In the real world of music journalism, Harold Schonberg is both an important and an exemplary figure: modest, honest, hard-working, well-informed, genuinely and conservatively fond of the art. A veteran of 45 years in the business and more than 30 at The New York Times, including 20 as senior music critic, Schonberg is also the author of a handful of books on music and musicians, as well as one on chess. In 1971 he was honored with a Pulitzer Prize for criticism.
Generally and specifically, Schonberg's new book is a kind of cultural and institutional portrait as well as a self-portrait. An autobiographical introduction is both explicit and interesting on how the author, a native of the Upper West Side of New York City, learned his trade and sees his craft. We discover, among other things, that his passion for music began early:
"My father, who loved music, had a fairly large collection of Red Seal records. He told me, many years later, that I had memorized all of those records before I could read. I also could identify any of the singers on hearing the record. I was about 3 years old. The records, curiously, are still in my memory . . . I remember crying when I heard the Caruso record of Vesti la giubba . (The only other time I remember crying was when I first heard Mozart's G minor Symphony. I must have been 8 or 9. Tears rushed to my eyes at the announcement of that wonderful theme.) I remember the Melbas and the Galli-Curcis and the Paderewskis and all the rest."
All of the book is quite as revealing. An anthology of his favorite, mostly Sunday, pieces, it tells as much about The Times and the times as it does about the author.
Schonberg likes the big styles, the opera, the big orchestra and piano literature. He loves the romantics, their size, individuality and power. Surrounded by the assiduously rediscovered musical wallpaper of a dozen or a hundred interchangeable baroque Italians, he fantasizes about whole festivals of Gottschalk, Scharwenka or Moszkowski. He wishes music students and their teachers would listen to old records before sounding off on traditions and standards of performance.
Schonberg respects George Szell and Herbert von Karajan. But he warms to Georg Solti and John Barbirolli. He adores Rachmaninoff and Josef Hofmann. Artur Rubinstein and Rudolf Serkin, among the few living performers he singles out for praise, were born in 1887 and 1903, respectively. Characteristically, some of the best things in the book are appreciations of retired singers, many of them dead, including Mary Garden, Rosa Ponselle, Geraldine Farrar, Leonard Warren, Lauritz Melchior and Renata Tebaldi.
His distastes are consistent: literal-minded text fetishists with advanced cases of musicology, trendy directors who vandalize productions of Mozart and Wagner, tenured composers, whose tone-rows can be seen but not heard, let alone whistled.
Even Schonberg's omissions are interesting. There is next to nothing about chamber music. A piece on the reconstruction and Paris premiere of Alban Berg's complete "Lulu" neglects, symptomatically, to tell whether he liked it.
There is only indirect acknowledgement that there is an expansive musical culture outside New York, even outside the traditional metropolitan ambiance of opera house and concert hall.
"Facing the Music" is a fair title. "Facing the Music Backward" might be an even better, and by no means uncomplimentary, one.