John Simon on Music:
John Simon. Introduction by Ned Rorem.
New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. 2005. 504 pp.
Summary for the Busy Executive: Stunningly mislabeled.
John Simon for years has made a living infuriating people with gratuitous
insults of many of his betters. His "No Fat Chicks" campaign (indulged
in the present volume, by the way, as he discusses certain plus-size
divas) usually has shown him simply as a mean spirit with little
imagination. In short, he has often hurt himself as well as his targets.
Mostly, he confines such poor - and attention-getting - behavior to his
"popular" criticism. His more highbrow work for journals like the Hudson
Review and New Leader takes on a much more earnest tone. Unfortunately,
often in these venues he says very little not boringly obvious. Does
anyone, for example, really need Simon to point out Ingmar Bergman as a
great director? Furthermore, Simon, fluent in several languages, writes
in what Gore Vidal has sneered at as his "proud, Serbian style." I'm
sure Simon thinks of his prose as lapidary. I, on the other hand, think
of it as klunky, stiff, constipated, a style easily parodied by someone
with a knowledge of English grammar and a thesaurus.
Despite these blots, Simon is indeed a critic, as opposed to a reviewer,
one of the few with a non-academic audience, although academics might
read him as well. The difference, quickly speaking, is that between a
kind of Consumer Reports write-up - Should you spend your money on this?
- and an analysis of why and how art, usually great art, works or fails
to work on you. Of course, there's some overlap of the two. But Simon
aims mainly at the latter, from which you can infer the former.
I have always found Simon at his best when he loves what he writes about.
His rave review of And Now for Something Completely Different turned me
on to Monty Python, for which he has my gratitude. Soured by his pans,
I felt I just had to see something he liked. Fortunately, John Simon
loves classical music. That is both the great strength and weakness of
the book. Simon is a music-lover, rather than a musician. He doesn't
even read music and apparently has no desire to learn how. On the one
hand, he often comes up with an insight that wouldn't occur to most
musicians. On the other, it limits him. Most of this book is about
non-musical aspects of musical works, so that part's not really "on
music" at all. Simon has a wide knowledge of literature in several
languages, and he can relate musical artifacts to the general culture
of the time, as one can see in his discussions of Pelleas et Melisande,
for example. Further, if he tells you what Janacek's letters say, you
can be pretty sure he himself has translated the original, rather than
relied on a mediator. Nevertheless, because of his limited ability to
think in purely musical terms, he concentrates on music with texts: songs
and operas. Even here, he confines his opera discussions largely to
plot recitals. Unfortunately, very few operas have held the stage because
of their plots, so Simon pretty much fails to account for their power.
Acquiring the technical knowledge, not necessarily to spit it back at
the lay reader, might nevertheless give Simon other strategies for talking
about a musical work.
Furthermore, the book could have stood severe editing. Simon claims
that he wanted to preserve his reviews whole, as originally written.
Having used that excuse myself, I suspect he's merely lazy. Meanwhile,
he has written about some works more than twice. About the third time
you read the plot of Kat'a Kabanova, you tend to sigh deeply and fall
into a light slumber. It's not that Simon doesn't say new things, but
there aren't that many of them. He would have improved the book immensely
if he had rolled several essays on the same subject into one.
However, the book has its virtues. Chief among them is Simon's ardent
love of a wide range of classical music. I usually don't learn as much
from a negative criticism as from a positive one. A negative critic often
misses the point, since he doesn't understand why anybody other than
a boor would like what he himself despises. It's all very well, for
example, to think La Boheme a piece of garbage, but does the judgment
really offer much understanding or insight into the work itself? In
music, as opposed to drama and film, Simon likes the Certifiably Great
as well as the Iffy. His essays on writers like Bantock, Lennox Berkeley,
Berners, and Alexander Tcherepnin are some of the most enjoyable in the
book. I also like, and fully endorse, his plea for major-minor and
minor-major composers. I pity listeners who consider anyone but Bach
(or Beethoven or Mahler or Brahms or Mozart) unworthy of their time.
They miss out on too much. Besides, avoiding Schumann because he isn't
as Great as Brahms strikes me as bizarre. Simon isn't afraid to jump
into the deep end to retrieve some cheap bauble, which means the bauble
moves him and that music isn't another badge of Pharisaical
One minor annoyance: Simon routinely takes others to task for typos,
misspellings, and small grammatical slips, even in languages other than
their own. Yet his book is not entirely free of these. Oscar Wilde's
name, for example, is hyphenated "Wil-des," probably a vagary of computer
typesetting, but it still shows a failure of proofreading. It's nice
to be able to live up to your own high standards, but it's not always
possible. I'd normally cut an author some slack, but not when he busts
the chops of others for the same infractions.