Thursday, December 25, 2014

Discovering My Own Point of View

As I continue to work my way through the new Library of America collection of Herald Tribune articles by Virgil Thomson, I encountered a paragraph that really resonated with me:
The intellectual audience wants culture with its music, wants information, historical perspectives, enlarged horizons. It demands of program makers constant experiment and a huge variety. It is far more interested in repertory, as a matter of fact, than in execution. It tends to envisage the whole of music as a vast library in which everything is available, or should be. The strictly musical audience and the mass public are more easily satisfied. They think of the concert life as a sort of boarding house where you take what is offered and don’t reach. Their good nature is easily abused by managements and other organizing agencies. The intellectuals are more demanding and refuse to be spoon fed. That is why, as a musician, I value the intellectual element in audiences.
Every now and then I encounter some push-back over the fact that I do not spend enough time writing about execution because I tend to dwell heavily on the music itself, usually in terms of its relation to the overall repertoire. I suppose that makes me an intellectual in Thomson's book; but that means that I value his punch line. I also think that the distinction that Thomson draws is the one I have previously tried to make between examining and criticism.

If I am to read him correctly, Thomson seems to work from the point of view that critical judgement is, and should be, grounded in evidence of execution, which may explain why, as I have previously observed, his own judgment tends to take its departure from what is printed on the score pages and, whenever possible, nothing else. However, he also seems to suggest that, even without recourse to score pages, the mass public has a basic toolbox to facilitate exercising their own judgement. I might suggest that those who are skillful at using their own tools might constitute that particular class that I have previously called the "enthusiasts." The problem is that those managements about which Thomson writes tend to know both the assets and the limitations of those tools, which is why Thomson raises the problem of abuse.

Thomson wrote the above paragraph for publication on January 22, 1950. I state that date because the article itself deserves a bit of historical perspective. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was created in 1938; but it was originally created to root out uncover Nazis, rather than undercover Communists. After the Second World War, however, the target shifted.

One result was that many keen intellects, particularly those studying the history of the United States, were writing about the many ways in which our country did not live up to the ideals it had set for itself. These articles were not necessarily accusatory, since many of the writers made no secret that the real world never lives up to the ideal world. Unfortunately, the nature of this critical thinking tended to be associated with advocating Communism; and, to be fair, there certainly was a contingent of writers who had been Party members. However HUAC went after the whole body of those intellectuals with the four-legs-good-two-legs-bad logic of George Orwell's Animal Farm, leading to a rise in anti-intellectualism that would ultimately be studied by Richard Hofstadter.

That rise was already in progress when Thomson wrote the above paragraph. However, those thoughts were simply a continuation of precepts he had been writing about half a decade earlier. My guess is that in 1950 he could not foresee just how much damage HUAC would do; and, since we have never really recovered from that damage, I have to wonder how many of today's readers would prefer to bite Thomson's finger of such regards, rather than looking where he is pointing.

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