Greatness in Music by Alfred Einstein

Da Capo.


Well, friends, here it is again at last after 31 years: a turgid and pretentious tome, badly translated, and yours for only $8.95. Einstein wanders vaguely round his four-dimensional universe of discourse (greatness questionable, unquestionable, esoteric and historical) dropping hints here, bricks there, and names everywhere - all from a very great height. Much too much of the text is mere idle repetition. We are regularly told twice, or more, things that are worth saying once, or less. Monteverdi, “there is no mistaking it, can no longer be made to live” (p.9). How was that again? “Monteverdi can no longer be made to live” (p.204). Too bad: who’s going to break the news to Raymond Leppard?

   Again. Brahms’s special relation with past tradition is discovered on p.10, and rediscovered on p.112 (he did not try to get around the heritage of the past) and again on p. 113, twice (he accepted the past, he was strengthened by the past) and again on p.114 (he loved the music of the past) and again on p.116 (he was strengthened by the past) and again and again and again, in a total orgy of tautology, on pp.258-61 (heir to a mighty past nothing but an heir – the continuation of the past the happiness of the past – his relation to old music – did not wish to step out of the frame of the past etc etc etc).

   To be fair, it is not all repetition. Self-contradiction adds variety. Can there possibly be a superlative of the word “German”? asks p.41 rhetorically. The answer is Yes – on p.25. Again, on p.6 artistic greatness is more lasting than historical greatness; but this same proposition is disputed on p.7. If the author can’t remember what he has just written, why should the reader? But certain passages are very memorable, if only for their sheer stoutness. Thus we are assured (p.103) that all the Greeks at the time of Socrates and Plato had perverse sexual emotions. No doubt: even earlier they had been seen camping around Troy.

   Some of the comic effects are the translator’s pidgin. “Es ist ja zum Lachen” (“it’s laughable”) becomes “it is to laugh”, which is risible. But the author must be held responsible for the basic ideas and methods, such as they are. His first attempt at defining the topic not under discussion appears on p.121. Productivity is an integral part of greatness. So is universality, e.g. the writing of different kinds of music; except of course when it isn’t, as with Wagner and Verdi. Again, great musicians are always very irritable, apart from those who are not, such as Schubert. The greatest of the great are those whose genius, whatever that is, coincides with the right historical moment, whenever that is.

   These and similar lines of approach are at a level which gradually ascends to this modest plateau: 'Music is not yet dead… And this permits us to ask the question: Is greatness possible in the field of music, now or in the future? The only possible answer is the counter-question: Why not?. Now we are poised for the final assault. How shall we measure such greatness? “How can we say about any particular music of yester­day and today that it must become a permanent possession of humanity?” And from the summit the clarion answer rings out: “We must leave the question open”.

   One issue however is firmly closed. We may not know much about yesterday or today, but we’re exceptionally well up in the middle of last week. We can tell which music of the past is great in the present. According to Einstein thus is measured for us not by time but by the individual observer. Greatness in music, he claims, is determined solely by the consensus of the few – the “true critics”, who can understand music better than anyone else, even creative musicians. “From all the world’s stupidities, partisan passions, and narrow-minded obstinancies” (meaning other people’s opinions) the “true critic” can “distil the truth” in his own day.

   The resulting spirit seems to me insipid, volatile, and a long way from proof; in a word, moonshine. How could a justly renowned musician write so confusedly and complacently? What he believed to be his strength might have proved a fatal weakness. In his preface he vaunts his dual experience as critic and musicologist, which makes music, for him, not just “dry scientific research” but a “vital interest”. But how can two simultaneous standpoints or viewpoints possibly improve our balance or our vision? The critic-musicologist can so easily find himself relying on his source-material for his attitudes, and on his opinions for his facts. Then the one cancels the other; and the reader cancels the order.      


The Musical Times, Dec. 1972 (p. 1191) © the estate of eric sams