Praise and damnation

April 30, 2007

lexslom.jpgNicholas Slonimsky’s famous “Lexicon of Musical Invective” has consoled many composers over the years. It is a collection, or lexicon, of terrible reviews for now-famous classical compositions from critics of the time of the works’ premieres.

Composer, conductor, author, hornist, publisher, and champion for young contemporary classical and jazz composers, Gunther Schuller advised me to never let success — meaning getting publications, recordings, good press or awards — go to my head. I have tried to pass on this wise advice to my students and colleagues.

On the other hand, don’t let bad reviews bog you down. Read them, be angry for a day, copy it, and file it away. And get over it. Problem is, composers sometimes have a hard time doing that.

I worked for composer Randall Thompon in the summer of 1980. He told me a vivid story I’ll never forget. He attended the Rome premiere of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire.” After the work was over, the audience delivered overwhelming boos and angry shouts. Incensed, Schoenberg went up on the stage, shouted something (in German, RT didn’t know what he said), and SPAT at the audience. Whew! Talk about a temper tantrum. (I have not researched this story to confirm it, we all know how memory augments and diminishes reality, but I’ll never forget the look on RT’s face when he said the word “spat.” He was clearly shocked by this [alleged] act.)

Igor Stravinsky claimed even in his late years, that he never got over the pain he felt from the 1913 scandal over the Paris premiere of “Le Sacre.”

Gustav Holst wrote a letter to Serge Koussevitsky saying that his greatest work was “Egdon Heath” and he was heart-broken that it had not been acclaimed.

Sir Paul McCartney, even in his exalted status as Emeritus Beatle, is hurt over some people’s opinions that John was “the talented one.”

Perhaps it’s human nature, but why is it that when we read a review, or an evaluation of our efforts, or are called on something by a friend, do we choose to remember the criticisms and not the good stuff? Odd.

My advice to myself, and composers young and old: don’t get bloated on good review, and get over bad ones. Learn from me and the four dudes I just mentioned who should have just gotten over it. Let it go. Move on. Don’t be bitter. Bitterness is not an attractive quality and warps the perception of your world outlook.

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cs1966 May 1, 2007 at 7:21 am

Roger –

Glad you wrote about this book. Every composer should read the American reviews for Rachmaninoff’s works — one critic wrote (I believe) one of his pieces sounded like “razors” !!! And this is Rachmaninoff!

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