Classical Critics Survey

7. Is it harder to write about classical music than, say, an opera--because with opera you can fall back on writing about the story line, the costumes, production design, etc.

It's hard to write about music, period! It defies being written about. There are very limited ways to describe how a piece actually sounds without resorting to technical jargon (like "chromatic harmony") that few readers understand. Yes, it is much easier to review an opera, because you become part-theater critic.

It's true, there's a built in narrative element in talking about opera. But these details often get in the way of what the writer is most excited about. It's the excitement that propels the most compelling narrative, and this can happen only when you're writing about what most engages you, which in some cases is actually the music.

Well, I wouldn't say "fall back," because the story line, costumes, and production are all important to discuss But it's true that instrumental music is harder to write about than opera. For one thing, you need more knowledge. You need to know about instrumental performance; you need to absorb musical details purely by ear. And it's hard to find words to describe something as abstract as music. It's easy to talk about the graphic execution that ends Jake Heggie's recent opera, Dead Man Walking, but how do you talk about some surprising phrase that the clarinets play toward the end of a symphony? Sometimes you can use technical language--"the dominant chord in the brass at measure 346"--but then many people won't understand you. And how can you be sure your readers, those who've heard the piece, even remember that chord? Here we have an additional problem with music: Unlike a painting, it doesn't stand still. An art critic can talk about an orange spot near the bottom left of a painting, something anyone who looks at the painting can see. But if a music critic cites a musical event, using either technical or poetic language, readers either have to hear the piece or look at the written score to know for sure what the critic is talking about.

Still, we persevere. We do our best. What else can we do?

It's always easier to describe in words something that uses words as its medium. Personally, though, I have trouble differentiating vocal types because I have little experience in the vocal world.

Well, "opera" is a subset of what is widely known as "classical music," so we classical music critics generally all end up writing about opera. It seems to me that some classical critics are a little scared of opera--the elephant in the living room--and feel more secure on their home turf of purely instrumental repertoire. I happen to be an opera queen, and I began as an opera critic, so I did indeed find it more difficult to write about orchestral music the first time I was called on to review a concert. Still, whether you're writing about an opera or a symphony, the basic task is the same: to find effective language to express certain aspects of your own aesthetic perception. Those of us who are voice junkies may have honed our perceptions of the voice to a greater degree than those who have an encyclopedic knowledge of, say, organ music. As I said in my answer to the first question, classical music is a field mined with little pockets of specific knowledge, and very few of us have equal mastery of all those pockets. If someone isn't comfortable discussing the voice, he or she may well fall back on writing about the opera's story line; just as someone who isn't as knowledgeable about harp music may fall back on writing a description of how a harp soloist looked while playing. And in fact, perhaps such discussions, in both cases, provide a useful context for the reader. But opera, of course, is drama, and ideally an opera review will deal with the production's dramatic values--production, acting, movement--in an intelligent way, as well as the music. In Germany, where I lived for 11 years, your average review of a new opera production included a long, informed discussion about the concepts and ideas underlying that production.

In the States, that's less relevant, because productions tend to be more literal; in fact, many people seem to protest vehemently anything but the most literal, slavish representation of the text. I find that opera in this country often tends to be less about artistic statement than about dutiful reenactment, which is deadly for any art form. This also means that a critic's discussion of the story line and production in an average American opera production may tend to be on a purely descriptive level, rather than an analytic/intellectual one. But I don't think that necessarily becomes something to "fall back" on unless one is uncomfortable writing about opera in the first place.