RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We're going to get ugly in this next segment, ugly and pretty too. A presidential campaign can be both with mudslinging and endorsements. A pat on the shoulder, a knife in the back. This is actually a familiar territory to Miles Hoffman, our classical music commentator, who's here just in time for the election to talk about musical rhetoric. In other words, the way classical composers talk about each other's work.
MILES HOFFMAN: When composers are evaluating the work of other composers, it's because they're part of, I suppose, what you could call a continuous campaign for the future of the art form. This is important.
MONTAGNE: Not to stretch a - not to...
HOFFMAN: Stretch a metaphor.
MONTAGNE: A metaphor.
HOFFMAN: Till it snaps.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HOFFMAN: But if you look through the letters and the journals of composers, and you read biographies, you can come across some interesting things. I was reading a biography of Tchaikovsky. And Tchaikovsky did not much like the music of Brahms. He once wrote that Brahms, quote - and I quote here - "His music is made up of fragments of some indefinable something skillfully welded together." Although it turns out he was wrong, and he's writing about somebody who was immortal.
(Soundbite of Brahms Piano Quartet)
MONTAGNE: Would the composers be speaking maybe more harshly about another composer who in a sense is a rival - that is living in the same time, maybe even in the same place - vying for the attention of not just the critics, but maybe even, you know, patrons?
HOFFMAN: One likes to think that when people wrote articles, serious articles of criticism, they were truly judging what they thought to be the merits of the work. And you have composers who were very enthusiastic, too. Robert Schumann is a wonderful example. He wrote hundreds and hundreds of articles. Many of them were extremely positive. There's in fact a very famous line where he introduces Chopin to the world with "Hats off, gentlemen. A genius!"
(Soundbite of Chopin Piano Concerto)
HOFFMAN: Schumann was pushing somebody that he felt was wonderful. And he did that a lot. He praised the people who were in fact his direct competitors. Of course, he also praised people we've never ever heard of.
MONTAGNE: Well, among those who have been praised, possibly without cause, give us an example.
HOFFMAN: Well, there were any number of composers who were excellent writers as well. Schumann's a great example. Hector Berlioz is another. And these people were professional writers as well as composers. And Berlioz absolutely loved the music of an Italian composer named Gaspare Spontini.
(Soundbite of classical piece "Divertimento for Horn & Harp")
HOFFMAN: It's pretty easy nowadays to spend an entire musical career and never hear a note of Spontini. But Berlioz wrote, "My religion is that of Beethoven, Weber, Gluck and Spontini."
MONTAGNE: What about the reverse? I mean, in politics, some of the best shots are the negative ones, obviously.
MONTAGNE: I wonder if that's true in music.
HOFFMAN: Well, it's funny you should ask that, Renee. Robert Schumann himself wrote that the vocabulary of disparagement has a million more words than that of praise. And speaking of which, Virgil Thomson was a very well-known American composer of the 20th Century. He was also for many years the music critic of The New York Herald Tribune. This is what he wrote after hearing a piece called "American Creed" by another well-known American composer, Roy Harris. And this sounds pretty fitting for a political campaign, too. Thomson wrote, "No composer makes such shameless use of patriotic feelings to advertise his product. One would think to read his prefaces that he had been awarded by God, or at least by popular vote, a monopolistic privilege of exposing our nation's deepest ideals and highest aspirations."
(Soundbite of classical piece "American Creed")
MONTAGNE: It's a little hard to tell. You kind of wonder, I guess it's like everything in politics and maybe music, you can't just take something out of context.
HOFFMAN: That's a great way to look at it. It's out of context. It's just a little snippet. But I will say this. "American Creed" doesn't get many performances nowadays, so maybe Virgil Thompson was right.
MONTAGNE: And of course, Miles, a lot of reviewers are not professional musicians, as Virgil Thompson was. There must be lots of terrible things they've said over the years.
HOFFMAN: One of my favorite examples is Friedrich Nietzsche. He started out when he was very young. This is one of the greatest philosophers the world has ever known. He started out almost as a campaign manager or public relations agent for Richard Wagner. But later on, Nietzsche got totally fed up with Wagner. He called Wagner his sickness.
MONTAGNE: So he flip-flopped into a different view of his music.
HOFFMAN: But it was a very well-reasoned, well-thought-out flip-flop, of course, and also very funny. And this is one of my favorite passages in all of music criticism. He wrote, "But apparently you think all music must leap out of the wall and shake the listener to his very intestines. Only then you consider music effective. But on whom are such effects achieved? On the mass, on the immature, on the blase, on the sick, on the idiots, on Wagnerians."
(Soundbite of Wagner Opera "Die Walkure")
MONTAGNE: Well, you know, I was thinking, when you hear this, you wonder do these opinions really matter? I must say that one might put me off.
HOFFMAN: But that's the thing, Renee. Until you listen to the music of Wagner, and you're either going to like it or not. And I think that's - speaking of philosophy - I think that's the philosophical lesson here that we come out with, that all these folks had their opinions. Sometimes they were proved right. Ultimately, what matters is whether the music itself lasts. So all the commentators now can write and say whatever they want about the elections. It's not until November 5 that we'll know who was right and who was wrong.
MONTAGNE: Miles, probably your poll numbers will go up based on this wonderful conversation.
HOFFMAN: I hope so, Renee. Thanks.
MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is the violist of the American Chamber Players and Dean of the Petrie School of Music at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
(Soundbite of Wagner Opera "Die Walkure")
MONTAGNE: And to hear the full pieces from this story and discover more classical music, including concerts, interviews and lists, go to the music section of npr.org. This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.