be written about by critics.

Debuts are not the only examples of fossilized musical life. It is not uncommon to hear the question, seriously put by professionals, “What is the point of giving the concert if it isn’t going to be reviewed?”

In these situations—extreme but not atypical—the review simply serves as a chit to be used in a career, in grant applications, or in advertising. The public critic’s function becomes thoroughly institutionalized: such matters as passion, analysis, and ideas become secondary to that function—the critic as guide for the consumer, adviser to the trade, and supplier of blurbs. Music has lost its raison d’être except as a business and a source of entertainment; the critic has also lost his place.

I put the case so harshly because this situation is so extreme and so recent. Thomson wrote forty years ago: “The state of art-music everywhere in the West…is unquestionably more than a little bit decadent.” Not much has improved since. Given the present state of musical culture, the last thing needed is business as usual. Thomson actually gave a prescription for contemporary music criticism in 1961, when he wrote an introduction for a reissue of The State of Music: “What music needs right now is the sociological treatment, a documented study of its place in business, in policy, and in culture.”

I think this is exactly what is needed now, with a consideration of related aesthetic issues. In these extraordinary times, the “review” should be more than just an assertion of personality with intriguing stylistic quirks, more than an assessment of a performance, with however much verve, more than a set of program notes with opinions attached, more than a guide to the consumer or grist for the business. If we can’t achieve the sorts of literary personas and passions that graced criticism at a time when the evolution of the art was a matter of life-and-death interest for many people, we must at least begin to explore the situation that currently exists and try to see some way out of it.

We might examine the predicament of the postmodern musical world by dissecting the relationships between audiences and music, between composer and patron, music and critic, institution and composer, government and the arts. Why is our music heard in a concert hall? What are we to expect from music? What is the function of music in other cultures? What is the nature of musical expression? What is the relationship between music and ideas? We even need to understand that things have not always been as dissolute as they are. Music can have an important function in the life of a culture; music communicates matters of intellectual and emotional importance.

For Shaw music had this power, which he must have sensed from Vandeleur Lee—the power to transform life, open it to new possibilities. He believed, at the end of the nineteenth century, that music itself would proceed through evolutionary transformations; that the Life Force and its embodiment in certain people of genius would create a “progressive” art and society. Shaw, though, failed to comprehend the moral and social complexities of the modern age. We, his heirs in music, can no longer believe in progress as he did. But there is something to be learned from his passion and his adversary position. Both are sorely needed if we are to understand just what has happened in music to have put it in such a strange regressive state. Shaw’s music can still be our music, but we should also have our own.

  1. 1

    Much of The State of Music is reprinted in The Virgil Thomson Reader (Houghton Mifflin, 1981). His criticism is also collected in four volumes, including the complete State of Music, published by Greenwood Press.

  2. 2

    Edited by Kingsley Price (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).

    Shaw gave the classic example of technical analysis; it is still arresting reading:

    I will now, ladies and gentlemen, give you my celebrated “analysis” of Hamlet’s soliloquy on suicide…. Shakespeare, dispensing with the customary exordium, announces his subject at once in the infinitive, in which mood it is presently repeated after a short connecting passage in which, brief as it is, we recognize the alternative and negative forms on which so much of the significance of repetition depends. Here we reach a colon; and a pointed pository phrase, in which the accent falls decisively on the relative pronoun, brings us to the first full stop.

    I want to know,” Shaw asks,

    whether it is just that a literary critic should be forbidden to make his living in this way on pain of being interviewed by two doctors and a magistrate, and haled off to Bedlam forthwith; whilst the more a musical critic does it, the deeper the veneration he inspires.

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