Critic / Author  Robert  C.  Marsh

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Robert C(harles) Marsh, American music critic; b. Columbus, Ohio, Aug. 5, 1924. He took courses in journalism (B.S., 1945) and philosophy (A.M., 1946) at Northwestern Univ. In 1946–47 he was a Sage fellow at Cornell Univ., where he received training in theory from Robert Palmer. He pursued postgraduate studies at the Univ. of Chicago (1948), and then studied at Harvard Univ. (Ed.D., 1951), where he also attended Hindemith’s lectures (1949–50). After attending the Univ. of Oxford (1952–53), he studied musicology with Thurston Dart and theory of criticism with H.S. Middleton at the Univ. of Cambridge (1953–56).

He taught social sciences at the Univ. of Illinois (1947–49), was a lecturer in the humanities at Chicago City Junior Coll. (1950–51), and asst. prof. of education at the Univ. of Kans. (1951–52). After serving as visiting prof. of education at the State Univ. of N.Y. (1953–54), he taught the humanities at the Univ. of Chicago (1956–58). He was contributing ed. of High Fidelity magazine (1955–66; 1971–77). He served as music critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1956 to 1991. In addition to his music reviews and books, he contributed articles on music to various literary and philosophical publications, and wrote liner notes for numerous LPs. His books on music comprise Toscanini and the Art of Orchestral Performance (1956; 2nded., rev., 1962 as Toscanini and the Art of Conducting), The Cleveland Orchestra (1967), Ravinia (1987), James Levine at Ravinia (1993), and Dialogues and Discoveries: James Levine, His Life and His Music (1998).

He died in May, 2002.

In preparation for a program on WNIB to mark his sixty-fifth birthday, we sat down for a chat . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   What is the purpose of music criticism?
Robert C. Marsh:   I said for a long time that the basic purpose of music criticism is to make the critics superfluous.  They are there to create an audience that is so well informed, and has such remarkably high levels of perception and taste that it does not need to look to anyone other than self-guidance.

BD:   Are you being successful?

RCM:   The audience in Chicago has changed remarkably in the last thirty years.  I’m not saying it’s changed because of me.  Obviously, I may have had some role in this, but I think Chicago listeners today are much more sophisticated than they used to be.  They will accept, without a whimper, things that would have been totally unimaginable thirty years, such as that Lyric production of Lulu [by Alban Berg] a couple of seasons back.

BD:   So this is good that they’re expanding their horizons?

RCM:   Oh yes, very definitely.  In fact, the tendency today is that the audience as a whole is ahead of the music producers.  The music producers are lagging behind.  Thinking again of that same Lyric season, the administrators were very skeptical about how Lulu and Satyagraha [by Philip Glass] were going to go.  In fact, they did better than a great many repertory things that they were offering at the same time.

BD:   Is there is no chance that maybe, because they were novelties and titillated some imaginations, they would do better even though they were out of the main stream?

RCM:   Not necessarily.  That certainly can be a factor, but then there are other novelties that don’t do too well.  Tancredi [by Rossini] was also a novelty, but that took some pretty heavy selling in order to make it a success.  The Philip Glass and the Alban Berg pieces took off pretty solidly on their own.

BD:   Are there other works like that, either at Lyric Opera or the Chicago Symphony, that will draw those kinds of crowds, or are we still a little leery of that kind of programming?

RCM:   The operatic audience in Chicago is more adventurous than the symphonic audience.  In many respects, the most adventurous audience of all
though a rather small oneis the chamber music audience over at Chamber Music Chicago.  They perhaps may put up with too much, but in any case they certainly don’t have any reluctance to listen to new things, and that’s quite extraordinary.
BD:   Now you say put up with too much.  What is too much?

RCM:   Well, the English Ukulele Orchestra was too much!  [Both laugh]  I really couldn’t see spending a lot of money to bring over that kind of group.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  Is that not helping to blur the line between so-called serious music, or concert music, and either lighter fair or more entertaining music?

RCM:   It depends.  This is the standard argument, of course, but you need a fairly large sample of cases to come to any solid conclusions.  Ravinia, for example, for many, many years has been talking about a crossover between its popular and jazz events, and its symphony concerts.  About a week or so ago, I went out to Ravinia for a jazz concert.  It was a good jazz concert and had a wonderful program.  I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that they didn’t have a proper place in the Ravinia schedule, but the faces were practically all new to me.  I didn’t see much crossover taking place there.  It seemed to me that the jazz people were coming to hearing jazz, and the symphony people were coming to hear a symphony, and the level of interaction was actually quite low.  I’m not sure how many people who came to hear the English Ukulele Orchestra, will ever show up to hear the Vermeer Quartet.  I’m not saying there aren’t some.  I just say we don’t know it.  It’s something that hasn’t been properly studied.

BD:   Should we try to blur these lines, or should we keep concert music for concert audiences, and jazz audiences for jazz concerts?

RCM:   I’m all in favor of eliminating anything that looks like an artificial barrier.  I just finished reading Jean-Pierre Rampal’s autobiography, and he talks about what may well be the first crossover record, the Bolling Suite [shown above-right].  Apparently, they took the master copy, and some brilliant merchandising genius at RCA said, “Oh, nobody wants to listen to that kind of thing!” and turned it down.

BD:   I hope that guy got fired...

RCM:   [Laughs]  Mr. Rampal was offering hope that he had been.  So they took it over to CBS, which released it, and I gather it sold more than a million copies.  It’s just had a phenomenal sale.  So here was a huge public the existence of which was scarcely suspected by certain highly placed record executives.
BD:   Should we try to measure success in concert music by either sales of tickets or sales of records?

RCM:   No, but this is the kind of thing that easily impresses people nowadays.  Whether we like it or not, we are becoming victims to numbers.  Television did this to us with their rating system.  The ratings made sense to advertisers.  They have a perfect right to know how many people they are reaching with a show, just as people who advertise in newspaper have a right to know what the circulation is.  But it’s got us involved in the most dubious kind of aesthetics, where more is necessarily better, and minorities or minority tastes are unimportant.  Of course, if you start using television numbers, 31,000 subscribers at Lyric Opera are a minority.

BD:   A drop in the bucket.

RCM:   Right, a drop in the bucket compared to what you presumably would rake in with a climactic episode of Dallas.  So, when we’re getting into that kind of situation, we’re easily tending towards absolutely nonsensical lines of reasoning.

BD:   How can we avoid getting into this?

RCM:   The numbers have to be taken relative to some sort of base.  In terms of sales of American opera companies, 31,000 subscribers to the Lyric is phenomenal.  So you have to establish a statistical perspective for each situation, and then see how the numbers go.  Selling a million classical records is still extraordinarily high.  You can wonder whether the Bolling Suite was the first million-seller classical record, or was it Jalousie with the Boston pops [shown at left]?  Is that a classical record?  It’s a nice tune, but a million market penetration of a new recording of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony would really be rather phenomenal.  A million market penetration of a new recording of the Beethoven Op. 131 Quartet would be unbelievable, and we are still, alas, a long way from that.

BD:   That would then encourage the record producers to come out with yet another Beethoven Ninth, or another Op. 131 to catch the 800,000 who would want to get yet another.

RCM:   Yes, but if it’s good, it’s not important.  If they’re duplications of quality material, then they are valuable.  You could question how far it should go.  To point to another ridiculous situation, many years ago, when Roger Sessions (1896-1985) was passing through town, I said it was absolutely absurd that we had something like thirty complete editions of the Beethoven symphonies, and not one complete edition of the symphonies of Roger Sessions.  Sessions deserved at least one.  I don’t think he wanted, or even dreamed of having two, but one certainly made excellent sense.

BD:   Now you bring up the idea of new composers, or American composers, deserving a set of their recordings.  Do many, or most, or only a few composers deserve this, and where do we make the distinction?

RCM:   In an ideal world, we would have foundation money, or even government money, that when, in the opinion of a reasonable committee of peers, a composer had arrived at a certain level of importance, the money would be available to underwrite a complete edition of this sort.  The irony is we have the complete symphonies of Aaron Copland because he only wrote three.  [Both laugh]

BD:   On the other hand, he has written a lot of other music, and all of that is documented.

RCM:   Oh yes.  Copland has not faired very badly at all in the hands of the record makers because he always sold.  Roy Harris and Walter Piston, two very important composers of that same period, have not had anything like comparable good fortune.  There’s no complete edition of either man.

BD:   There are some things around...

RCM:   Oh yes, there are some things around, but it’s fascinating.  For example
and this is a real piece of triviathe first commercial recording of a symphony by an American composer was the First Symphony (Symphony 1933) of Roy Harris.  It was recorded by Serge Koussevitzky in concert in Carnegie Hall with the Boston Symphony in 1934.  Apparently, he was between contracts with RCAVictor as it was called in those daysand some enterprising soul at Columbia said, “Can we record this thing?”  The Boston people said OK, and they ran over to Carnegie Hall and hung up a microphone and made the record.  It went into the Columbia catalogueas 78s in those daysand had a modest sale.  But it was a prestige thing for Columbia when it was getting started.  It was the Boston Symphony, and it was an eminent conductor, and it was a piece of American music.  [The label for one of the seven 78 rpm sides in the set is shown below-right.  The work ran 26 minutes, so it would later fit comfortably on one side of an LP.  More recently, it has appeared with other works on CD, and is now available as a download.]  It would be delightful if any time a major American orchestra was playing a major American score, someone from some source hung up the microphone and did a take.  Out of this we could get some complete editions.

Many, or even most of the orchestras these days have broadcasts, either on NPR or on the various commercial stations.  Is there no hope that eventually some of these can be taken out of the vaults and issued to the public?

RCM:   There’s a lot of material there, and I suspect the first thing that will need to be done is have it all systematically catalogued, so that somebody knows who has what.  Then they can take a look and see where the gaps are.  Then, if there’s an important piece that has not been recorded, someone could think of putting it into the repertory for a season so that a recording could be made.
BD:   Has this not happened with the Harold Shapero Symphony for Classical Orchestra in Los Angeles?

RCM:   Yes!  But relative to other things foundations and governments are spending money on, this is a drop-in-the-bucket project, and if it were done systematically over a period of ten years, it would be quite extraordinary what would be made available to us as a result.  There’s an interesting article in Symphony Magazine saying that the CD has had a very desirable effect on recording by American orchestras, because the CD is turning all this into a counterpart of table-top publishing with a computer.  With the CD, anybody can go into the record business.  All you have to do is make a master tape, and submit it to the relatively small number of people that actually know how to produce these things.  There’s a certain standard industry format of how they want it submitted, so all you have to do is get the music on tape, and give it to the other guy who does all the production for you, and back come the records.

BD:   One doesn’t have to go through any of the big monolithic companies?

RCM:   That’s right, and the effect of this is that the small label is once more very important, just as small labels were in the early days of the LP.  Back then, most of the records were actually pressed by Columbia, but they were happy to make money on its pressing plant.  If you came to them with a tape, they would make a master disc, and dyes, and stamp as many of them as you wanted, and you were in business.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We’ve been dancing around this, so I want to get right to the heart of the question about greatness in music.  What, for you, determines whether a piece of music is great?

RCM:   The intensity and importance of what it has to communicate.  Obviously this is something very highly subjective, and these are things which are very difficult to judge on a first impression.  The importance of the communication is perhaps best understood after you’ve been listening to something for thirty or forty years.  Certainly, a great deal of music that I thought was terribly important twenty-five years ago, is of relatively little importance to me now, and works that I didn’t even know twenty-five years ago become very important to me.  Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) had a wonderful phrase... he selects and specializes in music that is better than it ever can be played, which is just to say music that seems to have such an exhaustible amount of content, no matter how long you work at it, and no matter how many times you play it, no matter how much thought and care and love you give to it, somehow, by some miraculous means, more is always coming out.

BD:   You never plumb the depths of it?

RCM:   The depths are never plumbed, and it takes a while to discover what those pieces are for you personally.  I’ll give you an example.  In the earliest days when I was listening to serious music
which is to say fifty years agoI always enjoyed Mozart piano concertos.  There was never a time when I didn’t see Mozart pianos concertos as marvelous works, but it’s only in the last few years that I have really begun to understand how wonderful Mozart piano concertos really are.  Part of this has come from the study of the scores.  When you look at the printed music, and appreciate it with the eye as well as with the ear, you see the extraordinary skill with which Mozart put these things together.  It becomes incredibly fresh and exciting to discover, even if you’re encountering a piece you may have been listening to for half a century.

BD:   But should the music be something that you have to look at to really understand, or should it be a purely aural experience?

RCM:   A great lot of music reveals itself as a purely aural experience.  All that looking at the score does is intensify and clarify what you really heard.  You may be perfectly aware that some things were remarkable effects, but when you see them on paper, when you see how it’s done, then it may be even more impressive.

BD:   It’s not like a magician, that revealing the secret destroys the illusion?

RCM:   No, in music it’s the other way round.  The more you know, the more you understand.

BD:   Some years ago, another critic, Bernard Jacobson always sat with the score in front of him.

RCM:   [Laughs]  That’s just because he had a poor memory.  I’ve been recalling the summer of 1967, when I was finishing the page make-up of my Cleveland Orchestra book [shown below-left].  George Szell was to take the Cleveland Orchestra on what proved to be his last European tour, and when he played the programs through, he always needed people in the house to ask questions about balance and things like that.  He wanted to have reliable ears at the back of the house, so if something didn’t sound precisely right on the stage, he wanted to know how it sounded someplace else.  It’s very difficult to balance an orchestra from the conductor’s position.  You’re much too close.

BD:   I would think that would actually be the worst position, because you’re right in there amongst the strings.

RCM:   Yes.  So the tour programs were played to an audience that consisted of his associate conductor, Louis Lane, his conducting assistant, James Levine, and me.  It was a wonderful experience.  Of course, Szell’s repertoire was very conservative, so if you needed a score for something standard
like a Brahms or a Beethoven symphonyyou lost face irrevocably.  These were pieces you were supposed to know, and when Dr. Szell said no, he meant no!  [Both laugh]  Fortunately I’ve been blessed with the ability to memorize music very quickly.

BD:   Even music you hear, but you haven’t seen the score?

RCM:   Yes, it works both ways.  For example, I had pretty well memorized quite a number of Puccini operas without a score because they were copyrighted and expensive.  A great deal of music can implant itself in the mind very solidly through the ear, and in fairly small details so that in a given passage, an alarm bell will ring, and you will know there’s not supposed to be a bassoon there.
BD:   Its really got to be played on the English horn?

RCM:   Yes!  But this has nothing to do with basic musicianship.  Koussevitzky was as incredible musician as we will ever see in this century, yet he had an appalling musical memory.  He just couldn’t memorize music.  He had to have the score in front of him.

BD:   Yet when he saw it, he could bring the music out of the score?

RCM:   Apparently, the instant his eye saw it, it came alive in his brain.  But he had to have that visual stimulus.

BD:   There was really no onus on him to have it all memorized?

RCM:   No, no, no, no!  It’s basically quite irrelevant.

BD:   Yet if we saw a pianist with a score, playing something either familiar or unfamiliar, we would be appalled.

RCM:   Oh, I don’t think so.  I don’t we see any reason why a pianist shouldn’t be able to use music if they want to.  I’d much rather they have the score than be making mistakes.  When Glenn Gould played his last Chicago recital, he had a huge piece of cardboard.  It must have had a miniature score, so he would have a whole Bach Partita all pasted up on the piece of cardboard so he didn’t have to turn pages.  To me this would be such a mess, that if you did get into trouble, how on earth would you find your place?  But he apparently found that highly reassuring.

BD:   Someone should come up with a tele-prompter with the score on it that would keep going at your pace.

RCM:   I don’t see any reason why someone can’t invent that.  Presumably the sales’ potential is too low, but there’s absolutely no reason why you couldn’t have a device of that sort.  [In 2022, this could be accomplished with a tablet.]  In fact, why don’t we carry it a little farther, and just have a huge screen at the back of the stage, where the conductor and all of us can see it.  Then if the oboe comes in early, everyone will be able to know!  [Hysterical laughter]

BD:   We now have supertitles in the opera houses.  Maybe we should have the running score on the side.

RCM:   I don’t see any reason why not.  [After more laughter, things settle down]  When I take a score, I find it a distraction.  You don’t want your eye to be down on the page.  You want your eye to be involved with the players.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What advice do you have for conductors, either young or old, in program planning, and musical execution?

RCM:   We should face the fact that we are dealing with an expanding repertoire.  A very large segment of the audience is very open to an expanding repertoire, and the resistance to new pieces is probably at an all time low.  A very peculiar thing happened in music about mid-[twentieth]-century.  Historically, music has always gone forward by new pieces coming and becoming repertoire.  But around the middle of this century, there was a resistance for the repertoire to expand. Virgil Thomson, music critic of the New York Herald Tribune used to complain bitterly about the constant repetition of what he called ‘the fifty famous pieces’, and said there was an urgent need for the repertoire to expand.  But because of this hesitation to add a large quantity of twentieth-century music, it expanded backwards.  Composers like Mahler and Bruckner, for example, who had not really been solidly in the American repertoire in the early half of the century, suddenly became repertoire staples.  It also expanded with the enormous influx of Baroque music.  When I was first going to concerts, Vivaldi was practically an unknown composer, because, for a start, there weren’t good editions.  Then all of that came in and became available.  So, the expansion occurred by looking backward rather than looking around us at the present and recent past.

BD:   Was this because the audience wouldn’t accept it, or because the performers and the conductors would not present it?

RCM:   It was a mixture of both, and I’m not opposed to the expansion of the repertoire in this fashion.  We’re infinity richer for having come into possession of Vivaldi, for example.  He should not have been lying in obscurity in a Venetian library.  He should be out and being played!  We certainly are enormously richer for having Mahler and Bruckner.

BD:   But should Vivaldi be played, and played, and played, and played?

RCM:   We don’t play Vivaldi without ever playing Schoenberg.  Here I see a tendency that’s really rather strange.  It may be just a short-term thing, but it looks to me as if Schoenberg and his school are gradually being phased out.  They’re being played less and less, and we’re getting a lot of neo-romantic music that really isn’t terribly good.

BD:   Why is it not good?

RCM:   They’re just second-rate or third-rate pieces.

BD:   Because they don’t expand or go forward, or is it really the lack of musical content?

RCM:   It doesn’t say anything that someone else hasn’t said better.  Some composers, somehow or other, have never made the impact that I feel they should.  Carl Nielsen is a perfect example of this.  Nielsen is just as important a composer as Sibelius, but he certainly doesn’t get anything like the number of performances that Sibelius does, even today.  I don’t understand why, because I don’t really see any particular problems in understanding Nielsen’s music.

BD:   Am I contributing to this because we don’t play him very much on the radio?

RCM:   [Smiles]  Well, certainly, it’s a circular thing.  If we played him more, we’d probably appreciate him more.  It’s very odd... there are lots of good pieces by major composers that deserve more hearings than they receive.  There are some good pieces by Brahms that we don’t hear very often.  There’s a lot of good music by Czech and French composers that we don’t hear very often.
BD:   I’ve asked you about advice to conductors, and that’s obviously to expand the repertoire and do things better.  What about advice to composers?

RCM:   Composers are going through a very difficult period.  We had a long time when neo-classicism was pretty much dominant.  Although I never considered myself seriously as a composer, my teacher was Paul Hindemith.  If you went to Hindemith and said you’re interested in Schoenberg, he’d tell you to go and study with Schoenberg, and not to waste his time, which was a perfectly logical response as long as Schoenberg was around.  But then the academic departments seemed to have been taken over rather intensely by Schoenberg and his disciples, and were turning out quantities of music that was extraordinarily difficult to get played because it was considered to be very, very difficult for audiences to assimilate.  So you had a split among composers.  You had those who decided they were going to write for themselves and their colleagues, with the famous Milton Babbitt quote,
“Who cares if anyone listens?  Can you imagine Haydn saying that?  If nobody listens, you’re out of a job next week!  You go from being a Kapellmeister to being a head waiter.

BD:   But should we take Milton Babbitt and make him a head waiter, and deprive him of the ability to compose?

RCM:   No, no, no.  Milton Babbitt has a nice safe job at Princeton, and I wouldn’t take it away from him for anything, but you can produce only a certain amount of music for this kind of inner-circle environment.  You have to produce some music for a wider audience as well.  A great many composers have started to move in this direction, though not always with the greatest success.  I can show you an example of someone who has been very conscious of changing moods of the times, and reacted to them always in a very intelligent and artistic manner, and that is Gunther Schuller.  In recent years, he has managed to write pieces that are thoroughly twentieth-century, and I’m sure he would say they are thoroughly honest.  He’s not sold out to anybody, but the works are nonetheless quite accessible to reasonably sophisticated audiences.

BD:   But should musical composition be a reaction to taste, or should it try to lead taste?

RCM:   This is a very difficult question.  When we look for historical answers, we get very conflicting historical examples.  Haydn really didn’t try to lead taste.  He was a very adventurous composer, but he was working pretty solidly within the style of his day.  Mozart was a little more adventurous, and then we have Beethoven who was terribly adventurous.  Then we have Schubert and Schumann who really don’t excite too much, and then we come to Wagner and all hell breaks loose!

BD:   So, some composers are taste followers, and others are dragging people along?

RCM:   Yes, precisely, and either kind can be a great composer if he has something special to say.

BD:   Who is it that determines whether a composer is great
is it history, is it the public, is it the critics, other composers, the performers?

RCM:   All of these.  The first essential thing is that you communicate effectively with the public.  In many respects, the practical showmanship of a Verdi can never be ignored.  If the public doesn’t like it, it’s a bad opera!  [Both laugh]  You should try to write something that the public will like and will accept, but when we look at the life of Verdi, the operas he’s writing at the end of his life are very, very different than the ones he was writing at the beginning, and the public is accepting them fully without reservation.  You have to have somebody listening to you.  If there’s no one listening to you, you’re talking to yourself, and it’s really not going to be a very productive conversation.

BD:   There’s no bit of time lag if you write and put it on tape, and let people a hundred years from now listen to it?

RCM:   But it’s never worked that way! 
My contemporaries don’t understand me, but a hundred years from now I will be recognized!  [Both continue laughing]  The fact of the matter is that the composers we regard as great masters of their art were all enormously popular in their own day.  If you go back through the history of music, you can’t find a single one of these fellows who was in obscurity, and then was discovered towards the end of his life.  Now there are some who made no effort to be played, and who more or less came along as a posthumous, or late-in-life, phenomenon.  Ives is an extreme case.

BD:   As I understand it, Mahler scheduled one of Ives
s symphonies to be played with the New York Philharmonic, but then he died before the premiere.  How would Ives’s music, or impact, have changed had Mahler conducted this symphony?

RCM:   Ives did receive a certain number of performances in his lifetime, and Nicolas Slonimsky was quite as champion of Ives for a while, but he was a little bit too much for people to take.  He was a little too far out, but this was something that might very well have been overcome had he received more performances.  The pieces that were played were pretty wild.  I was really quite upset last season in the Chicago Symphony, when people went rushing out rather than hear the Ives First Symphony, which is really a very mild piece, and shouldn’t scare anybody.

BD:   Those who stayed liked it.

RCM:   Yes, they liked it, but what I meant was some of them left, and that’s like running out so you don’t have to hear the Peer Gynt Suite by Grieg!  [Both laugh]  Ives’s Second Symphony is full of Brahms, and the third one really is fairly mild stuff compared to Pierrot Lunaire.  Then with the fourth, all hell busts loose!  Something I didn’t really understand until the University of Chicago press started their Verdi Edition was that a great many Verdi operas were being engraved and printed for the first time in this critical edition.  You think of the enormous popularity of Verdi, and yet there wasn’t a demand for people wanting to go out and buy these scores of these operas, whereas all of Wagner’s operas were engraved and printed within hours of their first performance, if not before.  Even Parsifal, which you couldn’t produce because Bayreuth held the exclusive contract, you could go out and buy a score, and not just a vocal score, but a full score.  This is going back to the numbers game, but think of the cost to a German music publishing house of engraving the full orchestral score of Parsifal.  You do that in anticipation that you’re going to make a profit, and that is a highly sophisticated audience.  That’s lots of copper just to make the plates!  [More laughter]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We’ve talked about advice to performers, and composers, and conductors.  Let’s talk directly about your field of music criticism.  Do you have any advice for those who want to either be music critics, or at least be more knowledgeable about what they read in the papers and magazines?

RCM:   This is a difficult time for music criticism because the numbers game that affects television is affecting the world of publication more and more.  You see it most acutely in the so-called ‘news magazines’ which, by and large, are woefully deficient in their arts coverage.  I don’t mean just music, I mean the whole arts field.  If they were as deficient in their business section as they are in their arts section, I’m sure they would get all kinds of feedback.  But apparently, they feel that the readers are going to accept this.  Needless to say, the 31,000 subscribers to the Lyric are a small group compared to the number of people that are involved with the Bears, or the Bulls, or the Cubs...
BD:   ...or the stock-market, or the bond market...

RCM:   Yes.  So, since you’re involved on a daily basis vying for space in the newspaper, you have to make a case that there are enough people of importance out there who want to read about these things, and that they should be given adequate attention.  One of the reasons I
ve stayed with the Chicago Sun-Times for thirty-three years is that they’ve always given me remarkable freedom to do what I felt was important, and the space has always been adequate.  There were times when I wished I had more, but that is part of the game.  I have no serious complaints at this moment.  The reviews I’ve been writing in the recent past all are long enough to say whatever I feel is most important.

BD:   More space or a later deadline would not have remarkably changed what you have said, or how you’ve said it?

RCM:   A later deadline would be appreciated, because of the evolution of this over thirty years.  My original deadline was 1 AM, and it’s now 11.15 PM.  Of course, for something like an opera, you can’t possibly write a review in that time, so you carry it over to the next day.

BD:   You stay for the whole opera, and then give yourself twenty-three hours rather than an hour and a half.  Do you then go and immediately write it as if your deadline were still 1 AM, or perhaps 2:30 AM?

RCM:   No.  If I have that option, I’ll give myself the luxury of writing the review the next morning.  I let it age a little bit!  [Laughs]  The other thing that has entirely changed all of this is the increasing prevalence of electronics.  Half the time now I’m working on a four-pound portable computer terminal.  When I started using one of these machines, I found out how you could absolutely silence the keyboard to make the least sound.  Once at the Metropolitan Opera, where I had to get a review in on deadline
and, of course, I was working against the time differenceI wrote of the review during the last act without bothering anybody.  I then just took it over to the hotel, and plugged it into the telephone wires, and fired it off.

BD:   This doesn’t insult the soprano who sings her best high C at the very end, and has been doing only OK the rest of the evening?

RCM:   Well, you can always revise it.  [Laughs]  Until you have finally pushed that ‘send’ button, it’s all still wide open.  I’m not particularly troubled by this because my method has always been that I work in my head, and I get the review pretty well sketched out in my head.  When I actually come to writing, it’s basically just a matter of transferring what is in the back of my mind into keystrokes, and getting it in the machine.  This probably comes from years of lecturing, particularly the years at the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois, where, as a matter of pride, I would follow the Harvard-Cambridge tradition, and give whole courses without ever looking at a note.

BD:   When you’re writing it in your mind, are you writing it as the performance is going on, or during the intermission, or in a cab ride back to the office?

RCM:   All these places.  What I’m doing is accumulating ideas, and making an impression.  I think of phrases and sometimes whole sentences, and storing them in some kind of logical order.  Usually after a symphony concert, I will retire over to the Palmer House and have a drink.  But I’m not really just having a drink.  What I am doing is writing the review.

BD:   [With mock seriousness]  Try to convince your editor of that!

RCM:   Oh, nobody minds.  By the time I leave the Palmer House, the review is pretty well set in my mind.  It’s just a matter of getting to the office and typing it.  Actually, this works very well.  One reason that an older critic has a very distinctive advantage is that a new person on the job couldn’t work this fast.  It takes a lot of practice.  My colleague at the Tribune, John von Rhein, takes copious notes.  Last night at the Ravinia press conference, he was sitting there with his computer terminal, and he had something like five or six pages of notes laid out beside him.  For some reason or other, he is happier when he puts things down on a piece of paper.  When I started teaching at the University of Illinois in 1947, I decided that using notepaper was a drag.  I wasn’t going to bother with that.  If you train yourself, you don’t really need it.

BD:   If you have total recall, you’re all right?

RCM:   It goes back to how quickly you memorize things, and how well do you hold onto them.

BD:   You mentioned your esteemed colleague
or rather, your esteemed competitorat the Tribune.  Is there any real love or hate relationship either between two critics in the same city, or amongst critics all over the country and around the world?

RCM:   It depends entirely on the individuals.  I have never really been very active in the Music Critics Association of North America because I’ve always felt that music criticism is not an organizable activity.  It’s something that’s really based on perception, on insight drawn on your personal resources from what you heard in the past.  This includes all sort of various subtle and intangible things.

BD:   We’ve all seen these movies from the 1930s where writers from all the newspapers in the same city are out to scoop the other writers.

RCM:   [Laughs]  I doubt if that was true in the
30s, and it certainly is very different today.  I have a very good professional relationship with John von Rhein.  Ive always had good relationships with my colleagues in Chicago.  Sometimes we tease each other.  When Bernard Jacobson was music critic for the Daily News, we were working on the same floor.  Frequently we would be at diametrically opposite poles with respect to a given concert, which I thought was a good thing.  This stimulates a lot of intelligent discussion among the readers.  I remember one morning I met him in the hallway.  I said, “Bernie!  We agreed this morning!  What went wrong?”  [Both laugh]

BD:   Was Chicago better off when we had four newspapers, and we got four different reviews of the same concert?
RCM:   Oh yes, it was much better when we had four reviews.  I would hate to be in Martin Bernheimer’s position in Los Angeles.  I realize there are other publications in the Los Angeles area, but I would consider it an unreasonable responsibility that everything would hang on my decisions.  I’m not infallible.  I make all kinds of mistakes.

BD:   Does everything really hang on the decision of the critic?

RCM:   I suspect that in the case of whether or not a young artist is going to be re-engaged, yes.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  Really???  You wield that kind of power???

RCM:   If a young pianist who is engaged with the Hollywood Bowl were to get a really bad notice from Bernheimer, that musician probably would not be re-engaged.

BD:   Even if everyone else at the Bowl liked him or her?

RCM:   To quote Artur Schnabel again, “They even applaud when it’s good.”  [Much laughter]  I have heard loud applause at Ravinia this summer for some performances I really didn’t regard very highly.  No, I don’t really think applause means a great deal.  People go to a concert to enjoy themselves, and they applaud to reassure themselves that they’re enjoying themselves.

BD:   What do you say to the person who went and applauded, and really enjoyed the concert, and then read your review the next day which said, “This performer was really terrible, awful, and shouldn’t be re-engaged, and should go and be a head-waiter?”

RCM:   I would say that you don’t know the piece as well as I do!  I’ve been listening to it for fifty years.

BD:   [Taking the side of the applauder and gently protesting]  “But I liked it!”

RCM:   Yes, that’s your privilege!  I’m not going to say you are a bad person, or a stupid person, or an insensitive person because you liked it.  These are errors of taste rather than moral errors.  You’re misinformed, and in time you may see the light.  One thing that I’ve never attempted to do over these thirty-three years at the Sun-Times, is put out a book of my old reviews.  I can’t stand to read my old reviews.  Ernest Hemmingway used to say that the ultimate part of literary masturbation is reading your own stuff, and I’m inclined to agree with him.  Every so often I will come across something I’ve written, and when I re-read it I
ll say, “Hey, that’s good,” or, “I like that,” or I still agree with that.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Only once in a while?

RCM:   Once in a while, but most of the time I will say, “God, did I write that???  What was wrong with me?”  Sometimes I’ll say it the next morning, but not very often I’m happy to say.

BD:   Yet that review that you don’t like, where you thought a performer was awful, may have torpedoed a career that might have taken off.

RCM:   Well, I don’t think I’ve torpedoed that many careers.  I hope I haven’t.  That’s never been my objective.  We grow, and we mature.  We become supposedly brighter as time passes, and I’m sorry if I made these mistakes when I was forty years old, but I’m not forty anymore.  I’m going to be sixty-five.  Presumably in those twenty-five years, God help me, I hope I’ve learned a few things.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Are you a taste-maker, or a taste-reflector?

RCM:   Both.  The main power of a critic is that he has a constituency, which means that he is in some way representing the opinions of a significant part of the audience.  They read it and communicate with it, so he is, in a way, an unofficial spokesman for them.  At the same time he has to be a leader, so it’s a double-sided role.  But you don’t have any strength if you got out on a limb and start advocating things where there is not a significant number of people prepared to follow you.  If I would suggest what Chamber Music Chicago needs to do the season after next
such as all the chamber works of Arnold SchoenbergI would find myself in a rather isolated position in fairly short order.  On the other hand, if I were to come forward and say can’t we have a Schoenberg quartet, then there are plenty of people who would want to have that repertory represented.  A wonderful thing happened at Ravinia this summer, and it was very revealing.  The Arditti Quartet, which is a marvelous group, came and played two concerts.  The first one was pretty nearly all very advanced atonal work, and the second had hardly a piece on it that wasn’t fifty years old.  It was very classic, established twentieth-century repertoire, and neither concert drew very well.  The difference in attendance between the wild stuff and the old classic stuff was about fifty people.  In other words, you’re dealing with individuals that hate twentieth-century music.  They don’t care whether it’s fifty years old or if it was written last week. They hate it with the same intensity and with the same desire to avoid it.

BD:   Then is it part of your job to convince them that they’re missing something by not coming?

RCM:   I could try.  I don’t think I’m going to get very a far, but this is something they’re going to discover for themselves.  Someday, someway, they’re going to hear a piece of twentieth-century music under conditions where it’s really going to hit them in the guts, and they’re going to say,
“Where has this been all my life? and that may turn them on.  But I can’t turn them on just with words.  You don’t build audiences with words.  You build audiences with performances and deeply moving experiences, and if those things don’t happen, then you’re dead in the water.

BD:   Are you at all a reporter on these concerts?  Do you feel any obligation to put in a paragraph or two about the reaction of the audience?

RCM:   I do that with some frequency.  I will certainly do that in cases where my reaction is wildly different to that of the majority.  I also
report in the sense that by reading the reviews you get a fairly clear idea of what really happened.  In fact, a large content of the review is really factual rather than opinion.  If I say the tempo was too fast, that’s my judgment, but if I say it’s faster than normal, that is basically factual, assuming I know what normal is, which, with my experience, presumably I do.  But I find it interesting to re-read reviews, and see the balance between fact and opinion.  You’ll find that most of reviews contain more fact that opinion.

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BD:   As you approach your 65th birthday, what are some of the things you’ve noticed that are very significant
either good or badon the music scene in the world, or in Chicago?

RCM:   The thing that is really becoming clear to us now is the effect of the Second World War, and the extraordinary number of talented people who were killed.  This is reflecting itself particularly in the large shortage of conductors in what would be the age group who would now be reaching maturity.  The encouraging thing is the extraordinary of number of very talented young people that are coming forward who are able to take jobs that, in the old days, would not come to them for another fifteen or twenty years.

BD:   These things go hand in hand?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, RCM speaks of these recordings later in the interview.  Also, see my interview with Donald Peck.]

RCM:   Yes.  So there’s a gap, but the younger generation is moving up and filling that gap, and frequently assuming these responsibilities, and doing it very well.  The Chicago Symphony has an extraordinarily large number of players who are still under thirty.  Then we look at someone like Michael Morgan.  In the old days, he would have at least ten more years as an assistant Kapellmeister somewhere, and in another ten years is going to be holding a very important job, and doing it very well.  So, we are suffering the effects of WWII, but we are not suffering as much of a loss as one might have feared at the time.  We seem to be reacting to this very well.  There’s no question that the audience for serious, classical music is expanding.  It’s larger than it’s ever been before.  It’s reaching out all over the world, and this is an extraordinarily exciting thing.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the whole future of this kind of music?

RCM:   Yes, I’m basically extraordinarily optimistic.  The youth culture is so splintered now that the people on the extremes may stay on the extremes.  But as people grow older, their tastes change, their interests change, and they’re not afraid to start listening to new things.  The fact that one goes through one’s teens listening to nothing but rock doesn’t mean that in your forties you may not be listening to Beethoven.  A very real difference that I notice from the music is that when I was growing up you were either into popular music or classical music.  The whole idea of crossover was just non-existent.  Thus, in my fifties and sixties I discovered incredible big band jazz, and Frank Sinatra things that were contemporary with my high school years, and absolutely unknown to me then because I was listening to Beethoven and Brahms.  But there’s not so much of that now.  Kids don’t consider it in any way peculiar to play a couple of rock records, and then put on a piece of classical music.

BD:   Do they put on Mozart, or they do they put on Bartók?

RCM:   They’re apt to put on either, or maybe Vivaldi, or they may put on Philip Glass.  One thing is that the young people are far less prejudiced with respect to matters of style than their parents were.

BD:   Is that a good thing?

RCM:   Yes, I think so.  The faster we get rid of all these artificial barriers, the better.

BD:   [Here we paused for a moment to take care of a few technical details before coming back to the discussion.]  Is writing music criticism fun?

RCM:   Most of the time.  Anything that becomes a profession becomes work.  It immediately starts generating responsibilities and obligations.  I suspect I listen to something like 250 concerts a year, and maybe twenty of them are occasions when I would really be happier to staying at home.  But most of the time I’m very happy with what I’m doing, and what I have to listen to.  In terms of durability, I couldn’t do Robert Ebert’s job [film criticism].  Still less could I do television reviewing.  Since its beginning in 1941 as the Chicago Sun, the Chicago Sun-Times has had three music critics, and that’s misleading because the first one was Claudia Cassidy, who only stayed about a year, and then moved over to the Chicago Tribune.  My immediate predecessor was Felix Borowski, who was hired when he was 70, and stayed on the job... in fact, he died on the job at the age of 84.  Then I took over, and I’ve been there for thirty-three years.

BD:   Should they look for someone who will presumably have longevity?

RCM:   That certainly helps, yes, but I hope I will be retired before the age of 84.  If I retire at the age of 82, I
ll have been on paper for fifty years, which is a nice round number.  The turnover in movie critics is more dramatic, although Roger Ebert has had a very long stay at the paper, and its well-deserved.  But generally after a number of years, movie critics just can’t see themselves going and sitting down in the dark room once more, and television critics normally last about five or six years.  After that time, you just can’t bring yourself to review another season.

BD:   You don’t feel any sense of burn-out going to all of these concerts every year?

RCM:   Routine is the mortal enemy of both performer and critic.  You must never permit yourself to fall into routine.  The thing that sustains me, as I was just suggesting, is that so much of what I’m doing is good, and that lifts you up.  So after the majority of Chicago Symphony concerts, when I come home at midnight or so, I don’t saunter into the house and say, “Oh, my God!  Another day, another dollar, home from the salt mill!”  I feel good.  I feel happy.  I’m up.  I’m delighted with what has happened to me that evening.  You never let yourself do it the same way twice.  You always force yourself to find new perspectives, and to take new points of view.  As soon as you fall into a routine, you’re dead in a couple of years.

BD:   A couple of weeks ago, when you were supposed to be on vocation, I noticed you were there at a couple of concerts.

RCM:   That’s right.  There were things that I wanted to hear.

BD:   So, you just went anyway?

RCM:   I went anyway, and then I took great delight after the concert of walking out like a civilized person, and not writing a review.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Did that color your judgment of the concert for yourself at all?

RCM:   No, no, no!

BD:   Do you feel at all differently when you’re pounding out a terrible review, or pounding out a great review?

RCM:   It’s much easier to write favorable reviews.  If I write a negative review, then I feel a compulsion to be quite precise as to what I think went wrong.  So I have to be quite meticulous in my choice of words, and the degree of judgment that I bring to bear...

BD:   ...whereas when you lavish the praise, it’s almost indiscriminate?
RCM:   [Laughs]  No artist would ever think that you over-praised him.  If you handed him fourteen roses when he only deserved a dozen, there would be no complaints, whereas if you say this person is utterly incompetent when he is only mildly incompetent, he will get quite angry.  The interesting thing, and this sounds quite illogical, but it happens again and again, even for people as eminent as Igor Stravinsky.  You can write very, very flattering reviews about them for years and years, and then if you write something negative that they don’t like, they come back and say, “You can’t know anything about music.  You’re just a mutton-head!”  You must remember that if I’m such an absolutely inept critic, then presumably I was inept when I was praising you as well!  We don’t have a case of selective ineptitude, that I’m a dummy when I’m writing a bad review, but I’m acutely perceptive when I’m a writing favorable one.  But the response you get is that no favorable review is ever wrong and are justified.  Negative reviews may absolutely be a betrayal to the darkest degree, but favorable reviews are always in order.

BD:   Let me give you a favorable review.  Thank you writing music criticism in Chicago for the thirty-three years, and I hope it goes on for another thirty-three years.

RCM:   [Laughs]  Oh, spare me thirty-three years!  I’d be happy to stop at fifty.  Will you settle for that?

BD:   I will settle for that. [More laughter]  Thank you so much.  It’s been a great pleasure chatting with you.

RCM:   It was a very delightful conversation.  Will you run off a copy for me?  I’ll play it to my little boy when I’m celebrating the 75th birthday.

BD:   We should chat again at that time and see how your answers have changed, if at all.

RCM:   I hope that I will be wiser.  I’ll give you a perfect illustration of this to show you how artists view that situation.  Carlo Maria Giulini made a very successful recording of the Brahms Fourth Symphony with the Chicago Symphony [shown at left].  It was very, very well reviewed, and a lot of people like it.  For me, it was just a little over-ripe, but it was a beautiful performance.  About three years later, he was due back in Chicago, and was going to do the Brahms Fourth again.  Your illustrious colleague, Norman Pellegrini (of WFMT) actually came forth with the suggestion that he should play the record and try to give us that performance again.  Giulini was a good friend of mine, and I told him about this.  Then I said, “What do you think about that, Carlo?” and he said, “But that was three years ago.  Don’t you want to hear what I think about it now?  Do you want me to try to go back and be the person I was three years ago, or do you want me to be the person I am today?”

BD:   But now, twelve years later, we’re still listening to that record that he did.

RCM:   Yes, but that record is a beautiful documentation of something remarkable that happened at a specific point in time, and there’s no reason why we can’t go back and enjoy that endlessly.  At the same time, if Giulini wants to play the piece totally different, that is his prerogative.

BD:   Should I, as a radio announcer, give the recording date of every record that I play on the air?

RCM:   No, because I don’t think the public really needs that kind of documentation.

BD:   We do let the audience know when it comes from the
30s and 40s, and even the 50s.

RCM:   Yes, but in another case, Horowitz was aghast that people would play his recordings and then model their own performances after them.  He said, “They don’t realize that the next week I may play it completely differently.  That performance of the Chopin Polonaise is the performance I gave that afternoon at that recording session, and it has no validity except that it was the way I felt and thought on that particular occasion.”

BD:   Is the same true of your reviews?  That’s how you felt then, and it bears no validity to how you feel today?

RCM:   Let’s have a hypothetical case.  Suppose we were transported back in time, and I would be asked to review some of the Fritz Reiner performances that I reviewed in the 1950s.  I’m sure the reviews would be very different from those that I wrote then.

BD:   But you’d be reviewing with all those later performances from the
50s through the 80s in your head.

RCM:   Sure!

BD:   I wonder if Reiner would stand up as well as he did then.  [Shown below-right is the cover of an original LP issue of the first and last Beethoven symphonies led by Reiner.  RCM wrote the liner notes which accompany the recording.  A partial list of other recordings for which RCM wrote notes is shown at the bottom of this webpage.  Vis-à-vis the Beethoven Ninth, see my interviews with Phyllis Curtin, and Donald Gramm.]

RCM:   As it happens, I’ve been playing the CD (re-issues), and Reiner stands up extraordinarily well.  Reiner had what it takes to stand up.
BD:   Is there ever a chance that you demand too much of someone just because they don’t stand up to Reiner but they’re good in their own right?

RCM:   Jean Martinon got into difficulties because he was a very uneven conductor, and this could happen to Daniel Barenboim [who had recently been named as Music Director of the Chicago Symphony, to succeed Solti in 1991].  I’m going to have to be careful about this.  Martinon could take you through a program in which maybe two things were played rather indifferently, one thing would be played pretty well, and one thing would be played very well.

BD:   Then is that a good concert or not?

RCM:   For the majority of people, it’s a perfectly satisfactory concert.  But it depends on the sequence of the performance and the importance of the individual pieces to you.  Let’s say he starts out with a Mozart symphony, which I dearly love, and he plays it badly.  Then he’s really set me off because I’m angry with what he’s done with Mozart.  So I may not be able to hear that the next piece was considerably better-played.  One of the things that has come out of these broadcast recordings is that there were an extraordinary number of very fine Martinon performances, but he just couldn’t maintain the standard.  [The radiothon CD which contains several of these performances is shown above-right.]

BD:   We hope that Barenboim will at least maintain a high enough standard.  [He famously said at the press conference,
I can only make things worse.]

RCM:   Everyone wants Barenboim to succeed.  I don’t know of anybody that wants Barenboim to fail.  There are people who are skeptical, or who have misgivings, or are simply taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude.  Barenboim conducts all over the world.  I attended the four Ring operas he led in Bayreuth last August.  Of course, that Bayreuth audience reacts...

BD:   ...but they’re reacting as much to what they see as what they hear.

RCM:   Yes, but they react to the music.  The principal singers come out and take solo bows, and the designer comes out, and the director comes out, and the conductor comes out.  They all line up to get shot at.  According to  Ferdinand Leitner, who was a student of Karl Muck, Muck said that anyone who takes more than two hours and twenty-eight minutes for Rheingold is a dilettante.  The timing of the Solti recording, by the way, comes out almost exactly two hours and twenty-eight minutes.  Barenboim took about two hours and forty minutes.  [The CD, which was made in 1991, two seasons later, clocks in at two hours and twenty-nine minutes.  Reginald Goodall
s performance in English (later issued on LP and CD) is two hours and fifty-four minutes!]  When Barenboim came out after that performance of Rheingold, he got booed all over the place.  He got terrible reviews.  The next night we had Walküre, and it was quite good.  He did an extremely good first act, and he managed to sustain and build up the third act.  He was very well received.  There was a mixed reaction to Siegfried, and a mixed reaction to Götterdämmerung.  But this is opposed to Solti in 1983, where they were screaming their heads off.  After booing the director, they’re yelling for Solti at the top of their lungs.  So, this could very well be the very real problem dealing with Barenboim before a season or two.

BD:   But he’s not an unknown quantity.  He’s been here, played concerts, and made recordings, so he should be a known quantity.

RCM:   He’s not too well known in the
80s.  You’ve been around a while, so you remember from the 70s when he was around a lot.  I remember him from then, but a lot of people in todays audience do not remember him.  He has only appeared in five seasons in the 80s.

BD:   Hopefully, like everybody else, he’s learned a lot.

RCM:   Well, if he buckles down and really concentrates, and applies his fullest powers to the job, I’m sure he has the necessary resources.  The question is whether he’s going to be a prima donna like Martinon.  Jean Martinon actually had the audacity to go around on the heels of Fritz Reiner, and said the Chicago Symphony played better for him than it had for any other conductor!  Now, you know, that’s really asking for it!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Let’s hope that it works out.   Thank you so much for the conversation.

RCM:   Thank you.


© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in the home of Robert C. Marsh on July 11, 1989.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following month, and again in 1994.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.