Sunday, December 31, 2017

critical lump

John Simon on Music: Criticism, 1979-2005 (Applause, 2005)

I collect books of classical music criticism, but I'd missed this one, and now I see why.

To begin with, it'd be more accurately called "John Simon on Opera," as that's 90% of the subject matter. He also manages to avoid discussing any of the few operas I know anything about, so I skipped over most of this. If you like Janáček operas, you'll be better served.

There's also more than a bit about art song. Elsewhere Simon admits to a dislike for choral music, which would strike me as a severe handicap for an opera critic.

Near the beginning (the contents are in chronological order) are some book reviews which consist of nothing but snide and catty attacks on the reputations of the subjects of the memoirs or biographies reviewed (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Daniel Barenboim, Leonard Bernstein).

Later on are some more appreciative but rather dull articles, not focusing on opera, in praise of some slightly overlooked composers: Manuel de Falla, Jacques Ibert, Nino Rota (!). There's also one on what he calls "two pioneer women composers" despite the fact that he'd begun by mentioning several who long predate them: Amy Beach and Rebecca Clarke. Beach was the only woman in a group of turn-of-the-20C composers known as the Second New England School, and not even the most outstanding among this group of uneminent worthies. Clarke, English but with many American connections, is a much better composer but rather stringently modernist for my taste. My candidate for the first great American woman composer is Florence Price, but nobody writes about her.

There's also an article on the Shostakovich wars, in which Simon gets the right answer - Volkov's Testimony is a fake - but with advocates like this, justice doesn't need enemies. Simon actually thinks that Shostakovich's secret rebel status can be disproved by quoting from his groveling letters of thanks to Stalin and citing his service on official commissions. But the Volkov story is built around the disguises you needed to survive: evidently Simon missed the word "secret" in there. Volkov is a fake, but his thesis is more grossly overstated than entirely wrong.

This is going back to the library without regrets.

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