By its nature, music criticism is ephemera, designed to be read as soon as possible after a concert or CD release and then forgotten. as quickly as the newsprint on which they're printed gets thrown away? So why do people still relish what Neville Cardus wrote in the 1940's? The man himself wasn't a literary giant like George Bernard Shaw who's remembered because people assume that being a famous playwright precludes the writing of opinionated tosh. But Cardus stands out because he wasn't just writing about what he heard but how it worked on him. When you read Cardus you're reading a man who's engaging with what he hears.
There's a story about a college professor who had a huge grant to build a machine that could produce music. Each phrase took hours of calculation. Along comes a man who cackles with delight, twitches a few knobs on the machine, and out comes something original and listenable. College professor says, "that cannot be music, he doesn't know how the machine works!" But the man was Luciano Berio who may not have had a clue about the machine but knew how to make it sing. Which further proves that even electronic music doesn't come from an object other than the human mind.
So what's the connection between Neville Cardus and Luciano Berio? Cardus wasn't a trained musician but, like Berio, used his brain creatively, applying intuition, knowledge and experience to the way he listened. What he did was a form of artistic expression, because he was channeling ideas about what he heard into something others could understand, and help them to think and feel for themselves. Not for nothing he was supposed to have said that music writing was "collaborative". The act of listening involves several layers of creative involvement. The performer is interpreting the composer's notes and the listener is processing in their minds what they're hearing. Listening is not passive, but a kind of skill in itself. Reading Cardus is like having a wise friend with you, enriching your experience.
Once Cardus spotted another eminent critic following a score during a concert. So he peeked. The other critic was reading the score of an entirely different symphony. The man was reading whatever he had to hand, to distract from an excruciating performance of what was being played. So neither man cared about theoretical perfection, but listened for artistic values.
Thoughtful listening is a skill in itself. Hans Sachs is the ultimate "good listener" who can see what Walter is getting at even if Walter hasn't got there yet. Beckmesser is so consumed by non-artistic baggage that all he can do is mark the slate with "mistakes". He gets more and more carried away with trashing Walter so that he almost destroys the poor kid. Whether Beckmesser can sing himself is immaterial (he's a Meistersinger too, after all).
Nuremberg would have lost a great talent if the Meistersingers had followed Beckmesser's hysteria. Unfortunately in the real world there are very few Sachs indeed, and millions of Beckmessers, many of whom haven't the faintest idea what they are talking about. But because they're loud and impressive, they carry the crowd. Everyone in an audience has an opinion, but not all opinions are the same (even if they agree). So it would be interesting to learn how Cardus got his listening skills and how he turned music writing into an art form of its own.
There's a new book out on Cardus which I cannot possibly recommend. There are lots of chapters, each only a few pages long. Lots of quotations which serve as padding rather than add substance. It's like reading a desk diary, full of amusing quotes but little attempt to order them into coherent analysis. Maybe it's biography for the twitter generation. How odd that the subject should be Cardus who was in many ways the opposite of what the book is like. By not naming the book I'm being kind. Since collections of Cardus's own work and autobio are still available check these out instead.