Our own landscapes
Who forms our tastes, our deep judgments? do critics? They may lead us, like the proverbial horses, to water -- and indeed helpfully so. But they can't make us drink. Or as Georgia O'Keeffe said about some of her landscape teachers , "they could tell you how to paint their landscape. But they couldn't tell me how to paint mine."
Besides, which critic do you choose? Suppose, in the early 1940s, you had been seeking guidance on the Finnish composer Jan Sibelius. David Ewen, writing in "Twentieth Century Composers" (1937) would have led you to Sibelius's symphonies as "not only the proud utterances of a great nation, [but] more especially the high-minded expression of man." Yet Virgil Thomson, during his first season (1940-41) as critic for the New York Herald Tribune, would have turned you from the Second Symphony as "vulgar, self-indulgent and provincial beyond all description."
Harold Schonberg, trying for more perspective in 1970 ("The Lives of the Great Composers"), note that "many professionals after World War II found Sibelius a dated bore." He suggested that "serialism had triumphed" and that "professionals look for consistency in a composer." (Sibelius didm turn out a lot of ordinary music, and some of it, like the "Valse Triste," was unprofessional enough to become very popular.) Schonberg admitted that Sibelius might come back with a "resurgent romanticism," and that "he deserves to occupy an honorable place among the minor composers."
That cool, reasonable verdict echoed an almost-forgotten one from decades before. But this time it didn't touch my feelings. This time i knewm .
Sibelius was a mountain on my musical landscape when i started college: I even planned a pilgrimage to hism landscape of lakes and forest. Then one day came the professional disenchantment. A symphony cellist (anticipating Schonberg) told me that to play all those scurrying, whirring, repetitive runs in the Second Symphony (then my easy favorite) really wasm something of a bore, and that the best long-run prospect he could see for the composer was kind of foothill altitude. Something like Mendelssohn's.
Mendelssohn's?m He couldnht do that to me. I mean, Mendelssohn was alright once in awhile to space out the big ones. But to put mym Sibelius in that class -- the biggest of them all . . . Sibelius a "minor" composer?
Well, the music and I survived; though in the course of the next few years my beloved Second handed over its pre-eminence to the Fourth, a symphony at which I still marvel. At the same time, Sibelius had to make landscape-room for many other, including Brahms, and even Mendelssohn. During that period I heard the extraordinary young French violinist Ginette Neveu with the st. Louis Symphony, and I think it was the Brahms concerto she played. I knowm it was a revelation of command and deep incisiveness. I can still see her standing there, feet apart, attacking the music as though braced against and answering gales of feeling.
Then, in 1949, came the experience that put my view of Sibelius beyond anyone's changing. I was in England on leave from teaching, and staying with relatives in their Cotswold home; our days and evening were fairly saturated with either making music or listening to it on the BBC "Third Programme."
But one chilly night my hosts went to bed early, and I was listening alone in the upstairs living room, its warmth and its only light coming from the steady, glowing embers in the fireplace. I was about to turn in myself when the announcer told of a fogbound plane crash in the Azores in which all had been lost, including the 30-year-old Nevue and her pianist brother Jean-Paul. They had been on their way, with her Stradivarius, to play in the United States. As a tribute to her, the next music was to be the commissioned recording of Sibelius's Violin Concerto which she had recently made.
For the next half hour, the room was permeated with the dark authentic life of that concerto, and most intensely with the inexorable legatom of its slow movement, the orchestra's wind, its percussion, and its plucked-string scales lifting the soloist twice to great peaks of resolved dissonance, carrying the mind and heart above all happenstance towards a total singing. Sibelius, I have since learned, had written it during a dark time when he was threatened with loss of hearing, and so for him it was necessary to reach and secure the singing. This must have done the same for thousands on that late autumnal English night, promising survival for the inward sounds and visions.
Was my feeling about him and his music conditioned by those special circumstances, and by a fact of recorded life which simply overwhelmed a report of wasteful death? Of course it was. Would I have had a different experience if Virgil Thomson had liked Sibelius better or David Ewen worse? No -- as long as somebodym besides Ginette Neveu liked him well enough to bring about that recording.
Thomson had his own remarkable landscape in 1940 and Ewen his very different one. But I had to find my own. And what really planted and rooted this music was its power to meet those hard, firelit questions with a fully articulate answer. As it had for Sibelius.And, I have to believe, for Ginette Neveu.