Preconceptions and prejudice have no place in music criticism

That photo shows Herbert von Karajan with the composer Carl Orff. In 1973 Karajan recorded Orff's musical play De temporum fine comoedia (A Play on the End of Time). If that recording was reissued today it would be difficult to imagine any critic appraising it objectively, due to the preconceptions and prejudices associated with not only the composer but also the conductor. Which raises the important question of what exactly should critics judge?

Recently one of our bright young critical things dismissed the late compositions of a number of prominent 20th century British composers in less than 280 characters. The same critic is equally dismissive of J S Bach; but let's leave aside the question as to why, with such superior knowledge, he is not composing the great 21st century symphony instead of posting selfies on Twitter*. Our time is better spent drilling down into how, in recent years, classical reviews have moved away from their raison d'être of analysing the merits of one particular interpretation.

Instead of telling readers whether the conductor and musicians were on top form for that one performance, classical reviews have become platforms for airing personal prejudices and preconception, Let me give an example to illustrate this point. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is undoubtedly a very talented conductor. But how many bad reviews have you seen of her concerts or recordings? The remarkable absence of anything other than superlatives must mean one of two things. Either Ms Gražinytė-Tyla is superhuman. Or critics are no longer in the business of criticism, but instead see their role as simply extending the narrative du jour.

Social media must take much of the blame for this preeminence of the narrative du jour. Because as a Guardian article pointed out back in 2011, thanks to social media everyone's a critic now. The problem is that everyone is trying, with a singular lack of success, to follow in the footsteps of giants such as Ernest Newman and William Mann. Social media is an instant gratification environment where humility is in desperately short supply. This means that the new generation of critics who have cut their teeth online are filling their reviews with prejudices and preconceptions, because they lack the breadth of experience and knowledge to deconstruct one specific interpretation.

The fashion for reviewing concerts and recordings on how well they fit with the all-important virtue signalling agenda is particularly damaging. Because artistic merit and virtue signalling power are totally unrelated. As a result a lot of music which simply fails to tick the right boxes is being neglected, while music of no lesser - or greater - merit is being given a lot of air time simply because it resonates with the zeitgeist. Preconceptions and prejudice are a very bad thing; but it is conveniently forgotten today that they are bad in more than one way.

* Let's end this nonsense about 'stalking' on social media. If you put your views in the public domain on Twitter don't complain if those views are discussed publicly. If you don't want them discussed then change your privacy settings or kick your social media habit. Reading social media posts that are not privacy protected is not 'trolling': it is trying to understand the zeitgeist. (Note how agreeing with a social media opinion makes you a 'friend', while disagreeing makes you a 'troll' or 'stalker'.) Twitter is not a parallel universe where the rules and professional integrity of the real world no longer apply. Whether we like it or not, and I certainly don't, social media is now the real world. So if you express an opinion on Twitter, don't bitch when it is taken seriously. Does anyone take Trump's rants less seriously because they are expressed on Twitter? Was Rebecca Long-Bailey's endorsement any less 'anti-Semitic' because it was tweeted?

New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).


Pliable said…
Two useful comments on Twitter from @MoonPavillion:

'I am a big fan of Carl Orff and I’ve often wondered what drew Karajan this unusual late work, which I only know in parts.'

'“Or critics are no longer in the business of criticism, but instead see their role as simply extending the narrative du jour.” I felt much the same when I read a performance of Otello with a particular singer in London was “The event of the operatic year”.'
Philip Amos said…
When I saw that the Bach link took me to the Spectator, I thought "Richard Bratby", and there came his name. Bratby is now freelance, and his articles signal a man desperate for publication. He's certainly ignorant, but also specialises in opinion pieces intended to be click bait of a sort. The spectator also publishes Norman Lebrecht, who is much the same, though far worse. NL publishes in the Spectator, Standpoint, newspapers that mostly tend to the Right, so I thought it kettle and pot when he recently said that another writer on music publishes in "right-wing rags".

That said, I must confess to prejudices in my reactions to certain musicians. This is a personal 'quirk', if you like, but I won't listen to Elly Ney. Why? She was a fanatical anti-semite and Nazi, "Hitler's pianist", and remained to the end of her life. In my mind, this raises a question. I see her lauded in comments today, especially her Beethoven and Brahms. But my view is that one cannot understand the music of those two and many others unless you give much thought to the minds that produced them. Brahms and Beethoven, as also Liszt, etc., I must think would have been aghast re Nazism, and so I think that Ney could not possibly have understood the music. And so, taking a curious dip in the Ney waters, I heard playing with no proper grasp on the music. On record, just as in life. On the Nazi theme, I also have no Bohm in my collection. I do have all the Furtwangler I can get, although the strange campaign against him continues, from Ira Hirschman and Co. after the War to Lebrecht today, the latter having found in the issue clickbait ultra.
Pliable said…
Philip, thanks for that. My opinion of Richard Bratby differs slightly from yours. My view is that Richard, like so many upcoming music writers, has skill and some useful experience. But without the restraints of a good old-fashioned sub-editor, the internet's voracious appetite for click bait allows him, too often, to make a fool of himself. Which is what happened with that Spectator Bach piece. Which ranks as one of the silliest examples of music writing I have ever come across.

A thread of more amiable trivia links your comment with the tweets from @MoodPavilion. Surpisingly, Karajan never recorded the Orff warhorse Carmina Burana. (Although Jochum did record it for DG - I became acquainted with that strange work many, many years ago via his DG LP, which I still have.)

When Karajan signed his five-year exclusive contract with DG in 1963 Carmina was on the yellow label's wishlist, as was Orff's companion piece Catulli carmina; but HvK turned both proposed pieces down.

Then right at the end of his life when Karajan was recording for both EMI and DG, EMI's HvK point-person Peter Alward proposed Carmina. But apparently it had been promised to DG as part of his parallel contract with them. However it was not be, because Karajan died before the recording could be made.

Thanks for prompting me to remember that there was music before Mirga. We must never forget some of that music was very fine, despite preconceptions and prejudice.
This reminds me of having read through Jacques Ellul's The Empire of Non-Sense a few years back and coming across a withering remark Ellul had about the role of art criticism in what he called the technological society:
page 152
...just as businessmen needed their brokers, so, in matters of art, the bourgeois needed their critics in order to discern what kind of art to buy. And for the Bourgeois buying art is an act of status. He must not make a mistake. First and foremost, the critic guarantees the durability and lasting value of the work in question. The critic is just another business agent whose job is to guarantee status.

page 153
... The art critic is a publicity agent for modern art.

page 155
... The work no longer speaks for itself; the critic speaks in its place and situates the work in the great current that carries art to this point. He becomes the irreplaceable companion on whom the artist relies. ...

Graeme said…
The previous comment reminds me of the role played by Bernard Berenson - by any evaluation a great art historian - in the rather shady dealings of Lord Duveen and the art market. Is it possible to de link the scholarship from the participation in something akin to systematic fraud? I think it is. Not everyone is perfect. We have to live, after all. And a remarkable amount of Berenson's intuitions have survived our more scientific approach.

On a CD of songs by the Finnish composer Yrvo Kikpinen (sorry for missing diacritics) sung by her husband, the musicologist Natasha Loges threw in a comment about Kilpinen's support for Nazism, without any attempt to put it into the context of Finland's complex struggle for independence and statehood against Sweden, Russia and Germany. It seemed a gratuitous swipe at someone whose motives she had done nothing to understand. This is one of the modern tendencies that most annoys me. Context matters. And, worse, she did not demonstrate how his "abhorrent" political views impacted his music. Gratuitous virtue signalling of the worst kind
Pliable said…
Thanks Graeme, that's why I made the case for Karajan -

and why your James Levine recordings should not be junked -
Graeme said…
I commented on your Levine post to the effect of when will Leonard Bernstein come under woke scrutiny? It's a bit of a cliché, but perhaps artistry and character flaws go together? Did the concentration on technique leave people like Horowitz and Heifetz stunted as humans?

Recent popular posts

A street cat named Aleppo

Master musician who experienced the pain of genius

The Berlin Philharmonic's darkest hour

The act of killing from 20,000 feet

Storm clouds gather over Aldeburgh

In the shadow of Chopin

How classical music slipped a disc

Benjamin Brittten's relationship with children

Whatever happened to the long tail of composers?

Critical Mass