Great Composers, Lousy Reviews

When music critics attack.

In the history of music, the glorious and benevolent Kaiser Joseph II is known for one transcendently stupid line. After the Vienna premiere of the comic opera The Abduction From the Seraglio, Joseph observed to its composer: “Too many notes, my dear Mozart!” With that, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire became an enduring symbol of philistine reaction to genius. Mozart’s comeback was not as snappy: “Only as many notes as necessary, Your Majesty.” In the coming years, he would hear more of the same from the press: “impenetrable labyrinths,” “bizarre flights of the soul,” “overloaded and overstuffed.” The guy has too much imagination, connoisseurs agreed; he doesn’t know when to turn it off. In other words: too many notes.

Toward the end of the 18th century, young Beethoven read in the paper that his first published violin and piano pieces were “[s]trange sonatas, overladen with difficulties. … Herr Beethoven goes at his own gait; but what a bizarre and singular gait it is! Learned, learned and always learned and nothing natural, no song.” Beethoven would have read those words with blood boiling. It was fortunate that he did not inhabit the later 19th century, when the art of incendiary reviews reached its golden age.

Those mal mots were gathered by conductor, theorist, and scholar Nicholas Slonimsky in his classic Lexicon of Musical Invective. First published in 1953, the book is still in print. The author himself had caught his share of slings and arrows as a young conductor who was determined to promote what the time called “ultra-modern” music. Now Slonimsky is remembered for premiering important pieces by Edgard Varese and Charles Ives, among others. After too many strange chords scuttled his conducting career, Slonimsky spent decades as a freelance writer, scholar, and theorist. His book on scale forms inspired a generation of jazz musicians, including John Coltrane. In his 90s, he was squired by Frank Zappa. But Slonimsky’s most enduring achievement is the Lexicon, his encyclopedia of umbrage.

Critics got into full cry in the middle of the 19th century, with the advent of Richard Wagner. No composer before or since has inspired so many fanatics, pro and con. People wrote whole books vilifying him. We can give only a short abstract of one example, the rabid fury of one J.L. Klein in his 1871 History of the Drama. His parade of epithets—racist, classist, sexist, species-ist, satanic, and medical—is symptomatic of the time’s wordsmiths when they really, really didn’t like your stuff:

This din of brasses, tin pans and kettles, this Chinese or Caribbean clatter with wood sticks and ear-cutting scalping knives … [t]his reveling in the destruction of all tonal essence, raging satanic fury in the orchestra, this demoniacal lewd caterwauling, scandal-mongering, gun-toting music … the darling of feeble-minded royalty, …of the court flunkeys covered with reptilian slime, and of the blasé hysterical female court parasites … inflated, in an insanely destructive self-aggrandizement, by Mephistopheles’ mephitic and most venomous hellish miasma, into Beelzebub’s Court Composer and General Director of Hell’s Music—Wagner!

These days, people tend to feel that Wagner’s contemporary Chopin wrote nice tunes, but that was not the opinion of one Berlin critic: “In search of ear-rending dissonances, torturous transitions, sharp modulations, repugnant contortions of melody and rhythm, Chopin is altogether indefatigable.” It’s a marvel that Tchaikovsky, given his general self-loathing and neurasthenia, survived the animus that came his way. The most noxious page came from celebrated Wagner-bashing critic Eduard Hanslick, who climaxed one top-to-bottom mauling with, “We see plainly the savage vulgar faces, we hear curses, we smell vodka. … Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto gives us for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear.” Tchaikovsky could recite that review word for word.

Well, everybody liked Brahms, right? In Boston they didn’t. In 1885, the Evening Transcript reported, “It must be admitted that to the larger part of our public, Brahms is still an incomprehensible terror.” Another critic suggested that egresses in the new Boston Symphony Hall should be labeled “Exit In Case of Brahms.” By 1905, Boston seemed to be resigned to him, maybe because now they had Debussy to kick around: “Poor Debussy, sandwiched in between Brahms and Beethoven, seemed weaker than usual. We cannot feel that all this extreme ecstasy is natural; it seems forced and hysterical; it is musical absinthe.”

Wagner survived his critics because 1) he actually was the towering genius he believed himself to be, and 2) he was a tougher and meaner son of a bitch than any of his enemies. With the coming of Wagner disciple Richard Strauss, the nausea of critics reached an almost ecstatic climax, after which, with the arrival of Modernism, the profession gradually lost its edge. I mean, what composer today could boast of anything like this: “Strauss has hitherto reveled in the more or less harmonious exploitation of the charnel house, the grave, and the gnawing worm.” As for his opera after Oscar Wilde, “There is not a whiff of fresh and healthy air blowing through Salome except that which exhales from the cistern. … The orchestra shrieked its final horror and left the listeners staring at each other with smarting eyeballs and wrecked nerves.”

If Slonimsky’s book is any indication, by the time Schoenberg and Stravinsky and their compatriots got Modernism into high gear, the critical profession was beating a weary retreat to sniping distance. The art of invective entered a sad decline. Of Stravinsky’s most shattering work: “He who could write the Rite of Spring,/ If I be right, by right should swing!” He means Stravinsky should be hanged, but never mind. Hardly anybody could do better than that, though regarding Schoenberg there were moments of the old ferocity: “Schoenberg is the cruelest of all composers, for he mingles with his music sharp daggers at white heat, with which he pares away tiny slices of his victim’s flesh. Anon he twists the knife in the fresh wound.” Even Gershwin managed to get a rise once in a while: “An American in Paris is nauseous claptrap, so dull, patchy, thin, vulgar, long-winded and inane, that the average movie audience would be bored by it.”

True, in their early years Schoenberg and Stravinsky inspired the bloodiest riots ever seen in the concert hall. But I think as the 20th century went on, critics’ hearts weren’t really in the grand abuse anymore. I also have a hunch that after Slonimsky published The Lexicon of Musical Invective, critics acquired a collective anxiety about appearing in the next edition. You don’t want, like Joseph II re: Mozart, to be in print as a philistine for the ages.

In the prelude to his Lexicon, Slonimsky arranges his kitchen full of pans into themes: gastrointestinal, animal, anti-Semitic, and so on. And he proposes a general theory of acceptance of the unfamiliar: “It takes approximately twenty years to make an artistic curiosity out of a modernistic monstrosity; and another twenty to elevate it to a masterpiece.”

Therein lies a fundamental shortcoming of the Lexicon. Reading it, one absorbs an impression that actually isn’t the case: that great composers get only bad reviews and are appreciated only after they’re dead. Stepping back from the melee, one discovers that while some splendid composers do take decades to sink in (and Schoenberg never entirely has), more often the true revolutionists of the past were hailed for their imagination, and their most radical pieces were quick to find an audience. Everybody knows about the pandemonium The Rite of Spring provoked at its Paris premiere. Few notice that the screaming had as much to do with Nijinsky’s choreography as the music, and that after a concert performance of the Rite a year later, Stravinsky was carried through the streets of Paris on the shoulders of a cheering crowd. An earlier epochal work, Beethoven’s Eroica symphony of 1803, was greeted by a chorus of incomprehension. But only two years after its premiere, the leading German musical journal declared Eroica “one of the most original, most sublime, and most profound products the entire genre of music has exhibited.” Meanwhile, Slonimsky’s Lexicon encouraged composers in their delusion that scabrous reviews are a badge of honor, that if you aren’t denounced you aren’t any good. When all is said and done, I’d wager that through history the majority of lousy reviews have been bestowed on lousy pieces, but nobody collects the notices of forgotten composers.

Still, Emperor Joseph was a dope, right? Not at all. Joseph was a capable amateur pianist and intimately knowledgeable about music. What he said to Mozart was what everybody said: too effusive, too many notes. The thing is, they were not entirely wrong. Mozart’s operas are full of stunning throwaways. There’s a heart-stopping orchestral eruption in the middle of The Marriage of Figaro that is evoked by nothing but a woman’s name, Marcellina; in the story, there’s no reason for anything nearly that glorious. It drove other composers of the time crazy that Mozart could toss off bits that were more beautiful than anything they ever wrote. (It was the arrival of Beethoven that made Mozart’s notes seem frugal by comparison.)

On the whole, Mozart’s critics viewed him about the same way we do, as an incomparable genius, though not an infallible one. One critic lambasted Don Giovanni for a story that “insults morality, and treads wickedly upon virtue and feeling.” But let’s face it, the opera is on the amoral side. (It’s just that these days, unlike the 18th century, we like amoral.) As for the music, the critic went on, “If ever a nation could take pride in one of her sons, so Germany must be proud of Mozart. … Never before was the greatness of the human spirit so tangible, and never has the art of composition been raised to such heights!” Even some of Mozart’s bad reviews called him the greatest composer who ever lived.

Really, this is a lament for a lost era. The great lousy reviews arose because critics and audiences truly cared about music and its future. Critics were sometimes reactionary, boneheaded, and cockamamie, but music mattered to them. If we no longer enjoy the uproars and the withering screeds of yesteryear, it’s mainly because people no longer care passionately enough about what they hear in the concert hall to want to murder somebody over it.