Critic / Translator Andrew
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Andrew Porter, born 26 August
1928, in Cape Town, South Africa, is a
British music critic, scholar, organist, and opera director. He studied
organ at University College, Oxford University, in the late
nineteen-forties, then began writing music criticism for various London
newspapers, including The Times
and The Daily Telegraph. In
1953 he joined The Financial Times,
where he served as the lead critic until 1972. Stanley Sadie, in the
2001 edition of the Grove Dictionary
of Music and Musicians,
wrote that Porter "built up a distinctive tradition of criticism, with
longer notices than were customary in British daily papers, based on
his elegant, spacious literary style and always informed by a knowledge
of music history and the findings of textual scholarship as well as an
exceptionally wide range of sympathies." [See Bruce Duffie's Interview with Stanley
In 1960, Porter became the editor of The
Musical Times. From 1972 to 1973 he served a term as the music
critic of The New Yorker. He
returned in 1974 and remained the magazine's music critic until he
moved back to London in 1992. His writings for The New Yorker
won respect from leading figures in the musical world. The composer and
critic Virgil Thomson, in a 1974 commentary on the state of music
criticism, stated, "Nobody reviewing in America has anything like
Porter's command of [opera]. Nor has The New Yorker ever before had
access through music to so distinguished a mind." [See Bruce
Duffie's Interview with
In more recent years he has written for The Observer and The Times Literary Supplement. He
has translated 37 operas, of which his English translations of Der Ring des Nibelungen and The Magic Flute have been widely
performed. He has also directed several operas for
either fully staged or semi-staged performance. He authored the
librettos for John Eaton's The
Tempest and Bright Sheng's The
Song of Majnun.
His most significant achievement as a scholar was his discovery of
excised portions of Verdi's Don
Carlos in the library of the Paris Opera, which led to the
restoration of the original version of the work.
In 2003 he was honored with the publication of a festschrift, Words on Music: Essays in Honor of Andrew
Porter on the Occasion of His 75th Birthday.
In the course of doing interviews with musicians and those who are
connected with the Concert Music World, I have had the pleasure of
turning the tables on a few writers and critics. Usually the ones
asking the questions and providing prose for publications, it was their
turn to respond to my inquiries and give answers to my
follow-ups. Meeting with Andrew Porter allowed me to come
face-to-face with the most respected sage of the day. His vast
knowledge and practical experience gave weight to his words
— both in print and spoken to me.
Naturally, I asked about things regarding the work of the critic, and
tried to pin him down on several points — ideas that most of
us seem to wonder about quite often, especially when there is
disagreement. Sometimes he would refine my questions and other
times he would be direct and responsive. But in every case, he
showed immense skill and genuine class about our topics. He knew
what he would and would not share, and how he would parry ideas until
they were succinct enough for his response.
We met in March of 1988, during one of my rare visits to New York City,
during the period when he was writing for the New Yorker magazine. No
matter where you were in the US or elsewhere in the world, reading
Porter’s column was a joyful obligation.
Those thoughts and opinions remain of such importance that many of his
columns have since been reprinted in book form. One wonders now,
in 2012, whether these kinds of anthologies will continue to be
produced because of the availability of the material on any
publication's website archive, but I will leave quandary that for
another generation to argue.
When I arrived at his apartment, it felt very comfortable since there
were tons of recordings, stacks of books (both on and off shelves), and
an organized disarray of papers and other items from a life being lived
just as mine was! There was furniture someplace under all the
material, but he just plopped down on the floor, so I gladly joined him
there for our conversation. This is a man who has
thought about music from both historical and
practical angles all his life, and he conveyed this accumulated wisdom
as we spoke . . . . .
Let us start off with a real easy
question. What is the real, ultimate function of the music critic?
It’s a big general question, so you don’t get an
answer. You could say, “What is the function of this music critic
writing here, or that one writing there?” There’s no big, simple
answer to that. The function of a critic on a daily paper is
different from that of a critic on a weekly paper or a monthly paper,
or a critic who writes books.
BD: Should it
AP: Yes, I
think it should. One’s working in a
different format. I would say the function of a critic on the
major newspaper of a big town is largely that of a chronicler.
One of the things he has to be, among being a good critic and
everything else, is a chronicler. He and his colleagues chronicle
what’s happening in the music life of the town, whereas on a monthly
paper or weekly paper, obviously that aspect is less important.
BD: Is one
better than the other or just different?
AP: No, it’s
just different. It’s like any of
those things; one is doing basically the same kind of thing but in a
very different circumstance.
worked as both?
AP: Yes, I
started working on daily papers, and was,
in that sense, a chronicler, getting to review things. Sometimes
it didn’t interest me enormously, such as debut recitals, though
sometimes they did something different. But it was a kind of job
just to make it clear to the readers what was happening in the town.
BD: Do you
prefer one over the other?
AP: Yes, very
much. I much prefer now, where I
can choose something to write about, something that interests me, and
then I hope I can possibly be more interesting about it.
BD: Is it
really fair for you — or any critic —
beforehand what will interest you?
AP: No, but
it would be even more unfair to decide
that you’re going to go to something which doesn’t interest you at all,
and go with the presumption of boredom! [Both laugh] That
won’t necessarily happen, but obviously will in certain cases.
There may be composers whom one finds boring, which are being done, and
one knows from long experience that one will have no
interested response of any kind to it.
BD: Is it
really fair for any critic, though, to have
any kind of pre-judgment whatsoever before walking in?
AP: What do
you mean by
pre-judgment? If they are composers I don’t admire, that
in a sense is a pre-judgment. Pre-judgment is judgment, isn’t
[Both laugh] I’m not
talking about performance now; I’m talking about program.
no chance that there’ll be a
always that chance, yes. Sometimes
it happens, and it’s wonderful when I think, “Gosh, I’ve been wrong
about that all my life.” It’s usually some performer
that does it for one.
BD: Do you
then go back and re-evaluate
everything, or do you start fresh and go on?
trying to think of a composer whose work I
don’t admire but people go on playing. Yes — Boito’s
Mephistophele, a very popular
opera. They go on playing this all
the time, and what happens to me now every time I go is I think less
well of it, and I don’t think anyone is ever going to manage to
persuade me that it’s anything but the most inferior
sort of opera — from a musical point of view.
BD: Then do
you dodge reviews of that if
other people go on telling me what
a good opera it is, I have plugged away and I’ve gone to see it once
every five years or so. I think now I’m going to give up.
I really have tried!
BD: So if someone
asks you to review it, you will
dodge it if you can?
Yes. Unless it includes some performer I
very much want to hear.
BD: And you’d
be able to separate the work from the performance?
AP: You never
generalize on these things.
understand. But you’d be able to separate the performance from
AP: I guess
BD: How fair
can a critic be? How fair can you
AP: What do
you mean by fair?
BD: In your
AP: Yes, but
fair in what sense? Obviously I’m faulty and fallible and all
that; everyone is.
[Suggesting criteria] Being balanced, rational, observant,
Conclusive, not. One tries to be all those
other things — balanced, rational, observant;
think, which is a good thing. I guess I err,
sometimes, on the side of over-enthusiasm, but that, on the other
hand, is a quality I value, particularly not just in myself, but in
audiences generally. It is this feeling of passionate commitment,
possibly slight exaggeration, tipping all the way. I don’t
know. People tend to be like that in music if they care about it
very much, slightly over-valuing or slightly under-valuing
in different ways. I don’t think there’s any harm. You
might say I’m being unbalanced, unfair in that way when I go
overboard about something that’s really excited me, whereas a cooler
head might have said, “He’s going too far.”
But music is a thing that does make one go too far.
that’s right? Music should do that?
AP: I don’t
know whether it’s right or wrong, it just
does to anyone who cares about it! I’m thinking of
opera now, something very complicated. There is a
watershed principle, almost, that if a thing tips over on
the bad side, then everything about it seems bad; whereas if it’s
something that’s simply wonderful, then you are able to take in your
stride. It could be bad scenery or various bad aspects of
it. I’m thinking of Maria Callas, in a way. She
was so great that her failings don’t seem all that important in any
kind of evaluation, although it will, obviously, to a bad critic who
remained unaware of them and thought everything she did was
wonderful. It wasn’t that. She was wonderful, and therefore
the faults didn’t seem to matter so much. That’s true of
BD: But those
imperfections might block people from
trying to get to know her.
AP: It might
well, because different people
in music value different attributes, and somebody who thought the most
important thing about singing was absolutely beautifully, steady, true,
even tone might, in that sense, slightly be blocked with Callas’s
greatness. I suppose what a critic does is to be appreciative of
all these different things, and admire Tebaldi for what she could offer
and Callas for what she offered.
BD: Do you go
and enjoy what you can?
BD: If you
know you’re not reviewing a concert, do
you go and enjoy it differently?
AP: I know
it’s discretion sometimes, but I don’t think so because I’m now in
the position of not knowing, when I go to a concert, whether I’m going
to review it or not. I go to three or four times as much as
ever I write about, so in a sense, I’m really not using any kind
of different approach, but just deciding after the concert whether I
have something to say or not that seems to be worth saying.
BD: But if you
don’t have something to say, is that
not judging it badly?
AP: It might
BD: But not
AP: No, not
necessarily. It might be, but it’s not very interesting to read
about bad performances unless
one’s... well perhaps it can be, but it’s not much
fun to write about them. It is fun to write about good
performances. I suppose most things in the world exist in
some kind of gray area, which is neither terribly good nor terribly
bad, and those are often rather boring to read about, too.
aren’t they? There’s
always a journalistic danger of exaggeration. It’s
linked to what I was saying about what music does to one. But
there is this danger of trying to turn gray either into black or into
white, to make it more readable, more enticing, more journalistic.
BD: How much
are you journalist and how much are you
AP: I hope
there isn’t any huge dichotomy between
those two things. I’m something of each; I don’t
think of separating things into columns. When I was writing
on a daily newspaper, I was what might be called
anti-journalistic. I did
not want to produce striking, catchy first lines and things, and fought
this all the time!
BD: Do you
feel this way now?
AP: No, even
less now. The ideal
review for me seems to say that Miss Something performed such and such
a work in such and such a place last night.
BD: Just very
AP: A nice,
flat statement of fact and take it from
BD: What do
you say to people who hang
on your reviews for their ideas of whether things are good or bad?
AP: I don’t
think they do that much now that I write
in a weekly paper, often writing weeks after the event, anyway.
They can’t wait that long to make up their minds. I don’t
think they do, anyway. This image of people wondering whether a
performance was any good or not, and whether a new symphony is any good
or not because the Times the
next day tells them so — I don’t think it’s
so. People do make up their own minds about these things.
the public care about what you think of a performance?
What they should care about is the
performance itself, if it’s an important one. What I’m
putting forward is not so much what I think about it as
trying to give an account of it.
BD: You say, “If
it’s an important one.” Should every
performance we go to be an important one?
AP: It would
make life very tiring if it were, but
possibly it would also make life very exciting. I suppose people
who don’t go as a profession do go, as far as they can, to important
BD: Is there
no place in one’s life for a less
AP: I don’t
think there’s much now, when performance
level is so high. I see no point in going to a
run-of-the-mill Mahler performance, when first-rate Mahler performances
are available. I’m taking an example of something that comes out
BD: But, for
instance, there are going to
be a lot of community orchestras which will try to play Mahler.
Should they not have audiences, knowing that this is going to be either
a run of the mill, or perhaps even mediocre performance?
AP: But in
the community where that community
orchestra is playing, this will be an important event.
BD: Oh, I
see; the importance changes.
AP: Well, it
certainly does, yes. I don’t want to say it’s good enough for
Hartford, Connecticut, but not good enough
for New York. That is the danger, obviously, of this line
of arguing. But, its importance does
change as to availability.
BD: Is this
one of the things that you
decide beforehand, whether or not performance is important?
AP: No, it
isn’t. Some things are obviously important. A new
work by Elliott Carter is important, so that’s a straightforward
thing; or a pianist I’ve not heard of. [See my Interview with Elliott
Carter.] I don’t know whether it’s
using this word “important”
or not, but if something in the program
attracts me, or if somebody I trust has said, “This is somebody worth
hearing,” obviously I will go along. I’ve no idea in advance
whether he’s going to be important or not.
BD: Is there
any danger that perhaps young
performers coming along are going to try to put something into their
program, whether they can do it or not, just to catch the eye of a
AP: No, none
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] I think that’s a rather naïve “no.”
[Laughs] Obviously a performer
giving a recital in New York for the first time is going to try and
make a program that will attract the critics. Let me leave me out
of it a minute. It’s less important in the daily papers,
who attend debut recitals much more than I do, and they obviously will
include something of that kind on their programs, and rightly, I
think. But they won’t put in something they don’t like or they
because that wouldn’t serve the purpose at all.
BD: They have
that much foresight?
yes. No one is going to
put something on the bill he thinks he plays badly, just to attract
BD: But might
they not might try to do something special, and then perhaps it doesn’t
come off well?
AP: I think
they have a pretty good idea of their
powers, and won’t do that. I don’t know. I’m trying to think of a
young pianist I heard the other day making a debut. He had played
Roger Sessions’ Second Sonata
and that was what attracted me to go,
not because it’s not played, but it’s not played very often.
Having gone there, I found that he
was in every way a most affable pianist. Of course, he got a
column in the New Yorker.
So I suppose things work that way, but it was
the wildest chance that something else wasn’t happening that
night. So I hope he didn’t put a Sessions sonata in thinking
that would bring the critic from the New
Yorker along. That’s
taking much too much of a chance! [Both laugh]
BD: But he
obviously didn’t set his recital
on a certain day, knowing that nothing else was going on.
AP: You can’t
do that in New York. Would
that it were possible, but it seems there is so much going on that you
simply don’t know what’s going to happen.
BD: Is there
too much going on?
AP: No, I
don’t think so; there
isn’t for me. There’s too much of what we were calling
concert going on, such as rather routine performances by the
Philharmonic. No, I’m not even going to say
that. The Philharmonic is bound to play all these
concerts each week, so they can’t make every single one of them
important. I think it does try to. The fact that they can’t
achieve it is, I suppose you’d say, the result of being too
much. But on the other hand, it does mean we do have an orchestra
in permanent employment. The same goes for the Met, which
does put on some less than brilliant performances in the course of its
churning out seven operas a week. But that, again, is inevitable
in that system.
BD: The Met
is trying to sell four thousand seats
for every one of those performances, so people are going to go,
people will go, but they will go and
hear big names and they will go and hear popular operas. Then the
Met will do something as good as Khovanshchina
and it will be playing to
not very full houses, although it’s one of their very best
performances this season. That’s rather a big subject to strain
BD: I want to
ask a big
question, and I hope you’ll answer it. What is the purpose of
music in society?
AP: It’s not
essentially different, I think, from the
purpose of any art. I’m giving you a rather sort of
cliché answer, but it is to interpret experience, to enable one
to evaluate one’s own life in the terms of great artists. It
would help one to understand one’s own life, as well as theirs, and
life in general. A blurry answer to a big question, but you might
also say what is the purpose of
poetry, or painting, or drama, or any of these things, and similar
answers would come.
BD: Is there
a balance between artistic
achievement and entertainment value in music?
AP: All the
best comedies that I know fit in with my
definition. They’re entertaining, but they at the same time do
teach one something about human nature and enlarge one’s experience of
way people behave and think. If you think of Don Pasquale,
you could hardly have a more entertaining opera, but at the same time
it is an opera that goes very deep into human experience. I can’t
think of what we might call just pure entertainment. When
opera — because we’re keeping on this theme — becomes purely
then I don’t think it has much artistic value, and if it has
artistic value, then it’s probably something more than mere
fault is it
for dragging it into the purely commercial side?
AP: Greed, I
suppose; wish for money, wanting to
make money more than wanting to make art.
BD: Do we lay
that blame at the feet of the agent, or
of the management, or of the singers, or of the public, or the critics?
AP: It isn’t
a blame you could put on
anyone. It’s a very widespread thing. Partly you could put
the blame on the fact that theaters and concert halls get bigger all
the time. They are harder to fill, more expensive to maintain,
artistic ambition tends to be compromised by commercial
considerations. A visiting conductor will want to
play some rare modern symphony, and they’ll say, “No, play Beethoven
5.” It depends.
There are so many different factors;
it’s not a simple answer at all.
BD: Where is
opera going today?
AP: I think
it’s going into smaller and smaller
houses, and smaller companies. It’s going to find its future not
the three-thousand-seaters around here, but in the thousand-seaters
— and a little bit bigger and a little bit
smaller — where there will be people doing
exciting music drama, while the big houses, such as the Met, will play
big spectaculars as
they are doing now.
BD: Are the
big houses going to remain, or are
they going to atrophy and die?
AP: It’s very
hard question. It’s hard to be
general about this. I’d been feeling rather gloomy about the
of opera as an art form, thinking that what I’d been seeing here in New
York was not really a serious form of art on the whole most of the
time. I then go to Chicago and I see a performance of Lulu, and
I see a performance of Figaro
which both seemed to me
of the highest artistic endeavor, and absolutely wonderful
performances! So I said, “This is nonsense!
Chicago is a very big house indeed.” So
it’s not the fault of the house, it’s artistic intention, because there
performances which were on every kind of dramatic and musical level,
serious and well done, but also — at least Figaro was — as
entertaining as those works should be. I began to
think there is a place in the world for big house opera, because
if this is what it can offer us, it’s offering us something worthwhile.
BD: Lulu was not entertaining at all?
AP: I thought
that the director had missed
the jokes most of the time. It was very striking, but it wasn’t
as funny as I
believe Wedekind and Berg intended the piece to be, with the funny bits.
BD: But it
was still a strong presentation?
AP: It was a
terrific presentation, yes.
BD: I am, of
course, very chauvinistic about Chicago, but why can’t New York, with
all of its resources and everything behind it, come up to that level?
AP: I can
only suggest some partial answers to
this. One is that New York plays a much longer season, and it’s
therefore got to arrange its subscription in such a way that the
Tuesday subscriptions get eight different operas.
Chicago, playing a shorter season, is much more in a position of being
able to hire a whole cast to rehearse and keep steady. In New
York, the cast changes are endless
all the time, and weeks and weeks can separate the run of a particular
opera. That’s one of the answers. Another — and
possibly slightly dangerous ground — depends on
the vision of whoever is in charge of the company. Without
casting aspersions on those who run New York, because I realize
they have to have these commercial considerations, I do think Ardis
Krainik in Chicago is someone with
extraordinary artistic vision, who combines that with the efficiency of
running a company in such a way that it makes a success. She does
go out on a limb, but she makes sure
it’s a good, strong limb. [Both laugh]
Right. She makes sure the limb is
supported all the way around. [See my Interview with Ardis
AP: Yes, yes,
BD: But then,
is it good that she keeps
building these limbs farther out?
AP: Yes, yes.
coming to opera for the first time,
though, is going to be taken out on the limb. Should they not
start in the trunk of the tree and work gradually out, the way the
AP: No, no,
no. One keeps meeting people whose
first opera was Wozzeck.
I think anyone who went to that Lulu
understand that this is gripping musical drama. I don’t think you
have to start with La Bohème
BD: You can
just drop right into the mainstream and
be taken along with it?
AP: If it’s a
good enough work and it’s well enough
advice do you have for other music critics,
either young or old?
AP: Never do
what your editor tells you if you think
it wrong. That would be my first thing. Always
fight for what you believe. Some
compromises have to be made, but not many. Don’t go to things
because he wants you to go to them if you think you should be going to
something else. Don’t allow anybody to cut your copy. If it
needs cutting, and practically every piece does, insist that you are
the one who
cuts it yourself; you keep control of it that way. Don’t
allow any changes. When I first came to this country, I
was horrified to find that there were editors who simply changed things
that their critics had written, which seemed to me absurd.
BD: Not just
cut, but changed around?
Yes. They changed words and changed phrasing. It seemed
to me absolutely inconceivable that this should happen, but I think it
does happen. So, my advice is don’t put up with that. These
are ideals. Don’t go to
something that you don’t want to go to, that you feel bored by the very
notion of. Find something that you do want to go to, and if you
find nothing you want to go to in a rich town full of music, then I
think probably you’re
in the wrong job anyway! [Both laugh]
BD: Are you
with the writing that you’ve done over the years? When you look
back at some of the things you wrote twenty or thirty years ago, are
still pleased with them?
AP: I suppose
everybody feels this way, but gosh, in those days I had more life and
vivacity in my
writing than I do now. I had sharper responses. I don’t
look back very much, only occasionally
because I have been to see something or hear something which I
knew I’d written about twenty, thirty years ago. I look to see
what I thought about it then.
One has that depressing feeling that one’s getting old and dull, but
there it is!
BD: Not that
one’s getting old and wise?
one does seem a little
wiser. I’m a little more polite than I was, and
that’s probably a good thing. I don’t think there’s any point in
rudeness in criticism. I don’t mean to be less severe, but just
polite in the way I put things now than I did then. I’m slightly
shocked also when I get back to the early, brash things I wrote twenty
or thirty years ago!
BD: I hope
you didn’t say anything that you
I wrote a lot of nonsense, but I
suppose I do that now. If I’m spared longer, I’ll find
that again! I
undervalued things that turned out to be good and overvalued things
that have long since been forgotten.
But I think that happens.
BD: Is that
not your taste changing?
AP: Yes, it
is. It’s over reaction in the first
excitement of meeting something that produces, perhaps especially in
those overnight notices, an over-violent favorable or unfavorable
reaction which does get modified by time.
the public’s taste modify over years, too?
Yes. The repertory changes.
The Grieg Piano Concerto and
Schumann Piano Concerto are
not now played once a week as they used to be, or
the César Franck Symphony,
which were the staples of repertory
when I began being a critic. Mahler was very rare
when I began. I had to cross the channel in order to hear
Mahler’s Sixth Symphony
because it was never played in England.
Now I can practically hear it five or
six times a season in New York, and probably in most other towns of any
size. So yes, the taste does change. The repertory
changes. Operas come and go, symphonies come and go in that
way, and Mozart and Beethoven hold steady. Handel comes
back. There is a constant
changing, but I’m thinking that’s not so much a change of valuation,
which is what I was thinking about earlier, it’s just a change
in appetite on the public’s part.
BD: Is that
what makes a piece of music great,
that it survives the changes in appetite?
AP: If it’s a
great piece of music, it can
survive centuries of neglect and then come back again.
BD: Tell me a
little bit about doing
translations. You’ve translated out of French, Italian and
German, so what are the major differences between those
three languages when coming back into English?
AP: I always try to
translate in a way that
sings. I try. It’s not something one can achieve,
but it is an aim to translate in such a way that the words sing along
the music almost as if they’d been written that way, which means a
matching of sounds, or hard and soft accents.
Achieving that from the German is much easier than from French or
Italian because the languages just have more
phonics in common; hard consonants, brighter sounds. In
translating from the Italian, it’s hard to get something smooth that
without intrusive consonants across a long lyric phrase.
you’ve managed it in some cases?
one’s lucky. Sometimes something comes to mind and it
works. There’s not an
opera I’ve translated I wouldn’t rather hear in the original language,
but that probably is a function of being a translator.
[Surprised] Really??? You’re not a proponent of opera in
AP: Yes I am,
but I’m saying for myself, once
I know the work awfully well, I think, gosh, how I’ve spoiled these
beautiful sounds! But if I didn’t know what the sounds meant, of
course I would settle for translation, always. I think
supertitles are helpful. They’re
better than not understanding.
your druthers, would you rather hear it in
English, or see it in English?
AP: That’s a
general question and I would
say it depends on what the opera was and who the singers were. If
it were an all American cast, I would obviously rather hear
it in English than hear them singing in parrot-learnt Czech or
Russian. If however, for some reason they were singing in
parrot-learnt Czech or Russian, then of course I would want the
supertitles up as well. If it was a cast with Beňačková or
or anyone who couldn’t sing well in English — I don’t know whether they
can or not,
but assuming these are people who couldn’t master a translation but
are great singers that we should hear — then of
course I would rather
hear it in the original language. On records I’d rather have the
language — if it’s a language I don’t know — and just follow the
text in two languages at once. I’m not a
sole champion of opera in translation any more than I am a
sole champion of opera in the original. There is a great deal to
be said for both, and I think we should have both. It
should depend on who is singing and also what size house it is.
If it’s a house in which you can hear the words, then fine, and so
“It all depends,” is my
answer to almost every one of your questions.
Basically, though, for a concert life
you’re looking for a smorgasbord?
Yes. Music is like that. I
like to hear string quartets in small halls and huge symphonies in
big halls, and medium sized symphonies in medium size halls with medium
mentioned recordings. Do you
feel that opera works well on recordings, being such a theatrical
AP: Yes, it
does. I can’t quite tell you why,
but obviously it does because I’ve enjoyed such an enormous amount of
them. Look at the records on my shelves. I do think it
works very well, but it works in a different way from opera in the
opera house, and one needs both. On records, you can assemble,
probably, better casts than most of the companies can assemble.
You can rehearse them more carefully.
BD: And then
you can assemble the performance?
AP: Yes, you
can do that, and if it’s
skillfully done, then it can be a kind of better-than-real-life thing.
BD: Should a
recording be better than real life?
not? I don’t see why not. Take a simple example. If
somebody gives a
wonderful performance of the Liebestod,
but goes out of tune on the
last note, it would be absurd to put it out that way. But then
you’ve also got the recordings of live performances, so nothing’s
exclusive in this game. There are many different
kinds of things to enjoy.
BD: And you
enjoy a lot of them?
AP: Yes I
do. I have a life filled with light
and joy, but also gloom and despondency, and thinking
things are going to the dogs! [Laughs]
about television? Do you
think opera works well on a small box?
Yes. Again, it’s a very different
experience, and again it depends on the opera. I thought Lulu,
for example, is an opera that worked wonderfully on the box with
close-ups into the singers’ faces, supertitles, all taken in one with
the image, not having to look up and down. Aïda does not work so well,
but once it offered something different. I was watching a
performance of it not
too long ago, and there was a close-up onto the soprano. I
was thinking then, with this huge set all ‘round her, that suddenly one
realized the extraordinary way that everything was turning on one small
larynx, and how it worked in this huge drama. It gave you a
strong feeling. It may have been un-dramatic and have nothing to
Aïda herself, but it gave me more of a sympathetic identification
with the singer actually singing the role than I’ve ever heard in the
theater, where you tend to be taking in so much at the same time.
BD: But of
course that’s the fault of the
television director, good or bad.
AP: It wasn’t
a fault; it was a glory, I
thought. I felt I’d really learned something about it!
advice do you have for young
performers coming along?
AP: I don’t
think anything really helpful at
all. If a young performer came
and said, “I’m thinking of playing this program in Merkin Hall next
week or next month or six months hence. What do
you think of it?” I could probably produce specific advice on
that particular thing. But big, general advice, no.
BD: Are there
no wrong roads that most of the singers
are following? Or most of the pianists or most conductors?
AP: I don’t
know about pianists. There are so
many different roads all the way which lead to a career that I couldn’t
say. I should think one possible wrong road singers are following
is just trying to make too much volume too soon, wearing out young
voices. One’s resources
grow all the time, but it’s a fairly general observation
— and lots of people are
making it, and I think it’s absolutely true — that a promising young
singer will be taken up by a management that would push her too far,
too fast, and make her do roles which are not comfortable or lie too
far outside her current resources that
she actually does vocal harm to herself by taking these parts.
Singers began much younger in the old days. They
made debuts at the age of twenty or twenty-one in places like the
State Opera, whereas now you find people in their thirties who
are still at college. So it isn’t just a question of tackling
roles too young, but I think it is a question of forcing out
too much sound too early into too big a space. I have known
singers who haven’t lasted long as a result.
AP: I belong
to the old
school of not liking big, flashy conductors who over-gesture. I
belong to the Sir Adrian Bolt school of a stick in the hand, and the
fingers move and the wrist moves, and perhaps in an
enormous climax the elbow might move! But the shoulders probably
don’t move at all, and certainly the knees never move! But that’s
just a visual taste of mine. In effect, of course, what matters
is the sound that comes across. If Lenny Bernstein jumps into the
air to make a great big climax — but he gets
that great big climax — then
of course he’s using the right technique for him. So no, I
haven’t any rules for conductors in that way!
BD: Well, not
necessarily rules, but advice?
AP: Only very
obvious ones. Don’t
make unnecessary gestures. Work with economy so that when you do
make a big gesture it does tell, and you haven’t been going around like
windmill all the time.
BD: How about
advice for management?
AP: That’s a
tricky one. I’m
not good at giving advice. I’m supposed to be at the opposite
end of this. [Both laugh]
BD: Yes, I’ve
turned the tables on you.
trying to think what managers do
wrong. There are managers who push their artists
too far and too fast. On the other hand, there are
managers who are very careful indeed, and advise singers and conductors
against taking engagements which are not right
for them at the time. So my advice is as simple
as, “Be a good manager, and not a greedy,
BD: This is
what I am driving at. What are some of
the things that make good managers?
managers have a feeling of what their
artists can achieve and what they’re capable of achieving, and what
will push them a little bit further in the right directions but won’t
overwork them. It’s all obvious, what I’m saying.
obvious to you, but it’s not so obvious to some others.
obvious to anyone! Bad managers are people who push their artists
too fast, too
hard, and overwork them and strain them.
about managements of organizations?
single one is different. The management of an orchestra depends
on the town and on
how many orchestras it’s got.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of music?
AP: Yes. I
don’t think it’s going to die.
I’m not optimistic about music in exactly the way it’s happening today,
but it’s impossible to tell what’s going to happen. We
talked about the change in repertory taste; anything might
happen. We might go back to smaller orchestras and smaller halls,
not necessarily smaller audiences because if you divide three thousand
into two and halve the orchestra, you’re going to get very good
Beethoven and Berlioz performances going at the same time! [Both
laugh] I’m optimistic
about the future of music because I think there are many good composers
today, and I also think that this urge of human beings to
express their deepest and profoundest thoughts in non-verbal language
is something that, obviously, will go on. Music is
something built right deep within the human personality, and people are
going to go on making it.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of music
AP: I think
it will continue. I don’t
know whether I’m being optimistic, but that’s enough of an
answer. There’ll always be people who want to share their
experience verbally with other people. It’s their
experience of music, and if they do it well then obviously music
critics will continue to write. There seems to be less and less
serious music criticism in
the daily press. I’m thinking actually of England now, where for
the first time since 1920, I think, the Sunday Times appeared without a
word of music criticism in it.
AP: This was
because it had a new editor who was interested in
stories and exciting things, and wasn’t interested in just reading
about classical music. There was such an outcry that
there was a reissue, but that kind of thing does happen. Less
space is given to music in the New
York Times and the London
than it used to be in the 1930s, when there were several
daily papers. There were also several good serious critics
you didn’t get just one view, the view of the Times the next morning, you got
quite long accounts in several papers of anything that seemed
important. So yes, there is a shrinking.
BD: Are the
great performers today on the same level
as the great performers of yesterday and the day before?
AP: How can I
tell? How far away is yesterday?
BD: In your
right. In my experience there are
more good string quartets playing widely today than there were in the
BD: But is
the best of today as good as the best of
AP: That one
is very hard to tell. It’s clouded
by nostalgia, in a way. If I want to hear a Beethoven
quartet on record, I will not bring out one of the modern
recordings. I will pull out the Busch Quartet playing a Beethoven
quartet. So in a sense I would say perhaps nothing has come up
to the level of the Busch Quartet in Beethoven. Perhaps they
were the best, but that’s just sort of the moment. In the playing
of Beethoven piano sonatas, my standards are set by Arthur Schnabel and
I don’t think
there is a Beethoven pianist as great as Schnabel today. But
there are great Beethoven pianists that can do things that Schnabel
didn’t do, and give you different impressions. I wonder if to
some extent one does look to the past for the
greatest. Furtwängler is the greatest conductor I’ve ever
known, and fortunately I did hear quite a lot of his work in my student
years and early years as a critic.
BD: Are there
composers coming along who are going to
sustain the level of Beethoven or Mozart?
AP: You have
to ask again in a hundred year’s
time, but it would seem to me that there are. It’s
not a question we can answer seriously.
Carter. Do you think he is in that league?
AP: Yes, I
do. That’s a name I would
certainly bring up. Stravinsky, who overlapped with
me for a good time, is obviously a very great
BD: I keep
coming back to the idea that there are the
very great composers, and then there’s the second level. Should
we not make room for this second level of composers and performers?
because life is like that. If everything was on the heights,
there wouldn’t be any heights. How much time should we
give to the second level I don’t know. They have to be
there in order for the first level to be there, and obviously we should
give time. Perhaps it’s when you get to the third or fourth
levels that one shouldn’t fuss too much. Boulez had a theory
called the “water level” —
that there were certain works, certain
compositions, which rose above the water level. Most of them were
below the water level. Some of them were just one fathom below,
but some were one hundred fathoms below, so don’t bother with any of
bother to go below that water level at all?
quite a persuasive theory. Charles
Rosen has it, to some extent in his book The Classical
Style. He didn’t bother with all these minor composers,
it’s the higher ones that really mean something, and
define life for us. Of course, who is to say who
is to set the water level? What I think of George Lloyd, say, is
not what a
lot of other people think of George Lloyd.
BD: What do you think of George
Lloyd? He is coming to Chicago this fall for a performance with
the Chicago Symphony.
AP: I think
over-rated; he never realized the potential of his
very early pieces. I heard him conduct a new
symphony in Albany not long ago. He is still busy, but I’m just
baffled by the kind of acclaim he has! On the
other hand, there were people who were baffled by the acclaim Mahler
had in his day. They just couldn’t hear it in his music at
all. So, we don’t set the water level. I will tell you a
hundred years hence who are the
great composers of our day.
BD: Is being
a music critic fun?
AP: Yes, it
is. It’s fun
a lot of the time if what you care about is music passionately.
Of course it’s fun! It’s wonderful being sent to hear all the
things you want to go and hear, instead of having to cue up and buy
tickets and try and get into sold out houses and all that. The
un-fun part is wrestling with your
prose, really working, working, and trying to get things
in shape, and the despair of saying, “God, that’s not really
quite what I think; how can I get across what I feel about
this?” That is the hard work part of it. But the fun is
listening; the fun is score reading; the fun is reading
music history and making discoveries occasionally.
BD: Are you
pleased with the new Verdi
edition that’s coming out?
AP: Yes, on
the whole I am. I think it’s a
slight danger in that it’s been very, very heavily edited.
[Protesting] I thought it was supposed to be not edited.
I thought it was supposed to be just the original scores as Verdi wrote
It’s been quite heavily edited,
absolutely scrupulously, with everything that’s been added shown
as an addition so that you can penetrate below to see what Verdi
wrote and what he didn’t write. But they are edited to the extent
anyone who is not prepared to go through this notation is likely to
accept as gospel what you see in black and white there. This is
the strange thing. Ricardo Muti performed Rigoletto here,
and what he performed was Rigoletto
by Verdi as edited by Martin
Chusid, accepting every slur, every dynamic, instead of a slightly
cleaner score, in
which the conductor can make his own decisions about slurring, about
dynamics, about articulations.
confused. I thought that there
weren’t supposed to be any Martin Chusids included in the new edition.
left out a lot of the
central markings in his autographs. Someone’s got to put
that not be left to each individual conductor?
they’re as sensitive of Verdi as Martin Chusid
is, yes; and of course, in accordance with the cast in
performances. I do think there’s a slight danger.
On the other hand, Ernani,
the second one which has come out, is less
heavily edited. So to that extent, Rigoletto was a
pioneering one. It’s a wonderful thing to have
done it, to be able to see what Verdi wrote. In the previous
editions, the editors put things in, but actually everything was put
in with the same emphasis.
BD: What is
your latest book?
AP: My latest book
that’s appeared recently is a
collection of three years of New
Yorker reviews. It’s called
Musical Events, a Chronicle, 1980 to
1983. It’s a chronicle of what I’ve
been hearing mainly in New York, but also quite a lot of travel.
It’s published by Summit
BD: When you
go back to look at these, do you re-edit
your reviews very much?
I think that would be in a way
wrong. I cut out anything that seems to me to be the gray areas,
which are of no interest to read
about now. I remove those and I correct any facts that have
slipped past the formidable New
Yorker checking department, who’ve
checked most of those facts carefully already. One or two things
occasionally slip by, so those
are put right. And usually when I have second opinions, I show
them; I add them as such, actually not revising the opinions first
felt. The first time I heard Philip Glass’s opera,
Satyagraha, I felt about it
much more favorably than I did when I
re-heard it. Therefore I added a short post-script, more or less
saying that although this is a first-time reaction, the second-time
reaction was much less positive.
shouldn’t scare away people from
going to it?
because I think it’s a good idea!
BD: But you
go back and hear it again and
again and revise your impression, and yet an audience will have only
AP: Yes, that
is so, and it’s a
difficulty especially when it’s a difficult new piece, like Elliott
Carter’s A Symphony of Three
Orchestras, which does make a good
impression the first time on most people, but does need
listening to several times. I don’t know; what do I
do? Before I write, it’s played four times by the Philharmonic in
its series, so I go and hear it four times. Obviously I’m not
writing as a first-time hearer, I’m writing as a fourth-time
hearer who’s also got hold of the score, and by then possibly has also
got a tape and may be a twentieth-time hearer. It’s all
right; as I say there are different kinds
of criticism. There’s the critic of the daily paper who only
gets one chance, or, if he’s industrious, a couple of
rehearsals and then the first performance.
BD: And then
possibly a real short deadline after
that to write!
AP: Yes, and
that has its value. That will
be a first impression of how it strikes someone, a musical person, the
first time. Then you’ll get another impression from someone
who’s had time to go into it a bit and possibly see how the pieces of
it relate to one another. That will have
its value — possibly more value in the long run, I suppose. The
more you know about something, the more accurate you’re likely to
be when you describe it.
BD: I assume
if you’re running up against a deadline,
you just simply hold it over and put it into the next column, rather
than forcing it into the column that is needed at that very moment?
AP: Yes, yes.
BD: Are you
ever trimmed for space at all?
AP: Yes, a
little bit now — a little bit more
than we used to be. There’s new management at the New
Yorker now, and I suppose you’ve noticed I’m not writing every
I used to.
BD: I was
very disappointed in
AP: That is a
decision of the new editor.
BD: Did you
scream about that?
no. What am I to do? [Both laugh] I still think it’s
the best job I’ve ever had in
the world, and I still have more space than I’d have anywhere
else. So I think that screaming would be unreasonable. I
slightly disappointed, let’s say. On the other hand, I have more
time for listening
BD: If you
have an absolutely free evening, what do
you listen to? Or do you listen to anything?
AP: It’s hard
if it’s absolutely free. Scattered around me are tapes that have
of works that I’ve put to one side, saying, “I want to listen to these
when I have a free moment.” They’re records which I’ve heard once
or twice, but want to hear again, so that is how the free
evening, if it’s going to be spent on music, is likely to be
spent. On the other hand, there are plenty of books I
want to read!
there’s never enough time?
no. Is there ever for anything in life?
BD: Thank you
for sharing some of it with me. I
appreciate it very much.
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© 1988 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Andrew Porter's apartment in New
York City on March 24,
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB later that year, also in 1993 and again in
made and posted on this
website in 2012.
To see a ful list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
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
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.