Saturday, April 4, 2015

Andrew Porter RIP

Andrew Porter, who has passed away at age 86, is the best writer on classical music and opera that I have ever read, and like his fellow critics Kenneth Tynan (theater), Arnold Bennett (literature), and Pauline Kael (film), he is one of those who formed the way that I think about the arts. So there is a debt there that from my side can never be repaid.

Porter, who was actually born in South Africa and not, as most readers assume, Great Britain, served as the chief music critic of The New Yorker from 1972 to 1992, and most of the writing he did for the magazine (but not the work after 1986) was collected in five volumes that I read assiduously. The New York Times obituary spells out some of Porter's particular critical gifts:

To the work of criticism, Mr. Porter brought a formidable training in music performance (he was an accomplished organist); a deft linguistic ability (he translated the librettos of dozens of operas from the original French, German and Italian into highly regarded English versions); a deep knowledge of music theory, music history and composers’ biographies; a keen attention to the historical context in which a work was composed or performed, and to the prevailing political winds, both musical and non-, during those times; a ready command of the entire production history of an opera or the publication history of a score (he was an occasional opera stage director); the abilities of an intellectual gumshoe (he made a major discovery involving Verdi’s “Don Carlos” that altered the way the opera is understood); an acute sensitivity to the architectural and acoustic qualities of concert halls; a robust cultural understanding of the city in which that hall was located; an appreciation of the ways in which music dovetailed with allied arts (he wrote a good deal of dance criticism early in his career); a phonetician’s familiarity with the vowel sounds of a given language, and how they rendered the words of that language more or less singable; a passion for fealty to a composer’s historical intent that was matched by a commitment to the work of 20th-century composers; and much else. His prose itself was often described as musical, and he had a lexicographer’s command of the language on which to draw.

Alex Ross, a great critic in his own right, offers an appreciation:

...a few strong statements are in order. Porter was the most formidable classical-music critic of the late twentieth century, and, pace George Bernard Shaw and Virgil Thomson, may have been the finest practitioner of this unsystematic art in the history of the English language. Colleagues in both England and America regarded him with awe: he heard everything, remembered all, brought to bear profound cultural knowledge, and cast his immense learning in an elegant, fluid style.

More at Opera News:

[Ned] Rorem refers to Porter’s “caring elegance.” The caring was manifest in Porter’s extraordinary attention to detail and his work ethic. When reviewing an opera that was new to him, such as Bloch’s Macbeth, he might attend three performances before he felt qualified to write about it; he frequently returned to productions after opening night to refine his viewpoint, and he reviewed virtually all music only after learning it from the score.

Here are a couple of interviews, from 1988 and 20ll.

When I was writing on a daily newspaper, I was what might be called anti-journalistic. I did not want to produce striking, catchy first lines and things, and fought this all the time!...Never do what your editor tells you if you think it wrong...Always fight for what you believe. Some compromises have to be made, but not many. Don’t go to things because he wants you to go to them if you think you should be going to something else. Don’t allow anybody to cut your copy. If it needs cutting, and practically every piece does, insist that you are the one who cuts it yourself; you keep control of it that way. Don’t allow any changes.

I'm curious about everything that turns up. There are things I don't care whether I hear them again. An opera by Marcos Portugal, an eighteenth-century opera, badly sung, that's a blind spot for me — that sort of churned-out ordinariness. But there's nothing by Donizetti I wouldn't want to hear again. The Vinci opera that I've just seen lasted six hours. And I began to understand why we needed Gluck to come along and reform opera, because it had become a degenerate art form. But that was only about after the fifth hour that one began to think that.

Did Porter have limitations? Sure. He seems not to have been open to music that couldn't be defined as "classical," and even within that realm, he concentrated his attention on opera and vocal music, which are easier to write about because there are extra-musical considerations that come into play. But at what he chose to do, he was peerless, and his scholarship and his prose are the best models that a young critic (or any non-fiction writer, really) could spend time with. 

The urgent task for the future, now that Porter has left us, is to gather the huge portion of his output that remains uncollected - those last six years at The New Yorker, and all the criticism that he published in England over a more than 50 year period. He is a classic writer, and that is the least that can be done.

A Musical Season

Music of three seasons, 1974-1977

Music of three more seasons, 1977-1980

Musical events: A chronicle, 1980-1983

Musical Events: A Chronicle, 1983 1986

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