Though the official announcement remains to be made, the imminent retirement of the senior critic of the New York Times is already being widely discussed by the musical community. In the history of a newspaper one man—though he be owner or editor—counts for surprisingly little, and so it might be expected that even a famous critic’s departure from full-time activity would be of little interest outside the Byzantine world of journalism and the paper for which he works. Such, however, is hardly the case with Harold Schonberg. The reasons for this writer’s particular significance stem not only from his own achievements; in large measure they are a result of the importance of the Times and still more the situation of music today.
The preeminent position of the Times in musical journalism is a rather new phenomenon. In the past, critical activity, in this country as in other parts of the world, was divided between the daily press and periodicals of weekly, biweekly, or even monthly and quarterly appearance. In the United States, for example, as recently as the early 1960’s reviews of importance to musicians as well as to the concert-going public were carried in Musical America and the Musical Courier; though of little interest to musicians, magazines of general and wide circulation like Esquire and Good Housekeeping carried critical columns.
But lately periodical outlets for music criticism have become very much fewer. Of the magazines of national circulation, only the New Yorker continues its weekly reviews of live performance; Time and Newsweek seem to run musical material only when “interesting” subjects arise. When the New Republic or the Nation carries an article on serious music, it is usually a review of recordings, not of live performance. Among local New York periodicals, only the Village Voice carries weekly reviews of concerts and operas, while New York magazine has in recent months reduced the frequency of its music columns. And of the specialized publications, the Musical Courier has long since ceased to publish, while Musical America itself has been reduced to an anomalous existence as an insert, available only on a special subscription basis, in High Fidelity.
Thus, for all practical purposes, musical coverage across the country is left to the daily press. Here, in quantity at least, the situation is encouraging. More newspapers, both large and small, carry concert reviews and frequent occasional pieces; increasingly, this material is being written by specially trained personnel. Yet as seriously as all these newspapers take their critics—and as seriously as these critics take their work and themselves—there can be little doubt that reviews outside New York count for less and less as the years go by.
Gone are the days of local critics whose words carried national weight. There have, alas, been few successors to the influence of such local barons of the musical pen as Max de Schauensee in Philadelphia, Claudia Cassidy in Chicago, John Rosenfield in Dallas, and Alfred Frankenstein in San Francisco. Even the still active Paul Hume, who once was taken on by no less a personage than Margaret Truman’s father, seems less important both in the Washington, D.C. area and the country at large than he used to be.
The single exception to this story of the diminished influence of daily music criticism is, of course, New York City itself. And even here one critical platform stands out from the rest. It is no exaggeration to say that in today’s American musical world only one review is taken seriously—that of the New York Times.
It is the fashion in certain circles to rail against New York’s premier place in musical life. There is, after all, a great deal of distinguished musical activity outside New York. Several orchestras across the country are at least equal if not superior to the Philharmonic; worthwhile conservatories exist outside the Juilliard School; opera is done on a grand scale in Chicago and San Francisco. But still the brightest and the best of musical talents are drawn to New York for major periods in their lives as students and performers, and nothing has happened in recent years to affect New York’s central role in the dissemination of information and publicity about cultural matters.
While the city’s leadership in culture remains intact, however, its once healthy newspaper population is down to three Manhattan dailies: the Post, the News, and the Times. Though the News is both sparse and capricious in its coverage, the Post does in fact cover all the more important musical events in New York. Nevertheless, neither of these two newspapers is read by a great number of regular concertgoers; as a result, their reviews tend to be ignored or dismissed both by the concertgoing public and the commercial interests who back their opinions with money.
That leaves the Times, our—and the world’s—only newspaper of record. Covering the news as comprehensively as the Times does is expensive, and only a wide, affluent readership, generating a great deal of advertising, can make the costs bearable. To bring in such readers, the Times a few years ago added a new section to the paper each weekday (excluding Saturday) dealing with the concerns of the affluent—getting ahead, staying healthy, eating well, and spending money. Career stories, medical opinions, sports, gourmet recipes, decorating advice, all were mixed together with art, antiques, and architecture, as well as drama and dance. Happily, the place of music was not slighted in this hedonistic melange. Not only did the Times continue to cover just about every professional event in Manhattan, making forays even into Brooklyn as the occasion demanded; not only did it continue to cover summer festivals across the United States and even abroad; to all this it now added more human-interest stories, largely written at the instigation and the inspiration of the numerous musical publicists in New York City, about musicians and musical organizations. And, reflecting the Times‘s drive for young readers, coverage of pop music also increased.
The increase in puff pieces and the pop coverage were a departure for the Times, but the paper had always taken serious music seriously. Until 1902 its critic was William Henderson, a recognized authority on singing and singers. From 1902 to 1924 its critic was the eminent Wagnerian, Richard Aldrich, whose posthumously published (1941) Concert Life in New York 1902-1923 remains to this day a unique document of American musical historiography; while Aldrich was away on war duty in 1918-19, his place was taken by the famous publicist of all the arts and fanatic Chopinist, James Gibbons Huneker. From 1924 until his death in 1955, the Times‘s chair was occupied by Olin Downes, not only one of the pioneers in radio music lectures but also the chief and eminently successful advocate in this country of the music of Sibelius. After Downes’s death, the Times chose as his successor its long-time staff member, Howard Taubman, whose tenure—mostly without incident or very much interest—was a brief five years. Since then, from 1960 to the present day, the voice of the Times in music has been Harold C. Schonberg (born 1915), already at the time of his selection a veteran of twenty-one years of experience in music reviewing and allied pursuits.
During his years of newspaper reviewing Schonberg has also found the time to produce several books. In 1955 he wrote the volume devoted to chamber and solo instrumental music in the Knopf Guide to Long Playing Records; in 1959 he assembled another collection of record reviews, The Collector’s Chopin and Schumann. He then wrote three less ephemeral books, each devoted to sketches of famous musicians: The Great Pianists (1963), The Great Conductors (1967), and The Lives of the Great Composers (1970). For his music criticism he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1971. (Passionately interested in chess, he has also published a book on famous players, Grandmasters of Chess.)
As can be gathered from his ability to turn out all these books while working as a full-time journalist, Schonberg is a fluent and easy writer. He even brags about his fluency; in one Times piece denying that short deadlines lowered the quality of reviews, he ended with the cheeky sentences: “Time of writing this article: 72 minutes. Want to make something of it, anybody?” He does more than write quickly. His prose is clear and readable, with simple points simply made. He also has a common touch, speaking familiarly and often using homely colloquial expressions (concerning Beethoven’s victory in improvisation over the virtuoso pianist Steibelt, to cite a telling example, he writes that the immortal composer “played him under the table”).
Perhaps Schonberg’s strongest virtue as a daily reviewer is that he has good ears. What he listens to he hears accurately, picking out the salient aural features of performances in the areas of intonation, rhythm, tone color, and hall acoustics. In the case of pianists in particular, he is quick to notice sloppy playing and to identify its causes, and he is an excellent judge of an audience’s reaction to performances and compositions.
The overwhelming personal impression a reader carries from years of perusal of Schonberg’s writing is of a passionate love for music and a fan’s interest in all its aspects and all its details. An article he wrote describing how much music on the radio meant to him during a 1975 illness touchingly conveys this love; he even enjoyed hearing Chopin played as Muzak during a wait in a Russian airport. Some areas in music naturally interest him more than others. Pianists and composers for the piano are undoubtedly the closest to his heart. About them he writes with the attitude of a baseball nut who knows all the statistics. About non-keyboard composers and performers he is generally more restrained, in the case of conductors and some symphonic composers reaching a level of cool neutrality.
Of the possibly three million words Schonberg has produced during his tenure as chief critic, something approaching half must have been devoted to daily reviews. These short articles, written within an hour or two of the event itself and generally appearing the next day, have described and evaluated both the most important New York concert and opera performances and those lesser occasions which have appealed to the critic’s personal taste or sense of long-term significance. As if these events were not sufficiently numerous, Schonberg has also made a point of covering the most important summer festivals, performances of out-of-the-way repertory of the past, of contemporary music which has stirred interest among musicians, and of young soloists who seem destined for fame. The other part of his writing for the Times has consisted mainly of Sunday pieces appearing in the “Arts and Leisure” section of the paper. These weekly pieces, usually running up to 1,500 words, have ranged from composers to performers, from institutions to trends, from previews and retrospects of the New York season to humorous takeoffs on the pompous and the foolish.
A feisty and provocative personality, Schonberg has striven to make his critical presuppositions as clear as his judgments; he rarely pretends to an objectivity he does not possess. In looking at the intellectual and emotional baggage he brings to his work, it is easy to spot one central expectation from and attitude toward what he hears: a pronounced orientation toward personal, emotionally charged music composed or performed by idiosyncratically gifted, demonstrably expressive individuals. For him music is at its least interesting when it is highly cerebral, speaking only to a sophisticated group of like minds. Great music and great performers must, on his view, take their relevance from popular passions and concerns.
There can be little doubt that Schonberg, writing on the basis of this conception, has on the whole tended to occupy the broad middle of musical opinion. His book on the great composers is a popular catalogue of the music the large musical public knows and loves, a ratification of the current state of taste. For Schonberg, as for the largest part of the public, music begins with Bach, Handel, and Gluck. It then jumps to Haydn and Mozart and continues with Beethoven and the other giants of the 19th century who have made up the bulk of our concert programs for the last hundred years. In the more interesting parts of the book he allows himself digressions from the indisputably first-rank creators to lesser figures like Rossini, Donizetti, Cherubini, and Auber; he also admires Johann Strauss (the younger), Offenbach, and the Sullivan of Gilbert fame. But The Lives of the Great Composers ends with a pessimistic appraisal:
. . . whatever the complex of reasons, it seemed apparent twenty-five years after the end of World War II that there was a hiatus in the mighty line of powerful, individualistic composers that led from Johann Sebastian Bach through Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg.
Schonberg’s inclusion of Stravinsky and Schoenberg1 on his list of the elect is, in terms of his own values, misleading. Of the composer of The Rite of Spring he wrote in 1970:
It may be that Stravinsky, “the world’s greatest living composer,” will end up living more for what he did to music than for what his music did to the majority of his listeners.
His verdict on Schoenberg is even more bleak; in a 1974 centennial appreciation he wrote:
. . . is it heresy to suggest that Schoenberg may have been an alien growth in the garden of music? History may look upon his music as a biological sport that grew, flourished, reproduced but in its struggle for existence eventually died a Darwinian kind of death for lack of support. For natural selection operates also in music.
Despite such feelings, Schonberg has made an attempt to listen to and remain open-minded about the composers of this century. He has a high regard for the supposedly “dry” Hindemith (and for a somewhat similar earlier composer, Max Reger) which is not shared by the public. He likes much of Poulenc, and has some good to say of Shostakovich and Prokofiev; he even seems willing to allow Bartok a place among the few real immortals. He has long been intrigued by the possibilities of electronic means of musical composition, and as late as the beginning of the 1970’s he continued to predict a fine future for mixed-media works with an important musical component. He was, furthermore, a booster of Pierre Boulez (as a conductor) at the time of his first appearances with the New York Philharmonic in 1969.
But in the end open-mindedness without affection counts for little; in Schonberg’s case it quickly became apparent that the result of his listening to the new was an increasing distaste, resulting finally in a kind of contempt for the reigning schools of avant-garde music—atonality, serialism, and the derivations thereof. He disliked the complexity of this music, what seemed to him its spurious intellectuality, and above all its lack of melody. Though he admired Stockhausen’s technological innovations in composition, he disparagingly called him in a headline the “Pied Piper of the Young” at a time when Stockhausen was seen by many musical intellectuals as a combination of Beethoven and the messiah.
About the avant-garde in America he has been particularly harsh. He has not concealed his preference for the unabashedly popular productions of such composers as Sousa and Gottschalk—and Broadway musical comedy—over the serious American composers of our century. He has treated Elliott Carter, whose post-World War II works are so highly regarded by other composers, with a mixture of respect for his tenacity and dislike for his music. Schonberg’s constant lament is that American music, and other new music as well, lacks content, that the new trends have hardened into a new academicism. In a typical recent review he describes works by three recognized, living American composers in the same negative terms: one’s “musical content is thin,” another’s “musical idiom is neutral,” and the last is “very slick, with more rhetoric than substance.”
What Schonberg wants is a return, already noticeable, to melodic writing employing as means rather than ends the experimental electronic and instrumental techniques developed in the last three decades. This eclectic combination of new methods with an older idea of melody he has called neo-romanticism. In an article describing how this kind of music “warms a public chilled by the avant-garde,” he praises, as an example, a violin concerto by the American George Rochberg
that looked back to, believe it or not, Brahms. It was largely tonal, and it had one lyric, haunting movement that still rings in the memory. It was romantic, really romantic, but this was no slavish Romanticism. It was a modern Romanticism, a neo-Romanticism . . . in which Brahmsian post-Romanticism was filtered through a contemporary mind, emerging as something new. Stravinsky had done much the equivalent when he . . . went back to Bach and the Baroque, using old forms that he filtered through his unique vision.
A favorable comparison of a new trend in music to the achievements of Stravinsky is perhaps, for Schonberg, not an unambivalent compliment. What his discussion of neo-romanticism discloses is how much more interested he is in the old than the new brand; he makes this plain later in the same article when he remarks of neo-romanticism that its “Berlioz or Chopin or Wagner” remains to be found.
Indeed, Schonberg’s most distinctive contribution to music criticism has precisely been his interest in the original romanticism of the 19th century. He has not, save in the case of his favorite piano works, indulged in the endless iterative discussion of slightly varied performances of the top warhorses of the repertory; following the bicentennial of Beethoven’s birth in 1970, he even asked for a moratorium on performances of the composer’s symphonies. Rather he has enthusiastically assumed the role of cicerone to a lost world of forgotten romantic composers of the 19th century, most of them instrumental virtuosos famous in their day but long since rejected by a public interested only in greatness.
Because this music can rarely be heard in New York, Schonberg has traveled as far afield as Butler University in Indiana. To list some of the names he has found there, and occasionally elsewhere, is to enter a musical curiosity shop: Spohr, Raff, Dreyschock, Kalkbrenner, Henselt, and especially Hummel. What is even more curious is the excitement they arouse in him—a kind of unbuttoned enthusiasm he vouchsafes to only the rarest of post-World War I works.
While Schonberg has spent a great deal of time on composers, he has devoted even more time to performers, especially pianists about whom he has vastly sounder and more stimulating things to say than he does about composers. In general, indeed, he has become perhaps today’s leading exponent of the cult of star performing personalities—Pavarotti, Sutherland, and most of all Horowitz. It is not simply personality which has attracted Schonberg to such artists. What they possess, in a measure beyond the reach of almost all their contemporaries, is technical virtuosity—to Schonberg the very basis of musical communication. The kind of technique he most values is the kind achieved without noticeable exertion, more as a force of nature than the product of study and, especially, effort. It is perhaps this dislike of palpable effort which has caused Schonberg to devalue the Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel as well as ignore (in his book on pianists) Brendel’s teacher, the Swiss Edwin Fischer.
Schonberg, in his own way, is a devotee of the doctrine of authenticity in performance. He once testily wrote: “. . . I do not want a modern approach to Bach. I want Bach’s approach to Bach. . . .” He is interested in the latest trends in academic musicology, and recently devoted an entire Sunday piece to a new book on 18th-century ornamentation. He has been a sympathizer of the modern idea of performing old music on the instruments for which it was written, and in the area of operatic production he bitterly resents both the bringing up to date of 19th-century operas and the injection of the private visions of stage directors into the original conceptions of composers.
Paradoxically coexisting with this interest in authenticity is a commitment to the freedom of the performer. Schonberg castigates those musicians who make a religion of playing only what is notated in the written text, and calls them by the charged name of “formalists”; he thinks this pernicious doctrine has particularly blighted an entire generation of American musicians.
But one man’s freedom is another man’s license; Schonberg can no more escape the central problem of freedom in musical performance than it can be escaped in life. To his own musical satisfaction Schonberg answers the question of how freedom is to be exercised by advocating a careful study of past performance practices, to see just how the masters of old went about being free. Because those few whom he regards as the greatest composer-performers of the past—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt—made no recordings, and because even the clearest contemporary written descriptions seem unreliable, Schonberg is inexorably driven to recommending the oldest performers he can find who have left records or even, better yet, are still alive. To the current lack of excitingly personal young performers he opposes a relatively recent golden age of interpretation as demonstrated by early recordings and an increasingly rare live concert.
A remarkable case in point is his review of the 1979 Carnegie Hall appearance of the ninety-one-year-old Brazilian-born French pianist Magda Tagliaferro. He had heard her some six months before in Paris, and for him, her playing “went back to a vanished age.” Though he recognized the pianist’s failing strength,2 he praised her “singing line,” “coloristic resource,” and “tasteful application of Romantic devices.” And it was all urged on piano students:
To the young pianists who were in the audience, her performance of the Schumann “Carnaval” should have come as a revelation. Not since the days of Rachmaninoff and Friedman has this listener encountered such a basic understanding of, and feeling for, the composer’s mercurial moods.
Schonberg’s rejection of today in favor of yesterday is by no means restricted to performers on his favorite instrument, the piano. Of the New York recital last year of the then seventy-four-year-old violinist Nathan Milstein, he wrote:
. . . he is one of the last active Romantics. Certain things are in his blood; he was trained in an old school and he unabashedly represents it. . . .
Mr. Milstein remains the Old Master, and there must have been many in last night’s audience who walked out in utter despair. It cannot be easy for aspiring virtuosos to face up to this kind of perfection.
Now that Schonberg is retiring, the question naturally arises of the effect on music of his two decades as critic of the Times. How influential has he been?
On musicians—whether performers or composers—his influence has been slight. Those artists involved in either the composition or the performance of contemporary music have almost universally dismissed him (at least in private, but often in public as well) as a middlebrow, a vulgar philistine read only to be mocked. There has been no rush to follow his advice to write appealing, melodic music; and such efforts as have been made in this direction have hardly excited much interest. Among performers who care about appealing to the audience for which Schonberg speaks, he has been feared as a vast and life-threatening force who must be appeased and enticed by choice of program. But so far as performing styles are concerned, both the general nature of his injunctions and the particular talents and limited flexibility of any individual performer render what he writes most often inapplicable.
It is difficult to know what Schonberg has meant to his readers. No doubt many in the audience have looked to him for guidance in forming their judgments. Yet where Schonberg has, as in his praise of forgotten composers, been original, he has found no response; audiences still want to hear just those pieces of which Schonberg has often said he is tired. Where he has ratified existing taste—as in the case of his enthusiasm for star performers—he is (at least on the evidence of the continuing popularity of his books) read with avidity. It is not, in other words, as a teacher or a leader that Schonberg has been read; he reflects rather than influences the musical orientation of the contemporary audience. And that orientation is to music’s past rather than its present or future.
What are we to make of this attachment to the old in music which Harold Schonberg and his musical readers, in their own different but related ways, share?
It does not seem too much to say that the rejection of the avant-garde by both Schonberg and the public has turned out to be justified. The avant-garde has collapsed; at the present time neither the serialists of the 1940’s and the 1950’s nor the mixed-media experimentalists of the 60’s and 70’s have any friends, even among the musicians who made careers by singing the praises of the new. There has, however, been more in 20th-century musical composition than the various avant-gardes of the past fifty years. As Schonberg himself has said, and as concert programs demonstrate, much admirable music capable of appealing to the public has been written in our time. Yet it is also true that the accepted new music is successful only by comparison with the despised products of the avant-garde; the audience still mainly demands the three B’s.
Why should this be? It cannot merely be a matter of preference for 19th-century romantic music, for the audience (if not Schonberg) has taken baroque to its heart, and has refused to accept the musty menu of romantic compositions Schonberg has recommended. It is rather that today’s musical public has come to a fundamental decision: it has the music it wants, and it is satisfied with what it has. Just as a Boston dowager is said to have answered an inquiry as to where she bought her hats with the simple “Buy my hats? I have my hats,” the audience has closed the door to the new, not so much because it dislikes the new as because it is entirely content with the old.
It is possible to view this decision as a just recognition of musical greatness, or as merely another manifestation of the deplorably reactionary behavior of contemporary society. Either way, it seems that the concertgoing public and Harold Schonberg have been very well-suited to each other over the past twenty years.
1 This is as good a place as any to dispel one unavoidable confusion which, with all its many ironies, continues to cast its spell even on those who know better; Schoenberg the composer is not related to Schonberg the critic.
2 What seemed to some in the audience that night a kind of physical decrepitude which almost totally disfigured the pianist's performances, further impressed at least this listener, in the context of a Carnegie Hall concert before thousands of people, as embarrassing and even frightening.