Raymond Tuttle of Fanfare raised some seldom addressed questions recently about the subjectivity of music criticism. Those questions lead to even greater mysteries, I find. It isn’t often asked, for instance, why music exists at all, but that’s surely where one has to begin, if it is to matter what we say about it.
Your cat or dog doesn’t seem to need Beethoven, for starters. When not living in the present, his brain may simply go to sleep, speculative imagining left to the dreaming of mice or bones. When humans experience downtime, though, we crank up our imaginations to occupy ideal alternate worlds, artistic, sonic and amorous. We plan strategies and anticipate the future. We muse about the past. We learn that one day we will die—and have an awareness of sadness. Your pet, meanwhile, spying a dead animal by the roadside, fails to imagine that there but for the grace of God or fate goes he, so he doesn’t fret his future. Nor does he imagine it. There are no requiems written by cats.
The most important external awareness we have in life is of belonging to our culture. That’s where the art of music comes into the picture, bringing us together to dance, pray and mate, and drawing us together with marches and mood evocation to cement a common social identity and group security. Music helps us practice for the future. It’s a battery test for the emotions, for our heart and courage, a big “what if?” It supplies comfort, a sense of not being alone. It evokes individual Proustian memories. It catalyses religious feeling. It helps us mourn. It stimulates our sense of mathematics and of a logical world. It shows us a kind of perfection. Music assumes power over us, however poorly we understand why. All of this and more amounts to our “birdsong.”
Now comes the obvious issue for music criticism: our uniqueness. We listeners are individuals. As critics, we high-mindedly point to features in a composition or its performance we feel others will find aesthetically beautiful, or technically interesting or redolent of history. But we are limited by the charms we alone perceive, the memories and associations we alone have, some of them ethnic, and quite importantly, I believe, limited by our metabolisms and personal mood psychology. We don’t all walk and talk and think at the same speeds or in the same way. My own “Andante,” I suspect, would be someone else’s “Allegretto.” We don’t necessarily seek out the same moods in music, nor the same feelings each time we listen. We don’t each give instrumental color the same role in our musical lives, or harmony, or rhythm or compositional structure. I am amazed we find in our reviews as much productive commonality as we do.
We are also prey to associational memories which skew our assessments. The first time I ever encountered the Brahms Second Symphony, for instance, I happened to be experiencing a headache. Decades later, when I hear the music, my forehead still tightens unpleasantly around the eyes for a few moments. Beyond association lies the tyranny of musical memory. As I write this, I am tormented by a two bar phrase from Glazunov’s Seventh Symphony. It’s been going at it for two days in relentless memory. I started hearing it when an entirely different work I played on my home sound system suggested a similarity. Now I wonder where the delete key is for a mental download!
Given all this, what can we music critics possibly have in common except perhaps this special dedication to artistic perfection? How can we try to suggest a performance or a piece of music to someone else? Even twins don’t seem to fall in love with the same person—or the same composer. Yet, to pursue the metaphor, we do tend ultimately to agree across cultures about ideal physical beauty and its proportions. We seek a golden mean. That’s where there is a smidgeon of hope! At a lofty level, we sense that beauty is universal in its rules of proportion and that these ideals apply to the contours of art music as much as they do to the rings of Saturn. When we judge a piece or a performance, we are not merely critics. We are evoking a notion of philosophical perfection and consistency at the core of something we love. We aspire to know more, of course. Though we try, we are far from being philosopher kings. We love music, but we don’t fully understand why we do.
Anomalies in our own listening temperament have much to do with the music we end up actually liking, as does musical training. Listeners brought up playing instruments and studying scores from the inside will probably hear differently, frequently experiencing both joys and frustrations having to do with internal workings of a score or features of its technical construction and performance which an otherwise informed audience member with a good musical ear might miss, or more typically, not care about. One might even suggest there exist extreme musical temperaments which would prefer a structured crossword puzzle to anything emotive or descriptive in music. (Pierre Boulez anyone?) And there was a professor of music at Princeton for decades who insisted his musical scores were meant to be read. How on earth would a reviewer approach such a player of inside baseball? Not easily, unless technically proficient to the nth degree.
Fortunately, most of the time, we want a critic to be not so much a musicologist as an ideal listener. We critics are there primarily to assess the effect music makes on a larger public of non-musicians, in the same way an architectural columnist seeks to inform the world about a building and riff about the impact it will have on a city. We speak in music about phrasing and tempo and the notion of whether or not to observe symphonic repeats in the same way urbanologists talk of the way buildings and plazas and escalators flow. At some level, I controversially suggest, the public matters more than the composer or the performers. If nobody had liked Mozart, he would be a musicological footnote. In that sense, critics don’t create popularity. They do help to define it for others.
Given all these variables, one dominant factor emerges in deciding what we prefer from a critic. Listeners crave music-making which matches their own emotive makeup, their personal inner sense of how music should move within its structure. That’s where one wants a certain kind of objectivity and, more importantly, consistency from a critic about how a work is performed and recorded. Listeners need critics’ ears to pinch hit for theirs. We seek out the reviewer who thrills to what thrills us, who wants a “movement” to move a certain way, who likes interpretively this sort of phrasing and balance, that sort of ebb and flow. It’s a bit like deciding which of your friends drives a car the way you like—and whether you are comfortable going along for the ride! But even where we may violently disagree with the review in front of us, if the critic can consistently and accurately describe what he has been hearing, we may have something useful to gain.
Ultimately, one states the obvious: In criticism we hope our written recommendations amount to a sharing of something pure and perfect among intelligent musical minds. It’s a beautiful notion, belonging to a world where aesthetics is the common denominator and consistency rules. But even commonality of mind and temperament is not always enough. Personal mood seems to win out, even among the like-minded, and moods are harder to predict than the weather.
Amateur harpsichordist and publisher, William F. Buckley, Jr., once wrote a book about an extended ocean sailing voyage he took with a group of like-minded cerebral friends. He was disappointed and apparently surprised to learn that his Bach-loving companions didn’t quite want to spend the entire sailing trip listening to Wanda Landowska!