Hanslick and Thomson, critics at large

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Today we take the unusual step of honoring that frequent bane of composers, the music critic. Specifically, Eduard Hanslick, born on this date in Prague, in 1825. He’s remembered today as the arch-conservative 19th century critic who once said an uncut performance of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” would be, quote, “a kind of murder committed upon singers and listeners alike.”

Wagner had his revenge in “Die Meistersinger,” where the Philistine critic Beckmesser is a thinly-disguised parody of Hanslick. Reviewing “Die Meistersinger,” Hanslick wrote that in that opera’s Overture “all the opera’s themes are dumped consecutively into a chromatic flood and finally tossed about in a kind of tonal typhoon.”

A famous and equally quotable 20th century music critic was the late Virgil Thomson, who once defined a music critic as a person “who seldom kisses, but always tells.” In his years as chief music critic of the New York Herald Tribune, his barbs were often as sharp as Hanslick’s. He called Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” “fake folklore,” with “fidgety accompaniments.”

Like all music critics, Virgil Thomson called some right — and others wrong. Unlike most critics, though, Thomson was a composer himself — so, in addition to his witty reviews, there’s his genial music to enjoy as well, such as this brass suite titled “Family Portrait.”