Forging Sound into Words

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An Interview with Bernard Holland

After almost 30 years as music critic of The New York Times, Bernard Holland weighs in on everything from Cosima Wagner’s diaries to Springsteen and the overuse of the meaningless word “great.”



Q. You rarely go to concerts or operas. Does this mean you are tired of music?

A: I’m not tired of music. I’m tired of the music world. In retirement I see classical music from the outside and not as a practitioner. It looks pretty artificial from out here. I’m tired of audiences bullied into ritual obedience  – sit in the dark and shut up; don’t make noise unless I say so; Music up on a stage. Listeners sitting in the dark terrified of coughing, foot shuffling or program rattling; musicians dressed up like waiters.

I have no idea how to fix this.I just went to a friend’s recital and heard five Schubert songs. They were so beautiful I nearly cried..

Q: Do you read about music? Do you keep up with what’s going on?

A: To a degree. Writing coherently about music is rare; I like to see how others do it these days. The doings of the Geffens, or music directors on the move or backstage backstabbing at the Met doesn’t get me going anymore. I pick up Cosima Wagner’s diaries every few years. Fascinating. I may actually finish this winter.

Q: What are you listening to?.

A: Not a lot. Having music going on in the background all day would drive me nuts. You listen or you don’t. I do more at our summer house in Canada . I like CBC2 radio in the car. At night I shuffle through odd piles of cds. Lots of Linda Ronstadt (purest voice I ever heard), Frank Sinatra (I am in awe), Little Richard (amazing for about 10 minutes), and then Haydn string quartets, Schubert piano sonatas. I always go back to Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. I like Shirley Horn depending on how much scotch I’ve had. There’s nothing quite as beautiful as the mourning doves in our East Village garden.

Q: What are you reading?

A: Just finished, the new George W. Bush bio, some Balzac and Teffi negotiating the new Soviet order. Next Ian McEwan’s “Nutshell”, Joe Lelyveld’s Roosevelt book, Robert Gottlieb on editing, and especially the new Bruce Springsteen. I don’t expect it to be like Keith Richards’ “Life” (the first chapter of which is among the funniest things I have ever read.) Richards is the sardonic observer. Springsteen is the guts and the nerve endings of a culture. Much to do.

Q: Who are the greatest composers?

A: Someone told me recently about a colleague who is writing a book on what makes great music great. Posited, I assume, is a greatness gene, some rare chemical compound that separates the Fortnum and Masons of music from all the Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery Stores of Garrison Keillor fame.

It’s a fool’s errand. “Great” is another one of those aerated buzzwords that float beloved into the stratosphere and mean nothing.“Great” seems to invoke size (lots off people like It) and durability (they like it for a long time).

I remember sitting in the Beverly Hills kitchen of a friend and denigrating Arnold Schoenberg’s limited appeal for later generations to Leonard Stein, who was Schoenberg’s longtime assistant and advocate. My argument: history says Schoenberg is great but very few people listen to him. Stein: that Schoenberg deeply moves only a small number of people in no way minimizes his worth or status.

Leonard Stein is right. I am wrong. Technology makes me even wronger. The number of seats filled at Carnegie Hall is not the measure it used to be. The hierarchies of “greatness” are now many and hand-held. We are not one audience agreeing on what is great. We are millions of play lists, each with its own decider.

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First Verified Photo of Former New York Times Critic Bernard Holland, author of Something I Heard


Beth Wareham talks to Something I Heard author, Bernard Holland

1. You’ve been away from the New York Times for 7 years. Why did you release this book now?

Two close friends – Richard and Dee Wilson – (Richard Wilson is a composer/pianist and holds the Mary Conover Mellon Chair of Music at Vassar) came upon the piece on Glenn Gould and said I should think about a book. It was some kind of tipping point for me and seven years after leaving the paper, I thought “yes, I’ll do a book.”

2. A google of your by-line puts your contribution to music criticism at the Times to over 4600 articles and reviews. How did you begin to approach what you wanted in this compilation?

I remembered certain reviews and started rereading them together. I began to appreciate the work more. Before, I just wanted to enjoy being retired. Now, I can look back at a career and think “it was a wonderful job but there was too much of it.” I needed to put it all aside. I was overloaded.

3. As a writer, you are known as a skilled “aphorist.” How did you get to be that way?

I say it in the book. I had to write hundreds of short reviews. I had strict boundaries and that allowed me freedom. Boundaries are liberating. You know exactly where you are and it really makes you think. I became good at throwing out any word I didn’t need.

I had to operate within a space and that space only. There’s a quote from Stravinsky that says – and I paraphrase – when I begin to compose, I have limitless opportunities. It’s up to me to choose one.

As a writer, you can’t sprawl, you can’t run everywhere. I feel the same way musically about Mahler. I think sometimes in his symphonies, he abuses his space.

4. I have to ask it: What are your desert island pieces?

Haydn’s “Last Seven Words of Christ”
Wagner’s “Parsifal”
Schubert’s G Major Piano Sonata
Liszt’s “The Fountains at the Villa d’Este”,
Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time”
Debussy’s “Iberia”
Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony
Astor Piazzolla’s “Maria de Buenos Aires”
Any Nelson Riddle arrangement of Frank Sinatra and Linda Ronstadt.

5. And finally, what’s your favorite part about being married to me?

You like Jimi Hendrix and I’m cool with that.

Get more of the music in Something I Heard by clicking here on the title.

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