But Bowles also belonged to the distinguished line of composer/critics which included, among many others, Berlioz, Schumann, Debussy, Copland and Thomson himself. The composer/critic is a special kind of critic, one who looks at and assesses his art form from the inside, as a practitioner and a mechanic. As such, he is often interested in the music itself more than the performance or performer; and he probably has some strong personal feelings, as Bowles did, about what a proper piece of music should sound like.
Bowles’s criticism covers a wide range of musical subjects, from jazz and pop to film and folk music, from traditional classical music to avant-garde. At the Herald Tribune — where Thomson attempted to broaden the range of music criticism and critics often took an anthropological interest in nonclassical music — Bowles fit right in, reviewing Frank Sinatra, the Trapp Family Singers, a child accordionist, a thereminist. He heard Stravinsky conduct his own works, Villa-Lobos, too, and first performances of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Vaughan Williams, Thomson, Bernstein, Cage, Milhaud, and many others.
He approached his assignments donning different hats — as ethnomusicologist, as anthropologist, as objective reporter and as transparently biased composer.
Here’s Bowles in his reporter mode — a “just the facts ma’am” approach to reviewing the Trapp Family Singers (of “The Sound of Music” fame):
DECEMBER 20 (1943), NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE
The Trapp Family Singers gave the second of two concerts of Christmas music yesterday afternoon. The audience filled Town Hall and half of its stage, the other half being occupied by the several members of the family and a large Christmas tree trimmed with cookies and ribbons. The program was kept strictly informal, and the Baroness Maria von Trapp, acting as spokesman for the group, explained that since she wished the public to go away carrying with it the feeling of Christmas, all encores would be sung before the intermission, leaving the carols for the very end of the program.
Although a good part of the charm exercised by this gifted family over the spectator is purely extramusical, there is no denying that the performances adhere to a high level of good, homely, nonvirtuoso musical ability. The program yesterday was varied, including a cappella group, various combinations of voices, spinet, and recorders, and two delightful Austrian folk dances. One of these, a waltz for octet of recorders, sounded like a careful and very gentle calliope.
The large work of the concert was a Christmas Cantata of the seventeenth century, I Bid Thee Welcome, Bridegroom Sweet, by Luebeck, sung with solos by Baroness von Trapp, obbligati on two recorders by two of her daughters and choral work by the others. Dr. Franz Wasner conducted from the spinet, which was beneath the Christmas tree. The freshness of the voices, the effortlessness of the singing and the touching unpretentiousness of the music itself combined to give an impression of purity as simple and bright as an Alpine winter’s day. The audience, in the mood to receive just such nostalgic suggestions, responded with great warmth.
Bowles seems to have enjoyed the concert, but his enjoyment is secondary to an accurate description of the event — of “what happened.”
In other case, Bowles the composer shows up to review, the composer who had a pretty clear bias against the German Romantics:
DECEMBER 3 (1943), NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE
Dr. Rodzinski’s program last night at Carnegie Hall, announced beforehand as being “dedicated to the suffering of the oppressed,” was not exactly a heartening affair, even when those dead, personified by the entire Westminster Chorus, rose to their feet and began to sing (in English) Klopstock’s “Resurrection” Ode, used by Gustav Mahler as text for the final part of the fifth movement of his leviathan-like Second Symphony. For this reviewer, the piece is pathetic, but not in the moving sense of the word, because the degree of its insistence on dramatic effect isolates it from the realm of truly important music, and thus deprives it of the right to be judged as such. If the composer had been content to let his work be simply a piece of music, it might have been either a good one or a bad one, but it would at least have stood on its own purely musical merits; however, since he insisted on making it a shocker, complete with chorus, organ, ten horns, augmented percussion, and offstage flourishes, there is no way open for us to consider it from the point of view so feverishly indicated by its creator: from the point of view of dramatic impact. Today, as a thrill-producing device, it is as outmoded as a stereoscope.
One is sorry that Mahler was fated to live and work in an age when Disney and Fantasound had not made their appearance, not because he would necessarily have been interested in films as a medium of artistic expression (although he might easily have been, and why not?), but because the infinitely superior ability of the medium to express a particular kind of literary-philosophical grandiloquence would have induced him to exercise his talents in fields of expression more appropriate to the art of music …
One has a suspicion that, given the proper circumstances, he might have qualified as a favorite with certain groups in the Third Reich, whose doctrine of glorification of the irrational conditions all esthetic manifestations of that country.”
Part 3 to come