RESPONSES: Musical Essays and Reviews by David Cairns

RESPONSES: Musical Essays and Reviews

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Music criticism is arguably a more difficult task than assessment of any other art. The music critic is generally faced with the insoluble dilemma of either being so technical as to be unapproachable by the serious listener who is not also a professional musician, or so impressionistic as to reflect less on the quality of a piece of music or a performance than on the sensibilities of the writer. This may suggest why there are so few great music critics -- notably Schumann, Berlioz, Shaw, Tovey, Haggin. It may also explain our appreciation of somewhat less than first-rate critics like David Cairns, an Englishman who deserves an American audience. Cairns' virtues are many: first, perhaps, is his ability to write not only ""about"" music (its history, etc.) but to write with lucidity and understanding of the particular work before him with respect for its singularity. Second, we admire the balance he achieves between detailed technical observations and more general ones, thus opening the doors for trained musicians and serious non-musicians, whether to a lengthy defense of Fidelio's greatness or a review of the brilliant Rostropovich. Alas, Cairns succeeds by rising above his major fault: he is a critic whose metacritical posture, on the one hand, varies between naivete and untenability (to wit, his remark that ""great composers do not let us down, if we trust them"" ignores both the critic's responsibility to inform the general taste as to precisely what ""great"" is and the acknowledged fact that even Bach has written some music that is less than unassailably rewarding); on the other hand, his particular responses are so thoughtfully vigorous, alive to scope and detail, and gracefully expressed that we all but forgive his crucial weakness.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1973
Publisher: Knopf