When music critics attack.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Feb. 3 2009 10:04 AM

Great Composers, Lousy Reviews

When music critics attack.

In the history of music, the glorious and benevolent Kaiser Joseph II is known for one transcendently stupid line. After the Vienna premiere of the comic opera The Abduction From the Seraglio, Joseph observed to its composer: "Too many notes, my dear Mozart!" With that, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire became an enduring symbol of philistine reaction to genius. Mozart's comeback was not as snappy: "Only as many notes as necessary, Your Majesty." In the coming years, he would hear more of the same from the press: "impenetrable labyrinths," "bizarre flights of the soul," "overloaded and overstuffed." The guy has too much imagination, connoisseurs agreed; he doesn't know when to turn it off. In other words: too many notes.

Toward the end of the 18th century, young Beethoven read in the paper that his first published violin and piano pieces were "[s]trange sonatas, overladen with difficulties. … Herr Beethoven goes at his own gait; but what a bizarre and singular gait it is! Learned, learned and always learned and nothing natural, no song." Beethoven would have read those words with blood boiling. It was fortunate that he did not inhabit the later 19th century, when the art of incendiary reviews reached its golden age.

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Those mal mots were gathered by conductor, theorist, and scholar Nicholas Slonimsky in his classic Lexicon of Musical Invective. First published in 1953, the book is still in print. The author himself had caught his share of slings and arrows as a young conductor who was determined to promote what the time called "ultra-modern" music. Now Slonimsky is remembered for premiering important pieces by Edgard Varese and Charles Ives, among others. After too many strange chords scuttled his conducting career, Slonimsky spent decades as a freelance writer, scholar, and theorist. His book on scale forms inspired a generation of jazz musicians, including John Coltrane. In his 90s, he was squired by Frank Zappa. But Slonimsky's most enduring achievement is the Lexicon, his encyclopedia of umbrage.

Critics got into full cry in the middle of the 19th century, with the advent of Richard Wagner. No composer before or since has inspired so many fanatics, pro and con. People wrote whole books vilifying him. We can give only a short abstract of one example, the rabid fury of one J.L. Klein in his 1871 History of the Drama. His parade of epithets—racist, classist, sexist, species-ist, satanic, and medical—is symptomatic of the time's wordsmiths when they really, really didn't like your stuff:

This din of brasses, tin pans and kettles, this Chinese or Caribbean clatter with wood sticks and ear-cutting scalping knives … [t]his reveling in the destruction of all tonal essence, raging satanic fury in the orchestra, this demoniacal lewd caterwauling, scandal-mongering, gun-toting music … the darling of feeble-minded royalty, …of the court flunkeys covered with reptilian slime, and of the blasé hysterical female court parasites … inflated, in an insanely destructive self-aggrandizement, by Mephistopheles' mephitic and most venomous hellish miasma, into Beelzebub's Court Composer and General Director of Hell's Music—Wagner!

These days, people tend to feel that Wagner's contemporary Chopin wrote nice tunes, but that was not the opinion of one Berlin critic: "In search of ear-rending dissonances, torturous transitions, sharp modulations, repugnant contortions of melody and rhythm, Chopin is altogether indefatigable." It's a marvel that Tchaikovsky, given his general self-loathing and neurasthenia, survived the animus that came his way. The most noxious page came from celebrated Wagner-bashing critic Eduard Hanslick, who climaxed one top-to-bottom mauling with, "We see plainly the savage vulgar faces, we hear curses, we smell vodka. … Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto gives us for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear." Tchaikovsky could recite that review word for word.

Well, everybody liked Brahms, right? In Boston they didn't. In 1885, the Evening Transcript reported, "It must be admitted that to the larger part of our public, Brahms is still an incomprehensible terror." Another critic suggested that egresses in the new Boston Symphony Hall should be labeled "Exit In Case of Brahms." By 1905, Boston seemed to be resigned to him, maybe because now they had Debussy to kick around: "Poor Debussy, sandwiched in between Brahms and Beethoven, seemed weaker than usual. We cannot feel that all this extreme ecstasy is natural; it seems forced and hysterical; it is musical absinthe."

Wagner survived his critics because 1) he actually was the towering genius he believed himself to be, and 2) he was a tougher and meaner son of a bitch than any of his enemies. With the coming of Wagner disciple Richard Strauss, the nausea of critics reached an almost ecstatic climax, after which, with the arrival of Modernism, the profession gradually lost its edge. I mean, what composer today could boast of anything like this: "Strauss has hitherto reveled in the more or less harmonious exploitation of the charnel house, the grave, and the gnawing worm." As for his opera after Oscar Wilde, "There is not a whiff of fresh and healthy air blowing through Salome except that which exhales from the cistern. … The orchestra shrieked its final horror and left the listeners staring at each other with smarting eyeballs and wrecked nerves."

If Slonimsky's book is any indication, by the time Schoenberg and Stravinsky and their compatriots got Modernism into high gear, the critical profession was beating a weary retreat to sniping distance. The art of invective entered a sad decline. Of Stravinsky's most shattering work: "He who could write the Rite of Spring,/ If I be right, by right should swing!" He means Stravinsky should be hanged, but never mind. Hardly anybody could do better than that, though regarding Schoenberg there were moments of the old ferocity: "Schoenberg is the cruelest of all composers, for he mingles with his music sharp daggers at white heat, with which he pares away tiny slices of his victim's flesh. Anon he twists the knife in the fresh wound." Even Gershwin managed to get a rise once in a while: "An American in Paris is nauseous claptrap, so dull, patchy, thin, vulgar, long-winded and inane, that the average movie audience would be bored by it."

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