Steve expresses so many significant questions and concerns in his post
that it is difficult to summarize them, especially since he struggles
with some of them, but what he builds up to is that: given the desirability
of more discussion of music as music, on the part of critics who are
more than reviewers, how vital is it that such writers be able to read
music well? Shouldn't a critic be able to think like a composer?
Probably we can agree that that is the ideal but I want to come back
with, and discuss, at least two counter-questions and an assertion.
First, suppose all critics did have professional level musical training,
where is their audience: composers, other critics and musicologists,
or listeners widely acquainted with music on a listening basis? Second,
what kinds of things might the critic want to communicate to these various
audiences? My claim is that, desirable as it is, expert score-reading
is neither necessary nor sufficient for worthwhile writing about
music-as-music, and that sometimes good ears and good judgment can
result in criticism worth reading.
My answer to my first question is all of these, and not necessarily all
at once. If not all at once then in different kinds of media: professional
journals down to program notes.
On my second question, I am happy to take as a starting point Steve's
question as to what makes music good or a composer great. It would be
nice to read a really good discussion about Beethoven's late quartets
and just what makes them so special. A discussion that would be more
helpful than the unsupported opinion I once saw to the effect that one
of Dvorak's relatively unknown quartets was better than the American
Quartet. Lots of really expert writers have made really lousy, even
ludicrous, evaluative judgments, as we probably all know. Right now I
am reading Constant Lambert's Music Ho!, a book once so celebrated that
I first heard of it in a non-music class in high school many years ago.
Lambert writes interestingly about Satie, and we agree on Sibelius, but
mostly his opinions and my own could not be farthet apart, and what keeps
me going is the desire to see the origin of certain critical commonplaces
I consider as wrong as pervasive, such as the non-exportability of Vaughan
Williams' Pastoral Symphony. Lambert dismisses neoclassicism in general
and Stravinsky in particular. And what he dislikes about Stravinsky is
what I particularly admire in his music: his heavy emphasis on rhythm.
Examples of what I would consider really good discussion of music as
music occur in a book I reviewd here some time ago, Howard Pollack's
excellent Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man.
whose expertise could surely withstand any challenges, does not print
any musical examples but he discusses just about all of Copland's oeuvre
in significant detail. (I am reminded of certain eminent physicists who
write intelligibly for the general reader without appealing to mathematical
As for the non-professional writer on music, more of them could focus
on what pieces of music are actually like, in terms of the musical
elements audible to the attentive and experienced listener. Granted,
harmonic or even thematic, analysis is likely to be beyond the ability
of such writers, and much of their audience, but there are still many
things that could meaningfully be said if the writers would simply make
the effort to say them.