World premieres and the importance of listening

By Manasi Vydyanath

Every premiere could potentially be the concert, unveiling a work that precipitates the present into the past, and forges infinitely many futures in its own image. A concert that presents a groundbreaking advancement not only of expression, but the very nature of expression. Reviewing new music is consequently one of the most important and exciting facets of music journalism. As the inimitable Virgil Thomson once said, “[This] is where criticism touches history.”

However, by its own evidence, history has seldom been made without controversy. On February 4, 1923, Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire received its American premiere in New York City, flinging the distilled chaos of the 20th century upon the soundscape of Post-Wagnerian Romanticism. The result was ensanguined literary carnage. Critics of the gilded age, like James Huneker, Henry Krehbiel, William Henderson and Richard Aldrich saw in it the dissolution of all things beautiful—form being immolated at the altar of expression. Huneker considered it “a lexicon of anarchy…without themes, yet every acorn of a phrase contrapuntally developed by an adept, without harmony that does not smite the ears, lacerate, figuratively speaking, the eardrums…there is no melodic line, only a series of points, dots, dashes or phrases that sob and scream, despair, explode, exalt, blaspheme.” In counterpoint and staunch defense were the “modernists” like Paul Rosenfeld, Pitts Sandborn, Katherine Spaeth, and the unsigned critic of the Musical Courier, who pronounced, “The perfection of this score defies criticism.”

Similar outrage was occasioned by Richard Strauss’s Salome, which premiered in 1907. In fact, according to Nicolas Slonimsky in his Lexicon of Musical Invective, nearly all the works now considered masterpieces—music that heralded or coalesced epochs—were routinely and sometimes savagely panned by the critics of their times. Beethoven’s ninth symphony, Schubert’s eighth, Mahler’s fifth, Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps, and others were consigned to the abyss before being canonized. Henry Pleasants emphatically argued the opposite: Monumental works were largely recognized and accepted as such in their own day, often to rhapsodic reviews. Regardless of who was right, the very fact that history lends itself to such widely differing interpretations implies that controversy was deeply embedded in its making.

There were 104 world premieres in the USA and Canada in the last concert season (2003-2004), 103 in the previous season, and 84 in the season before that. All of those that received press coverage were successes. In fact, all the works premiered in the past decade were successes, to some degree. Reviewers had disagreements, of course, but they remained just that—never escalating into active controversy. What appears to be happening? More importantly, what does this mean?

Controversy stems from opinion. The facts—what concretely took place in the concert hall—are usually incontrovertible. The crux of disagreement lies in what each critic thinks these facts imply, given his or her view of existing traditions and the future of classical music. Therefore, if controversy is declining, one of the causes could be a decline in expressed opinions.

Critical technique has undergone quite a radical shift since its inception in the 1700s. The earliest essays were usually impressionistic, sesquipedalian outpourings, lacking analytical rigor. As the field matured, criticism became increasingly evidentiary, with judgments extensively backed by examples and theoretical illustrations. The mid-1800s saw the emergence of luminaries like Huneker, Henderson, Krehbiel, Richard Aldrich, and Henry Mencken, who specialized in this form of interpretive journalism.

In time, however, writers progressed from merely supporting their normative evaluations to actively eschewing them in favor of reporting “the facts” in as much detail as possible. The review began to take over the critique. Virgil Thomson encapsulated the spirit of this movement in the 1950s: “Expression of opinion is incidental;” and again in the 1980s: “Nobody’s interested in what you think about something or feel about something. They want to know what took place, when and where, and what it was like…your main business is to report the musical life of your community.”

Now, Thomson’s aesthetic included implicit opinion—judgment that comes through in the manner in which one presents the facts and conducts the analysis—and his essays were eloquent testimony to this technique. However, this dimension gradually lost ground as opinions became ever more deeply implicit, and the currency of critical opinion depreciated massively against descriptive music journalism.

The dissolving borders between various stylistic schools—and, indeed, different musical genres—could be another factor that contributed to the increasing dearth of opinion after the 1980s. Composers move seamlessly from one idiom to another, making stylistic characterizations challenging, and normative evaluations even more so. For instance, Osvaldo Golijov’s brilliant St. Mark’s Passion, which premiered in 2000, combined elements of jazz, Latin American rhythmic structures, African choral inflections, Bach-inspired harmonizations, and very Mahler-esque orchestration. As critic Andrew Druckenbrod put it, “Composers today can create their own language without repercussions.” Under these circumstances, the path of least resistance is to give most new works a descriptive, neutral-positive or neutral-negative review, and hope that history will somehow make the judgment about its merits and aesthetics for us.

A combination of these dynamics results in a perspective like Village Voice critic Kyle Gann’s: “Music cannot be steered from its destined course to any great extent…in the end, there’s not that much difference between one opinion and another.” A belief that opinions don’t matter is their death knell—why take the risk of seeming Hanslickian if what you say makes no difference?

And the consequences? Well, an opinionated, positive critique by an influential critic may give a new work a few more hearings after the premiere, by convincing performers and audiences of its artistic value. It could make the work famous. A simultaneous, highly negative review will make it infamous, and generate champions even as it creates detractors—since a clear, analytical opinion can be actively argued against. The work will get discussed, talked about. This will get it a few more hearings. Taken together, this number of concerts will probably give it a fighting chance at survival. Even if it does not ascend to immortality, it would have been given a fair trial.

However, if a work is confronted by a descriptive, largely neutral review, it is condemned at once to Dantean oblivion, and relegated to the status of another interesting experiment. Recounting the effects produced by the violins and french horns cannot illuminate the nature of the work’s aesthetics, its quality, its merits, and the implications it might have on the future. A well-researched polemical judgment on their use can. Statements like “the section of lurking chaos was cleverly constructed” could be one of the reasons contemporary works seldom get programmed; audiences and programmers alike retreat into the safety of the canonical, unsure of what to make of anything else.

Of course, one could also argue that no truly groundbreaking pieces have been written in the past couple of decades, to inspire critics into active opinion and controversy. But the question is, given the literary trends of our times, would we even recognize one if it came along? Who creates destiny? What determines a work’s intrinsic or historical worth? If we accept that critics play at least some part in shaping its future, a weakening of critical opinion and controversial interest makes the “destined course” of music that much more uncertain. Even if a revolutionary work comes along, it might run the risk of being described into obscurity—irrevocably.