The Passionate Adventurers
Strange are the workings of the Fates. A couple of weeks ago, as I rummaged through the collected writings of Olin Downes in search of his adulatory bloviations on the matter of Jan Sibelius, the telephone rang with the news of Harold Schonbergs death. Olin Downes had been chief music critic at The New York Times from 1923 to 1955. Harold Schonberg had held that post from 1960 to 1980. It was Harold who had given me my first leg up in New York; I was at the Times for two years starting in 1961 until the Herald-Tribune made me an offer I couldnt refuse. Everybody knew that the Trib was close to the end of its illustrious lifetime, but Harold rightly insisted that I take the job if only, he said, so that I can be writing against a pro for once. We were on good terms then, but that didnt last. Harold didnt take to being disagreed with in print; he didnt, for example, like being ragged about his famous disemboweling of Glenn Gould on the day of the Brahms Concerto. (Maybe the reason he plays it so slow, Harold had written in a strange and ill-conceived review couched in an affected East European accent, is that his technique is not so good.)
Enthroned at the Times, Harold was the last of a breed, of critics at that august journal whose power over lives of rising young musicians, of established virtuosos and of composers native-born or imported was that of chief justice or, at times, of Lord High Executioner. The breed had achieved its first full glory in the time of Olin Downes, who never wrote alone but always as half of the team known as the editorial we. The Almighty God was the other half. Downes had first wielded his scepter at the Boston Post as long ago as 1906, when Boston and New York were pretty much cultural equals. He held his throne when Gustav Mahler and Arturo Toscanini shared the Metropolitan Opera podium, when Richard Strauss was the dangerous young upstart and Stravinskys Rite of Spring boded ill for the future of mankind.
Downes found greater comfort in the lush upholstery of the Sibelius orchestra. He heard Debussys La Mer at its American premiere with misgivings (to us this music lacks the vast, elemental tone); he found more to praise in the clear-eyed neoclassicism of Ravel. No critic in this country and perhaps only Eduard Hanslick in Europe held so much power while so much of the substance of classical repertory was taking shape. At the end, music had pretty much left him behind. In 1948, in the collected writings, there is a pathetic exchange of correspondence between Downes and Arnold Schoenberg, brought on by the formers abject detestation of Mahlers Seventh Symphony: the one correspondent unable to cope with where music had gotten to in Mahlers late works, the other unable to cope with the possibility that criticism might consist of the nay as well as the yea.
Harold dissolved the partnership of the editorial we, but he could never go as far as identifying himself in the first person singular. He imposed an absurd clumsiness whereby the I in an interview always had to be a visitor, and until late in his hegemony you couldnt use the word cello without preceding it with an apostrophe. He had one other bugaboo, which may have cost the musical world some important critical thinking. The notion that a critic could also be a composer was anathema to him; never mind the precedents set by Berlioz, Schumann, Debussy and others. He couldnt accept the possibility of a fair hearing by one practitioner of anothers work, and in at least one instance while I was at the Times, he obliged a writer of exceptional brilliance, and of the exceptional insight into contemporary music that Harold himself lacked, to choose between hats and, therefore, to leave the Times. (One of the first things I did at the Trib was to give that writer-composer, Eric Salzman, a job.)
He did, of course, have support for his attitude. Back in the 1940s and 50s, the Trib had a staff of critics that was a veritable beehive of composers: Virgil Thomson as the queen bee, and Lou Harrison, Arthur Berger, Paul Bowles among the workers. (Interesting trivia note: Berger, Harold and I were all, at one time in our careers, part-timers for the long-gone, unremembered New York Sun.) Thomson did, indeed, gain somewhat naughtily from his position; performances of his own music became much more frequent after his accession, and performers who favored his music got to see their names in print more often than before. (Look at Betty Freemans photograph; this is the glare of a man you dont mess with, or dare to ignore.) Was this blatant misuse of power on Thomsons part? Maybe so, maybe no; more important, it seems to me, is the wisdom contained in Virgil Thomsons collected writings, the insights of a man who, from his own vantage point well inside the art of music, was therefore singularly well equipped to penetrate everything around him. (Thomsons writings, by the way, are still in print; those of Olin Downes are not.)
Harolds writings are also still in print, though not, alas, his one collection of Times reviews. But there are books on performers pianists, conductors, Vladimir Horowitz that underscore the greatest of his passions, the indefinable dynamic that makes one performer sublime and another a klutz. Another of his arguable phobias was the notion of critics and performers becoming friends; there was more to be gained, he claimed, by avoiding the appearance of conflict of interest than by learning one anothers innards. His personal Great Exception, by the way, was his vaunted pride in having played piano duets with Horowitz whose name, by the way, no junior critic at the Times was ever allowed even to whisper in print. (Heifetz, too, fell under that rubric, but thats another story.) Harold loved everything about the piano, everything about romantic, flamboyant musicianship (Jorge Bolet, sí; Alfred Brendel, no). Baseball was another passion, and he could rattle on about todays World Series game while typing out a letter-perfect 600-word review in no time flat.
Anatole France described criticism as the adventures of the mind among masterpieces. Writing about Harolds adventuring, I see Ive used the word passion quite a lot. There is no other way.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.