Blood on the Carpet…

I suppose it was inevitable. That passing mention — in my posting of a few days ago — of an old music-critical altercation over a Schoenberg review has resulted in a friend getting in touch and excitedly asking to see the published punch-up I referred to. Which is fair enough, I suppose.

In case anyone wants their memory refreshed without searching through my entire text, here’s what I wrote in that bit of the posting:

If you want a specific example of a post-war British critic sticking anachronistically to [the outdated spelling] ‘Schönberg’ in an outpouring of quite extraordinary nastiness, see the review (by one ‘C. G-F.’) of the works played in London on 8 November 1949 (in honour of the composer’s 75th birthday) that was printed on pp. 167-8 of the December 1949 issue of Musical Opinion and Music Trade Review. (And, if you want to see a journalistic knife-fight during whose course the critic was ripped to shreds by Hans Keller, Donald Mitchell and three members of the Editorial Board of Music Survey, read the letters pages of the magazine’s issues of March to July 1950…)

Now, it was my friend’s assumption that I’d send him photcopies — just as in ‘the old days’, when sheets of A4 would hurtle between us, courtesy of the Royal Mail. But since I actually have proper scans of these pages, I thought I’d simply upload the relevant extracts here for everyone to see. Which is what this posting is about.

The first thing to say is that my friend was only interested in the part of the argument that involved the original critic and the people from Music Survey — and for that, I’m thankful: before the row finally burned itself out, half a year later, there had been over a dozen other contributions from various quarters, and I’d hate to have to thread them all together, since not a few of them were as nugatory as they were prolix.

Secondly, I feel the need to provide at least a little context. Since this exchange dates from the bad old days of anonymous and pseudonymous music journalism, the critic is identified only as ‘C. G-F.’; but by the power vested in me by the state of astounding knowledgeability — at least where garbage is concerned — I can reveal that he was in fact Clinton Gray-Fiske (also Gray-Fisk; 1904-61), a ferocious and highly prolific music critic of ‘independent means’ — who, in late 1949, had recently been welcomed back to Musical Opinion and Music Trade Review after a short period spent in the US. If his copious writings for this magazine — and other music journals besides — aren’t enough for you, you can also read his contributions to The Occult Review; though I, for one, wouldn’t know why you’d want to.

Thirdly, observe the manner in which the critic works. Of the hundreds of words of this ‘review’, only a tiny handful describe the event itself: the vast majority could have been written by someone who hadn’t even been there — and, indeed, a remarkable proportion of his text either refers to or quotes things that other people had written on other occasions. This, in short, is a classic ‘attack piece’ in the guise of a concert review: whatever did or didn’t happen on the night is rendered invisible by a barrage of stuff designed to convince you that there had to be something scandalously wrong with it.

Fourthly, I’d like to invite this blog’s readers — sensitive and civilised persons, all of you! — to imagine what it must have been like for the elderly Schoenberg to have read — or, at the very least, to have known that other people were reading — printed attacks of this kind. Hostility to composers and their music is in fact a baffling phenomenon: there are many kinds of human in the world, and none of them — trust me: I’ve checked — are as un-destructive, as sheerly harmless as the kind that stays home and puts imagined notes down on paper. Yet, in spite of this — and as we see demonstrated every day of our lives! — a man who rejoices in war can receive a prize for peace and be acclaimed for his morality … while another ‘such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing‘ may be reviled, over decades, as a hideous threat to every wholesome value…

Anyhow, here’s Gray-Fiske’s ‘review’ — complete with that anachronistic use of the scary, ‘Othering’ Umlaut — from the magazine’s Issue No. 867, December 1949 (pp. 167-8):



NPG x83935; Sir Arnold Bax by Bassano

Arnold Bax (1883-1953)

More context: the ‘Master of the King’s Musick’ whose noisome nugget of racist fantasy provided Gray-Fiske with his parting shot was, of course, the great Arnold Bax (1883-1953) — composer of, inter alia, seven symphonies and the film music for Oliver Twist (1948) — who thereby provides an unwelcome but necessary reminder that one can be a terrific composer and still feel the need, at least occasionally, to be a dick.

Now, Gray-Fiske’s pseudo-review appeared in the magazine’s December 1949 issue — which, in the beaten way of chronology, was duly followed by the issues of January and February 1950. And, at some point during that time (but probably during the February), news of the piece’s existence and contents reached someone connected with the fiery little journal Music Survey — the passionately pro-Schoenberg (and pro-Britten) publication that had been founded by the young but formidable Donald Mitchell in 1947, and admitted the slightly older (and even more formidable) Hans Keller as joint editor in 1949.

And, of course, there was trouble — see Musical Opinion and Music Trade Review, Issue No. 870,  March 1950 (p. 357):



As there will be readers unfamilar with the names listed as the ‘Editorial Board’, I ought at this point to ‘Wikify’ them: Denis Stevens, Robert Donington and Paul Hamburger.

Gray-Fiske’s response  — with his spelling of ‘Schoenberg’ now modernised! –appeared in the same issue (No. 870, March 1950, p. 357):



Context: (i) The Schoenberg paintings that are reproduced (in tiny, monochrome versions) within The Oxford Companion to Music (ed. Percy Scholes; 1st Edn.; 1938) are these:

painting 1


(ii) The ‘unmentionable disease’ referred to by Thomas Mann is, one assumes, the syphilis from which the fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn was described as suffering in Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde (Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend; published 1947). The novel unflatteringly appropriates elements of Schoenberg’s serial method to characterise the work of a diseased madman in the grip of a Faustian pact.

(iii) ‘Oakfield School’ was the educational establishment in West Dulwich, London, SE21 where Donald Mitchell taught after WW2, and which was Music Survey‘s editorial address.

The Music Survey team’s response to Gray-Fiske’s reply was printed in Musical Opinion‘s next issue: No. 871, April 1950, p. 413:



And, at that point, this particular exchange ceased: answer from Gray-Fiske there came none…

So: who won? I have my own answer to that question, as you’ll know; but I’ll let you formulate yours on the basis of what you’ve read here. And I wouldn’t be able to stop you, in any case…


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