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Book Review

Donald Mitchell

Cradles of the New

Writings on Music 1951-1991
Selected by Christopher Palmer, Mervyn Cooke, editors
London: Faber and Faber. 1995. 506 pp
ISBN: 0571174248
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The critic Donald Mitchell has fought the good fight for such composers as Mahler, Reger, Schoenberg, and Britten, at a time when all those composers needed champions. Indeed, Reger and Schoenberg still need them. In doing so, he demonstrated a knowledge of the scores one rarely encounters in the newspaper squibs that still pass for music criticism. Most famously, I suppose, he found a wrong note in the published score of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde and traced it back to a copying mistake in the composer's autograph. For those of you who believe that the marks in a composer's score represent the final word on the composer's intent, I invite you to read Mitchell's "Mahler's Abschied: A Wrong Note Righted," pp. 181-186. Lord help the unwitting writer who went up against Mitchell, whose main gambit was to bury the opposition in a truckload of details. In short, the opposition had to argue at a level that demonstrated command of the score, or even of several scores.

To Mitchell we owe, among other things, our present appreciation of Britten's operas – particularly Albert Herring, Billy Budd, Turn of the Screw, Owen Wingrave, and the last masterpiece, Death in Venice. Mitchell also is the first, as far as I know, to point out the centrality to Britten's late work of The Prince of the Pagodas, usually regarded – if at all – as a divertissement. Indeed, for their services to the composer, Britten rewarded Mitchell and his companion-in-battle Hans Keller (who helped organize the first major symposium in 1952 on Britten's work to that date) by in effect creating Faber Music for them and transferring his scores from Boosey & Hawkes to Faber. Not a bad foundation for a business.

I don't think there's any question – leaving the justness of their individual conclusions aside for the moment – that Mitchell and Keller raised the standard of talk and writing about music in Britain. They were both of them fearless, knowledgeable, and (very important) entertaining writers. However, they had their limits. Keller cheerfully admitted his – a blind spot for Gallic culture generally and Debussy and Stravinsky (the non-serial works) in particular. However, he also for the most part refrained from writing about them. He didn't "get" them, and he knew it. Revealing more than he probably knows, Mitchell took Keller to gentle task over this: duty requires a critic to come to grips with the major figures of the era, despite his feelings. This notion led to an inept series of essays by Mitchell on Vaughan Williams and to a serious misreading of Elgar. This doesn't mean that one can't say something penetrating about a composer one has no sympathy for, but one must take special care not to mistake taste for truth.

I want to make it clear I'm not thumping Mitchell for his dislike of Vaughan Williams' music or even for his astonishing pronouncement of him as a "minor" figure. As Mitchell himself notoriously remarked of Ernest Newman, he is entitled to his wrong opinion. However, to Mitchell's own distinction, the reader mustn't forgive an unsound conclusion, and Mitchell's "Vaughan Williams" (pp. 87-97) is filled with stuff that not only just isn't so but, worse, unmusical. Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobel laureate, once said of his view of Yeats, "We must all kill our fathers." That, it seems to me, is what Mitchell acts out.

In short, Mitchell makes Vaughan Williams the scapegoat of what he views as the parochialism of English musical climate between the wars. In a certain way, it makes sense to do this, because Vaughan Williams is the major figure in British music between the wars, simply from the standpoint of career alone. However, I believe that Mitchell has conflated the composer's music with those who wrote about the music at the time. Reading Michael Kennedy's standard The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams it repeatedly struck me – even or especially in the positive reviews – how little real criticism there is in the contemporary writing. I agree that much of the criticism between the wars was indeed insular – like the English complaining about the garlic in French food – but that insularity is certainly not shared by Vaughan Williams. In fact, he and Havergal Brian probably knew as much about the European music scene as anyone. The big strike against him is that he disliked the music of Mahler and Schoenberg, but so what? Why should he like everything? And indeed one had few opportunities to hear works by these men between the wars. Yet it is also clear that Vaughan Williams made it a point to attend as many performances of these works as he could. This doesn't seem parochial to me. Anyone who can't hear Stravinsky in the "London" symphony or Ravel in Flos campi or Reger and Sibelius and Hindemith in the Symphony #4 or Bartók in the piano concerto (incidentally, a work Bartók praised) isn't really listening.

Furthermore, Mitchell brings only the case against. He quotes Neville Cardus's original negative review of the Symphony #4, but he neglects to note that Cardus later changed his mind. He brings up again and again the "true fact" that Vaughan Williams' music is confined to the British Isles, apparently because it's not played in Vienna. Well, a lot of things aren't played in Vienna, including much Britten. I imagine that if you looked at CD sales figures, you'd find both Vaughan Williams and Britten healthy in several overseas markets. No one has followed Vaughan Williams in the same way that no one has followed van Gogh, but it doesn't make much sense to dump on van Gogh because of this. Vaughan Williams' music has not generated successors in the way that Stravinsky's music has. On the other hand, to paraphrase Shaw, in art it doesn't matter who comes before you, but who comes after you. Nobody followed Mozart, either. Something else is going on in Mitchell's head.

As for Elgar, Mitchell makes the standard case for Gerontius as the culmination of the earlier oratorios and cantatas but thinks the Enigma Variations came out of the blue. He fails to note two things: the symphonic procedures throughout much of the earlier big choral works and the orchestral character pieces that had made up Elgar's output up to that time. The Enigma consists of these character pieces tied by the basic symphonic technique of variation. There's plenty left over that's new for Elgar, challenges which he meets triumphantly (the peroration in particular, which cost him a lot of sweat), but the work has precedents. I also disagree with Mitchell's judgment of Elgar's Apostles. I think it the greatest of the oratorios – a step forward from Gerontius – but I'm in no position to argue details. I admit Mitchell certainly knows Gerontius better than I, and probably The Apostles as well. Again, for Mitchell the culprit is British insularity at the time. Elgar had to write oratorios, because that was the English taste. As a matter of fact, so did Britten, Walton, Holst, Tippet, and Vaughan Williams. All of them contributed something new to the form. As Kennedy notes in Portrait of Elgar, a work about the apostles had been in Elgar's mind since boyhood. Though we might deplore British artistic insularity, we can't claim that it forced Elgar into a project he didn't want to do. In fact, I know of no instance in which anyone forced Elgar into any of his major works, and Mitchell provides no detailed example.

In refreshing contrast, however, there are brilliant essays on Expressionism as well as on the links between French and Austro-German music at the beginning of the twentieth century. We tend to think, like Ned Rorem, that there are two kinds of people: French and German. If you're not one, you're the other. Mitchell discovers Wagner as the common ancestor to both and in so doing argues for a cohesive European musical culture (always leaving aside Britain and Russia). Mitchell also makes the case – again tracing his definition to Wagner, in this case Tristan – for Expressionism as a part of almost all post-Romantic music, beyond its brief burst mainly in the Teens and a bit of the Twenties. He even brings in painting, with the writings of Kandinsky juxtaposed to those of Schoenberg. This is all first-class.

We might ask ourselves whether it's the critic's job to be right. I've never believed it. Schumann may have praised Chopin, Brahms, Wagner, Mendelssohn, and Berlioz, but he also went ga-ga over Niels Gade. Shaw hated Brahms's and Dvořák's music for most of his life (he relented about Brahms thirty years after giving up regular reviewing) and made a fool of himself over Richard Strauss's awful (there's no other word) kitschfest, Josephslegende. Tovey went nuts for the likes of Joachim and Roentgen. In fact, I distrust a critic who doesn't make the occasional extravagant mistake. The twin roots of criticism for me have always been passion and understanding. You risk making a public fool of yourself every time you write, but you do it because the work before you matters in some way. If you don't care for a work, you may not understand the most important thing about it: namely, why others like it. It's easy, but also dangerous, to dismiss others as subhuman. Remember that they also probably share many of your artistic loves, and what does that say about your taste? Hans Keller's advice seemed to me very wise in that regard. On the other hand, in any period, garbage outweighs gold. Critics unwilling to put themselves on the line against what they consider shoddy do nobody any good. Criticism, above all, is argument. It needs not just passion, but reason. It's also argument, in the sense of back and forth between parties, which leads eventually to the bright discovery. Mitchell consistently provokes this kind of response in his reader, and for that alone, we owe him a debt.

Copyright © 2000 by Steve Schwartz.