Why Music Critics Disagree
Critics disagree. It is not important nor perhaps even desirable that they cease doing so. Rather, it is important that they and their readers understand why they do so. Disagreements stemming from stupidity or ill-will on the part of one of the disputants are easy to identify. So, usually, are disagreements stemming from differing critical standards. What are harder to identify are disagreements stemming from differing attitudes as to what is important, what is useful, what is valuable, attitudes which we will go to great lengths not just to avoid evaluating but to avoid even facing.
A music critic is anyone who makes a value judgment, overtly or covertly, about music. Even if we exclude, as we shall, composers reflecting on their own compositions and performers reflecting on their own performances, we are still left with more than the person who writes concert and record reviews. We are left with anyone who makes up a listening list, who teaches a course in music, who writes a paper on a musical subject, who disagrees with that paper. We are left, in short, with virtually the entire readership of this journal.
Critics disagree primarily because they are not talking about the same thing, even when the event or the name on the cover is the same. They are talking about different aspects of music, different kinds of values, different levels of response to those values. Those familiar with the writings of George Boas will recognize many of his concepts in what follows and some of his terminology and organization. This is because I find in his A Primer for Critics1 more common sense about criticism than in any writing on music I have read.
Music involves both a process and a product, and both can legitimately be the focus of criticism. The process is the act of composing or performing. It refers to the technique of the composer in manipulating his materials and to his imagination in using these skills. It refers as well to the performer's motor skills and to the conception in the service of which he puts these skills. This process is called artistry.
The product is the piece of music itself, which may be in the form of a written score, an ephemeral performance or a permanent recording of that performance. Whether a score is really music or simply a recipe for making music is academic, for scores are studied and evaluated as if they were music, often quite independent of their sound in performance. Indeed, the assertion that the performer should be true to the score indicates that there are many who feel that the score is a true representation of the composer's intentions.
Whether or not a performance is a true representation of a performer's intentions is less certain. We can assume that it is, whereupon we evaluate the piece we hear, or we can assume that the performer's conception is the same as ours, whereupon we evaluate how well he achieves that conception. Improvised music, including jazz, poses special critical problems, for composition and performance are taking place nearly simultaneously, and it is often difficult to separate the two.
Value refers to the satisfaction of an interest, a want, or a need. What these interests, wants, or needs might be is sketched further along as standards of criticism. Suffice it to say that if artistry or a work of art satisfies a desire, it is said to be good. Something may be good in itself, in which case it is said to have terminal value, or something may be good because of what it leads to, in which case it is said to have instrumental value.
The artistry of the composer has instrumental value insofar as it produces successful compositions, either from his point of view or from ours. That this same artistry may have terminal value is best demonstrated by the amateur composer, who rarely reaps any other benefit from this activity. Even for the professional, composing is a tedious occupation, and he could probably find a much easier way of making a living, if that were all that composing did for him.
A composition may have either terminal or instrumental value, or it may have both, and the value may change with time. During the Renaissance, composers were artisans, and most music was Gebrauchsmusik. Though we presume that Palestrina felt good about the masses he wrote, it is doubtful that he would have continued to write them in the same style had not the Council of Trent also found them useful for enhancing the liturgy. The masses still contain the features that gave them high instrumental value in their own time; critics today, on the other hand, find terminal value as well in many of those same features: clarity of line, consistency of dissonance treatment, equality of voices, and so forth. These masses have found their way to the concert stage, whereas masses which did little more than enhance the liturgy, such as those of Perosi and Pietro Yon, have been all but forgotten since Vatican II.
The distinction between terminal and instrumental values is one which produces a lot of critical disagreement, and for that reason it will be developed a bit further. There was an attitude not so long ago toward Gebrauchsmusik that anything useful—anything with instrumental value, anything that was commercially successful, sometimes even anything that people liked—was incapable of having terminal value, the only valid value for critics of this bent. There was no inclination to take the masses of Perosi or the marches of Sousa or the movie scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold seriously: the demonstrated utility of these works certified their lack of potential terminal value. Conversely, a mass, march, or movie score by Stravinsky, a unanimously acclaimed composer, would be preferable, although recent history has not necessarily confirmed this.
The value, terminal or instrumental, of the work of art is irrelevant to the instrumental value of the artistry. The fact that Stravinsky's score for The Moon Is Down2 was unusable is not an indictment of Stravinsky's technique, for it produced Four Norwegian Moods, which was apparently more what he had in mind. Moreover, the terminal value of the artistry is irrelevant to its instrumental value. No matter how sincere the members of a service club are about singing the National Anthem, and no matter how good they feel about it afterward, they are never going to produce a result comparable to that of the Robert Shaw Chorale. A composer may be extremely exhilarated by creating a tone row in which each successive trichord is a permutation of the first, or by working L'homme armé into a mass texture; the listener may be totally bored by the result.
Terminal values cannot be measured objectively, as can instrumental values. Rather, they must be measured in terms of the personal, individual interests they satisfy. We have not as yet been able to show that terminal value is rooted in the organized sounds or organized symbols of music. Certain critics find elegance in serialism and confusion in aleatoric music. Others find serialism hopelessly dull but are excited by the unpredictability of indeterminancy. It would be arrogant for Xenakis to tell Cage that elegance is more desirable than excitement, and it would be patronizing for Cage to tell Xenakis that he was not in fact confused or that he had no right to be confused. We are still a long way from identifying universal, eternal standards of terminal values, as well as from the unanimous acceptance of any one set, in spite of propaganda, education, or repression of competing standards.
A third distinction, one which will not be developed, is that of the point of view: both artistry and works of art can be judged from the point of view of the artist and from that of the listener or analyst. This is the distinction which produces the argument over art for art's sake and over self-indulgent artistry. It becomes an issue because composers imagine, or at least hope, that listeners will get out of a piece what the composer puts in, and critics presume that what they get out of a composition is what the composer put in. For example, Debussy introduced "Ein' feste Burg" into his two-piano work En blanc et noir. At the time of the first World War, this melody probably brought a tear to the eye or a snarl to the lip of many a Frenchman; today it brings, at most, a smile to the lips of most college students. Depending on trends in church-going, it may soon bring no response at all. En blanc et noir may continue to be an enjoyable piece, both to play and to hear, but not for the same reasons.
To summarize what has been said so far, music may be a process or a product; value may be instrumental or terminal; and the point of view may be either that of the artist or that of the observer. Critics disagree to the extent that they focus on different combinations of these aspects. Preoccupation with the instrumental value of artistry produces what is called technical criticism; Perspectives of New Music abounds with this as it relates to composers and compositions, High Fidelity as it relates to performers and performances. Preoccupation with the instrumental value of compositions produces utilitarianism, which is what is found in the reviews in The American Music Teacher and the various state MEA journals. Preoccupation with terminal values, especially of compositions, produces formalism, which is what most journalistic criticism is, especially that of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It should come as no surprise, then, that there are many valid answers to the question, "How good is Madama Butterfly?"
STANDARDS OF CRITICISM
A critic adopts and maintains standards insofar as certain things are important to him. He cannot become excited by something that does not excite him, though he may try to assert that something is unexciting, even if someone else is excited by it. Amateur critics are, for the most part, unaware even of the possibility of existence of differing sets of values—ours are the only ones that a sane, much less educated person could have. Professional critics are aware of other values but do not as a rule consider them serious.
A critic of the instrumental value of artistry usually bases his evaluation on what he thinks a composer was trying to do or on what he thinks a composer ought to have been trying to do. He is probably ignorant of and indifferent toward what the composer thought he was achieving, or under what restrictions he may have been writing. But the artistry of compositions is constantly changing, for compositions are performed as well as studied. Pitch rises, flutes are substituted for recorders, women are substituted for boys and for castrati, allegro gets faster, intimate compositions are performed in large halls by large ensembles, long compositions are cut, hard compositions are simplified, all to the relief of certain practicalists and all to the chagrin of certain purists. There is, to be sure, Mussorgsky's score to Pictures at an Exhibition, but we can't hear score. What we can hear is Richter's version; Bernstein's version of Ravel's version; Tomita's version; Emerson, Lake and Palmer's version; Erik Leidzen's version; and the big notes for little fingers version. Is there a definitive Pictures which existed in Mussorgsky's head and which has never been heard? Or are there as many Pictures as there are people who play them, each with its own unique artistry, which is then subject to criticism?
A hard purist line, one which demands that the performer submit himself totally to the score, would produce no performances at all or else a series of automatons, each one reproducing the one definitive performance. A hard practicalist line would produce anarchy, a series of dissimilar compositions connected only by the same name. Since these two points of view cannot be completely assimilated into one performance practice, what is the result? Disagreement.
Just as the same piece of music can be subjected to various artistries in performance, so can the same species of artistry be directed toward differing goals. Singers sing, one presumes, in order to make beautiful music, but the critic who maintains that this is the only valid goal for singing and evaluates all singing from that attitude is going to generate a lot of controversy. Members of civic organizations sing to develop esprit de corps; children sing in recitals to gain poise; pulmonary patients sing to build up their lungs; truckers sing to alleviate the tedium of a long trip. What is the proper purpose for singing? A child appears on the stage for the first time and actually gets all the way through her piece without stopping; the success of that artistry is surely going to be assessed differently by the child's mother than by the critic for the New York Times. If this seems an idle or simple issue, ask the applied music faculty at any music school right after jury examinations how easy it is to evaluate performances of students in different majors and different concentrations.
With regard to works of art, considerations of instrumental values can be reduced to two aspects: economic and propaganda. Compositions and their performance support, to varying degrees, composers, publishers, performers, their managers, even their critics. Although one cannot be certain whether music would advance very quickly if this were the only consideration, one doubts whether a composition that engages no one—that no one will buy, no one will play, and no one will listen to—is likely to have much effect on the future course of the art. It has been suggested that music would be purer if the composer and performer could be freed from the pressure of pleasing a patron or pleasing the public. But what influential composer was either independently wealthy or supported by a totally uncritical patron? Monteverdi? Haydn? Wagner? Prokofiev? The modern university has come about as close as anything to providing this risk-free environment, and I cannot say that it has resulted in a flood of masterpieces. Nor am I so sanguine as to think that governmental support would be any better. I am not encouraged by the results of the benevolent patronage of Sibelius or Grieg, but I am discouraged by the repertoire of the service bands. Public taste turns out, in the long run, not to be such a bad judge after all; it separated Carl Reinecke from Brahms, C.P.E. Bach from his father, and it may eventually separate MacDowell from Charles Ives.
Music is also used for propaganda, in the sense of spreading ideas or of influencing behavior. An 18th-century drinking song became our national anthem; Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is used to sell wine. The later works of Shostakovitch probably make a statement about Communism, but whether the statement relates to its successes or its failures depends on whom you read. Critics disagree as to whether music ought to be involved in business or in politics; that music is so involved is beyond dispute.
Disagreements over instrumental values are usually expressed in terms like naive, trivial, irrelevant, or perverse. Disagreements over terminal values call up terms like insensitive, prejudiced, or stupid. One cannot maintain that a piece of music ought to contain certain features simply because it does contain those features. One cannot maintain that a good symphony is one like Beethoven's simply because Beethoven's symphonies are good.
Our assessment of terminal values takes place on either of two levels, which may be called liking and approbation. The reasons for liking are mostly psychological, and we are usually unaware of what they are. I like Erich Wolfgang Korngold; my colleague likes Telemann; and my children like Steely Dan. I don't like Peter Schickele; my colleague doesn't like atonal music; and my children don't like any classical music at all, except one daughter, who, for some reason, likes Handel.
Approbation, on the other hand, comes from the perception of order in a composition, from the discovery of the rules that are being followed, from an awareness of the difficulties that are being overcome. This is the level on which most of us like to think we are functioning and on which we usually make our evaluations. We can admire Ockeghem's Missa Prolationum or Beethoven's late string quartets without really liking the way they sound; there are those who would include these works in a music history survey and then gladly pass up an opportunity to sit through them. Our whole philosophy of music appreciation pedagogy is based on the assumption that increased understanding will lead to increased liking. We prepare listening lists on the basis of our approbations, whereas we purchase records and tickets on the basis of our likes.
There are, to be sure, many works—we call them masterpieces—which we both love and admire. There are also pieces which engage neither our mind nor our gut; these we call trash. But there is a lot of closet liking and disliking going on, generating a lot of guilt. How can you actually like Gilbert and Sullivan? What do you mean, you don't like Webern's Piano Variations? Claiming that the appeal of Gilbert and Sullivan is the perception of the subtle way in which Sullivan merged the styles of Handel and Bellini is called rationalization. Claiming that we like Webern when what we really do is admire his serial technique is called hypocrisy. When making statements about terminal values, it is important to realize the level of response from which we are speaking.
There is a temptation to try to rank terminal values. To a large segment of the population, spiritual values are the highest. To many of us in education, intellectual values rank highest. To others, emotional values are the highest. The answer to the question, "Why are intellectual values the highest?" will probably be convincing only to those who already agree with us anyway, so it is futile to ask the question. We reveal a great deal about ourselves and about our priorities through our criticism, and we usually agree with those whose priorities we have determined to be about the same as ours. This, then, is the essential authority of criticism: in the area of terminal values, it is binding only on people like ourselves.
Having mentioned these characteristics of terminal values—liking and approbation—let us now see where they might be found in a piece of music. A musical composition is, after all, an extremely complicated structure, and any of the parts, individually or in combination, may at any one time be the object of our attention. One of the reasons for repeatedly listening to the same piece is to have the opportunity each time to concentrate on a different aspect. These aspects are not listed in any suggested order of importance; no one can substantiate that any one is more important than any other.
One may focus on the sounds themselves. There are those who simply love the sound of violin; there are those who simply cannot abide the sound of the band. Though the response is usually one of liking, it can approach approbation when, for example, one finds in the sound of the organ reminders of the liturgy, or in the sound of the shakuhachi the wind rushing over a bamboo field.
Sounds in combination produce rhythm, the interplay of timbres, textures, even musical form. Although many of these are enjoyed below the reflective level, technological criticism attempts to explain the terminal values of this aspect. It is, in fact, one of the delusions of many theorists that they have evaluated a piece of music when they have identified the form or traced the serial source of every note in a piece. This is, one might say, analysis masquerading as criticism.
Some works are loved or despised on the basis of their subject matter; this is true of programmatic works and of most vocal music, including operas. Contemporary critics doubted that the public would ever accept so depraved a story as Salomé. Those who are against war and its horrors are apt to find value in any anti-war piece, be it by Penderecki, Britten, or Joan Baez.
The meaning contained in a work may be the focus of liking or approbation. Such meaning may be literal, as in a song; it may be overtly symbolic; or it may be hidden. The music of Wagner means Nazi Germany to many, and for that reason can never be the object of liking. This does not, of course, preclude its being the object of approbation, but for completely different reasons. Since Gounod's time, certain kinds of arpeggiated passages mean Ave Maria and, by extension, religion in general. As a result, Moonlight Sonata and Colour My World both may have religious overtones. Approbation results when the message must be figured out. Schering was able to figure out that Beethoven's String Quartet, Op. 130, is about A Midsummer Night's Dream. He was, in fact, able to tell that Grosse Fuge never belonged to Op. 130, for Grosse Fuge is about Faust.
Since compositions, compositional processes, and performances have their source in some human being, they can tell us something about that artist or about the social or economic class to which he belongs. Male chauvinists find all compositions by women lacking in sustained inspiration;3 pious people find all compositions by priests inherently good.
A composition or its artistry may tell us about an entire historical period. The balance of voices in a Palestrina motet is seen as a reflection of humanism, of the equality of all men before God. The ornamentation in Couperin's keyboard works might be a manifestation of a society preoccupied with intricate design. The avant-garde music of the 1920s is seen as a reflection of the social, political, economic and artistic disorder following World War I.
Finally, some works are treasured because of their relation to some emotional, moral, religious or economic need we once had. When I was depressed, you played for me, and what you played will always have a special place in my heart.
The observer may find terminal value in both artistry and in works of art. There is a pleasure, both to the listener and to the analyst, in following the unfolding of a sonata-allegro form. All of us who have ever tried to write a canon are impressed by Bach's victory over the problems in the Goldberg Variations. Those of us who are also familiar with the performance problems of this work—problems both technical and musical—receive an additional pleasure when we hear it played well. There are works which, on first encounter, seem to have no logic. Should we ever hear the work again, we might experience the joy of discovering the rules the composer was following, or we might experience frustration, expressed as ridicule, should those rules never reveal themselves.
We are sometimes cautioned to let a composition speak for itself. That means, I think, that we are to approach a work in isolation, not in relation to the artist, not in relation to its meaning, not in relation to the technical processes contained in it, not in relation to any of the aspects mentioned above. Unfortunately, when a work is so isolated, there seems to be nothing left, at least nothing for which we have any vocabulary for discussing. This is unfortunate particularly for the critic, but it serves to emphasize the integrity and autonomy of musical composition as a means of expression separate from literary composition.
Appended to this article (Appendix A) are a number of reactions to Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Though all the statements are hypothetical, they are all plausible, and in their totality they represent the subtle ways in which the various aspects referred to above may interact. There are a number of other sources of disagreement, including differences over the function of criticism, the nature of self-expression, and the importance of originality. No amount of argument will resolve the conflicts between critics, but Boas's approach has been helpful to me in understanding why critics disagree.
Possible Reactions to Madama Butterfly
- For sheer beauty of sound, there is nothing more lovely than the closing scene of Act I of Madama Butterfly.
- I love the rôle of Butterfly. It was the rôle in which I made my Metropolitan debut, and it will always have a special meaning for me.
- I will never sing Pinkerton again. I should have listened to my agent, who warned me never to appear on stage with a child.
- From beginning to end, every phrase, every note in Madama Butterfly serves a clear musical or dramatic purpose. The opera approaches perfection in its artistic integrity.
- With its pseudo-fugue, parallel fourths, Star-Spangled Banner leit-motiv, tinkly percussion, and lush Romantic harmonies, Madama Butterfly is nothing but a parade of warmed-over clichés.
- Nowhere is the Zen concept of resignation and the oriental concept of honor more accurately portrayed than in Cio-Cio-San's self-immolation scene.
- Suicide never solved anything, and by suggesting that it does, Puccini is guilty of a gross deception of the opera-going public.
- I am told that Tristan und Isolde has greater musical coherence than Madama Butterfly. All I can tell you is that we can fill the house with Butterfly, and if we don't do that from time to time, there will be no company to put on Tristan.
- The sets were tacky, the too-small orchestra was out of tune, and the characterizations were drawn from TV commercials. It was the most dismal Butterfly I have ever seen.
- Madama Butterfly is a more forceful indictment of American colonialism and racism than any article in Pravda.
- Since Pearl Harbor, I have not been able to accept any work which portrays a Japanese person in even a remotely favorable light.
1George Boas, A Primer for Critics (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1937).
2This may not be the film for which this score was intended. Stravinsky himself was vague about the project, beyond the fact that the story dealt with the German invasion of Norway during World War II.
3For a treatment of this subject in a manner singularly unenlightened by today's standards, see Lawrence Gilman, "Women and Modern Music," in Phases of Modern Music (1904; reprint ed., Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1968), pp. 93-101.
Last modified on Monday, 06/01/2014