Saturday, May 16, 2015

Destructive criticism

Lately I have been listening my way through the podcast editions of B.B.C. Radio 3's 'Composer of the Week'.  They are wonderful programmes and Donald Macleod's warm, clear and conversational voice welcomes in even those unversed in musical theory or history, bringing the composers to life in the ear.

One effect of hearing several editions in fairly quick succession is a growing sensation that this calling to write music, made as it is to people of all kinds of circumstances and characters, as 'Composer of the Week' shows, is felt remarkably similarly by all those who hear it.  There are outbursts of fruitfulness followed by dry patches; there are projects carried off triumphantly or abandoned in despair; there are works forged in weeks or left unfinished even after a lifetime.  And there is never any barometer: changes of scene or fallings in love sometimes produce a great harvest, and sometimes not, and of course it is the same with sorrow and despair. 

That said, there is one fairly reliable threat to a composer's muse, and that is unfavourable criticism.  The effects of an ill-received performance seem often quite extreme, to the extent that composers have fallen into weeks, months, even years of silence or sparseness: this happened to Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Herbert Howells. Almost the only composer completely immune to this seems to have been Gustav Holst, who cared not a fig either way!

Howells' second piano concerto (second movement below; here are the first and third) had been a strong candidate for my Desert Island for some time before I discovered that, at its premiere in 1925, a critic evidently forgot the second commandment and audibly thanked God that the performance was over.  For all that the man in question apparently had a reputation for this sort of conduct, Howells could not overcome the block that followed, which was to be redoubled in 1933 by the sudden and unforeseeable death of his son, aged nine, from polio.  When he did return to composing, it was not to orchestral music as before, but to the choral music for which he is now best known.  The second piano concerto - this mellow, shadowy, tender music! - was left to gather the dust of oblivion until after his death.

Does this happen because of petulance, spoiledness or childishness?  The last is closest, I think: I would say that it is a kind of childlikeness that is in fact excusable, understandable, and even essential to the artist's calling.   G. K. Chesterton is supposed to have said (though I cannot just find where) that a composer cannot merely 'get his music out of his head', but has also to 'get it into somebody else's'.  (This is a godsend for those of us flummoxed by the question, 'What is art?'!).  Just as a child lavishes pictures and other creations on parents, the artist's vocation is not only to set down beauty but also to share it with others; this is what the composer does in allowing a work to be performed.  

If a performance 'fails', it is because the exchange of beauty is not made and something has misfired between composer, musicians and audience.  Whichever of these three is to blame, it the composer (of good will) who feels the wound most personally and most keenly.  In spite of a concert's ceremonial and public nature, the listeners are really the composer's guests,  for whose delight he has generously provided heart-felt music.  They are gathered by the very mind's hearth.  No wonder that careless words can wreak so much damage.

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