Harold C. Schonberg liked to sign his name with the initials HCS – translatable into music as B, C and E-flat. It was an appropriate gesture for a man who lived his life in the realm of music, but whose instrument was the typewriter. Schonberg was an old-school newspaperman, through and through, with ink under his fingernails (figuratively speaking). As a writer he was eloquent, but direct and to-the-point.
As Jean Sibelius famously quipped, nobody has ever erected a statue of a critic – and there is no monument to Schonberg anywhere. Perhaps there were people in the music business who bore a grudge against him. Or perhaps people had simply grown tired of him: by 1980, he had become the voice of musical conservatism in New York. Whatever the reason, his retirement as the Times’ senior music critic passed without much ado.
One essay that did appear at the time, “Harold C. Schonberg and his Times,” by Samuel Lipman in Commentary magazine (republished in his anthology The House of Music) proposed that “in today’s American musical world, only one review is taken seriously – that of the New York Times.” However, this was no bouquet thrown to Schonberg. Rather, Lipman argued that Schonberg owed his stature as a critic to the stature of Times itself, as the “newspaper of record.” He did, however, credit Schonberg with “good ears.” (You can read Lipman’s article here.)
It’s not widely known that, in 1984, Schonberg accepted a one-year teaching post at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, not far from Toronto. The university had recently launched a master’s program in music criticism. (In hindsight, this was a quixotic enterprise, given the state that professional music criticism has fallen into nowadays. The program was discontinued a few years ago.)
I was one of the first students to enroll, and the program brought me face to face with HCS – one of the most broadly knowledgeable musicians I have ever met (and I have no qualms about calling him a musician). His seminars could be intimidating, and I think he was surprised at how little real-world experience his students had. I recall one occasion when he asked us to propose a “dream cast” for Aida, drawn from world’s best opera singers. He was met by blank stares. Most of the students, myself certainly included, had never seen the opera, and didn’t know much about the leading singers of the day.
Yet I don’t think he was trying to be intimidating. On the contrary, there was a unpretentious modesty about the man. I once asked him what he thought his greatest influence on the musical life of New York was in his decades at the Times. He thought for a moment, and replied, “I think I got the Philharmonic to move their concerts from eight-thirty back to eight o’clock. Sometimes I couldn’t stay to the end of the last piece on the program, because my review had to be written by eleven.” His point was that he really didn’t think he was very influential at all.
Of course, he was well aware that many people thought he wielded enormous power – and I once heard him articulate an elaborate theory as to why this was so. “Whenever a manager decides he wants to get rid of musician on his roster,” Schonberg proposed, “he waits for a poor review from me. Then he calls the musician into his office and says, ‘Sorry, kid, but with a review like this from the Times, there’s nothing I can do for your career. I can’t represent you any more.’ The poor musician leaves the office cursing my name, not his manager’s.”
Back in 1984, I was young and brash, and willing to challenge Schonberg when I felt I could so from a safe position. “Do you suppose,” I asked, “that there could be great yet unknown composers from past centuries, whose works are gathering dust on library shelves, but who might someday be discovered?” (This was my way of gingerly questioning Schonberg’s commitment to a fixed musical canon.) “No, I don’t,” he said. End of discussion.
As the titles of two his books – Lives of the Great Composers and The Great Pianists – suggest, Schonberg was fascinated with the idea of greatness. He embraced and thrived on the concept, as much as many musicologists today shun it like the plague. His seminars were often based on old recordings of “the greats”: Vladimir de Pachmann, Enrico Caruso, and other names out of history. He also argued that even though there were no recordings of Liszt or Brahms (except, in the case of Brahms, for one unlistenable wax cylinder), there were enough recordings of these composers’ pupils to give a good indication of how they wanted their music performed.
In this way, he was exploring the idea of “authenticity.” However, Schonberg was no great devotee of the Early Music movement. Indeed, he liked to chide some historically informed musicians for their dry, inexpressive playing. He believed that the musical practices and values of the 18th century were not so very different from those of the present day, and there was no need to establish a special performance style for baroque music.
He was also no contemporary-music enthusiast. It was his misfortune to live through the heyday of the high-modernists – Stockhausen, Boulez, Carter, et al. – and I don’t think he ever had any real affinity for their music. Indeed, he once told me that whenever he heard a bizarre musical concoction at a concert, and was buttonholed by the composer, who wanted to know what he thought of it, he would reply, “I don’t want to say too much, because I haven’t written my review yet. But I will say that I believe you’re a romantic at heart.” The composer was sent on his way, invariably beaming with delight – unaware that the critic had pulled his leg with an ironic little test. Schonberg always felt that a sincerely committed avant-gardiste should be offended by being labelled a romantic.
To be sure, there was a scrappy side to him, and he boasted about his various run-ins with the mighty of the musical world. He accused Rudoph Bing, general director of the Metropolitan Opera, with “artistic abdication” for his tried-and-true repertoire choices, and questioned the purpose of building a new opera house at Lincoln Center for such a company. He was proud that Bing tried (and failed) to get him fired several times.
Schonberg also had some very specific ideas about the sort of people who should be critics. One of his pet peeves was music critics who were also composers – and he made it crystal clear that he could offer no encouragement for my own career aspirations as a critic-composer. “I once fired a man at the Times for writing a piece of music and getting it performed,” he pointedly told me. For him, any crossing of boundaries in the music profession smacked of conflict of interest. He had no respect for the integrity of Virgil Thomson, who wrote criticism at the Herald Tribune even as he strove for success as a composer.
But even though I have never exactly fit the model of a critic that Schonberg put forward, I am certain that it is largely thanks to him that I’ve been able to earn a living for most of the last three decades by writing about music. And, frankly, I have no idea what I would have done with myself professionally, if I didn’t sign up for an obscure master’s program in 1984 in Hamilton, where I met him.
So happy birthday, HCS! Wherever you are these days, I hope the music meets with your approval!
© Colin Eatock 2015