(A talk delivered at the Paul Bowles Centennial Festival at University of California, Santa Cruz, February 2011.)
When the French composer Hector Berlioz became a music critic, in the 1830s, he called it a “calamity.”
“I must now describe the circumstances by which I came to be caught in the toils of criticism,” he wrote in his Memoirs.
Berlioz thought of criticism as a form of warfare, as a way of fighting his musical enemies and of elevating his music heroes — of literally settling scores. That warfare wore on him throughout his long career as a music critic. What’s more, despite his sparkling literary style, Berlioz confessed that he hated prose composition, often agonizing over or putting off the writing of an article for days.
A century later, another composer, Paul Bowles, took up music criticism as well. He initially had reservations about it — especially about the tight deadlines required by the newspaper journalism of the day. But he grew to enjoy writing music criticism and, in the process, writing prose. His decade of writing music criticism paved the way for his fiction.
From 1339 through the first part of 1945, in fact, he published nothing in prose but music criticism, and quite a substantial amount of it. From 1931, he had contributed translations of articles on music, then his own music criticism, the journal Modern Music, a publication of the League of American Composers. Aaron Copland, Bowles’s teacher, friend and, probably, one-time lover, was the guiding light of both the League and the journal. Then, from 1942 through early 1946, Bowles served on the music reviewing staff of the New York Herald Tribune, where another friend and teacher, Virgil Thomson, reigned as chief critic. In his three and a half years there, he wrote more than four hundred music reviews and columns.
“The work gave Bowles invaluable experience in producing a straightforward narration of events and in putting nonverbal experiences into verbal expression” is how one commentator neatly sums up the role of music criticism in his career. Millicent Dillon sees his daily review writing for the Herald Tribune as “a process that reinforced his already awesome self-discipline.” Perhaps Bowles put it most succinctly in a 1953 interview: “I only returned to writing through music criticism.”
Writing music criticism worked better, personally, for Bowles than it did for Berlioz because he didn’t think of it as warfare, at least not most of the time. Here’s how Bowles put it in an interview in the late 1990s:
“[Thomson] always said you must consider what you’re doing is reporting on an event, like a fire in the Bronx or something. You go, he says, tell what you see, you don’t say ‘I didn’t like the color of the fire. I don’t like the smell of the burning rubber.’ Don’t tell what you like or don’t like because no one cares. That was always very important, not to push your person into the review by complaining. It’s always considered that you were simply reporting on an event, which is what you were doing — a recital at Town Hall or Carnegie Hall was an event. What happened. And that was the important thing. He always stressed that: What happened? … Because the personal element can enter into it, and it shouldn’t. It really should be the same. I mean, if you’re to review a fire in the Bronx and even if you happen to know the man who was burned alive in the empty lot, you don’t say, ‘Oh dear, he was such a nice man.’ You simply say, ‘He was found dead.'”
Part 2 tomorrow.