Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Two Music Critics

In the Pink Section of last Sunday's paper (November 2, 2014), in an article entitled "A Critic Worth Emulating," San Francisco Chronicle classical music critic Joshua Kosman wrote a comparison of two of the most esteemed English-language music critics -- George Bernard Shaw and Virgil Thomson.  This article was originally published online with the title "Rubin Institute for Music Criticism hits a critical note in S.F." (October 30, 2014) on the occasion of a conference on music criticism currently taking place at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Virgil Thomson has been called a "music critic of singular brilliance" by Nicholas Slonimsky (in Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians).  Given that Thomson was a Pulitzer prize-winning composer as well as a venerable music critic for New York Herald Tribune, such an accolade may seem fitting.  Yet Kosman does not concur.  He finds Thomson's criticism uncreative and  unsubstantial, faulting it for a "lack of description or substantive discussion."  For Kosman, Thomson is "a virtual paragon of how not to practice music criticism."

Bernard Shaw, on the contrary, is the model of a music critic.  "Shaw's writings are fearless ... yet genial in their tone."  Kosman praises Shaw's tone and avoidance of technical language.  While not always in agreement with his judgments, Kosman sees Shaw's work as an examplar of true criticism:
The job of the critic is not to be “right” (especially not when “right” means “in sync with someone else’s opinion”), but to make his or her case persuasively and with conviction. Shaw did that every week.
Here, Mr. Kosman also makes his case persuasively and with conviction.  But, of course, you need not take a critic's word for any of this.  You can go to the sources to read and evaluate the works of both men yourself.  The Library awaits with a number of books collecting the writings of George Shaw and Virgil Thomson.  While here you can also check out the writing many contemporary music critics like Alex Ross, Alan Rich, Kyle Gann, and Tim Page.

Works by Bernard Shaw:

How to Become a Musical Critic, edited with an introduction by Dan H. Laurence (Hill and Wang, 1961).

Music in London, 1890-94 (Constable and Company Limited, 1932)

The Perfect Wagnerite; A Commentary on the Niblung's Ring (Dover Publications, 1967).

The Great composers: Reviews and Bombardments; edited with an introduction by Louis Crompton (University of California Press, 1978).

Shaw's Music: The Complete Musical Criticism in Three Volumes; edited by Dan H. Laurence (Dodd, Mead, 1981).


Works by Virgil Thomson:

The Art of Judging Music (A. A. Knopf, 1948).

Music, Right and Left (Holt, 1951).

The Musical Scene (A. A. Knopf, 1945).

A Virgil Thomson Reader; with an introduction by John Rockwell (Houghton Mifflin, 1981).

Virgil Thomson: A Reader: Selected Writings, 1924-1984, edited by Richard Kostelanetz (Routledge, 2002).

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