Critic / Translator Andrew Porter
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." [Names which are links refer to my interviews
elsewhere on this website.]
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."
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, and the recording shown below. [Jeffrey Tate, who assisted
conductor John Matheson when the complete/restored version was first broadcast
on the BBC in 1973, speaks of this in his interview.]
In 2003 Porter 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 on 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
to me as we spoke . . . . .
Let us start off with an 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.
BD: You’ve worked
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
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
BD: Is it really
fair for you — or any critic — to
decide 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
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 it?
[Both laugh] I’m not talking about performance now; I’m talking about
BD: There’s no
chance that there’ll be a wonderful revelation?
AP: There’s 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?
AP: I’m 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
BD: Then do you
dodge reviews of that if you can?
AP: Because 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?
AP: 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.
BD: I understand.
But you’d be able to separate the performance from the work.
AP: I guess so.
BD: How fair
can a critic be? How fair can you be?
AP: What do you
mean by fair?
BD: In your judgments.
AP: Yes, but
fair in what sense? Obviously I’m faulty and fallible and all that;
criteria] Being balanced, rational, observant, conclusive...
not. One tries to be all those other things — balanced,
rational, observant; passionate, I 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.
BD: And 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 kind of 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
has 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 composers, too.
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
BD: But if you don’t have something to say, is
that not judging it badly?
AP: It might
BD: But not necessarily?
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
AP: Well, 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 musician?
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 there!
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.
BD: Should 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 performances.
BD: Is there
no place in one’s life for a less important performance?
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 that
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
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. 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 reporter?
AP: No, none
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] I think that’s a rather naïve “no.”
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 can’t play, because that
wouldn’t serve the purpose at all.
BD: They have
that much foresight?
AP: Well, yes.
No one is going to put something on the bill he thinks he plays badly, just
to attract people.
BD: But might
they not might try to do something special, and then perhaps it doesn’t come
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
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
the “non-important” 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, hopefully.
AP: Yes, 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 towards.
* * *
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 the 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 commercial, then I don’t think it has much artistic value,
and if it has artistic value, then it’s probably something more than mere
BD: Whose 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
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, and therefore 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 in 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 whole state 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
were two 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
this is 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.
She makes sure the limb is supported all the way around.
AP: Yes, yes,
BD: But then,
is it good that she keeps building these limbs farther out?
AP: Yes, yes.
BD: Someone 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 company does?
AP: No, no, no.
One keeps meeting people whose first opera was Wozzeck. I think anyone who went
to that Lulu would understand that
this is gripping musical drama. I don’t think you have to start with
La Bohème or Magic Flute.
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 done, yes.
* * *
BD: What 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?
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 pleased
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 you 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 slightly
more 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 really regret.
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.
BD: Doesn’t the
public’s taste modify over years, too?
The repertory changes. The Grieg Piano
Concerto and the 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
* * *
BD: Tell me a
little bit about doing translations. You’ve translated out of French,
Italian and German, so what are the major differences among 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 will lie without intrusive
consonants across a long lyric phrase.
BD: But 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.
Really??? You’re not a proponent of opera in English? [Vis-à-vis
the recording of the Ring shown at left, also see my interviews with
Norman Bailey (Wotan/Wanderer),
and Émile Belcourt
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
BD: Having 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 Talvela, 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 original 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 on.
“It all depends,” is my answer
to almost every one of your questions. [Laughs]
though, for a concert life you’re looking for a smorgasbord?
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 sized orchestras.
BD: You mentioned
recordings. Do you feel that opera works well on recordings, being such
a theatrical experience?
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
BD: Should a
recording be better than real life?
AP: Why 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]
BD: What about
television? Do you think opera works well on a small box?
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 do with 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
BD: What 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 Vienna
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.
BD: What about
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.
AP: I’m 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, grasping
BD: This is what
I am driving at. What are some of the things that make good managers?
AP: Good 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.
BD: It’s obvious
to you, but it’s not so obvious to some others.
AP: It’s obvious
to anyone! Bad managers are people who push their artists too fast,
too hard, and overwork them and strain them.
BD: What about
managements of organizations?
AP: Every 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 criticism?
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 Times than it used to be in the
1930s, when there were several daily papers. There were also several
good serious critics writing, so 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 experience.
AP: All right.
In my experience there are more good string quartets playing widely today
than there were in the 1940s.
BD: But is the
best of today as good as the best of yesterday?
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
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.
BD: You’re following
Elliott 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 composer.
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
AP: Yes, 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 those.
BD: Why bother
to go below that water level at all?
AP: It’s 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, because 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 he’s
extraordinarily 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? [Philip Gossett, of the
University of Chicago, is General Editor of The Works of Giuseppe Verdi
and The Works of Gioachino Rossini.]
AP: Yes, on the
whole I am. I think it’s a slight danger in that it’s been very, very
I thought it was supposed to be not edited. I thought it
was supposed to be just the original scores as Verdi wrote them.
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 that 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.
BD: I’m confused.
I thought that there weren’t supposed to be any Martin Chusids included in
the new edition.
AP: Verdi left
out a lot of the central markings in his autographs. Someone’s got to
put them in.
BD: Should that
not be left to each individual conductor?
AP: If 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
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 Books.
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.
BD: That shouldn’t
scare away people from going to it?
AP: No, 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 first impressions.
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
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 week as I used to.
BD: I was very
disappointed in that.
AP: That is a
decision of the new editor.
BD: Did you scream
AP: Oh, 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 was
just slightly disappointed, let’s say. On the other hand, I have more
time for listening now.
BD: If you have
an absolutely free evening, what do you listen to? Or do you listen
AP: It’s hard
to say if it’s absolutely free. Scattered around me are tapes that
have come in 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!
BD: So, there’s
never enough time?
AP: Oh, 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, 1988. Portions (along with recordings) were used on
WNIB later that year, also in 1993 and again in 1998. This transcription
was made and posted on this website in 2012.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
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
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.