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Book Review

John Simon on Music

John Simon on Music

Criticism, 1979-2005

John Simon
Introduction by Ned Rorem
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books (2005) 504pp
ISBN 1557835063
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan

Summary for the Busy Executive: Stunningly mislabeled.

John Simon for years has made a living infuriating people with gratuitous insults of many of his betters. His "No Fat Chicks" campaign (indulged in the present volume, by the way, as he discusses certain plus-size divas) usually has shown him simply a mean spirit with little imagination. In short, he has often hurt himself as well as his targets. Mostly, he confines such poor – and attention-getting – behavior to his "popular" criticism. His more highbrow work for journals like the Hudson Review and New Leader takes on a much more earnest tone. Unfortunately, often in these venues he says very little not boringly obvious. Does anyone, for example, really need Simon to point out Ingmar Bergman as a great director? Furthermore, Simon, fluent in several languages, writes in what Gore Vidal has sneered at as his "proud, Serbian style." I'm sure Simon thinks of his prose as lapidary. I think of it as klunky, stiff, constipated, a style easily parodied by someone with a knowledge of English grammar and a thesaurus.

Despite these blots, Simon is indeed a critic, as opposed to a reviewer, one of the few with a non-academic audience, although academics might read him as well. The difference, quickly speaking, is that between a kind of Consumer Reports write-up – Should you spend your money on this? – and an analysis of why and how art, usually great art, works or fails to work on you. Of course, there's some overlap of the two. But Simon aims mainly at the latter, from which you can infer the former.

I have always found Simon at his best when he loves what he writes about. His rave review of And Now for Something Completely Different turned me on to Monty Python, for which he has my gratitude. Soured by his pans, I felt I just had to see something he liked. Fortunately, John Simon loves classical music. That is both the great strength and weakness of the book. Simon is a music-lover, rather than a musician. He doesn't even read music and apparently has no desire to learn how. On the one hand, he often comes up with an insight that wouldn't occur to most musicians. On the other, it limits him. Most of this book is about non-musical aspects of musical works, so that part's not really "on music" at all. Simon has a wide knowledge of literature in several languages, and he can relate musical artifacts to the general culture of the time, as one can see in his discussions of Pelléas et Mélisande, for example. Further, if he tells you what Janáček's letters say, you can be pretty sure he himself has translated the original, rather than relied on a mediator. Nevertheless, because of his limited ability to think in purely musical terms, he concentrates on music with texts: songs and operas. Even here, he confines his opera discussions largely to plot recitals. Unfortunately, very few operas have held the stage because of their plots, so Simon pretty much fails to account for their power. Acquiring the technical knowledge, not necessarily to spit it back at the lay reader, might nevertheless give Simon other strategies for talking about a musical work.

Furthermore, the book could have stood severe editing. Simon claims that he wanted to preserve his reviews whole, as originally written. Having used that excuse myself, I suspect he's merely lazy. Meanwhile, he has written about some works several times. About the third time you read the plot of Kát'a Kabanová, you tend to sigh deeply and fall into a light slumber. It's not that Simon doesn't say new things, but there aren't that many of them. He would have improved the book immensely if he had rolled several essays on the same subject into one.

However, the book has its virtues. Chief among them is Simon's ardent love of a wide range of classical music. I usually don't learn as much from a negative criticism as from a positive one. A negative critic often misses the point, since he doesn't understand why anybody other than a boor would like what he himself despises. It's all very well, for example, to think La Bohème a piece of garbage, but does the judgment really offer much understanding or insight into the work itself? Simon likes the Certifiably Great as well as the Iffy. His essays on writers like Bantock, Lennox Berkeley, Berners, and Alexander Tcherepnin are some of the most enjoyable in the book. I also like, and fully endorse, his plea for major-minor and minor-major composers. I pity listeners who consider anyone but Bach (or Beethoven or Mahler or Brahms or Mozart) unworthy of their time. They miss out on too much. Besides, avoiding Schumann because he isn't as Great as Brahms strikes me as bizarre. Simon isn't afraid to jump into the deep end to retrieve some cheap bauble, which means the bauble moves him and that music isn't another badge of Pharisaical self-congratulation.

One minor annoyance: Simon routinely takes others to task for typos, misspellings, and small grammatical slips, even in languages other than their own. Yet his book is not entirely free of these. Oscar Wilde's name, for example, is hyphenated "Wil-des," probably a vagary of computer typesetting, but it still shows a failure of proofreading. It's nice to be able to live up to your own high standards, but it's not always possible. I'd normally cut an author some slack, but not when he busts the chops of others for the same infractions.

Copyright © 2006, Steve Schwartz.