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Facing the Music by Harold C. Schonberg

Facing the Music (1981)

by Harold C. Schonberg

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Harold C. Schonberg

Facing the Music

Summit Books, Hardback, 1981.

8vo. 464 pp. First Edition. Introduction by the author [pp. 13-37].



PART I - Criticism
A Search For Truth
Enough ''Constructive Criticism'' Already
Why a Critic Follows the Score
A Critic Reflects on Forty-four Years
In the Business

PART II - Performance Practice
Artistic Suicide
Performing Bach En Masse
But Would Bach Play It Like This?
About Virtuosity
A Matter of ''Authenticity''
Of Purists and Purity
On Trills and Other Ornaments
Modern Literalism and Repeats
Romanticism and the Modern Mind
Then Miss Bingley Sat at the Pianoforte
All Those Smart Kids, Where Is Their Individuality?
Yes, the Artist Can Disagree With the Composer
Two Critics, Two Opinions - But a Bit of Common Ground
The Search for Romanticism

PART III - Composers
Mahler's Mystic Ninth
Scriabin: That Marvelous, Sensuous Mystic
Ives: Complex and Yet Simple
Grieg: Once Popular, Now Faded
Mozart et Pere: Is An Analysis Needed?
Mozart's Son - Perhaps That Name Was Too Much For Him
How Koczwara Came to a Grievous End at Miss Hill's House
Ives: Compulsiveness, Complexity, Dissonance and Power
Liszt: A Seminal Force of Romanticism
Copland: He Wanted To Reach Us
Scott Joplin: A Real Composer With Something To Offer
Even Rossini's ''Sins'' Aren't Serious
Max Reger: Better Than His Notices
No One's Laughing at Percy Grainger Anymore
Did Beethoven Ever Find a Piano That Made Him Happy?
Sousa, Father Of the Big Brass Band
Gottschalk and His Monstrous Concert

PART IV - Contemporary Music
And End in Itself
Where Are the Young Composers?
The Failures of Contemporary Composition - Again
The Future of the Symphony
Boulez Trips Up Downtown

PART V - Opera
The Easy Way Out: Translations
Rudolf Bing: A Leader or a Follower?
''L'Amico Fritz'': A Sweet, Simple Thing
When Jazzing Up Opera Becomes Vandalism
A Bayreuth ''Ring'' that Alarmed the Old Guard
Opera Is in the Air - And It Has a Most Familiar Ring
Meyerbeer, Once the Most Idolized Opera Composer
Don't Sneer At Puccini's Horse Opera
Awaiting the Complete ''Lulu''
Why Isn't a Musical Comedy an Opera?

PART VI - Singers and Singing
Renata Tebaldi: A Prima Donna Who Doesn't Act Like One
The Big Voice and the Big Temperament of Leonard Warren
Of Wagnerian Sopranos
A Decline in Performance
A Farewell to the Old Metropolitan Opera House
The Death of Mary Garden
The Goddess that Was Geraldine Farrar
Alas, No More Castratos
There Was Nothing Like the Ponselle Sound, Ever
The Heldentenor Species Died With Melchior

PART VII - Piano
An Evaluation of Sviatoslav Richter
The Rubinstein Touch
Did Rachmaninoff Collaborate With God?
Rudolf Serkin: In Pursuit of an Ideal
Josef Hofmann: The Greatest Pianist of His Time
How Sex Plays a Role at the Piano

PART VIII - Conductors
Bernstein and the Aura of Show Business
Karajan Is Apollo, Solti Is Dionysus
Summing Up the Boulez New York Era
Barbirolli and Szell: Almost Opposing Paths to Parnassus

PART IX - Miscellany
The Summer Concerts of Minnie Guggenheimer
Presenting Sol Hurok, Impresario
Pawns, Rooks and Notes
Music Over Works
Withdrawal Symptoms
The Man of Avon and the Music of His Time
Elementary, My Dear Watson
Phantom of the Opera
Jiggery-Pokery, Musical Jokery
What Would Bach Have Had for Christmas?
The Story of Santa - and His Awful Symphony
How To Manipulate a Musician - or Even a Politician
Will a Hundred Composers Bloom?
Elitism, in the Arts, is Good




Facing the Music is just another book of Harold Schonberg which is simply priceless for his dedicated fans – of which company am I – but may well be infuriating for those who are not. Mr Schonberg always was a strongly opinionated man, admitted as much, and defended his opinions with brilliant intelligence, vast experience, stupendous erudition and compelling writing style – fascinating combination that you're not likely to find in any other music critic. At the same time, for those who have no idea who Harold Schonberg was, but are greatly interested in classical music history, Facing the Music is the perfect introduction to the man who served as senior music critic of the New York Times for 20 years (1960–80). During his tenure one of Mr Schonberg's duties was to provide the Sunday column in which, in his words, critics are expected to be ''philosophers, wits, scholars, entertainers and newspapermen'' – all this in 1500 words. The remarkable thing is that more often not Harold Schonberg succeeds brilliantly in this seemingly impossible task. The nine parts of Facing the Music are comprised almost entirely of these pithy, perceptive and provocative pieces. Between October 1960 and July 1980 Harold Schonberg used to write about 45 Sunday columns per year, altogether about 1000 columns or 1,3 million words. Very few of these are idle.

Perhaps the most remarkable part of Facing the Music is the Introduction. It is much longer, almost 25 pages, than any other Harold Schonberg ever wrote and in addition to the contents of the book it also introduces its author. To the best of my belief, nowhere else did Mr Schonberg write more about himself in terms of biography and career. As in all writings about singers, pianists, conductors and composers, when writing about himself as a critic Harold Schonberg is above all candid, amusing and altogether a real treat to read. He narrates rather charmingly how he discovered at an early age that he had ''a strange sort of disease", namely that he always had music in his head; while doing his military duty he would march to Chopin's E minor Concerto (a very good marching music, he convinces us) until the drill sergeant roared: ''Schonberg! You're bobbing in ranks!'' The author honestly confesses that he never amounted to much as a pianist but he wanted to be a critic since childhood. This may seem a trifle incredulous, but Mr Schonberg's career backs it up more than nicely. He wrote his first review while still in college and continued to evaluate performances, recordings, careers, styles, traditions and revolutions for more than 40 years, meanwhile becoming the first music critic ever to receive the Pulitzer prize (1971).

In short, the Introduction is a fascinating, humorous and revealing self-portrait of Harold Schonberg, his career as a musical critic and his professional credo. It also contains some charmingly dated bits of history. The most delightful of these is Mr Schonberg's claim that they didn't have enough computer terminals at work – in the New York Times (!), but also in 1981 when the ''gadgets'' were quite new. Less than 30 years later it is really hard to believe that there ever was a time when computers were new and scarce, but that really seems to have been so. Mr Schonberg's stories how he, chasing the usual deadline, pushed the wrong button and then couldn't retrieve the damned thing at all, or how compulsive users like himself used to get early at work to secure a terminal, make for a tremendously amusing read, no matter how dated they may seem today. The astonishing thing is that very few of Mr Schonberg's musical writings have become dated at all.

It is idle to pretend that the main part of what makes Harold Schonberg so compelling to me is not the fact that we completely agree on a good many subjects, though by no means everything. Even when I simply cannot accept some of Mr Schonberg's opinions and judgments, I can't be angry with him; he always remains a pleasure to read; moreover, far more often than not indeed, he has a point and he defends his views in a most impressive way. Another thing that makes Mr Schonberg's writing highly appealing is that he has a genuine passion for music – no, this is not so often the case with music critics as you might think. Occasionally, he can go a little overboard or his writing might smack of chauvinism, but in either case that does not seem to matter at all. The same is true for those very few pieces in Facing the Music which are rather startling with their triteness and even inanity. Of course there are some that easily fall in that category – Jiggery-Pokery, Musical Jokery, The Story of Santa – and His Awful Symphony, How Koczwara Came to a Grievous End at Miss Hill's House, to name but three of the most striking examples – but they are so much in the minority that it is a total lack of common sense to denigrate the whole basket because several rotten apples. It is indeed strange that Mr Schonberg chose to reprint these pieces in such an anthology, surely he must have had better ones, but he himself is the first to admit that at one time he was reprimanded for using the pages of the Times for such puerility (his word, not mine).

The majority of these 85 pieces, however, not only have an extraordinary completeness considering that almost none of them is longer than a few pages, but they also contain a huge amount of fascinating facts and stirring, thought-provoking reflections. Together with the charming titles every piece is preceded by a little note by the author explaining what it is about and how it came to be written as well as how the author's opinion changed since then. The diversity of subjects is enormous but a few main themes can easily be outlined.

One of the most enchanting aspects in Harold Schonberg's writing is that he never makes any pretence about objectivity, nor does he make any bones about anything or anybody he firmly disagrees with. He never had any of the presumptuous and high-handed illusions that so many other musical critics do have, and often to an appalling degree. Modernist stagings and opera sung in translation, contemporary music and the serialism vogue, the literalism in performance practice that accepts the printed note as a sacred cow, its holy grails Urtext, period instruments and the like are some of the tendencies in classical music during the last half a century or so that Mr Schonberg firmly stands against. He has a number of valuable arguments, all of them rooted in his awesome erudition and experience.

The modernistic crap that reigns supreme in most opera houses today – if anything, the situation has only become worse since the days in which Mr Schonberg wrote – grossly misrepresents the spirit of the works written in very different time, and why on earth should they be brought to the XX century at all, especially at the expense of hideous stagings? As for translations, not only do they misrepresent the musical values, but are useless since not much of them is understood by the audience. At any rate, Mr Schonberg is positive that those who are not prepared to spend a trifle sum for a libretto and take a good look at it before a performance might just as well stay away from the opera house.

The eminent music critic is even harsher when it comes to contemporary music and the so called serialism that enjoyed such popularity – among professionals only! – at that time. Not even one serial work has entered the standard repertoire, and that after all is the only important criteria. What is more, serialism created for the first time in music history a chasm between the composers and the audience. Harold Schonberg had absolutely no doubt that the fault was in the composers, not in the public – and he said so. He is also quite convincing that Schoenberg and the New Viennese School, for all the musical revolution they might have made, were actually a dead end rather than a new beginning. I presume ardent admirers of Pierre Boulez shouldn't read the several pieces dedicated to him, since the Frenchman is dismissed with contumely both as a conductor (including his tenure as boss of the New York Philharmonic) and as a composer. Lovers of Patrice Chereau might also be outraged by Mr Schonberg's negative attitude to the famous (and perverse!) 1976 staging of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen in Bayreuth, but for my part I never admire the author more than in those chapters. In another Sunday column Mr Schonberg readily confesses that operas can be staged in a modern way using a technical facilities that the composers didn't have at the time of composition but would surely have welcomed – but within reasonable limits and in the spirit of the work. He flatly calls the modernistic approach to opera staging ''vandalism''. And damn right he is.

The big, controversial and inexhaustible issue of performance practice has always been one of Harold Schonberg's favourite topics. It is no accident that it has a special section in Facing the Music which is one of the largest in the book. And one of the best as well. A musical Romantic par excellence at heart, it is no surprise that Mr Schonberg should lash out (but in a most exquisite style) at the age of literalism, the printed note as sacred and untouchable, and all that nonsense about the architectural structure of the works and the composers' intentions that leaves far behind the emotional content of the music – and that's what meant most to artists, be they singers, conductors or pianists, who were raised in the so-called Romantic tradition of performance. Incidentally, or not, this sad transformation of performing practice was most pronounced among Harold Schonberg's specialty – pianists.

Again and again, the author of Facing the Music repeats – and has repeated in his other books – that the printed note is not the end but the beginning of an interpretation, that the meaning of music lies behind the notes and not in them, that music on the printed page means nothing since it needs an artist to bring it to life, that most great composers were also great performers who gave, nay even expected, a great deal of freedom from the musicians who interpreted their music, and so on, and so on. In the end Mr Schonberg is unusually modest that all that might have done some good, at least the modern literal-minded musicians who tend to sound dreadfully alike have some idea that there is another way to interpret the music of the great masters. Alas, Romantic performance practice is long since dead, pianists like Vladimir Horowitz and Jorge Bolet, who died in 1989 and 1990 respectively, were perhaps their last exponents.

Mr Schonberg also makes a strong case against the rigid, lifeless and dead boring performances not only of Romantic, but of Baroque music too, stating that Bach was always searching for the so called Affekt, that is the emotional content of the music rather than its structural integrity. He points out a number of times that Bach and the other Baroque masters were people of flesh, blood and nerves, so it is inconceivable that they should have approved the intolerable tediousness of their modern interpreters. He also questions in a rather effective way the vogue for period instruments and small ensembles arguing that many great composers had to manage with poor orchestras and instruments that most probably did not have anything to do with their wishes how their music should be performed.

Almost three decades after Facing the Music was published, it is sadly obvious that the words of Harold Schonberg did not reach many a musician's heart. The horrible anonymity of performance, if that's possible, has only got worse, occasionally spiced up with a ''Romantic performer'' who thinks, quite wrongly, that Romantic performance practice is a kind of artistic anarchy. Sad but true.

Performance practice is a compelling topic, but it is by far not the only one that deserves attention in Facing the Music. Virtually every part of the book has a great deal to offer if the reader happens to be a classical music lover eager to widen his spiritual horizon. Even the parts about composers and pianists, which consist mostly of material that appears also in Harold Schonberg's The Great Pianists and The Lives of the Great Composers, have a lot of entertainment as well as something new to offer. The pieces about the relationship between Mozart and his father and the wonderfully concise evaluation of Liszt's unique place in the XIX century music make a great read no matter how many times I have read them already. Speaking of Mozart, there is one really fascinating essay about Mozart's sons, one of whom was even a composer, and a talented one at that, but the name of his father was probably too much for him – his tragedy was that he knew it. The section about pianists also contains several pieces that bear a good deal of re-reading with unflagging interest, most notably a fine appreciation of the art of Arthur Rubinstein and another tribute to one of Mr Schonberg greatest idols on the keyboard: Sergei Rachmaninoff. The section dedicated to singers is one of the highlights of the book, too. The essays about Renata Tebaldi and Leonard Warren are nothing short of outstanding. How in so short a space could Harold Schonberg achieve so fine a balance between biography, career, repertoire, voice characteristics, gossip about fees, psychological insight and evaluation of their in place in the history, is well beyond me.

Furthermore, Harold Schonberg easily passes all negative tests. Even when completely lost in adulation and hero worship – and neither is my cup of tea in general – as he is in the pieces about Lauritz Melchior and Rosa Ponselle for instance, Mr Schongerg remains as delightful as ever. So does he even when some positively nationalistic and chauvinistic tendencies crawl into his writing – as in that beautifully written and immensely affecting farewell to the old Metropolitan house. Even when Mr Schonberg writes about something altogether outside the world of music, he is a pleasure to read all the same, my personal favourites in this category being “Pawns, Rooks and Notes” which discusses the other great passion of the author – chess (and the almost Schubertian modulation of Bobby Fischer, by the way) – and “What Would Bach Have Had for Christmas?” which is entirely dedicated to the Christmas cuisine during the time of the old Johann Sebastian. Silly word games or songs dedicated to cigarettes and smoking, whatever Harold Schonberg writes about he does it well. He is not always at his best of course – only the mediocre is, anyway – but not even one of these 85 pieces could I find unreadable or unbearably tedious, whatever the inanity of the subject may sometimes be. That's saying a great deal.

Finally, of course, the most severe test is when one disagrees with somebody. The most significant point where Mr Schonberg's tastes and mine differ considerably is Herbert von Karajan, since I am a self-confessed and unabashed admirer of the great maestro from Salzburg. Harold Schonberg flatly states that Georg Solti's musicianship is more appealing to him, but he admits that Karajan is one of the most supreme technicians and, rather touchingly, that he wished he'd had more sympathy with his interpretations. He may not like Karajan, but he is certainly no Karajan basher. Now that is something you seldom find, especially in a music critic.

When all is sad and done, the most important thing about Harold Schonberg's writing is that he always has something to say and, no matter how controversial that may be, he says it lucidly and eloquently, wittily but not flippantly, frankly but without false pretences. He always forces his readers to think – from the first sentence of the Introduction all the way until the end. The last piece in the book, incidentally, is one of most profound and penetrating essays I have ever read, together with the candid “Envoi” it forms a very suitable coda to the volume.

I suppose many people might find “Elitism, in the Arts, is Good” snobbish and even be appalled by it, but for my part it is extremely thought-provoking as well as brilliantly written piece. It is indeed funny how it reminds me of one of Somerset Maugham's favourite notions – culture and appreciation of art are very difficult things to achieve, but all the more beneficial if one could succeed completely in achieving them. The real function of art is to make people better, to improve their character. If it does that it may safely be called ''great'', no matter that the philistines would prefer descriptions like ''elitism'' and ''snobishness'' doubtless in a most derogatory sense. If it doesn't, though, it is no more than opium for the weak, for those who lack the determination to make something out of their lives. But if it does, Harold Schonberg argues quite convincingly, it is elitist in itself, just as every great composer (for example) who changed the history of music was an elitist by definition. To communicate at least to some extent with the mind of a genius, one must toil hard for years to acquire what is usually and over-simplistically called ''culture'', especially if one didn't have the advantage of the appropriate family background. But if one finally manages to acquire the knowledge, the understanding and the sensitivity to repeat, at least in part, the spiritual quest of a Beethoven or a Michelangelo, one's personality is sure to reach another level of life and living, and a much higher at that. Harold Schonberg was one such man.

At the end of this rambling, here is the bottom line. You are fan of Harold Schonberg and you haven't yet read Facing the Music? Read it! You have no idea who on earth Harold Schonberg was, but you are seriously interested in classical music? You really ought to read Facing the Music. Your most serious foray into classical music ends with ''100 Classical Hits''? You had better not read that book. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Mar 31, 2010 |
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