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Talking of Music by Neville Cardus

Talking of Music (1957)

by Neville Cardus

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  1. 00
    The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: The only post-Shaw musical critic to rival Neville Cardus for sheer brilliance of style and perceptiveness of observation. This is his magnum opus, but The Great Conductors (1967), The Great Pianists (1963, rev. 1987), Facing the Music (1981) and The Glorious Ones (1985) are all highly recommended.… (more)
  2. 00
    Shaw on Music by Bernard Shaw (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: A fine selection of Shaw's writings on music. Judging by his frequent quotes and appreciative portrait, Cardus admired his famous colleague.
  3. 00
    The Language of Music by Deryck Cooke (Waldstein)
    Waldstein: Much more thorough discussion of what Neville Cardus merely hints at in his "Part Four: Tradition and Experiment".

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Neville Cardus

Talking of Music

Macmillan, 1957.

320 pp. Index [pp. 312-20]. PDF copy from Internet Archive.

First published, 1957.


Part One: Conductors and Conducting
Arturo Toscanini
Sir Thomas Beecham at Seventy-five
Sir Malcolm
The Halle Orchestra
The Orchestral Conductor
More About the Conductor

Part Two: Composers
Approaching Mahler
Mahler's Ninth Symphony
Igor Stravinsky
Sibelius at Ninety
Mozart the Unparalleled
Schonberg and Berg
Anton Bruckner
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Of Richard Strauss
- 1. A Few Last Words
- 2. “Cappriccio and Danae”
- 3. Richter and Strauss
- 4. Straussiana
A Note on Berlioz
A Connoisseur Symphony
The Genius of Liszt
Chopin and Pianists
Brahms and the Piano
The Songs of Hugo Wolf

Part Three: About Opera
The Tragic Sense in Carmen
Verdi's Masterpiece
Return to Vienna
Words and Music in Opera
Of British Opera
Let's Make an Opera

Part Four: Tradition and Experiment
“Contemporary” Music
Revolt and Tradition
The Pioneer's Dusty Way
Relative Values
Music and Literature
Music and “Meaning”
Music and Nature
What is a Banal Tune?
Composer and Public
Content and Technique
Fabricated Music

Part Five: English Music
What do the English People Really Sing To-day?
Period Music
The English and Music
Contemporary English
Words and Music

Part Six: Criticising the Critics
Criticism with Humour
The Objective Ear
Criticising the Critics
Shaw as a Music Critic
The Critic and Beethoven
Arthur Johnstone
Erich Hartleibig

A Rare Memory of Gigli (1935)



Neville Cardus (1888–1975) is unjustly forgotten these days. If he is remembered at all, it is because of his infamous remark in the 1930s that Horowitz is “the greatest pianist alive or dead”. Poor Neville was immediately buried under hate mail from fans of Rachmaninoff, Backhaus, Cortot, Petri and Rosenthal. This prompted him to admit that his statement was unfair – to pianists yet unborn.

Largely self-thought and self-made, Cardus developed into one of the most respected music critics far beyond the borders of his native England. And one of the finest prose stylists. He wrote a beautifully crafted prose, vivid, concise, witty and compelling. He is amazingly readable, entertaining and thought-provoking. He could convey the visceral excitement of a concert with shattering force yet without affectation. He could sum up the character and the achievements of the most controversial artists in a few words and without resorting to hero worship or hatched job. He practiced an intuitive and emotional approach to music, sincerely personal and without any objective pretensions à la Newman. He had – and still has – but one rival in the post-Shaw era, and this is of course Harold Schonberg, the chief music critic of the New York Times between 1960 and 1980.

There is no clear indication when these essays were written or first published, but internal evidence (e.g. Furtwängler’s death, Mozart’s bicentenary, Beecham’s 75th birthday) suggests the mid-1950s. As a short note on the copyright page informs us, all of them are based on material that first appeared in the Manchester Guardian. This is as expected, of course. Cardus was the chief music critic there between 1927 and 1940. After the Second World War, which he spent in Australia, he became the paper’s London correspondent. It was no doubt from the pieces written during those years that this book arose. I have not read every piece in it, but I have read most of them. And here is what I have found.

In some respects, Cardus is very much a man of his time. “The Genius of Liszt” is nothing but an abridged version of Ernest Newman’s book-length character assassination.[1] They could still buy this trash in 1957, but today it will not do. This is an exception, though. In many other respects, Cardus was way ahead of his time. He championed Mahler, Bruckner and Richard Strauss when they were far from the staples of standard repertoire that they are today. The portrait of Toscanini is admirably well-balanced, frankly admitting his defects without empty moralising, but not neglecting his considerable merits. Even today, well over fifty years later, it is hard to find something so sensible written about so controversial a figure. The same is true of “Shaw as a Music Critic”, a very sensible appreciation of the legendary Irish iconoclast.

Three other caveats, if not defects, may be mentioned in passing. First, occasionally Cardus can be a little provincial. But then, so was Harold Schonberg. One should think living in such cosmopolitan cities like London and New York would cure people of provincialism, but it seems it doesn’t always work. I do wish Cardus had made fewer references to English musical life that today are only of historical interest, if that. Second, Cardus is sometimes unnecessarily anecdotal. Many of his anecdotes illustrate a point as nothing else can, but others, amusing though they are, look irrelevant. A fine example of the latter comes in the very beginning of “The Orchestral Conductor”, a nice satire of the vain superstars that often occupied, and still do, the rostrum.

The orchestral conductor has to-day usurped the position on the concert platform once occupied by the prima donna; in fact, he might truly be described as the masculine gender of the same collective noun. He is nearly as expensive too, if not as spacious, though not as expensive as the spectacular Italian soprano who came to see Colonel Higgins, then director of Covent Garden. She asked for a colossal nightly fee, and Colonel Higgins said: “But, my dear, I only want you to sing.”

If you want example of an anecdote that illuminates a problem, consider this striking insight into the British prejudice against Otello:

Once I took a revered and scholarly dramatic critic of The Manchester Guardian to a performance of Otello and when he heard the tenor (Otello) and the baritone (lago) baying the moon at the end of Act II, he said to me, in necessarily more than a whisper, “It’s a good thing that not many in the audience know their Shakespeare.”

And third, there are some strange omissions in these essays, most notably Horowitz and Karajan. Considering Cardus’ honoured place in the Horowitzian lore and the frantic activity of Karajan with the London Philharmonia during the 1950s, it’s funny that there should be exactly one mention of them in the whole book. Karajan is mentioned only very briefly in “A Note on Berlioz” (and in the Index, hilariously, as “Theodore” Karajan), but Horowitz appears in a more stimulating context:

The hazards risked by a Horowitz or a Rubinstein are the same as the hazards risked by an accomplished airman. Not temperament but engine-trouble will be the cause of accident, if an accident should occur at all in a thousand flights.

This is from “Chopin and Pianists”. It is notable that when Cardus speaks of composers and works, be it Chopin’s “miniatures” and Brahms’ late piano works or Bizet’s Carmen and Verdi’s Otello or Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (“A Connoisseur Symphony”) and the songs of Hugo Wolf, he is generally in a more expansive and poetic mood than he is when discussing performers, critics or metaphysics. This is, of course, no guarantee for quality (his raving about Verdi’s last two works is just as tiresome as Charles Osborne’s[2]), but much of it is a fruitful soil for random reflection. Consider, for instance, this searing observation on the notorious tempo rubato in Chopin:

Chopin was famous for his treatment of tempo rubato when he played his own compositions, but there is no evidence that he could analyse how he got the effect. It was probably a matter of musical instinct.

This may seem trite and obvious, but it isn’t. It is an extremely perceptive observation with incalculable implications. “A matter of musical instinct” is the key phrase. Just think how many misguided teachers have tried to teach it to how many unfortunate students, usually with disastrous consequences. But tempo rubato cannot be taught, probably not even at a very early age. Just think how many foolish theorists, starting with Belioz and Hallé as Cardus reminds us, have tried to describe and analyse it. But tempo rubato cannot be described and analysed. It’s like originality. If you have it, you show it instinctively without being aware of it. You certainly don’t think or write treatises about it.

“Return to Vienna” is something of an exception, a four-part reportage about the reopening of the Wiener Staatsoper in 1955 where “mingling of opulence, taste, and structural necessity is remarkable.” It is fascinating to see how a “thoroughbred Englishman” incapable of exposing himself to “suspicion of sentimentality” responds to the famous Gemütlichkeit of Vienna. “Mozart the Unparalleled” is another exception, sort of. It is almost as extravagant as its title suggests. It’s a beautiful tribute to the genius, the humanity and the versatility of the great Salzburger. After Shaw and Schonberg, however, I’m afraid it told me nothing I didn’t know already.[3] Still, this is a very charming anecdote, isn’t it?

Hans Richter was once asked to name the composer who, in his opinion was the greatest of them all. Without hesitation he said, “Beethoven, undoubtedly.” The questioner expressed surprise at a reply so positive. “Undoubtedly, Herr Doktor? But I thought you might have considered Mozart.” “Oh,” replied Richter, “I didn't understand that you were bringing Mozart into the argument; I thought you were referring to the rest.”

Cardus passes with flying colours the hardest test of all, the test of indifference. Let it be reminded that indifference is a worse thing than dislike or disagreement. I am no fan of Beecham or Sargent, still less of the “inspired” Furtwängler, but Cardus makes me pay new attention to them. At least in the case of Beecham, whose 1958 recording of the Faust Symphony I have always liked, this new attention may be the beginning of a new friendship. I have never cared much about Bruckner and I have never cared at all about Mahler. Nevertheless, the essays about them are readable and rewarding. English classical music, except to Britons who suffer from musical patriotism, is a very dull subject indeed. And yet, Cardus is intriguing and of more than passing historical significance.

As a disciple of Alan Walker and Deryck Cooke[4], I cannot but fully agree with much of what Neville Cardus says in Part Four, by far the densest in the book, about music as an emotional language impossible to translate into words. Incidentally, Cardus predates both Cooke and Walker, though neither of them seems to have been aware of him. Sometimes, indeed, Cardus sounds uncannily like Cooke. For example, in “Music and “Meaning”” he says:

Music is no more “abstract” than poetry; it is a language in and through which composers have expressed themselves, their conceptions and visions of the world, precisely as Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, Cervantes and Lewis Carroll have expressed theirs. (And, by the way, when a Richard Strauss composes a Don Quixote he is not trying to say all over again in music what Cervantes has said once and for all in words; Strauss is conveying through his own medium his own imaginative experiences, and the pleasure he has had from them while reading Cervantes.)


It is the language of music that is abstract, or removed from life, not necessarily the imaginative content. But we need to learn it, exactly as we need to learn the language of poetry, along with the conventions and procedure epic, lyric, ballade, sonnet and so on. There is nothing imaginative that music cannot express which other arts can express. It simply takes everything into its own world, as poetry does. The difference between “absolute” and “programme” music is most times one of form:
“absolute” and “programme” music are not different because of absence of human argument or expression in the one and the presence of such argument or expression in the other. Let us be short with anybody who tells us there are certain things music may deal with and certain things it may not. As well might a critic of poetry object to epics and insist on nothing but “pure” sonnets as a musician narrow the boundaries of the art to so many “patterns.”

Another similarity between Cardus and Cooke is their (un)qualified dismissal of modernism. Both approved that small part of it which is rooted in the old language but condemned the rest which destroys this very language. Both wrote at the height of the anti-Romantic climate in the 1950s and both had no patience for music as an intellectual, emotionally sterile exercise. In “Revolt and Tradition”, Cardus accuses the young composers of being too “determined to prove they are contemporary”. He notes that the greatest masters from the previous centuries “have seldom paid tribute to the Time Spirit”. They went their own ways and created their own rules, caring little or nothing about external events. Mozart’s greatest music, he says, “is as indifferent to the demands of the Zeitgeist as the novels of Jane Austen.” This is the same as Alan Walker’s theory that music is completely “autonomous”.[5] Later in the same essay, Cardus writes these to my mind profound words:

In music it is not of course easy to point out where a composition is dating; for music cannot really express or convey ideologies or concepts capable of verbal contradiction or approval. Yet there has been an attempt to render a mode of feeling obsolete for the purposes of musical composition; at any rate quite a number of anti-romantic critics are satisfied that romanticism is a form of outmoded emotional expression. Certain styles, certain technical formulae, become in time associated with certain ways of conveying modes of artistic feeling and conception. Every classic, said Stendhal, was a romantic in his day. The danger in all the arts at the present time is the label, the fashion, the drive of the self-conscious schools (for never has the creative artist been rendered by events as self-conscious of his processes as to-day). The critics praise and damn from contemporary and often aesthetically irrelevant points of view.

In “The Pioneer’s Dusty Way”, with his characteristically gorgeous turn of phrase, Cardus continues the attack. It does seem futile to try to paraphrase his words. They are so perfectly put together that only extensive quotation can do them justice:

Authentic Schönberg, which means music by him coming after Verklärte Nacht and Erwartung – authentic atonalism, and the tone-row technique derived from it, have not yet produced music appealing to average intelligent and educated listeners who have passed beyond the years of aesthetic adolescence. This kind of composition has been, in different phases of development or arrangement, before the public some thirty years. There is no mystery about it; at any rate deductions from the basic formula do not go beyond the comprehension of an ordinarily perceptive mathematical understanding. But so far, though the system has attracted an increasing number of contemporary professional and amateur musicians, it remains esoteric and apart from the main stream of general musical appreciation, it is still a close corporation, almost a conspiracy. Would sometimes it were a conspiracy of silence. As Mr. Frank Howes pointed out the other day, atonalism or the serial technique which satisfies “the impulse of construction,” very much and naturally becomes the fashion in a disintegrating period socially, spiritually, and aesthetically. It is easier to construct, to build or add together with factors which can be grasped intellectually and ordered in their sequence by logic, than it is to create, or cause to grow in a traditional soil from seeds of imagination. In other and simpler words, it is easier to be a logician or a mechanic than a poet. The notion of a composer as poet is nowadays old-fashioned. Music criticism seldom nowadays tries – even tries, for the effort is hard and most times doomed to vain failure – to find out if a new composition is “saying” anything of importance to us as thinking and experiencing beings. Contemporary music criticism ends mainly in technical description and analysis. The sterility of it, taking it by and large, is perhaps excusable. For who can tell whether composers using atonalism and the tone-row technique are indeed saying anything at all? The “language” of atonalism and the serial method is not yet formulated into symbolical significance; it has not yet acquired “meanings” or “associations.” Nobody is in a position to claim of a work composed to this formula or system that it is great, good, indifferent, or bad, as a work of art or as a well-composed work of music.


I am all in favour of the tonal and atonal pioneers; good luck to them. We are not living through the first upheaval of the elements from which so mysteriously emerges the singing spheres of music. Some day a genius will relate the “new” language to the “old”; he will find a bridge-passage. The dry or dusty road of the pioneer is for the young and the ingenious, or for those mortals who have been born without the need to mature imaginatively or philosophically. My own personal reluctance to spend much more time with atonalism and the rest than already I have spent is that I have not unlimited years before me now and, more important, experiments of any kind bore me; they do not put into vibration the sense of life that I have developed in a pretty long and arduous experience, human and aesthetic. It is not possible even for a Schonberg to compose a work that means anything to a grown mind while he is working in a musical formula or language not yet spoken by anybody instinctively, and not yet known in its parts of speech well enough to be grasped immediately. Technique, said Wagner, is a matter for the composer's private study and discussion; the public should never hear of it. The musical public at the present time hears of little that is not technical from the multitudinous verbal exponents of the art. It is of course much less difficult to describe and analyse a composition than it is to give an account of it as it has passed through your mind as human being and musician. In the first instance little is needed except some knowledge of the technical set-up. But to try to understand the composition as the composer conceived it calls for the insight which comes, alas, only to few of us, after an accumulation of years and work which in retrospect cause the spirit to quail and the flesh to falter.

Deryck Cooke might have been proud to pen these lines. There is nothing to add to them. They are as wondrously self-contained and finished as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The rest of Part Four deals with very much the same matters. It makes for a tremendously compelling read.

Of course there are things I can’t agree with. For example, “the plain facts of history prove that seldom has the great and abiding composer been a technical innovator” is a claim open to serious debate. It obviously disqualifies Liszt, so I disagree with it; the funny thing is that it rules out Wagner as well. The author’s favourite example for a composer who experimented in new directions at the expense of his posthumous fame is Carl Philip Emanuel Bach. Cardus argues that an artist who is burning to express himself would rather use “a language at hand” than wasting his time in the invention of a new language or new forms. This is a convincing argument, neatly explaining why most of the greatest composers were indeed not technical innovators. There are exceptions, though. Wagner and Liszt, as more or less single-handed inventors of the music drama and symphonic poem respectively, fit in this category. Cardus finishes with one of his finest, and most sobering, references to British music:

The plea in this chapter is for patience on the part of the public with the innovators, and modesty on the part of the innovators and their propagandists as to their value as makers of music. I cannot recall the time when we have not boasted great or important British composers. I have seen them come and go, names as illustrious as those of Britten, Walton, Rubbra, Pricker, Rawsthorne, Bliss to-day; and now they repose alphabetically in the mausoleum of the musical dictionaries. Yet they were highly esteemed by critical intelligences just as acute and, in relation to their particular cultural habitat, just as well informed and sophisticated as the lions of the reviewers of the moment.

“Relative Values” is a fascinating essay in which Cardus reflects on the hypothetical choice between blindness and deafness, in other words between books or music. He firmly chooses books, and so probably would I, but that doesn’t make some of his reasons less ridiculous:

The masterpieces of music are marvellous as the planets are marvellous and the starry universe. And they are as static; they do not acquire fresh significances as we deepen in experience.

This is pure nonsense. First of all, the planets and the stars are not static. Quite to the contrary! They are in constant motion. Cardus says that “books deal directly with life” and declares that music is “limited” compared to the world of “Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Shaw, Proust and P. G. Wodehouse.” (P. G. who?) This is pure nonsense, too. There is no reason, at least I can’t see any, why musical works cannot deal with life and grow on you as you become more experienced. After all, musical works are written by human beings made of the same flesh and blood as writers. Besides, such claims actually contradict the theory of music as language which Cardus clearly embraces in other essays. (“Music is no more “abstract” than poetry” he says in “Music and “Meaning””, see above.) Certainly, the language of music is far more difficult than that of literature, and we are still far away from its complete decoding. But that’s no license to deny its existence – or to blatantly contradict oneself.

Never mind the disagreements. If you have passion for music, especially classical music, I guarantee that Talking of Music by Neville Cardus is one of the best things you can access online for free. Even if you dislike the author and disagree completely with everything he says, a very unlikely but still possible scenario, you can hardly fail to enjoy his masterful prose and delicious sense of humour. Neville Cardus doesn’t have the pungency of Harold Schonberg, the wit of Bernard Shaw or the erudition of Deryck Cooke and Alan Walker. But he can still be read with pleasure and profit. I have barely scratched the surface in this review.


[1] Ernest Newman, The Man Liszt (1934).

[2] Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Verdi (1969).

[3] Harold Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers (3rd edn., 1997), chapter 6; Shaw on Music (1955), ed. Eric Bentley. I would add to this list Deryck Cooke’s introduction to his analysis of Mozart’s 40th symphony in The Language of Music.

[4] Deryck Cooke, The Language of Music (1959); Alan Walker, A Study in Musical Analysis (1962) and An Anatomy of Musical Criticism (1968).

[5] Alan Walker, An Anatomy of Musical Criticism, “Part One: A Solution in Search of a Problem”. ( )
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