Music critics are an endangered species these days. Once upon a time, though, they acted as emissaries from high culture to the broader public, whether it was on radio shows or in newspapers. In the nineteenth century the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, a foe of Richard Wagner’s, even functioned as a kind of tyrant.
My thoughts on this score (pun intended) were prompted today by stumbling across legendary New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg’s book, The Great Conductors, in a used book store. I fondly remember Schonberg for his crisp prose and tart judgments. He was writing during the golden age of the newspaper, when the time of troubles that currently assails the press, among other businesses, was far off in the distance.
His book prompted me to look up his obituary in the Times, which states that he not only whipped off his reviews with great dispatch but also that, “At the same time, Mr. Schonberg covered the record world as it made the transition from 78 r.p.m. discs to LP's, and after his retirement, in his position as cultural correspondent for The Times, he reviewed compact discs as well. He was not always impressed with technological change. Visitors to his Riverside Drive apartment in recent years were likely to be treated to an afternoon of classic performances on 78's - which he kept in pristine condition - and a demonstration of how CD transfers of the same recordings often failed to capture the warmth and depth of the originals.” At the risk of sounding as repetitive as a Philip Glass piece, I can only say, “Amen.”
Schonberg’s book, by the way, one of many by him, is a treat. It contains numerous anecdotes, but I’ll give you one of the best. He notes that German conductors were famed for expatiating at length about the metaphysical qualities of the symphony at hand. Otto Klemperer apparently went on in this vein to the New York Philharmonic providing, Schonberg reports, “an exegesis of a Beethoven symphony: its meaning, its symbolism, its position in time and space, its Zeitgeist and the importance here of Zusammenspiel [playing together].” As Klemperer went on, Bruno Labat, a short oboist stood up and announced: “Klemp, you talka too much.” The same cannot be said for Schonberg’s illuminating writings.