In a recent review of “Listen to This,” by Alex Ross, Norman Lebrecht is critical of what is not present in the book: dislike. Perhaps Ross should develop a third volume called “Don’t Listen to This.”
“Great critics are measured more by their courage to be disliked,” wrote Lebrecht, “by their capacity for dishing it out and taking the inevitable backlash, by their willingness to face the music.[…] The greatest critics do not mind being proved wrong.”
Critics do need to be independent and willing to state unpopular views. But is that the most important means by which they should be measured? This would be like defending the entries in Slonimsky’s “Lexicon of Musical Invective” by noting that it took courage to express those views which have been soooo “proven wrong.”
“Eduard Hanslick,” writes Lebrecht, “is better remembered for caustically hating Wagner in 19th-century Vienna than for tamely admiring Brahms.” Maybe, but Hanslick also wrote that the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is music “which stinks to the ear.” Shouldn’t Hanslick be remembered instead for “On the Beautiful in Music,” one of the great early texts on aesthetics?
It is insights that one seeks, not likes or dislikes. Value judgment seems less important than rationale. I am less interested in what Ross dislikes than I am in his insights.
Many of the best insights in the Lebrecht review are positive:
“Ross is an avowed buff. He loves music with a nerdish obsession and he wants you to love it as much he does. […] Ross drew creative links between serious and popular music. Music is music, he argues. […] Ross is also credited with […] making new music an acceptable topic of dinner-table conversation.”
I would like to see Ross invest his charisma in deeper levels of analysis. To go beyond the journalistic into the kind of thinking represented by a book like “On the Beautiful in Music.”
Still, it is the educational potential in both books by Ross that makes them worthy. One imagines that people who are fascinated by other styles of music might pick up one of these Ross books and join the conversation with those of us who find energy, and relevance, in classical music.
I enjoy both Lebrecht and Ross; I am so sorry.