The Swarm

July 31, 2009

Michael Steinberg: An Appreciation

Ronen Givony

I never met Michael Steinberg in person, but, by an unlikely coincidence of timing, I happened to be one of the people he worked with on two of his last pieces of writing. It was in my capacity as an editorial person for Nonesuch Records that I was asked by the label’s president, Bob Hurwitz, to write Mr. Steinberg about contributing liner notes for two classical recordings we were releasing soon: the pianist Richard Goode’s performance of the five Beethoven piano concertos, recorded with conductor Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra; and the violinist Gidon Kremer’s performance of the five Mozart violin concertos, recorded live at the Salzburg Festival with the Kremerata Baltica. In light of Mr. Steinberg’s lifelong service to the giants of the German classical tradition—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, whose most haunting and otherworldly music was composed at the end of their lives—it seems fitting that his Mozart and Beethoven notes, both packaged in recordings released in just the past month, appear to be his last two works of published writing.

Writing liner notes (and their live-music equivalent, program notes) is a thankless and masochistic job. After all, what could possibly be left to say about the Goldberg Variations, or the Eroica Symphony, or the other cultural pillars and masterpieces that have outlived countless self-appointed critics over the centuries? Part of the difficulty springs from a fundamental ambiguity inherent to the vocation of music writing: that is, determining who exactly the writer’s intended audience is, and what the dialogue between the writer and that audience aspires to be. Is the writer addressing an audience of the uninitiated—casual listeners, students, intellectually curious generalists—or an audience of experts, musicians, fellow writers, and music obsessives? Is the music under discussion a time-tested warhorse, an as-yet-unheard premiere, an empty virtuosic showpiece, or an unjustly neglected jewel of the repertory? Is the job of the music writer to decode the historical background of a work of art, or to demystify its inner musicological and theoretical workings? Is his objective to communicate learning, passion, judgment, formal analysis, opinion, criticism, or praise? Is it to evangelize on behalf of the new, or to reexamine the familiar classics? Or is it to demonstrate how one learns to listen, and decide these things for oneself?

In the real world, of course, a concert hall or a timeless album is a meeting point for all the above; and yet, among those in the profession of music education and criticism, we can probably count on two hands the number of writers with the facility to speak to generalists and experts alike. It is not surprising, then, that most program notes take aim at the lowest common denominator, and fall into lockstep with what the former New York Times critic Harold Schoenberg called the “play-by-play” school of music writing—“here’s what happens in the first movement, here’s what to listen for in the development section, here’s the resolution of the theme”—on and on, like an automated museum tour, with all the facts down pat but precious little authorial voice, surprise, humor, or insight. For this reason, it is also not surprising that once orchestras and record labels happen to find someone who does know how to write, they tend to keep them close, and ask them to write about as much music as possible.

Over the last twenty years, Mr. Steinberg wrote liner notes for many of Nonesuch’s most beloved classical recordings: Richard Goode’s eight-CD set of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, for instance, or the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s album of Bach cantatas, or Dawn Upshaw’s collections of vocal music by Schubert, Schumann, Hugo Wolf, Messiaen, Debussy, Golijov, and Fauré. At the same time, he was repeatedly drafted to introduce audiences to recordings of new operas and orchestral works by the great contemporary composer John Adams, in releases such as The Chairman Dances (1987), Nixon in China (1988), The Death of Klinghoffer (1992), Harmonium (2000), and El Niño (2001). In so doing, he set down the first running commentary on the career of the artist who would go on to become the world’s most-performed living composer—in the words of Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed, “among the best firsthand source material we have ever had on a major composer.” (Not for nothing did Adams dedicate one of his finest works—the exuberantly lyrical and lighthearted Hallelujah Junction, for two pianos—to Mr. Steinberg.) All of which, incidentally, happened in tandem with Mr. Steinberg’s three decades of writing program notes, free-form essays, and reviews for newspapers and symphony orchestras in Boston, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and New York.

In some ways, the enterprise of music criticism is like architecture, or fashion, in that most of us tend not to notice it unless it’s really bad, which is quite often, or really good, which is exceedingly rare. Part of this, I suppose—and also part of why music criticism is widely and rightly believed to be a dying art—has to do with the way that most critics in all art forms habitually use their platform for the purpose of merely opining or tsk-tsking that which doesn’t please them, instead of articulating why the great art of our time or the past is worth the trouble. Indeed, of all the writerly virtues, simple joy and enthusiasm is always the hardest to express—and how could it be otherwise? The things that move us are greatly outnumbered by the mediocre and mundane, and it takes no special effort to join in a chorus of disapproval, instead of advocating for the genuinely new. Conversely, it takes a person of special warmth and eloquence to communicate why a piece of art or music is worth your effort, even if it appears to be inscrutable on first or even fifth encounter. This is what the best critics do: inform and instruct, yes, but also enthuse, encourage, inspire, and evangelize. They make us wish we knew well the work of art that the critic thought worthy of praise, and in so doing, push us to become more curious, hungry, and open to unfamiliar stimuli.

Here is Steinberg on Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58:

With the Fourth Concerto, the last that he was able to introduce himself, we arrive at absolutely miraculous Beethoven. What a shock it must have been for its first audience to have a concerto begin, not with an expansive orchestral exposition, but with a meditative phrase on the piano—to say nothing of the orchestra’s harmonically off-center response! There had never been anything like the wordless drama of the spell-binding second movement, in which a soft-spoken, poetic piano confronts and eventually subdues a stern orchestra. This scene, so brief, yet so powerful, has been likened to that of Orpheus taming the wild beasts that guard the entrance to Hades…Thus this great concerto faces in two directions. Countless moments convey richly meditative, deeply internal poetry; but it is also a work of singular pianistic brilliance, enough so to make many of its early listeners remark on how incredibly fast it sounded.

On Mozart’s early violin concertos:

It is a commonplace in the critical literature that not only is there a steady progression of quality over the five works, but that we can also hear a distinct leap forward between K. 211 and 216. Not without validity, but perhaps exaggerated, I would say, and the perception and its acceptance by violinists and audiences have led to an undue neglect of the first two pieces, particularly K. 207 in B-flat, which is a singularly lively and charming piece of work… If it lacks some of the developmental ambition and skills of its younger siblings, it offers immense compensatory pleasures in its freshness and enthusiasm. Something notable to observe is that in three of the five concertos the middle movement is a probing Adagio rather than a less slow Andante, which will always remain a bit of a rarity in Mozart. The Adagio here, in E-flat, is a moment of touching pathos. All through, we can hear a phenomenal richness of beautiful melodies in all three movements, a richness that stands out as remarkable in the entire history of the concerto form. Mozart’s melodic genius is in fact so fertile that the concept of development seems sometimes to have been abandoned so as to make room for a new melodic idea. This cornucopia of delights stands at the frontier of Mozart’s maturity, and was one of the first of his works to gain a lasting position in the repertory. Mozart’s biographer Alfred Einstein says it all in a single word: “alive.”

The G-major Concerto, K. 216, is dated September 12, 1775. Mozart gives us a first movement of delightfully buoyant energy. He begins by recycling music he had written the previous April, an aria from the serenata Il rè pastore; then, for the development section, he brings out a new and crackling theme. The miracle here is the second movement, one of the rare real Adagios in Mozart. It is one of those touching pages that Cuthbert Girdlestone in his pioneering book on Mozart’s piano concertos calls a “dream andante.” The sound of muted strings, the troubled triplets in the inner voices, the plucked basses, the delicate comments and punctuations from the winds, instantly cast a poetic spell. The flutes are heard only in this movement: presumably the Salzburg wind players doubled on flute and oboe. Where in his soul did a young man of nineteen find such music?

And on the Bach cantatas:

Whatever the chronology, there is no type of composition to which Bach devoted more energy than the church cantata—and we always have to remind ourselves of the lost 100. But it is far from being only a matter of quantity. The cantatas are the works in which we meet Bach delving most deeply into those matters of faith that concerned him so pressingly and coming face to face with the most important spiritual and intellectual questions in his life. For that reason they are the repository, over all, of his most exploratory music and his most intense. It is a familiar—and correct—assertion to say that if you don’t know the Beethoven quartets you don’t know Beethoven, and the same thing has been said, for example—also correctly—about Schubert, Schumann’s, and Brahms’s songs, Schumann’s piano music, and the Shostakovich quartets. By the same token, you want to know Bach’s cantatas to get a sense of the achievement of the man of whom Anton Webern said that “he conceived and composed everything imaginable.” The cantatas are central and essential.

Reading over the emails that Mr. Steinberg and I exchanged over the last year, I’m struck by the way he mentioned offhandedly and apologetically what was going on with his health at the time. When his Beethoven note came in two days after our proposed deadline, for instance—with scarcely a comma, footnote, or quotation mark out of place—he wrote, “Dear Ronen, here is the Beethoven, and the Mozart will be along very quickly…I am sorry to be running a few days behind schedule on this project, but last week I had to be hospitalized for a few days, which knocked out some working time I had intended for you. But again, the Mozart should be with you very soon.” A few weeks later, when the Mozart note had arrived, I took a deep breath and sent back to him a list of some small suggested edits, mainly having to do with punctuation and other cosmetic matters. Unfailingly gracious in even his briefest notes, he thanked me for taking the time to proofread his writing, and said he happily consented to all of my suggestions. A month or two went by and an email came in from his wife, Jorja Fleezanis, saying that her husband had had a small stroke, but was “blowing everyone’s mind with his determined and straight ahead attitude to recover fully.” A little while after that, Mr. Steinberg was gone. Reading over the obituaries and tributes that ran after his death this past weekend from cancer, at 80, I was surprised not at all to see that his wife asked for all donations in his memory to be made out to a foundation aptly named The Michael Steinberg & Jorja Fleezanis Fund to Spur Curiosity and Growth Through the Performing Arts and the Written Word. He was a great writer and an unusually decent man, and I hope to give others even a bit of the delight from music that he did.

Ronen Givony is the founder of the Wordless Music series and a music director of Le Poisson Rouge.

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