Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in Americaby Mark N. Grant
Among reviewers of the arts, classical music critics are perhaps the least esteemed by those they write about. Yet these often-despised beings are also, for better or worse, key players in the world of classical music. Mark N. Grant deftly traces the development of music criticism in the United States from the early nineteenth century to the present, building a… See more details below
Among reviewers of the arts, classical music critics are perhaps the least esteemed by those they write about. Yet these often-despised beings are also, for better or worse, key players in the world of classical music. Mark N. Grant deftly traces the development of music criticism in the United States from the early nineteenth century to the present, building a comprehensive portrait gallery of our significant music critics and examining the evolving role of classical music in American cultural life.
Grant's informative overview savors and compares the critics' prose styles, evaluates them as taste makers who helped codify the canon, and shows critics in action as movers and shakers who persuaded community leaders to build concert halls, got conductors hired and fired, explained classical music to the masses on the radio, championed difficult new music, and rescued unjustly neglected repertoire.
New York Times Review of Books
Chamber Music America Magazine
- Northeastern University Press
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Read an Excerpt
The Birth of
Gotham as the Wild, Wild West
When I arrived in Baltimore in 1831 music was yet in its infancy or cradle. Even in good society and among well educated people nothing was appreciated beyond waltzes, marches and variations on some familiar theme, or simple airs from some of Rossini's operas.
--John F. Petri, Leipzig-trained music teacher
The condition of affairs thus simply characterized by Mr. Petri was general throughout the country. In New York musical taste was farther advanced at that time, but even in Europe the taste was then, and continued to be for some years later, for much the same kind of music as this described by him. It will be remembered that in 1831 only the earlier parts of the Beethoven music had become known to the musical world outside the circle of most advanced musicians in Vienna and a few other cities of Germany. Schubert was entirely unknown, and Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Chopin were only new composers, as yet unproved....
--W. S. B. Mathews, Chicago newspaper critic
These remarks, if anything, understate the predicament: for most non-upper-crust Americans at the turn of the nineteenth century, the realm of music was described by an arc joining the hymns and chorales of churchgoing to Ulysses S. Grant's apocryphal remark, "I know two tunes; one is Yankee Doodle, and the other isn't." Said a senior colleague to the young New Englander W. S. B. Mathews when Mathews first essayed his critical pen in midcentury, "My dear fellow, you will never get a hearing in this country for your pretty talk about classical music; Americans do not care for it. Come with us and praise the music which the average American likes, and you will be happier, better paid and have a better time."
Yet Mathews persevered, and in fact, well before his estimable career in postbellum Chicago journalism blossomed, there had burgeoned more than a few sprigs of "pretty talk about classical music." For all the rawness of the new country, both its concert performing life and its musical press had antecedents back to prerevolutionary days.
* Concerts and the press of the 1700s
In the eighteenth century four urban centers supported concert activity more than sporadically: Philadelphia (before 1800 a larger city than New York), New York, Boston, and Charleston, South Carolina. Oratorios of Handel and Haydn and symphonies of Haydn and Pleyel (sic transit gloria mundi) were the mainstays of the repertoire mustered by local orchestras in the period from the mid-1700s till the early 1800s. While opera in America did not really arrive until after the century's end, vocal music was represented on the programs of the eighteenth century by airs and duets from oratorios and operas, as well as by popular songs, catches, and glees. In Boston there was a greater emphasis on sacred music than elsewhere, but there as well as in the other cities, vocal and instrumental secular music could also be heard.
American audiences of the time frequently sampled the concerti and chamber music of such now nearly forgotten European composers as Martini, Stamitz, and Wanhal. The educated and socially privileged among them might even get to hear repeated performances of The Battle of Prague by Kotzwara, something called the Overture to The Caliph of Bagdad, and Steibelt's Storm Rondo. But they heard Bach infrequently, Mozart rarely, and Beethoven hardly at all; first performances of much of what we now recognize as the classical canon had to wait until the 1830s and 1840s. The first American performances even of Beethoven's Eroica and Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphonies did not take place until February 18, 1843, and January 15, 1844, respectively, in New York City.
The precursors of legitimate music criticism in American journalism were not commissioned reviews but rather squibs--notices of forthcoming concerts or society news items reporting on which dignitaries had been in attendance at musical soirees. The Library of Congress historiographer Oscar Sonneck thus cited as the first known American musical "review" the following, from the October 21-28, 1732, South Carolina Gazette, of Charleston: "On Wednesday Night there was a Concert for the Benefit of Mr. Salter, at which was a fine Appearance of good Company." Sonneck hastily appended that such curt observations of society attendance were not limited to gauche colonial journalism; he ruefully notes that the New York papers of his time had sent their society editors in greater numbers to the New York premiere of Wagner's Parsifal than their music critics.
In those surviving published write-ups most closely resembling modern reviews, "the papers simply published a report offered by some prominent music lover among their subscribers," often signed under a Latinate pseudonym such as Philomusicus. The "correspondents" who had been at the concerts would extol the virtues of the music they had heard, typically in terms florid, ethereal, and meaningless, because, according to Sonneck, "in olden times journalism moved more slowly and it made little difference to the public when they received the news as long as they received it in somewhat stilted and grandiloquent language." On the other hand, Sonneck's researches disclosed that even in the early days intelligent criticism was not unknown, as the following excerpt from a review of a concert of sacred music held on May 4, 1786, in Philadelphia, appearing May 30, 1786, in the Pennsylvania Packet, suggests: "A succession of celebrated anthems ... were performed with a precision and effort sufficient to enforce powers of harmony on the most untutored ears ... a violin concerto ... by Mr. Juhan, who not only displayed the most promising talents, but a taste and execution which did him present honor and gave acknowledged satisfaction."
* Prelude to the new century: the immigrant tide
The diaspora of Europeans to the newly formed United States after the War for Independence, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars included many well-trained musicians who greatly expanded the pool of performers and teachers in America. The immigrant wave had a double edge, however, paradoxically diluting the stateside population's appreciation of classical music, as the great preponderance of the new immigrants were uneducated, uninterested in attending concerts, and without the British- or French-patinated, socially pretentious, cosmopolitan airs that had often characterized colonial classical musicians and their listeners and had helped endow prerevolutionary music making with an air of the quasi-noble (both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, two aristocratic democrats, were accomplished musical amateurs). The point of disembarkation and settlement for most of these immigrants was New York, by 1790 the largest American city.
However, the mercantile classes of New York, who provided the ticket support for music and opera, were ready to entertain anything new and less inclined to be patient with tradition. "New York has always been behindhand, as compared with Boston and Philadelphia, in the cultivation of the higher branch of music," wrote W. S. B. Mathews in the 1880s, "though it was in advance in the encouragement given to the operatic form.... it was always more liberally disposed toward the more showy and frivolous uses of the musical art." As the straitlaced elder capitals Boston and Philadelphia began ceding the limelight to their scrappy Gothamite kid sister, a tradition of music appreciation had to be built up again from scratch at the dawn of the nineteenth century in America's not-yet-greatest city.
* Even then, New York was the place
By 1800 New York City (which until 1875 consisted solely of the borough of Manhattan) was, with a population of sixty thousand, dirtier, noisier, and poorer--but livelier--than Philadelphia. But it was shortly to become the center of opera and symphony in America; the birthplace of the country's oldest orchestra; the laboratory for the country's first cheap, affordable daily newspapers; and the first urban ganglion of critical opinion about music expressed in the public prints to a mass audience in America. It was about to become the indispensable port of call to all visiting foreign artists; already by 1835 a New York periodical, the American Music Journal, could chauvinistically proclaim without fear of contradiction that "all [musical] talent must fail in America which is not imported via New-York and makes its debut in the city."
As late as 1845 physical conditions in Manhattan were still crude. "The metropolitan city was then a provincial town of two-story houses, and the pigs ran through Broadway and ate the refuse," recalled the conductor Theodore Thomas in his autobiography. As for seating in concert venues, the critic Richard Grant White reminisced of one, "The floor was dirty and broken into holes; the seats were bare, backless benches.... The place was pervaded with evil smells; and, not uncommonly, in the midst of a performance, rats ran out of the holes in the floor and across into the orchestra.... The gallery was occupied by howling roughs."
At first, the New York concert scene, too, was rough-hewn. Even with the influx of European performing talent, wrote a German musician who visited New York around the 1820s, most American orchestras of the time lacked essential instruments and simply rode roughshod over their deficiencies of personnel by having certain instrumentalists double to cover the gaps, the concertmaster taking part in every solo, the trombone player doubling the cellos or even the violins, and other practices comical even by modern high school standards of cross-cuing. Orchestra groups, rehearsals, and concerts were pickup affairs. A New York Philharmonic Society was started and stopped three times before the effort that lasted began in earnest in 1842. Concerts were frequently olios combining serious lieder with bell ringers, yodelers, folksingers, and other examples of what would later become to be known as vaudeville.
But advances were rapid. By February 1828 in New York, now a city of two hundred thousand, five operas could be presented in one week: The Castle of Andalusia, Der Freischutz, The Marriage of Figaro, Clari, and Artaterxes. With the advent of better transportation and railroad facilities in the 1830s, a stream of virtuosi started entering the United States and touring the country. By the 1840s there were some two dozen regular venues for concert music in New York City, though nary an "official" music hall, like the later Carnegie. There were also some forty regular newspapers and periodicals in New York, though none had yet become an official journal of record for the arbitration of musical taste, as the New York Times would become in the late twentieth century.
* "Beauty, fashion, and taste"
A veritable mantra occurring in almost every concert review in American newspapers before the 1840s (and sometimes after) is the phrase "beauty, fashion, and taste" or its near equivalent, code words for "society crowd in the audience." Dropping the phrase was a who-what-when-where journalistic shibboleth for any early review, as in this comment after the first performances of Manuel Garcia's opera troupe in New York in 1825 in the New-York Evening Post of November 30: "An assemblage of ladies so fashionable, so numerous, and so elegantly dressed, had probably never been witnessed in an American theater." Examples of similar paeans to the audience abound in the concert reviews of other cities' newspapers, but it was in New York that such "fashion" phraseologies became most entrenched, because they epitomized the New York problem: an audience preoccupied with superficial glitter, with what in late twentieth-century parlance would be called "the beautiful people" and "making the scene," even if they didn't understand what they were seeing or hearing--a circumstance that encouraged many first performances but gave critics quite a load of educating to do. W. S. B. Mathews said that performances of Rossini's Barber of Seville and other Italian operas by the Manuel Garcia troupe in New York in the 1820s made no sense to the audiences: "The enthusiasm ... had no real basis of life. It was not founded upon intelligent musical comprehension or appreciation of the beauties of the opera. The music appealed to no realizing sense of its emotional meaning.... the apparent success of the opera was in reality attributable to its novelty." Some reporters doubling as music critics, themselves incapable of making sense of the novelty, used the "beauty and fashion" catchphrase to conceal their own lack of musical education or critical discernment.
The fact was, as Vera Brodsky Lawrence writes, opera venues in early nineteenth-century New York were social bourses first, temples of art secondarily:
The match-making role played by the opera house (and the Philharmonic) in upper-caste nineteenth-century New York was a potent one. Nathaniel Parker Willis, who subdivided the Astor Place Opera House into strategic zones--the "Dowager's Shelf," the "Fop's Terrace," the "Approachables," "Apoplexy Row"-- described the parquette at Astor Place as being "more a pen for bachelors in the market than anything else." ... Correspondingly, the boxes provided a properly decorous showcase for the available belles of the town, and many a flirtatious intermission visit, discreetly chaperoned by "dragons on guard, stowed in the rear," eventuated in a fashionable wedding at Grace Church or Trinity.
Apart from the pursuit of matrimony, there was "probably as much electioneering, stock-jobbing, and gossiping done [at the Astor Place Opera House] as ... in any place in Wall Street.... In fact the lobbies of the Opera House are now a lounge for finishing up all business, politics, finance, gossip, and humbug of the day" (New-York Herald, January 30, 1848). Up to about 1835, adds Lawrence, "the New York public--always intensely pleasure-seeking, insatiable for novelty, and easily bored--were consistent only in their resistance to the deluge of `superior' extraneous musics--the uplifting English oratorios, unfamiliar German symphonies, and unintelligible Italian operas--with which successive generations of musical missionaries insistently sought to `improve' their delinquent musical tastes."
To put it bluntly, New York before 1850 was a cultural Johnny-come-lately with parvenu pretensions; not the centripetal gold standard of cultural taste that it later became, but a hotbed of "showiness and frivolity," as the Chicagoan Mathews put it, of a preference for "spasmodic brilliancy" over the "higher musical lines" pursued by sedater audiences in Boston and Philadelphia. Ironically, this was partly due not to the rabble but to the social "Upper Ten Thousand," who were key in the support of the arts in the city. The Upper Ten Thousand's power of the purse resided in its purchase of the subscriptions that financed most opera series and concerts. Single-price ticket admission, when it did (increasingly) occur, was affordable only to society people, posing a dilemma for music reviewers, who themselves were the beneficiaries of free tickets to concerts but who wished to educate the public musically and promote larger attendance. An unnamed and undated writer for the Lyre, a journal in New York, applauded the cause of charging one dollar for admission to an oratorio, thought by some correspondents to be too high:
Every reflecting person will not think it a disproportionate charge, when the amount of talent and labor necessary to the production of a performance on a remarkable scale is impartially considered; and we look forward with fond anticipation to a period when efforts of this kind shall be duly appreciated, and a corresponding liberality be extended to those institutions which have for their object ... the formation of a correct and refined taste throughout the community.
Frederic Ritter, a nineteenth-century music historian, added his own commentary to the above: "Thus ... the necessity of the promotion of `refined musical taste' ... for the cultivation of the higher class of compositions, [was] continually held up to the American people as an ideal goal." Which leads to the basic economic question: How, indeed, could the public be brought along if they could neither afford the opera ticket nor the newspaper to read about it?
* The newspaper business before 1830
Early American newspapers were published essentially for the upper strata of American society. Journalism historians have characterized them in type as either "political"--fiercely partisan four-sheeters full of editorials that would be libelous by today's standards--or "mercantile"--house organs for the Wall Street community whose space was primarily taken up with notices and announcements rather than editorial copy and with advertising for the business community. From 50 to 90 percent of the column space of mercantile newspapers was devoted to advertising, which looked like modern classified ads, display advertising being a thing of the future. The metropolitan dailies of the pre-1830 period tended to a four-page format but gradually increased the number of columns within each page.
The readership of both political and mercantile papers was drawn almost wholly from the mercantile classes, who alone could afford the annual subscription price of about ten dollars in the early decades of the nineteenth century for a daily newspaper (normally published six times a week). As time went on some mercantile papers (e.g., the Boston Daily Advertiser) and some political ones (the New-York Evening Post, founded by Alexander Hamilton) became mixtures in type; the Daily Advertiser added editorial copy and the Evening Post started running reviews of books, drama, and art (particularly after the ascent of the poet-journalist William Cullen Bryant to its editorship in 1829). With most newspapers, music reviews were the last type of arts reviews to be added.
Subscriptions to most weekly newspapers were less expensive--$1.50 to $2.50 a year. However, the weekly New-York Albion, which described itself as a "British, Colonial, and Foreign Weekly Gazette" embodying "the News, Politics, and Literature of Europe, more particularly of Great Britain" with "Poetry, history, music and the Drama [receiving] distinct and proper attention," at a cost of six dollars a year probably was above the means of working-class and middle-class people. From the 1820s on the Albion printed regular music reviews before any of the daily New York papers did, though they often appeared under the rubric of "New York Theatricals." In keeping with its neocontinental self-description, the Albion frequently reprinted European articles whole (international laws of reciprocal copyright at the time were murky). In keeping with its New World brethren, however, the Albion made constant references in its music coverage to the "beauty and fashion" of the audiences. Nevertheless, looking back in the 1880s, W. S. B. Mathews described the newspaper as having been acknowledged "the greatest literary authority of the times."
As with other early American newspapers, music reviews in the Albion were little more than uneducated news accounts of performers who appeared onstage, rather than critical reviews of the music or composer. Reviews appearing in the Albion prior to 1840 were limited to opera, and all were unsigned. The anonymous correspondents rarely if ever mentioned the conductors but sometimes mentioned the orchestra concertmaster (who in fact often was the conductor in that era).
A sense both of the Albion's music coverage and of the crudities of opera performance at the time in New York can be gleaned from the following excerpt from the Albion, April 20, 1833, upon the New York City premiere of Mozart's Magic Flute. Note that the writer, in observing the interpolations of other composers' music into the opera, implies that visiting only two such interruptions on the opera was less vandalism than the norm:
Mr. Horn's version of The Magic Flute was produced on Wednesday evening to a crowded house, and with complete success. A more beautiful and sterling selection of music has never been offered to the public of New York, and we must do the management the justice to say that every expense has been incurred, and every pains taken to give due effect to the piece. We do not think the Drama good, and think it might have been much more ably constructed, but it is, nevertheless, redeemed by the excellency of the music.... The first act is charming ... throughout the whole of which the music is exceedingly beautiful.... The ensuing act tends greatly to attract the attention to less interesting personages. True, Sarastro the Magician (Mr. Horn) makes his appearance, and so long as the agency of this personage is directed to his victim it is in admirable keeping, but we are afterwards totally removed from the plot of the piece, and have to console ourselves with a beautiful ballad introduced by Mr. Horn, "Dark eyed one come hither to me," the poetry by Thomas Haynes Bayley, set to Auber's music. Mr. Horn has likewise set Mr. Hallack's fine lines from Marco Bozzaris, "Come to the Bridal Chamber, Death," and these are the only interpolations upon Mozart in the opera....
The scenery is really beautiful, the dresses rich and appropriate, and the stage business admirably managed.... We cannot conclude without adverting to the improvement in music which is daily perceptible in this country. Here is a complete opera containing a selection of music by one of the great masters the world ever produced--brought out in New York for the first time in a style that would not disgrace the first cities of Europe.
The Albion was not the only newspaper of influence at the time. By the early 1820s the Evening Post had a circulation of about two thousand. James Watson Webb and Mordecai Noah engineered the merger of the Courier with the Enquirer around 1830 to make it the largest paper in New York, with a circulation of about four thousand. When it got up to forty-five hundred the Courier and Enquirer had the largest circulation in the country, at a time when the London Times and two or three Paris newspapers had fifteen to twenty thousand and the average circulation for an American newspaper was one thousand. By 1833, however, there were three times as many newspapers in the United States as in England or France, as well as a few hundred periodicals, most of the latter short-lived.
* The first penny papers
By the 1830s more than 90 percent of the bulk of the U.S. mail consisted of newspaper delivery, but the papers didn't always arrive at their destinations, because whenever stagecoaches got stuck in mud (a then-frequent occurrence in pre-paved America), the mailbags containing the newspapers were the cargo first cast out into the mire to lighten the load. Daily newspapers had always been sold by annual subscription; many publishers would not sell single copies at all, even though the most frequent cause of newspapers' going under had been nonpayment by subscribers. The situation was ripe for a great innovation. On September 3, 1833, the New-York Sun made its debut at the single-issue cost of one penny. It was the first newspaper in America to reach the masses of working people, and the beginning of the newspaper as a mass communications medium.
In just a few months Sun circulation was up to five thousand; only a year later, the paper's managers claimed ten thousand, then fifteen thousand. Other publishers quickly took notice. On May 11, 1835, James Gordon Bennett brought out the first issue of the penny paper the New-York Morning Herald. The direct descendants of both the Sun and the Herald survived in New York until the 1960s, when labor unions and another technological innovation, television, finally got the better of them. But the penny papers of the 1830s fairly created the modern newspaper by establishing police blotter news beats and other aspects of sensationalism and tabloid journalism to help make the man in the street a confirmed newsprint consumer. So much for the hoi polloi; where, though, would the penny papers stand in relation to "taste and fashion," and to the arts?
Here, providence had it both ways: the penny publisher Bennett himself was an arts enthusiast who had reviewed music and drama since 1827, when he had been associate editor of the New-York Enquirer. Bennett saw himself as an evangelist for the newspaper as all-encompassing witness to humanity, from Dickensian slum to opera house, as he wrote in an early editorial: "What is to prevent a daily newspaper from being made the greatest organ of social life? Books have had their day--the theatres have had their day--the temple of religion has had its day. A newspaper can be made to take the lead of all these in the great movements of human thought and human civilization" (New-York Herald, August 19, 1836). But Bennett was also a canny businessman out to beat the competition. So the Herald went the Sun one better in its arts coverage: its amusements column, which included musical events, was almost a daily feature. The Herald's amusements columnists frequently advised readers to go to operas, to get tickets early, and to support various cultural events, even though many of its readers could ill afford these same amusements. The point was the aspiration to cultural grandeur.
At least thirty-four dailies were begun in New York during the 1830s after the Sun's debut, and the combined circulation of the penny papers was enormous for the time, more than seventy thousand in the New York of the late 1830s, recruiting newspaper readers for the first time in history from the lower economic classes. All of these papers had drama reviews and what Bennett called "theatrical chit-chat"; but music reviews followed more slowly. Newspapering was still an urban frontier, and not until the 1840s did even the largest papers have reporters for even local news items, let alone dedicated music critics. Journalists for the penny papers got little pay (in the early 1850s annual salaries were as low as five hundred dollars). The editor and publisher frequently was also the reporter in the early days, and the only union yet established was for the typographers. And standards and practices, not to say ethics, were not yet quite modern, as we shall see a little later.
* The first music critic?
Even before the advent of the penny papers, back in the 1820s, one particular bylined correspondent may possibly be credited as the first truly musically astute critic to appear in New York: the pseudonymous "Musoeus" of the New-York American. This mysterious writer--almost certainly a European emigre, probably British, but whose true identity is lost to history--first made himself known in a letter to the editor of the American. The published letter announced that he had attended rehearsals of the New York Philharmonic Society (a short-lived predecessor to the eventual New York Philharmonic), had some constructive suggestions to be made known about the efforts of the group, and requested a platform for his views. His wish was granted and his first column appeared March 1, 1825.
Musoeus's writings in the American evince a trained musician who understood scoring and instrumentation. On one occasion he wrote, "The beautiful overture to Esther by Handel lost its effect by too powerful a bass for the number of violins," and in another, reviewing a different choral work by Handel, he wrote, "Where are your oboes? Where your trombones, in addition to your want of numbers on the stringed instruments? These are indispensable to Handel's music." Writing on the occasion of the celebrated 1828 appearance in New York of Manuel Garcia's opera troupe and its performances of nine operas, Musoeus credibly demonstrated his knowledge not only of opera but of several European opera houses. He covered the Garcia performances by writing in a nonpatronizing, gently educative way, attempting to instruct his readership in the elements of opera ("The Opera is divided into Recitative and Air ... the Aria di bravura [is] composed chiefly to indulge the singer in a display of particular powers or compass of voice; generally speaking, these airs are mere traps for applause, but void of sentiment, or any one sensible quality").
In the beginning Musoeus was a generous and constructive critic. But gradually the power of his bully pulpit crept up on him. According to Vera Brodsky Lawrence, Musoeus felt "'the people of these States' were not yet sufficiently acquainted with the works of Handel and Haydn." This was an odd claim, as the critic had asserted that he had attended concerts by the various sacred music societies in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, where, to be sure, Handel and Haydn had been performed to a fare-thee-well. Musoeus submitted, however, that the style of this music was not "relished by the people. Only through the `zealous endeavors of well-governed societies,' such as the Philharmonic, could a `true taste ... be introduced and cherished.'" In this and other holier-than-thou ways, Musoeus early took it upon himself to admonish the Philharmonic Society's board of directors on musical grounds. It appears that he may have been denied membership in the society and was exacting his revenge through the power of his poison pen. Or was it the other way around? In any event, it was not long before Musoeus became a petty tyrant of a critic, thus establishing a New York City archetype (in iconography if not also in reality) that has held to this day.
* Quirks of early reviewers
As other writers less musicianly than Musoeus took up their pens to write about operas and concerts in New York, they had many beginners' kinks to work out. Without either scores of the operas or symphonies in tow or any previous firsthand experience playing or hearing the works for themselves, early reviewers had to evolve some stratagems to circumvent their own shortcomings. (Inasmuch as most early reviews were unsigned, their writers had little public vanity to worry about. Scholars, however, have been able to determine the authorship of many unbylined music reviews by inference from other evidence such as editorials and letters to the editor naming the critic.)
One gambit already mentioned was to spew encomiums to the "beauty, taste, and fashion" of the audience instead of talking about the music. Another ploy was for the reviewer, rather than to attempt to analyze the performance specifically, to revert to the generic disclaimer that a piece of music was "caviar to the million" or that it required "impossibly cultivated listeners." A variation of this technique entailed the reviewer's getting himself off the hook by either digressing to report on the audience and its composition of learned and unlearned persons, or his pleading solidarity with his fellow patrons en masse, as with this critic for the New-York Knickerbocker reviewing the first American performance of Fidelio in 1839, sung in English by a visiting British company: "Above our individual capacity to appreciate ... we are not doing an injustice to nineteen-twentieths of those who have listened to it with us, in believing that it is also above their complete apprehension." A more diplomatic and less petulant version of the same trick ran this way: "Musicians tell us that [Fidelio] is a most masterly effort of genius, abounding in all the elements of a sublime, lyrical opera" (probably attributable to Nathaniel Parker Willis [1806-67], coeditor of the Corsair). But the most tried and true method of critical circumlocution was to wax lexiphanic, as in this W. C. Fieldsian review of the same Fidelio performance:
Oh! may you give your spirit up to him fearlessly! He will transport you to other worlds, and infuse a thousand strange and thrilling sensations--will cradle you in his arms until, in admiration of his strength, you forget how powerful you are, and when he has poured those notes into your ear, and you are filled with tremblings, as of golden wires half conscious of their own thrilling--he leaves you petrified, enchanted--in a silent dream where even the echoes have subsided.
This approach, however, ran the risk of solecism: the Evening Star's critic referred to Fidelio as "a work of sublime maestoso." It also ran the risk of exposure by other, more knowledgeable critics: Henry C. Watson in fact accused Richard Grant White in print of being musically ignorant but covering it up with learned allusions.
It must be remembered that even well-educated people of the time had difficulty assimilating music we now regard as canonical. The New York City lawyer and musical amateur George Templeton Strong, as musically sophisticated a layman as any of his era, wrote in his diary of the first performance in America of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in the 1840s, "generally unintelligible to me, except the Andante," and among the fraternity of opinion of his time, critics included, he was far from alone in his assessment: in 1831, still early days for Beethoven in America, even an especially forward-looking and sympathetic critic could write of The Mount of Olives, part of which was performed by the Sacred Music Society at Saint Paul's in Boston on February 24, "Beethoven is an author of great originality,--his compositions are truly energetic, and filled with uncommon passages,--his modulation is abstruse, and every listener feels, at the first bar, that he is about to hear something new; his discords attract our attention."
* Henry C. Watson
The fifth decade of the nineteenth century brought to the fore the first qualified, competent music critic in the modern mold to achieve lasting eminence. Henry Cood Watson was born in London in 1815 to John Watson, chorusmaster of Covent Garden Opera House, where young Henry became a celebrated boy soprano in such operas as Weber's Oberon. When his voice broke the boy found his career as a singer suddenly ended. Vexed with a Werther-like attack of adolescent Sturm und Drang, he tried to escape from the calamity by becoming a sailor on a voyage to the Mediterranean. But a Richard Dana or Joseph Conrad he was not destined to become, and young Watson returned to terra firma in England, where he continued serious music schooling and literary studies for some years.
In 1840 the young man sailed to New York City with letters of introduction to the well-known newspapermen William Cullen Bryant, Horace Greeley, Park Benjamin, and George P. Morris. In short order he became the busiest music journalist in town, finding his first employment under Park Benjamin (1809-64), writing art and music criticism for both Benjamin's weekly magazine New World and his daily penny newspaper Evening Signal, founded the year before. (Benjamin was a journalist of "less than immaculate reputation" whose New World consisted mostly of "pirated works by the best English authors.") In 1843 Watson also replaced the English critic Alexander D. Paterson at the Albion, when Paterson left that periodical to establish his own journal, the Anglo American.
Watson's resume becomes dizzying at this point. In addition to working for the New World, Evening Signal, and Albion, he edits and writes for a short-lived journal of his own, the Musical Chronicle, from 1843, and in 1847 becomes editor of a weekly called the American Musical Times. He contributes to the weekly New Mirror, a paper devoted to literature and the arts edited by George P. Morris and Nathaniel P. Willis, as well as to the Evening Mirror. And with Charles Briggs and Edgar Allan Poe, Watson also cofounds the Broadway Journal, a short-lived arts periodical. All of these many hats Watson wore during the space of a few years in the 1840s.
Watson was probably the first American to make a living at music criticism, by virtue of his many simultaneous writing assignments and editorial positions. This, of course, was in a fledgling era in the newspaper industry before individual newspapers could pay enough to critics to hold them exclusively. It helped also that Watson was tireless, if not workaholic. In addition to music criticism, he found time throughout his life to write art criticism, do occasional news reporting, compose songs, write poetry, and, at various times, serve as editor in chief of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper; help found the American Musical Fund Society, a performance group; help organize the Mendelssohn Union; guest-lecture at receptions for famous singers such as Jenny Lind and Henrietta Sontag; author the libretto for William Vincent Wallace's opera Lurline; organize the Mendelssohn Memorial Concert, held at Castle Garden, attended by ten thousand; and so on, ad infinitum.
Upon his stepping up to the plate in New York at the New World, Watson--still a young man, and with the redoubled arrogance of youth and British superiority--announced, "We do intend to cleanse out this Augean accumulation and to establish in its place a healthy principle that shall revolutionize the state of music in this city" (New World, December 4, 1841). He thereupon wreaked his wrathful Herculean labors on almost everyone "except for members of the Watson family [George Loder, his brother-in-law, was a conductor of the New York Philharmonic] and certain favored English performers." In a review of the Sacred Music Society, Watson reported the orchestra "scarcely played six consecutive bars correctly," the organ "throughout was very unskillfully played, "the Fagotti were out of tune, and so were the tympani"; and the conductor, U. C. Hill, had insufficient "influence" over the orchestra, a body that, like every other New York orchestra, was composed of nothing but would-be soloists, each of whom "burst away at the top of his power. This is wrong, radically wrong, and must be altered," stormed Watson.
Having forewarned his readership, Watson proceeded to hurl his pen like a baton at the players of orchestras. Yet for all the fury, there was something in his approach the likes of which New York had not seen before. He reported what he heard in detail only a trained musician could muster and couched his emotional reactions in technically reasoned terms. His criticisms were as constructive as those of a teacher or conductor, trying to raise both performer and auditor to a higher level. Though a stylish writer, he always gave specific musical reasons for his observations rather than devolve into extraneous verbiage about the music's stimulating ineffable states of mental opiation. In short, he was the first modern music critic.
He was instructive and educative, but he didn't pull his punches. Of one concert of the new Philharmonic Society Watson wrote: "The chief fault the orchestra has exhibited ... is a heavy, mechanical method of playing; there is a want of delicacy and general expression.... We seldom or ever see a simultaneous movement of the bow--when one is up the other is down.... as far as correct time and steady beating, [the conductor] did it ably; but we listened in vain for any of those delicate variations of light and shade--the positive piano which makes the positive forte." Commenting on an occasion in which a noted opera singer had transposed her part up from alto to mezzo range "to accommodate her compass," he noted that, with the concomitant transposition of the orchestral parts, this "breeds confusion in the orchestra, rendering it difficult and sometimes impossible for the particular wind instruments to execute with effect, or even in tune, the passages set down for them. Should this confusion be observed by the audience, the singer is never to blame, but all the indignation is vented upon the innocent orchestral performers."
His insights into the contemporary composers of his day are sometimes astonishingly predictive of posterity's judgment, sometimes wide of the mark. As prognosticator, on Spohr's oratorio The Last Judgment: "It abounds with melody, although nine-tenths of its hearers would be inclined to dispute our assertion, and apparently with justice, for notwithstanding almost all the pieces bear a melody of great beauty, they fail to strike the ear at once, from the mass of rich harmonies by which they are encumbered." Spohr's music, Watson contended, was too densely wrought with modulations and transitions that jolted by their "seeming strangeness and remoteness." Then, too, Spohr's rhythmic monotony was "palling to the senses" (Evening Mirror, December 8, 1846).
On the other hand, Watson, in the Albion, asserted that Verdi's melodies "do not possess the catching popular qualities of a Bellini or a Donizetti ... [they] seem as though they were written under restraint, that is, as though they were composed under the most impressive remembrances of the masters of his school who have gone before him.... like all the modern Italian writers, [he] is a victim to a passion for instruments of brass and percussion.... This love of noise is the curse of our modern writers; with the Italians it is mere noise without substance.... it will be a happy day for music when writers return to Mozart's simplicity! His music always had meaning, always bore the impress of the mind, he needed not the aid of drums and trumpets to cover up the want of thought" (Albion, March 6, 1847).
Watson was writing in an era when standards of public deportment and decorum had yet to evolve into Victorian gentility. A kind of frontier code of honor prevailed even among the educated classes in New York City. Years after Aaron Burr killed the New-York Evening Post founder Alexander Hamilton in a duel, duels between newspaper people were still occurring, and deaths were not unknown. William Cullen Bryant's predecessor at the Evening Post was severely beaten by a disgruntled reader; the editor, who himself had been the aggressor in other fights, suffered permanent disability and died young. Even urbane city types packed pistols or knives, and crowds were sometimes known to break into brawls over expressions of disagreement about popular theater performers. Perhaps the most notorious example of this was the Astor Place Riot of 1849. That year fans of the American tragedian Edwin Forrest stormed the Astor Place Theater, where his great rival, the English tragedian William Charles Macready, was performing. The militia was called out and about two dozen people were killed.
For their part, editorialists, columnists, and reviewers of the 1840s, while not reaching for their holsters, would liberally indulge invectives against their opponents in language unimaginably libelous by modern standards. It was inevitable that Watson's outspokenness would ruffle some feathers. In 1840 Watson wrote of a recital by a soprano named Mrs. Sutton, whom James Gordon Bennett had championed in the Herald. "Her style," wrote Watson on November 10 in the Evening Signal, "is of the worst Italian school, her execution in the ascending scale is very neat, but descending it is all jerked out, hard and uncultivated. Her articulation is far from distinct, and her shake is wide and not always upon the right note." In the Herald the following day, Bennett riposted that Mrs. Sutton had a "most distinct enunciation in the ascending or descending scale, chromatic or otherwise," and made choice aspersions on the character of Watson and the penny paper he wrote for. Watson parried witheringly in the Evening Signal:
A scurrilous print of this city assails us bitterly because of some of our recent musical comments. Who, we ask, ever read a musical criticism in that infamous and impotent journal? Its "criticisms" are mere announcements and, as wholesale praise is not so likely to meet with condemnation as ignorant censure, it discreetly beslabbers. It is not amusing to hear a fellow presume to talk musically, who does not know the chromatic from the diatonic scale, who could not tell the differences between the chords do or fa from sol, and who is as ignorant of instruments of vibration as he is of the sentiments and habits of a gentleman? But we have wasted too many words upon the imbecile trash of this shallow pretender--this ignorant and presumptuous vagabond.
But others would have at Watson. The composer Anthony Philip Heinrich responded to a Watson review in an 1842 letter to the Herald: "You adopt the qualities of a chameleon.... it is well known that you bring a party to assist you in hissing public masterly performances.... You mistook the name of the instrument, viz., `violincello,' instead of `violoncello,' as the latter term is derived from violon, and not violin.... Can you even discern the key in which a composition is performed, and when a transition takes place, or what do you know?"
Unfortunately, for all his intelligence and musical perspicacity, Watson freely indulged in the common practice of his time of tilting one's reactions according to the amount of newspaper advertising purchased by the concert presenter and the number of complimentary tickets proffered the reviewer. In 1841, according to Vera Brodsky Lawrence, he "issued a furious ultimatum, declaring his intention of punishing all concert-givers who did not advertise in the New World by withholding from them `the influence of our notice. Our expectations are but just. We ask only a reciprocation of benefits.' Watson particularly reprimanded those who discontinued their advertising in the New World after having received his commendation: `These gentlemen no sooner see a just and appreciating criticism than they believe themselves secure, and withdraw at once their advertisements and in many cases their tickets' (New World, December 4, 1841)."
Apparently Watson's reviews won him enough enemies that he was rebuffed in his early attempts to join the board of the New York Philharmonic Society, even though he had written favorably of many of their concerts. Denying that Watson had been officially blackballed, the secretary of the society nevertheless wrote to the editor of the Courier and Enquirer, "The great portion of the musical public must have seen sufficient indications of the paltry and contemptible feelings generally perceptible in the musical criticisms which occasionally appear in the New World not to allow their judgments to be misled by the articles that appear in that paper."
Despite the barrage of odium from his victims, which continued off and on for some years, Watson survived to become the first American newspaper music critic to be regarded as the national "dean" of his profession. He continued seeking new journalistic pulpits, becoming chief music critic of the New York Tribune from 1863 to 1867 and founding and editing the American Art Journal in 1863. In his later years he pursued his multifarious undertakings virtually unabated, until death abruptly interrupted him in December 1875.
Meet the Author
MARK N. GRANT is a composer and writer. His concert music and theater pieces have been performed in the United States and Europe. He is also the author of The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical. He lives in New York City.
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