Thursday, December 19, 2013


In an editorial in the Sunday NYTimes of Dec. 15 Maureen Dowd expresses impatience with the be-nice culture of never saying anything critical about anything.  She points out that such criticism is essentially dishonest; that it is really thinly disguised advertisement.

I found it remarkable because she is employed by a newspaper whose policy in arts coverage has been to a great degree to print criticism of that nice-whether-you-mean-it-or-not category.  In at least two instances that come readily to mind the critic had decidedly critical things to say about the performance but ended up noticing how many people were in the audience, or how the audience reacted, or some such irrelevant nonsense.

The audience at last week's boring Baroque performance was large and clapped loudly.  It merely indicated to me that they recognized same-old and appreciated not having to pay attention.

The Half-Light and Tone

The notion of the half-heard is powerful.  We find it in the Forgotten Waltzes of Liszt, in the many musical renderings of falling asleep from Vivaldi to Schumann.  It is a quality of sound that cannot be written down.

But Schumann makes it almost impossible to miss, sometimes by his titles, which might be *  *  *  (sorry that I cannot align them properly in this computer program) or by dynamic markings that make no sense in terms of conventional sound because they are simply "too" soft, or because they interrupt what might otherwise be perfectly sensible phrasings.

This morning I was discussing this quality with a casual acquaintance, a professional musician with whose work I am completely unfamiliar.  He described this quality as madness.  I wouldn't put it that way.  For one thing, that makes it too easy to write off as simply the work of a madman--a tendency that people have every time Schumann brings them face to face with something they do not readily grasp.