MUSICAL INVECTIVE

Nicolas, Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven's Time, University of Washington Press, 1965

The subtitle says it all. This is a delightful and useful reference book, a treasure trove of malicious vilification. The very fact that there is so much of it is in itself astonishing, and its intensity is no less so. Obviously, the book is a plentiful source of quotable quotes, but it is also entertaining to read. The ruthlessness of the critics is diverting (since it is aimed at somebody else) and this reader was bemused by their ferocity.

The book is well organized. The composers are arranged in alphabetic order. Texts not in English are given in the original French or German, and also translated into English. In addition to the usual index, there is an "Invecticon: Index of Vituperative, Pejorative, and Deprecatory Words and Phrases." The introduction is neatly divided into sections, each giving a few examples (also found in the body of the book) of specific kinds of insult.

I agree with some of the criticisms, vicious as they are, and I am sure other readers will have similar reactions. But there are some so objectively ridiculous and ignorant, that I wonder why they were published in the first place.
     Almost every composer was criticized for his lack of melody. But only a fool could write that, in Bizet's opera Carmen, "Of melody, as the term is generally understood, there is but little." (page 65)
     Another fool complained that Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess contains too many "song hits ... Yet they mar it. They are its cardinal weakness. They are the blemish upon its musical integrity." (page 105)
     Many critics denounced pieces of music as being meaningless. But only a blockhead could write: "If the best critics and orchestras have failed to find the meaning of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, we may well be pardoned if we confess our inability to find any." (page 48) Apparently, this critic had failed to notice that the chorus sang the intended meaning, in so many words.

One of the more amusing affronts was the "proposal" to change the name of a work in accordance with the writer's low opinion. One critic suggested that Debussy's La Mer [The Sea] be renamed Le Mal de Mer [Sea-Sickness] (page 95). Similarly, it was suggested that Wagner's Gotterdaemmerung [Twilight of the Gods] be renamed Goddamnerung [God Damn It] (page 246); that Schoenberg's Kammersymphonie [Chamber Symphony] be renamed Schreckenskammersymphonie [Chamber-of-Horrors Symphony] (page 154); and that Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps [The Rite of Spring] be renamed Massacre du Printemps [Massacre of Spring] (page 197).

Much of the criticism was trite and unimaginative: that the music is too modern, too dissonant (so that wrong notes would serve as well as the right ones), too mathematical, lacks melody, is ugly, formless, mere noise, meaningless, immoral, impotent, etc. But there were occasional lyrical, poetic eruptions of eloquence, that rivaled the beauty and originality of the music being maligned.
     Mahler: "drooling and emasculated simplicity" (page 120)
     Wagner: "the music of a demented eunuch" (page 239)
     Rachmaninoff: "like a mournful banqueting on jam and honey" (page 137) 
     Sibelius: "dissonant and doleful mutterings, generally leading nowhere" (page 179)
     Webern: "briefly vehement outbursts, as of a gnat enraged" (page 249) and "the trombone drops a tearful minor ninth (the amoeba weeps)" (page 250)
     Bartok: "The third movement began with a dog howling at midnight, proceeded to imitate the regurgitations of the less-refined or lower-middle-class type of water closet cistern, modulating thence into the mass snoring of a naval dormitory around dawn -- and concluded inconsequently with the cello reproducing the screech of an ungreased wheelbarrow." (page 41)

I am bothered by the fact that one of the finest gems of virulence is given in the original German, but not translated. Gottfried Weber criticized Beethoven in the journal Caecilia, writing that "he has desecrated the glorified object, Art, and himself." Beethoven scrawled a marginal note in his copy of the journal: "O du elender Schuft! Was ich scheisse, ist besser als du je gedacht!" (page 45) The translation, not given in the book: "Oh you miserable scoundrel! What I shit is better than what you think!" Perhaps Slonimsky was too squeamish to include it?

I find it suspicious that the book contains no attacks on Mendelssohn. Slonimsky's family were converted Jews. Perhaps he was also squeamish about this, avoiding anti-semitic attacks on Mendelssohn by Wagner, and later by Nazis. However, Mendelssohn did not escape attacks similar to those in the book. Wilfrid Mellers berated him for his "spurious religiosity," and George Bernard Shaw denounced him for his "kid-glove gentility, his conventional sentimentality, and his despicable oratorio-mongering."

It seems to me that the thirty-page introduction is inappropriate. It bears the title: "Non-Acceptance of the Unfamiliar: Prelude to a Lexicon" giving the impression that herein lies the explanation of the whole thing. This begs the question. It is a sort of politically-correct attempt to defuse the distressing nastiness of the criticisms, as if it were not a matter of dogmatism, nor envy, nor spite, nor simply anger at bad music -- but merely an unfortunate misunderstanding. It denies the book in advance.

On the other hand, there is not a word about the way that all this verbal abuse exposes the worthlessness of critics. The victims are unanimous in their condemnation, not of criticism, but of the critics themselves. Most despise them for being unable to do the things they dare to evaluate -- as someone said, like a eunuch in a harem. Most criticism is fault-finding for its own sake. Not one of the critics quoted in the book wrote that he was merely expressing his opinion. Without exception, they sat in judgement on the composers, and laid down the law.

Instead of the irrelevant introduction, I would have prefaced the book with two lines of poetry by Lord Byron:
     A man must serve his time to every trade
     Save censure -- critics all are ready made.