Saturday, September 28, 2013


I recall a conversation with a minor conductor. MC: Do you like Bach? JS: Not at all. MC: How about Mozart? JS: Ditto. MC: Beethoven? JS: Hardly. MC (exasperated): Do you like music? JS: Absolutely.

Then there is a hostile review of my book “John Simon on Music,” written by Alan Rich. We knew each other quite well without any love lost. Rich was outraged about there being in it only one mention of Mozart, and even that in a quotation from someone else.

Well, there it is: I don’t like any music before some Schubert, and not even all of his. What is all this about? Let me try to explain.

It seems to me that before the Romantics, music was constricted. I do not dispute that the two Bs and one M were important composers, but for me they were all about technique and technical innovation, but ultimately—even the tonitruous Beethoven—not truly free. Emotion, as I understand it, does not come in until the Romantics, and has been with us at least until Stockhausen and John Cage.

Now it would be nice if I were a musician and able, with illustrative examples and technical analysis, to explain the differences between, say, a passage in Mozart and one in Debussy. But, however enthusiastic, I am only a layman lacking even a college course in music, and can speak only the language of fellow laymen.

It appears to me that Bach and Mozart (Beethoven was somewhat different) wrote predictable, mathematical music, limited in scope, not unlike a caged canary’s pleasant but anodyne chirping. It was also perfectly square, by which I mean that from the first two notes of a bar you could predict the next two. Beethoven was, at any rate, impassioned, but not in a fully melodious way.

There were, of course, changes in rhythm and dynamics, and some very modest surprises. But even when the music deigned to be fast and loud, it was still wallpaper to me, which, after all, can also be loud and repeats its pattern rapidly.

Absent, for me, is what some would call sentimentality. There is no ecstasy, a sense of pathos even in the lighter colors, a stirring up of one’s feelings, beauty so intense that it almost hurts. There isn’t that mercurial quality of sudden changes from comedy to tragedy, a rhapsodic freedom to roam into supermelodiousness, into stirring harmonies and polyphony, into guarded poly- or atonality, into tunefulness that approaches the orgasmic as it fluctuates between gossamer and a kind of endearing grandiloquence. What can I say? Modulation, chromaticism, rapture.

To me, the top dozen geniuses among composers are Barber, Bartok, Berg, Debussy, Faure, Janacek, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Ravel, Shostakovich, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky. Following them there are any number of masters, of whom I want to call attention to only a few, who, not being obvious, are easily overlooked. Among these I cite Berkeley, Dutilleux, Guarnieri, Honegger, Ibert, Martin, Martinu, Mompou, Montsalvatge, Szymanovski, A. Tcherepnin and Tansman, though for a full list of them you will have to consult “John Simon on Music,” where you will find essays on most of them.

And then there are those whom I view as opera composers, even though they may have written quite a bit of other stuff. These would be Bizet, Britten, Gounod, Mussorgsky, Puccini, Verdi and Wagner, though (especially in the case of Wagner) I may consider them quite uneven.

And let me pay tribute to three popular composers who may be distinctly minor, but splendid in their way and particularly dear to me. There is, first, Nino Rota, chiefly remembered for his magnificent scores for Fellini movies. But he composed brilliantly for other filmmakers as well, and wrote classical music and operas nowise inferior to his finest film scores.

There is something about Rota’s music that can bring me very close to tears, as does much of that of Kurt Weill. He, too, was, even in his early classical compositions. close to popular music, but that, in someone like Weill or the delightful Noel Coward, is nowise diminishing, the way some of the great book illustrators are no less admirable than famous painters.

Finally, there are two composers whom I cherish for one work only, but what a work! They are Jerome Moross, whose musical “The Golden Apple,” and Ennio Morricone, whose film score for “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion,” are, for me, immortal masterpieces.

Let me conclude by translating a small excerpt from an essay on music by Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder (1773-98), an important Preromantic, who had he not died so very young would have become an even more influential German writer, though he remains notable enough as is.

Music to me is altogether an image of our life: a touchingly brief joy that arises out of nothing and dissolves into nothing. . . .  I consider music the most wondrous of inventions, because it renders human sentiments in a superhuman manner; because it reveals to us, aloft over our heads, all the stirrings of our temperament, disembodied and arrayed in golden clouds of airy harmonies. Because it speaks in a language we do not know in our routine life, one that we learned we know not where and how, and that one is inclined to regard as the tongue of angels.

Just so, dear William Henry, if may translate also your given names, you who are known as the shy and melancholy Wackenroder, happy only when listening to music. I myself can be happy in diverse ways, but my music is surely very high among them.


  1. I take it all the above was intended as a joke of some sort, but I confess the humor of it went well over my head. In the hugely unlikely case it was all intended in earnest, well, then I' speechless.


    1. Ditto. I love me some JS, but this has to be some Shaw inspired satire. Simon doesn't like Mozart? No way! "wallpaper"? Dude, come on!

      (Killer essay, though. : )

  2. An unjustly neglected American composer is William Mayer, whose opera 'A Death in the Family' is quite excellent. Below is a clip I loaded up to YouTube, from a 2012 Hungarian production -- it sounds very Janacekian to me -- note the excellent performance by Joshua Jeremiah as Ralph Follett, the "understanding undertaker":

  3. Mr. Simon at an earlier date
    Named 14 works that he thought first-rate:

    Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto and 'Souvenirs' ballet,
    Ibert’s Trio for Violin, Cello and Harp,
    Mompou’s song cycle 'Combat del somne',
    Montsalvatge’s 'Lullaby for a Small Negro Boy',
    Martin’s Concerto for 7 Winds and Strings,
    Mahler’s 'Adagietto' from his Fifth Symphony,
    Debussy’s 'La plus que lente',
    Ravel’s ballet 'L’Enfant et les sortileges',
    Kodály’s 'Approaching Spring (Közelítő Tél)' for baritone and orchestra,
    Bartók’s Second Suite for Orchestra,
    Sallinen’s opera 'The Red Line',
    Britten’s 'Peter Grimes', and
    Strauss’s 'Der Rosenkavalier'

  4. "It seems to me that before the Romantics, music was constricted. I do not dispute that the two Bs and one M were important composers, but for me they were all about technique and technical innovation, but ultimately—even the tonitruous Beethoven—not truly free. Emotion, as I understand it, does not come in until the Romantics, and has been with us at least until Stockhausen and John Cage."

    True to some extent, but I think Simon missing the point, possibly to compensate for his fussbudget attitudes about grammar and language. With words, Simon has been a 'restrictionist', 'correctionist', 'properian' and all such stuff. He pores over every spelling and grammar, discovering mistakes or 'mistakes' 99% of us would never notice. Since Simon is hardly life of the party when it comes to 'free' use of language, he seeks liberation through music. So, paradoxically, Simon doesn't like Simonics in music. Simon is Simon enough with language and prefers more 'open creativity' in music. This is called Aesthetic Compensation Syndrome. This is true in cooking as well. A Chef who takes French cuisine very seriously may prefer the more easy going nature of Mexican cooking during leisure time. After much properian professional work with one form of cooking, he wants to relax with another kind of food experience. It's like a sushi chef who is a stickler about details about how to prepare raw fish may prefer a more relaxed atmosphere with other kinds of cooking. Since Simon is a language nut, he wants more of a sense of freedom with music.

    That said, I would say all genres of music are 'constricted' in their own way, which is it's great that there are so many forms and genres of music. If a law said we must only listen to or adhere to the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, then I'd agree with Simon. But we have a wide arrange of choice, not least because of the foundations laid down by the great three who made much else possible.
    Blues music has its own constrictions. So does country. So do German folk songs. French folk songs. Russian folk songs. Japanese koto music. African drums of various tribes. Indian raga music. Peruvian flute music.
    No form of music can be everything. Muddy Waters was great as Muddy Waters but one doesn't listen to him for refined sounds. Cole Porter was expert at what he did but one doesn't expect anything like Wagner from him. Rock n Roll was fun but formally limited.

    To an extent, I can understand what Simon is saying. It's like I can acknowledge the significance of early rock n rollers but I don't much care for Little Richard, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and etc. (Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly had something of a wider range.) As crucial as they were to the development of rock music and culture, I thought they were essentially one-trick ponies. They never really ventured beyond their original persona and act. Same could be said of folk music revival in the late 50s and early 60s. It had some fine musicians but most were sticking to formula. It was really with the advent of Rock culture with Dylan, Beatles, Beach Boys, Stones, Who, Byrds, Doors, Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, and etc that youth pop music really opened up to all sorts of emotions, expressions, experimentation. Beatles could rock hard, sing pop ballads, adopt folk elements, incorporate classical music ideas, and go for personal expression, like Lennon with "Norwegian Wood". It was more than an act. It became something like an art. One could say Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were like the early rock n rollers. They laid the groundwork but were limited in their range of emotions and expressions. It was really the later guys who really explored the full range and depths of music.

    1. That said, the range of styles in the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven is amazing, all the more so since they had far less inspiration to draw upon than did the artists who came later.
      Personally, I love Bach, don't much care for Mozart(not least because I can't get that stupid Amadeus movie out of me head), and can't connect emotionally with Beethoven(though his awesomeness is beyond question). Bach's music is maybe the most universal, even celestial and cosmic. No wonder it was used to great effect in Tarkovsky's Solaris. Bach is one of those artists who will always be both traditionalist/conservative and modern/ahead-of-his-time. Timeless and luminous.
      Mozart was brilliant but maybe a bit too flowery and pretty. But he added an element of playfulness to music, and maybe he should be appreciated as much as a great pop artist than as 'serious' classical one. Beethoven could take a simple musical idea and turn it around every which way and weave it into infinite variations. Tireless, probing, aggressive, exhilarating. I guess I just prefer the timelessness of Bach to the tirelessness of Beethoven. Beethoven makes me feel like my ass has been whupped real bad. He plays me like a musical experiment. Even his soft tunes like Moonlight Sonata have an intensity, a subdued violence of emotions that never put me at ease. Great artist but I can feel the sting of his rod. Rather like Pete Townshend.

    2. Ironically, it may be that Simon's REAL problem with Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven is that they are emotionally too free and open in contrast to the artists Simon prefers. Simon has bashed a lot of film music composers for their sappy, syrupy, philistine, easy-to-please, accessible, manipulative, and/or feel-good tunes. He detested Vangelis tune for Chariots of Fire for instance. And he hasn't been much of a fan of John Williams either. Now, it may well be that such composers--whom Simon dislikes or detests--may be more 'constricted' in terms of expressive style, but one could argue that they are emotionally more free and open. They feel no shame in expressing basic human emotions of joy, uplift, sadness, pathos, and the sort of stuff that most people like and can relate to. Simon the snob may find such accessible emotions beneath his intellect and dignity. Therefore, he may prefer thornier and more irascible forms of music. In Rock culture, there are critics who've tended to dismiss McCartney, Springsteen, Beach Boys, and more popular acts as too easy-to-please, too showbiz-like, etc. In other words, such acts are good enough for the teeny boppers but unworthy material for 'radical', 'intellectual', and 'committed' cultural critics such as themselves who go for Patti Smith and some obscure punk bands or underground acts. Such critics don't wanna be associated with 'what most people like' or 'what most people can understand'. They see Springsteen and McCartney playing to the mass crowd with the kinds of 'simple' and 'predictable' emotions everyone is familiar with. They take pride in 'getting' the higher and deeper creativity of the more 'radical acts'. In film criticism, it's the sort of people who prefer the more difficult and inaccessible Godard and Rivette over the more middle-of-the-road Truffaut and Rohmer. Though in cinema, Simon prefers the more accessible artists, in music he is rather like the Godardians in cinema. Simon distrusts emotions in music that make him feel emotions shared by most people. He wants music to be 'challenging' and 'different' and a bit 'alternative'. So, in a way, it's Simon who has something like a constricted view of music. He doesn't like open river music that flows to the ocean. He prefers brooks and streams that zig zag with surprising turns, along which he can find his own steps away from the well-tread paths along the rivers of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach(and other such folks). On the other hand, Simon isn't into the full avant-garde thing in music for such tends to foster academism and intellectualism that sacrifice the enjoyment of music as music. So, Simon wants his kind of music to be something more than accessible to all, but he also doesn't want it to become the intellectual/ideological plaything of the academia run by 'radicals' with their fashions and agendas.

    3. Simon, due to his prickly nature, doesn't want music to wash over him. He may accept music to his neck up, but his heads has to stay above the waters. His hair must remain dry. Even someone with no knowledge of music or particular appreciation of serious/classical music can enjoy Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven in a way that John Williams can be enjoyed.

      Simon speaks of 'mathematical' music of technique versus the music of emotions that began with Romanticism, but I take it that he doesn't like a lot of Romantic music for the same reason he dislikes the big three. Much of romantic stuff is also too accessible. After all, there's no mention of Brahms, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, etc. Simon mentions Wagner but is ambivalent about him. So, it could be that Simon is really drawing a line between 'easy' music(that anyone can enjoy and understand) vs prickly music(that requires some degree of cerebral engagement and intellectual negotiation/navigation on the part of the listener). It's like art critics are all so tired of Mona Lisa and the Sistine Chapel(which is in every high school art book) and prefer to dwell on more esoteric art that can be appreciated without the middlebrow philistine masses following behind their backs. So, Simon's musical appreciation is actually contradictory. On the one hand, he seeks emotionalism and liberation through music--that he doesn't find in language, about which he is a fussbudget--, and yet, he's not happy with the kind of music that washes over him and takes him on a river journey boat ride to the sea with the rest of the hoi polloi with some middle brow philistine leanings. But if he were to say so, he would sound like a snob, and no one, not even Simon, wants to be accused of snobbery.

      If indeed Simon really wants freedom of expression in music, why doesn't he prefer jazz or Asian-Indian music to classical/modern Western music, which, in all its forms, emphasizes form and precision and generally eschews improvisation, at least the kind found in jazz, honky tonk, jam music, southern rock(Lynyrd Skynyrd), hippie music(Grateful Dead), psychedelia(Pink Floyd of the late 60s), etc.
      Also, all forms of classical music are emotionally constricted in their seriousness, refined-ness, dignified-ness, intellectual-ness, adroitness, artfulness, reverential-ness, come-properly-dressed-for-the-overpriced-concert-ness-that-is-well-beyond-the-affordability-of-yours-truly, and/or some suchness. It's the music of the heart and/or mind. It is not the music of the ass, balls, pooter, and gastronomical organs. It is music of the hat, gloves, and suit. It is music where people sit still and listen with rapt attention than get up and shake their booty and dance. I mean how many people boogie woogied to Janacek? How many danced the Charleston to Berg? I mean if you want really free-flowing, mind-blowing, ass-shaking, hair-flipping music, this is it:

      Soul Sacrifice


      The great dotter and his drummer buddy whose hands flip around like fish out of water.

    4. The way I see it, there is no reason to play this game of bashing the big three. They're all part of the choice, and the more the better. I mean take cinema. One doesn't have to like a bunch of filmmakers here and hate a bunch there. While some directors do suck plenty, I say long live the difference among the notable ones. Welles, Hitchcock, Bergman, Godard, Truffaut, Renoir, Bresson, Ozu, Kurosawa, Lean, Spielberg, Fincher, Chaplin, Keaton, Chabrol, Resnais, Cassavetes, Friedkin, Fellini, and etc. were all great to have.

      Now, some critics like Dave Kehr have dismissed Fellini and Bergman for the same reason that Simon dumped on the big three: Kehr finds them too predictable, conventional, and heavily symbolic, or too obvious. Similarly, some critics have downgraded Kurosawa for the same reason Simon has no use for the big three. Some critics found Kurosawa too broadly accessible and obvious and prefer the more elusive qualities of Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Naruse. And Bordwell belongs to this crowd as well, more or less. I find most such views pretty asinine and feel that maybe they should be kicked in the ass.

      I just don't see much point in such complaints. Everyone has his or her preferences, and that's okay, but it's good to have such a wide selection from many great and different talents. The films of Jean Renoir and Children of Paradise, for example, don't do much for me, but I recognize them as great works in their own right. Just because they aren't my favs doesn't mean I feel obligated to find reasons to minimize their place in cinema.
      So, if Simon doesn't like the big three, that's perfectly understandable. But his need to keep bashing them like the three stooges, that's just weird and excessive. I say he should stick to Streisand's nose. That was funnier.

  5. I myself tend to be a prescriptivist when it comes to matters grammatical, because I prefer precision and elegance to their opposites, but can embrace and enjoy the wild free-form improvisations of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. I don't think there's really any contradiction in this. Music and the written word are very different animals.

    As far as emotion and freedom in music, I dig Beethoven tremendously, finding depths of emotional expression there which Mr. Simon may or may not miss. On the other hand, I really can't stand Mozart. This fact may make me a philistine, but I take a back seat to no one in love and appreciation for the music of dozens of 19th century and 20th century composers.

    More later

    1. Simon's interest in music seems to be essentially poetic. He finds the big three too much like limericks or classical poetry of Alexander Pope, with obvious structures and rhymes. Simon prefers subtler imagery, tones, rhythms, metaphors, allusions, etc in poetry and music. And this element of personality, individuality, unpredictability, eccentricity, and emotionalism began with romanticism, and it developed into an intellectual idea with modernism. Simon likes the the era between the dusk of romanticism and the birth of modernism. The peak of Romanticism is too heavy and ripe for him, and ultra-modernism is too de-personalized and ideologicalized for him.

      Beethoven was very emotional, but his emotionalism was perhaps too grandiose and big ticket item for Simon. Beethoven was dealing with epic themes and highfalutin stuff. It was Mt. Rushmore music. Simon prefers the more obscure/peculiar gardens and groves of music with more varied interplay of light and shadow, the meanings from which can be accessed only by those with finer sensibilities who don't go for stuff like Lanza and Andre Rieu.

      Given this aspect of Simon, I wonder why he has such a high opinion of Leni Riefenstahl, whose use of imagery, as marvelous as it was, was so heavy and obvious. Vertov and Eisenstein were far more interesting poets of image.

  6. John, your readers seem to find your view that Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart are empty of ecstasy, pathos, and intense beauty largely bewildering—because, of course, those three have such qualities in spades. (You even cite Wackenroder, who spoke of having his feelings stirred by music during the very period you reject—the late 18th century.)

    The idea that the pre-Romantics were prevented from expressing rapture or even chromaticism by forced adherence to mathematically precise forms is inaccurate on several levels, and something no musicologist would countenance today.

    But this puts me in mind of what you wrote in your film review of "War and Peace" (in MOVIES INTO FILM):

    "Bulk has never particularly appealed to me. I do not mean merely the elephantine variety, which, except on elephants, I thoroughly deplore. Even powerful, all-embracing, sublime bulk—Rubensian, Wagnerian, Dostoevskian—is nothing I would preconize. But I am willing to make exception for what might oxymoronically be called subtle or graceful bulk, as in Proust or Gaston Lachaise, 'The Massacre of Chios' or 'Das Lied von der Erde,' 'The Faerie Queene' or 'Don Quixote.' Miltonic or Dickensian bulk, however, the bloatedness of Beethoven's Ninth or the chunkiness of a Henry Moore family group, I can leave rather more easily than take. The same with 'War and Peace,' a novel I have not been able to get through."

    As I understand your musical preferences, this is the crux. You have little or no taste for epic scope, grandly architectonic structures, massive length—the bulk you speak of. It's enlightening that you cite Debussy's "La plus que lente," a charmingly dainty, admittedly minor, and oh-so-Gallic composition that is in every way antithetical to something like a Beethoven symphony or a Bach oratorio.

  7. "Bulk has never particularly appealed to me."

    There is only good or bad. There is good bulk, bad bulk. As art reflects reality, it has to reflect history. The history of the Napoleonic Wars, especially as they swept across Russia and affected so many lives in so many ways, was 'bulky'. One may not like hurricanes, but they are real phenomena of nature and must be accepted/appreciated for what they are.
    Kobayashi's HUMAN CONDITION is bulky but the full breadth of the story/history could not be squeezed into a 90 min movie. SEVEN SAMURAI clocks in at 3 hrs and 20 min but there's a lot going on in every second.

    The problem is when there's unjustified bulk in service of threadbare idea or material. And I don't mean something like Ulysses by Joyce where the epic was glimpsed in a day. (I haven't read it but I did see the movie, which sucked.) I mean stuff like kitschy communist rallies where quantity substitutes quality, as if the sheer grandiosity of a 1000 idiots marching somehow redeems the event of its simple-minded-ness. This is one of the problems of Triumph of the Will. As impressive as much of it is, it depends a lot on the bulk of a lot of soldiers marching and marching. It's great kitsch but kitsch nevertheless.

    Unjustified bulk is something like Deer Hunter where a Vietnam War tale tries to be like an epic Russian novel-Italian opera. Or Heaven's Gate, the production of which is much bigger than it needs to be. It is inherently a big sprawling story, but Cimino went for the DeMille-ian scale of Ten Commandments, which was really stretching it. Tree of Life is an inflated mess. Some of Fellini's later films are lavish productions as giant candy wrappers without the candies.

    But a film like Big Trail deserves and justifies every ounce of its bulk. It is a big splendid movie about a big sprawling subject.
    It's like a big suit is just fine for a big body. It just looks ridiculous when worn by a small person.

    If bulk in the service of slightness is misconceived, so is smallness in the service of grandness. King Vidor's Hollywood version of War and Peace is technically well-made but the notion of squeezing Tolstoy's 1000 pg novel into a 3 hr movie was ridiculous. It's worse than Cliff Notes.

    A big aquarium needs an orca, a small aquarium needs a seahorse. A seahorse would look stupid in a giant tank, and an orca will have to be chopped up for a piece of it to fit a small tank.

    At any rate, Simon's temperament--an anti-immersive one at that--prevents him from enjoying material where he has to 'let go'. As a lingo-centrist, he prefers films and music he can think through with words. Much of the music he likes tends to have twists, turns, pauses, and etc. As such, they are like sentences. Because of their halting, tripping, winding, and breaking nature, emotions aren't allowed to go with the flow. They favor mental interruptions acutely aware of every turn of the phrase. Melodicus Interruptus. Even Simon's favorite Morricone tune is full of brakes and freezes.
    I'll bet he doesn't care for Morricone tunes like this one where one must just let go.

    Given Simon's taste in music, it's interesting why he was blind to the virtues of a film like Resnais's Muriel. One would think it'd be up his alley. Its visual and dramatic structure is very much like the kind of music Simon goes for.

  8. I don't listen to much Bach or Mozart. I might like Beethoven more than Mr. Simon does. Brahms sounds Romantic to me even though he is still following the Classical model. I like Bruckner's Seventh. Mahler is my favorite. I like Shostakovich when he sounds like Mahler. I love Strauss's Four Last Songs (Elizabeth Schwarzkopf singing). In the Seventies I used to listen over and over in my car to homemade tapes of Faure's Requiem, Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedick (version with spoken dialogue) and Beethoven's Pastoral (Bernstein conducting). I live in the San Francisco Bay Area yet my most cherished musical memories are of the San Jose Symphony not the SF Symphony: Mahler's Third and Beethoven's 6th. My favorite San Francisco Symphony memory is Murray Perahia playing Beethhoven's FiFth piano concerto. It was perfect. I recall a memorable Oakland Symphony performance of Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony. Now I remember that I used to listen a lot to an lp of Mendelssohn's Scotch Symphony and the Hebrides Overture. The worst concert I ever heard was the Oakland Symphony playing Mahler's Second, Harold Farberman conducting. I got interested in classical music in college when I saw the movie Five Easy Pieces. I had to find out what that piece was Jack Nicholson was playing in the bar. The shifting harmonies under the two-note phrase really appealed to me. It turned out to be Chopin's Prelude in E minor. I bought an album of Chopin Preludes and it was off to the races.