I don't now remember how I first heard of B. H. Haggin's music criticism or when I started to read it, but it must have been about 1952, during my junior or senior year at college. I was majoring in English at Amherst, under teachers who were very much oriented towards close reading and what was then called the New Criticism. Since I had always had a strong interest in music, I began to cast about for critical writing on music that would be as illuminatingly analytical as their teaching and as the writing of Leavis, Empson, Richards, Kenneth Burke, and the other literary critics from whom I was learning so much.
One of my favorite teachers, Reuben grower, had been a student of Leavis's at Cambridge in the early 1930s, just when Leavis was starting his magazine Scrutiny, and so it must have been from Brower that I first heard about Scrutiny. I searched through back issues for the sort of thing I was after, but I didn't find it in the writing of Scrutiny's music critic, W. H. Mellers. I did, however, look up an article on Puccini by Mosco Carner, in an old Music and Letters, that Mellers had recommended as an example of musical close reading. All I remember from it is something about the "neurasthenic" effect of Puccini's constant falling melodic fifths. That seemed little better than Mellers.
Then I heard that in the early 1930s Kenneth Burke had written about music for the Nation. During the summer of 1952, between my junior and senior years, I was back home in Evanston for a while and did some reading in back issues of the Nation in Northwestern University's delightfully cool Deering Library. What I read of Burke's music criticism impressed me as the work of an immensely clever man who really didn't know much about music--all I remember now is something fancy about the outer ugliness and inner beauty of Schoenberg. This may well have been when I first encountered Haggin's writing, for he was a mainstay of the Nation's back pages during the 1930s and 1940s. But if I did read him, I recall nothing of what I read.
I do recall having a conversation that involved Haggin during Christmas vacation the following winter. I had been having lunch downtown in Chicago with my old friend Frederick Schauwecker, at that time Jussi Bjoerling's accompanist, and Frederick had been regaling me with stories of the wonderful performances he had heard at the Staatsoper in Berlin in the late 1920s, during his student days. These performances were mainly of Wagner and Strauss, then two of my favorite composers, and had been conducted by Leo Blech, whose work I knew from recordings. This led to talk about the first complete recording of Parsifal, made during the 1951 Bayreuth Festival and conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch, which had recently been issued. I had been at that first postwar Bayreuth Festival, had found the Parsifal (and everything else) marvelous, and had just bought the recording. Somehow or other, I had heard that Haggin had written disapprovingly of it in the Nation, making it clear that he didn't have much use for Parsifal anyhow. I vividly recall standing on a street corner somewhere in the Loop, after our lunch, and telling Frederick, in what even then seemed to me an embarrassingly pompous and melodramatic manner, that no one who didn't have the sense to love Parsifal should even be allowed to review a recording of it.
So, however it happened, I had been touched by the air of intense controversy that had always surrounded Haggin and his work: I had got the idea that he was a critic to take seriously and to grapple with, to take sides for or against. When I arrived at Harvard, in the fall of 1953, to do graduate work in English, I noticed that my roommate Tom Edwards had Haggin's collection of Nation columns, Music in the Nation, which had been published in 1949. One day I was thumbing through it and taking note of all the praise of Toscanini. Now the first three classical recordings I had ever bought were Toscanini's 1939 William Tell Overture (because of "The Lone Ranger") and Beethoven's Fifth (because of "V for Victory") with the NBC Symphony, and his 1937 Beethoven "Pastorale" with the BBC Symphony. By 1953 I had loved all three recordings--which, incidentally, I still have--for about a decade. Yet I had learned that it was very "in" for intellectuals to debunk Toscanini in favor of such Germanic (and thus obviously more profound) conductors as Knappertsbusch, and so I made some flippant, dismissive remark. Tom mildly disagreed with whatever I had said and then added: "You know, we may get to meet Haggin soon--he often comes through Cambridge." At that I pricked up my ears.
Soon I had bought my own copy of Music in the Nation--they were being remaindered in Harvard Square--had read it from cover to cover with great excitement, and had begun buying up copies to give as gifts to friends. Aside from the clarity and pungency of Haggin's writing, I was very much attracted by his strong intuitive sympathy with jazz. For at that time there was almost nothing good to read on jazz. Almost all of it was either owlishly pedantic or one-of-the-boys jocular. But Haggin was different. He really seemed to listen to Beiderbecke and Armstrong and Billie Holiday and Lester Young and Teddy Wilson with the same ears and mind, the same serious concentrated attention, that he applied to Toscanini and Schnabel and the Budapest Quartet.
The reason Haggin came often to Cambridge was that he had several good friends there, two of whom were friends of Tom's and were now becoming friends of mine as well. Bob Garis, who was teaching English at Wellesley and finishing his dissertation at Harvard, was at that time also writing for the Nation, supplementing Haggin's columns with brief record reviews. Paul Bertram, an English tutor at Leverett House who was also writing his dissertation, had first known Haggin in New York when he was an undergraduate at NYU. During that first year at Harvard, I spent many evenings drinking beer with them and with Tom at Cronin's and then, at closing time, often adjourning to Paul's rooms for more beer and some intensive listening and talk.
Until Harvard, the listening side of my musical education had mostly been conducted in private. I had listened mainly to Wagner and to such post-Wagnerian composers as Strauss and Mahler, and to jazz--early New Orleans and Chicago small-band jazz, and recent bop, with nothing in between. But now for the first time I began to canvass thoroughly the Viennese classics, mainly in recordings by the performers Haggin preferred: Toscanini, Schnabel, the Budapest Quartet.
In the spring of 1954 Haggin made his eagerly awaited appearance in Cambridge, and Paul gave a party. I recall standing for a long time with my back against a mantelpiece, watching more than participating and trying to drink enough to get up the nerve to say something to Haggin. At one point Ben grower, who had also left Amherst for Harvard the preceding fall, came up to me, and as we were talking, Haggin joined us. They had evidently been introduced earlier in the evening but had not spoken at length. "You know," Ben said in his most languidly urbane Cambridge manner, "Helen and I really do think you're the only person who talks sense about music." "Well, thank you--thank you very much," replied Haggin, in his contrastingly clipped and precise New York accent, as he nodded and smiled in response.
Ben introduced us and then wandered off. My moment had come. I had been especially impressed by what Haggin had written about Bix Beiderbecke--about "the contrast and delightful variety in pace, in direction, in accent; the unfailing continuity in this varied invention; the tensile strength of the continuous line of sound, and at the same time its delicacy and suppleness; the boldly soaring attack or rise to a high point, the sensitive fall away from this high point or at the end of the phrase." All these qualities, Haggin concluded, made Bix's playing "unique in style and more exciting and moving than that of any other jazz musician." So it occurred to me to begin with Bix. "You're the only classical music critic who writes about jazz with real understanding," I said (or words to that effect). "Exactly how high would you rate Bix Beiderbecke as a musical imagination?" Haggin was silent and looked intently at me for a moment. Then he said, with complete seriousness: "Certainly above Liszt, but not so high as Chopin."
This was what I was after! I had thought that what I wanted was a musical analogue to the closely analytical writing of the literary critics I admired. But that, after all, was not primarily what Haggin offered as a critic. Anyway, I would find that in Tovey and others soon enough. What I really wanted--I came only much later to realize--was a music critic who authoritatively and convincingly suggested criteria for the judgment of both works and performances. And, as my choice of a conversational opener with Haggin shows, I wanted that critic to view classical music and jazz with equal seriousness and equal love, as I did myself, and thus to give me a reasoned justification for having put together my musical world as I had rather haphazardly done.
For as I have said, as a listener I was largely an autodidact. Though I had studied and played several instruments in bands and orchestras, knew some theory, and had had a brief orchestral composition played one summer at Interlochen, I had had no guidance in taste. I had simply chosen whatever appealed to me from the things that had happened to come my way. My main allegiance, so far as classical music went, was to Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss, but I also loved Beethoven and Schubert. Yet they seemed less interesting because less profound, less overtly intellectual--they did not compose mythic tetralogies or base tone poems on books by Nietzsche. As for Haydn and Mozart, I always welcomed them but, like many older and wiser people at that time, I...