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Dr. Shaw’s Music Lessons

Shaw's Music: The Complete Musical Criticism

edited by Dan H. Laurence
Dodd, Mead, Volume III, 910 pp., $150 (the set)
George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw; drawing by David Levine

The progress of the race makes it more and more apparent that the middleclass musical critic is the most ridiculous of human institutions. I do not take my function seriously, because it is impossible for an intelligent man to do so; and I am an eminently intelligent man.

—Corno di Bassetto

It has been more than a hundred years since the twenty-year-old George Bernard Shaw attended a performance of a barely tolerable opera, Pauline. He accompanied George John Vandeleur Lee—his mother’s voice teacher and surrogate husband—and wrote a long, picayune, and tedious account of the proceedings. Lee passed it on to the editor of The Hornet under his own name.

But it was still an auspicious beginning. During the following decades, Shaw kept going to concerts, at first with Lee, then alone. His music criticism continued for a year or so after that 1876 debut, intermittently appeared during the mid-Eighties, and became a weekly feature of the London musical scene between 1888 and 1894. Now every word that Shaw wrote about music, from the first review to the questionnaire he answered before his death in 1950, is contained in the 2,854 pages of the three red-bound, overpriced, boxed volumes Shaw’s Music, including over 125,000 words never before collected.

There are, unfortunately, artificial titles given each review, there are no tables of contents, and there is sparse annotation of the text; but the editor, Dan H. Laurence, has performed a service to both Shaw and the contemporary reader. Included are not only reviews, but The Perfect Wagnerite, the essay “How to Become a Musical Critic,” a page from Shaw’s musical setting of verses by Shelley, Shaw’s critical show-downs with Ernest Newman in 1910 and 1914, a report he wrote on Salvation Army bands in 1906, and an index that refers to Goethe, Goetz, and the Royal College of Music.

But aside from what it tells us about Shaw, Shaw’s Music is a reminder that not much has changed since his first review. If the unavoidable stretches of tedium, the detailed trivia, and the brilliant glints of Shaw’s swordplay do not distract us, Shaw’s Music provides a lively portrait of our own time.

For Shaw’s music is our music. Though most of Shaw’s criticism was written between 1888 and 1894, the New York critic today might as well be gadding about Shaw’s London, keeping an ear out for the best performances, rushing out of concerts and grabbing a taxi to meet a late-night deadline, racing to another symphony or piano recital—and griping about the musical scene.

The contemporary critic might copiously quote his predecessor: “The performances to which we are accustomed…seem to move in a narrow circle from weak incompetence or coarse violence to the perfection of lifeless finish.” He might also complain of the abundant music “festivals”: “The aims of the Festival givers necessarily are, firstly, commercial; secondly, phenomenal; and lastly, artistic.” And he might groan along with Shaw about the “dreary, deadly subscription-night Traviatas and Trovatores,” or the “conservatism” of the Philharmonic Society. He would hear much the same music—Beethoven and Mendelssohn, Wagner and Handel, Brahms and Rossini, Carmen and Faust.

Of course, there are a few differences. Opera performances are not interrupted, as Patti’s were, by encore renditions of “Home Sweet Home.” More music is played from memory. The British mania for oratorios has died down. We cannot complain about neglect of Mozart. Concerts no longer last for three hours. And we are spared the mediocre new music of Shaw’s day.

But these are minor matters. We are still living in a nineteenth-century musical culture. At the time Shaw was writing, it was beginning to congeal into its present state. Shaw’s vitality is only a reminder of how stalwart, stodgy, and stagnant our own musical life has become. This makes Shaw’s Music more than just a collection of criticism by one of the most perceptive, strong-willed critics in English; Shaw’s passions, his tastes, and his failings resound in contemporary ears, providing lessons, offering warnings.

Laurence places Shaw’s 1935 autobiographical essay at the front of this otherwise chronological collection; it reveals how Shaw’s musical passions were bound up with the man who sat beside him at that first concert—Vandeleur Lee, the author of The Voice: Its Artistic Production, Development, and Preservation, and sometime director of Dublin’s “Amateur Musical Society.” All his education, Shaw writes, all his appreciation for beauty, “I owed to the meteoric impact of Lee with his music, his method, his impetuous enterprise and his magnetism.”

Lee, it seems, taught Shaw’s mother about the voice and about music, saving the “thoroughly disgusted and disillusioned woman.” She “embraced” Lee’s “musical faith” so passionately that Lee moved into the Shaw household in 1866, overshadowing Shaw’s father, who had a “drinking neurosis.” Shaw insisted that the ménage à trois was innocently musical, not carnal. But Lee left Dublin for London in 1873 to further his musical career and Shaw’s mother followed. Later, Shaw deserted his father for Lee as well.

Then, as Shaw tells it, in London, Lee began to deteriorate—he set up shop teaching gushing ladies how to sing like the great Patti in twelve easy lessons. Shaw turned out to be a better keeper of the musical flame. Having been taught about music by Lee, Shaw finally took Lee’s place, living alone with his mother until he was forty, by which time he had become a music critic of European reputation.

By that time too, the mid-1890s, he had become a renowned dramatist—the author of Mrs. Warren’s Profession and Arms and the Man—and a failed novelist—the author of a half-dozen epics. He had also served as a drama critic, an art critic, a street-corner orator, and an important member of the Fabian socialist movement.

But music was one of his deepest passions—a passion as religious as his socialism. His mother’s marriage had, after all, “been cured by Lee’s music”; without music the ménage à trois might also be “unpleasantly misunderstood.” Shaw notes that even Pavlov, who “tormented and mutilated dogs most abominably,” might have been saved had he “been taught to sing by my mother.” Music saved him as well; it was, he said, the only power “religious enough to redeem me from the abomination of desolation.”

Much of Shaw’s other work constantly draws upon musical images. The plays are full of musicianly characters. Man and Superman is built around references to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. In 1939 Shaw said: “My method, my system, my tradition, is founded upon music. It is not founded upon literature at all. I was brought up on music.” When he marked his plays for performance he often used musical notation.

And when he wrote criticism, it was with a far from innocent conviction:

The artist who accounts for my disparagement by alleging personal animosity on my part is quite right: when people do less than their best, and do that less at once badly and self-complacently, I hate them, loathe them, detest them, long to tear them limb from limb and strew them in gobbets about the stage or platform.

Even meant with mock intensity, these were the words of a man for whom music was more than euphonious harmony. Shaw wrote:

Criticism written without personal feeling is not worth reading. It is the capacity for making good or bad art a personal matter that makes a man a critic.

This overwhelming personal involvement with the “religion” of music made him one of the best critics ever to write about it.

But such an overwrought dedication to music for personal reasons did not produce tiresome writing. Shaw wrote: “The critic who cannot interest the public in his real self has mistaken his trade,” and he created a persona for his “real self” in much of his mature criticism—Corno di Bassetto. The name, he regretfully noted, refers to “a wretched instrument” replaced by the bass clarinet. “Its peculiar watery melancholy and the total absence of any richness or passion in its tone, is just the thing for a funeral.” But each week in The Star, from February 1889 to May 1890, Shaw’s Bassetto was gleeful more than funereal—vulgar, self-congratulatory, ironic, vitriolic, witty. “The term ‘ass,”‘ he wrote, “I take to be a compliment. Modesty, hard work, contentment with plain fare, development of ear, underestimation by the public: all these are the lot of the ass and the last of the Bassettos.”

Bassetto is a caricature of a critic, as much an exaggerated savior of music as Lee was for Shaw himself. By the time Bassetto had his say, the persona “G.B.S.” was ready to take his place for several more years of music reviewing. These personas, it turned out, helped to make Shaw subtle, rather than merely clever. He recognized that the critic was acquiring a role in musical life that was not limited to expression of opinion. By Shaw’s time music had begun to be what it is today—a product bartered in a complex market. The critic was caught up in the workings of that system every time his proclamations were turned into newsprint for the perusal of players and consumers.

By taking himself seriously yet caricaturing himself as an agent of illumination, vengeance, and publicity, Shaw ruthlessly satirized his role while still preserving it. Shaw’s work, in fact, marks the beginning of the modern period in music criticism. Criticism began in earnest in the nineteenth century when the public concert had come into its own, newspapers grew, and music became an art by and for the middle class. Once the art became autonomous and public, it could be argued about, politicized; factions could press their sides. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s championship of Beethoven, Schumann’s praise of Chopin—these were exercises in a new form. The professional critic also developed along with the commercial musical culture, becoming a part of the industry, with his own caste, manners, and language.

Then, according to Shaw, along came Bassetto. “I purposely vulgarized musical criticism,” he explained, “which was then refined and academic to the point of being unreadable and often nonsensical.” As the manners of Western musical life were beginning to settle into professionalism on one side and commercialism on the other, Shaw saw the need for a more potent force. The socialist even wanted to reach “deaf stockbrokers.” “I am always electioneering,” he said.

Shaw became an adversary of his culture. He ridiculed journalistic criticism, with its platitudes and praise, and called it “beginner’s work,” the result of being “on terms of private intimacy with all the artists and impresarios,” of having “obligations to them in the way of tickets and scraps of information,” of running “a little business in the libretto and analytical program line.”

A critic, Shaw wrote,

should not know anybody: his hand should be against every man, and every man’s hand against his. Artists insatiable by the richest and most frequent doses of praise; entrepreneurs greedy for advertisement; people without reputations who want to beg or buy them ready made; the rivals of the praised; the friends, relatives, partisans and patrons of the damned; all these have their grudges against the unlucky Minos in the stalls…

even the “spoiled children of the public.” Detached from the forms of musical life, the critic exerts an almost revolutionary will. “The critic who is modest is lost,” Shaw wrote; he rarely let himself down. He saw himself in the company of Plato, Goethe, Schopenhauer, and Wagner. He fanned his wrath against the “average” critic who has no opinion and “is afraid of his friends, of his enemies, of his editor, of his own ignorance, of committing an injustice.” He saw himself as an heir to Beethoven—“the first man who used music with absolute integrity as the expression of his own emotional life.” He combined personal passion with the adversary attitude of an Old Testament prophet. It suited him well to the early modern era—when adversary detachment became a mark of modernism.

The result was not egocentric blather. From Mozart, Shaw claimed, he learned how “to say profound things and at the same time remain flippant and lively.” From Handel he “learned that style consists in force of assertion”; from Italian opera he learned the shape of dramatic urgency; from Wagner, the prophetic manner. The resulting judgments on music were muscular, forthright, genteel, and fierce.

The glory of Paderewski’s piano playing, he said, “is the glory that attends murder on a large scale when impetuously done.” Of Lizst’s “Dante” Symphony, Shaw commented: “Turmoil, hurry, incessant movement, fire, roaring wind and utter discomfort are there; but so they are also in a London house when the chimney is on fire.”

His less giocoso assessments still ring true a century later. He recognized Mendelssohn’s “touching tenderness and refinement” along with “his kid glove gentility, his conventional sentimentality.” He noticed that Tchaikovsky “has a thoroughly Byronic power of being tragic, momentous, romantic about nothing at all.” He advocated small performing groups for the music of Mozart and Handel. He supported the restoration of the clavichord and gamba. He urged shorter concerts, more rehearsal time, an avoidance of oratorio flummery.

He had, that is, a scrupulously modern taste, preferring austerity to indulgence, restraint to bombast. But he also liked the big, clear statement—Wagner was quite literally his hero. Even when he railed at works we have elevated—for example, Schubert’s C Major Quintet—he did so astutely, noting Schubert’s problem with long developments. He scorned Brahms, but wrote about that “incoherent voluptuary” with acuity.

Music’s social setting was also his occasional subject. He recognized, for example, the economic foundation of the concert hall. “In the innumerable grades of culture and comfort between the millionaire on the one hand, and the casual laborer on the other, there is a maximum of relish for art somewhere.” This middle-class concert hall audience is still the audience today.

Shaw’s criticism ranges from reviews of Salvation Army bands to comments on street music, from the question of copyright to the employment of children, from the importance of the home piano to the need for government aid for music. The criticism can also, of course, be quite trivial—I would urge no one to read through every one of Shaw’s pronouncements. But Shaw still enunciated many of our contemporary educated tastes. As he wrote, our musical world was taking shape. Grove’s Dictionary first made its appearance. A new educated class first appeared in the concert hall. An international culture began to develop. An international pitch was being debated. The culture can be seen taking form during the 1890s, just a decade or so before the modernist movement burst upon the scene. But Shaw and his readers were not prepared.

Shaw recognized the difficulties composers would face in the twentieth century, with the absence of firm compositional language. But he stopped being a regular music critic in 1894, and, as Ernest Newman put it, “the amateur is writ large” on many of his later opinions. In 1914, Shaw ironically referred to the “delightful toy symphonies of Stravinsky.” Debussy got even less understanding.

Even his later attestations of appreciation, if not passion, for Schoenberg, Scriabin, Debussy, and the British school may have just been those of an older man, trying to keep up appearances. Shaw, along with most of our own audiences, was not much attuned to what happened after the turn of the century.

Shaw’s approach to the modern can be seen in The Perfect Wagnerite, a powerfully argued analysis of Wagner’s Ring Cycle written in 1898. It is generally read as a socialist interpretation of the operas; in view of Wagner’s early ideology, it still remains suggestive. “Gold” in the Ring is not simply mythical, it partly glitters with Wagner’s social theories.

Shaw goes a bit too far with the interpretation but socialism is not actually the driving theme of the Wagner book, nor does it suffuse Shaw’s other criticism as much as he liked to think. Shaw reads the Ring as an evolutionary drama; his words echo Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Hegel, and Wagner’s own prophecy. The Ring, he asserts, provides “faith” for a “disciple” who believes in life’s evolutionary power. Life, he writes, tirelessly generates higher forms out of more primitive organisms. Institutions of one age are found restrictive in the next.

Wotan’s conservative government of the Gods, for example, is supplanted by an embodiment of the “Life Force”—Siegfried, the Hero, the Übermensch. Shaw comments: “This is precisely what must happen some day if life continues thrusting towards higher and higher organization as it has hitherto done.”

This was not just a metaphor. Evolution, Shaw believed, was subject to Will, not to Darwinian “survival of the fittest.” He suggested, not quite jestingly, a way to prove his Lamarckian evolutionary beliefs scientifically. Hypnotize mice so they believe their survival depends upon losing their tails; their tails will start disappearing.

So too, the Life Force, he suggested in Back to Methuselah, will eventually transform our bodies and society without the need of politics. Shaw considered Protestantism an earlier evolutionary step, with its challenge of the Church and its celebration of private judgment. Another major step is yet to come: “We must, like Prometheus, set to work to make new men.”

Shaw saw his “pioneer columns” of criticism as aids in the evolutionary process. He was the “torchbearer,” an Overman, boldly slashing at pieties to reveal the Life Force in music itself. He wrote, in the preface to Man and Superman, that geniuses—among whom he included himself—are “men selected by Nature to carry on the work” of evolution. He referred to the “working within me of Life’s incessant aspiration.” He wrote of “being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.”

At these grandiose moments, the critic cast himself as an agent in the evolution of man. Wagner was “the greatest of modern composers” also because he embodied the Life Force: “It was necessary for him to smash the superstition that [elaborate decorative design] was obligatory; to free dramatic melody from the tyranny of arabesques.”

The evolutionary belief is evident in much of Shaw’s musical taste as well. He admires the ancient expressive forms of Bach’s religious faith, he respects the certainty of Handel, but as his own century approaches things are far different. He supports concentrated expression, while opposing rigidity of form. Shaw loves Mozart but blames his father for “imposing” an ideal of form on Mozart which he otherwise would have broken. Brahms is rejected because he takes the “forms of music” for “music itself.” The form had to be broken by the Life Force, the Will of the Hero—heard in the evolutionary tales of Beethoven, of Wagner.

The evolutionary belief also seems behind his impassioned defense of Strauss’s Elektra against Ernest Newman’s attacks—before Shaw had seen either the opera or its score. Shaw explained: “Scoffing at pretentious dufferdom is a public duty; scoffing at an advancing torchbearer is a deadly sin.” Shaw wanted to help bear that torch.

Still, in the 1930s Shaw wrote that Wagner did not begin a movement: he consummated it, leaving no followers. His successors were Brahms, Elgar, and Strauss, all arising out of different bloodlines. Shaw offers no insight into what happened to his evolutionary tale. He seems to drop the torch.

One of Shaw’s few attempts to understand modernism in music was in an essay, here entitled “Old Men and New Music,” written in the 1930s. He speaks of “the new music” created by Debussy, and how it made Shaw realize that “we were tired” of the old style’s tonality. “Very soon,” Shaw continues in his history of modernism, “the scale system and the harmonic practice founded on it broke up altogether. Scriabin took the …”—but here the manuscript breaks off, just when Shaw was going to address the question of what evolutionary step was being made, and where it was going—as if he were silenced before the murderer or the crime could be identified.

The difficulty was that twentieth-century music did not fit the ideology of evolution through the Life Force; in fact, it contradicted it. The tonal musical language that for 300 years served as a source of coherence and sense in European music had lost its power. Early modernist music, from Stravinsky and Schoenberg to Satie, was not experienced as a continuous evolution, but as a discontinuous series of breaks with the past; the musical tradition did not spawn “higher” things; in fact, it seemed to break apart.

By World War I, the breakdown of the older had become a general cultural phenomenon. Shaw recognized that breakdown—Heartbreak House, written during 1916 and 1917, portrays it with a disconcerting wit imitated from Chekhov’s evocation of the end of an era. But Shaw could not reject his nineteenth-century evolutionary hopes. The major plays immediately after Heartbreak House—St. Joan (1923), and Back to Methuselah (1918-1920)—are celebrations of Shaw’s evolutionary beliefs. St. Joan is the paragon of Protestantism for Shaw—a Protestantism based upon an extraordinary individual shaping history, as part of a greater evolutionary story. Back to Methuselah traces that tale 30,000 years into the future; the Life Force extends the life of human beings, turning them into Ancients, in contact with secret murmurings of the Universe.

These views were not wholly innocent. Shaw argued in The Perfect Wagnerite:

The majority of men at present in Europe have no business to be alive; and no serious progress will be made until we address ourselves earnestly and scientifically to the task of producing trustworthy human material for society. In short, it is necessary to breed a race of men in whom the life-giving impulses predominate, before the New Protestantism becomes politically practicable.

He spoke of “the necessity for breeding the governing class from a selected stock.”

Between this celebration of the Übermensch and the totalitarian programs of this century there is only the matter of execution. As an elder statesman Shaw considered democracy relatively useless, Mussolini to be a man of some honor; he had mild words for Hitler, and continued a romance with Stalin until the end. On a journey to Russia, the Fabian tossed his food out of the train, so sure was he that no longer was it needed in the promised land.

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).