[REPOST] Criticism

So apparently there was this music critic named Paul Rosenfeld, who was
active from about 1920 to his death in 1946. I found an anthology of
his essays at a used book shop, his name resonated faintly and vaguely,
and I brought him home to see what he had to say.

Who was it was just dragging up the old saw about de mortuis nil nisi

So let’s be clear that I am not talking about Mr. Rosenfeld as a person,
but about his work, which is (to use a word that is presently
fashionable) horrific. Metonymy happens.

For example, there is an essay about Bruckner, and there is an essay
about Mahler. Rosenfeld liked Bruckner. He didn’t like Mahler.
Rosenfeld’s slightly-older counterpart in Boston, Philip H. Goepp, liked
Mahler, but didn’t like Bruckner. Well and fine. Both gentlemen were
entitled to their tastes. Opposite tastes. Interestingly opposite?
Uninterestingly opposite? That brings up what they were not
entitled to: they were not entitled to conceal, from their readers, the
fact that they were talking about their own individual taste. This is
not because it isn’t falling-down easy to tell: it is. It is because
the only way their thoughts could have been made interesting is if they
had started right off by saying I don’t like this; therefore let
us see if we can analyze my reactions to it, which may
resonate with yours or may strike you as foolish and unworthy –
taking the risk that, by the time I am done, they may also strike me
as foolish and unworthy. Pronouns, people; pronouns.

Rosenfeld, with uncanny anticipation, tries to defend himself against me
by playing the Magnard card. It feels almost caddish to knock it out of
his hand. He doesn’t really say anything about Magnard; he just
points out the brutally obvious fact that Magnard’s symphonies don’t get
played. But this brings up the key fact about Paul Rosenfled, which is

he never really says anything about anything. He starts off each
essay with an improbable verbal gesture, which grabbed his readers’
attention 80 years ago and can still do so today; but then he reels off
some quantity of Rosenfeldese, which bears just enough resemblance to
one particular meta-style of highly-cultivated English to blind us to
the fact that it is mostly inane.

Rosenfeld didn’t like Richard Strauss. He prays in aid the fact that
Stravinsky didn’t either. Eum quoque? (Rosenfeld gives no source;
the editor’s footnote quotes one of Stravinsky’s “conversation” books,
published after Rosenfeld’s death.)

But the horrifying thing about all this is that this was what was
expected of music criticism at the time. The purpose is clearly to
equip his readers to strut with borrowed feathers: to be able to “talk”
“about” “music” at social functions, to string verbal talismans
together. I have a vision of someone in a Peter Arno cartoon playing
the Magnard card, and it is enough to make me ill.

(originally posted 11 May 2017)

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