Reading Music at the Limits (Columbia, $29.95), a posthumous collection of Edward Said’s music criticism, much of which appeared in this magazine, brought me back to my freshman year at Columbia. My profs for the core humanities course were, would you believe, Susan Sontag in the fall and Edward Said in the spring. They made for quite a contrast. Sontag was ready to bolt from academia. She would appear for our 9 am session a quarter-hour late, bleary, bloodshot and seductively bohemian. (I was smitten and carried her Time magazine photo in my wallet.) She refused to teach Faust–“It’s just everyone’s pain in the ass,” I remember her saying. She also liked to range far from the syllabus: one week she required that we watch Tod Browning’s 1932 cult classic Freaks. Said, by contrast, was just beginning his teaching career, yet his bearing was aristocratic, his suits looked tailor-made and his demands on us, whether we were reading Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky, were for nothing less than total devotion to the text.
On a few occasions Said and I played piano duets, bashing through Schubert’s resilient Fantasy in F minor. And we talked music. When I told him that I was playing through the three Brahms sonatas with a fellow student, the poet and violinist David Shapiro, Said demanded to know which one I thought best. After a deep breath I named the A major sonata–and scored a few points. “Yes, that’s the jewel,” he said. It was characteristic both that he worried, perhaps obsessively, about sorting out the best from the merely excellent, and that his choice was a work whose charms are the least apparent to the casual listener.
From that point onward my mentors’ trajectories crossed in unexpected ways. Sontag became a defender of high seriousness; Said’s Orientalism undermined the curricular status of the Western canon more profoundly than Sontag’s early defense of camp. And yet Said’s tastes as a music critic remained canonical. In a book proposal that appears as an appendix to Music at the Limits, Said claims that Bach, master of counterpoint, and Beethoven, master of development, between them define the full range of musical possibilities. (Like other noncomposing music lovers, Said tended to view counterpoint with unnecessary awe.) Always the grand sérieux, Said was the kind of critic for whom the name Puccini functions almost as an expletive, and he is also the only critic I have ever known to call Bartók “schmaltzy.” Had he been a generation older, he would have celebrated the art of pianist Artur Schnabel above all others. In place of Schnabel, Said returns repeatedly to the pianist Glenn Gould, the subject of five of the articles in this collection. The finest, I think, is a piece called “In the Chair,” in which Said reviews a psychoanalytic biography of Gould.
In all of Said’s criticism, his highest term of praise is “intelligence.” This habit, like music critic Charles Rosen’s similar privileging of “wit,” can at times just seem like an advertisement for the intelligence or wit of the critic. But in selecting Gould as his döppelganger, Said scrutinized the terms of Gould’s intellectual stance as well as his own. In a piece published in Vanity Fair in 1983, he described Gould’s style just as Gould had once described Sibelius–“passionate but antisensual.” In later articles Said sets forth the full terms of Gould’s mind/body problem, the way his intelligence depended not just on his decision to remove himself from the concert hall to the safer realm of the recording studio but also on his alienation from his own body, which as a hypochondriac he seemed to view mainly as a source of weakness.
For Said, Gould performed “at the limit where music, rationality, and the physical incarnation of both in the performer’s fingers come together.” Said’s own complex understanding of the relation between criticism and performance, theory and praxis, allows his criticism to transcend his impulse to divide performers and listeners into smart nerds and dumb jocks–which, come to think of it, was the way he viewed our humanities class. Although all the essays exhibit a stylistic elegance to which other critics can only aspire, I think the longer pieces, such as an essay on Fidelio and a review of Charles Rosen’s The Romantic Generation, are the most rewarding, because they give Said ample room to develop ideas; by the time he reaches the conclusion that “the uniqueness of Fidelio is that it arises, so to speak, in the heroic element of his middle period but ends up as herald of last works,” every nuance of this summation has been carefully interrogated. Music criticism may have been Said’s avocation, but I think that even his occasional pieces will reward rereadings for many years to come.