B. H. Haggin

B. H. Haggin books and biography

B. H. Haggin

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The career of music critic Bernard H. Haggin (December 29, 1900 - May 28, 1987), better known as B.H. Haggin, spanned nearly the entire 20th century. A lifelong inhabitant of New York City, he graduated from Juilliard School in 1920, where he studied piano. His career as a journalist commenced shortly thereafter as a contributor to The New Republic, among other publications. From 1936 to 1957 he was the music critic of The Nation. Haggin was a staunch but not uncritical admirer of the conductor Arturo Toscanini, whom he befriended. He was the first major American critic to recognize the genius of the choreographer George Balanchine. Also, in the 1930s, he launched the career of the future record producer, John Hammond, hiring him as a reviewer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Haggin wrote twelve books on music and two on ballet. He was the author of the first general guide to recorded classical music Music on Records (1938), later expanded as The Listener's Musical Companion (1956), which Haggin regularly updated in new editions until 1978. Haggin's best-known titles are about Toscanini: Conversations with Toscanini (1959), a personal reminiscence, and the closest that anyone has ever published to a series of interviews with the notoriously publicity-shy Toscanini, and The Toscanini Musicians Knew (1967), a series of interviews with musicians who played in orchestras or sang with the Italian conductor. The two volumes were republished in 1989 as Arturo Toscanini, Contemporary Recollections of the Maestro. Haggin was the one of the few critics who became a personal friend of the conductor, and was therefore allowed unprecedented access to him.

One could argue that Haggin's books on Toscanini are not objective, but it is important to remember that Haggin was an admirer of Toscanini before he ever befriended him. His second book on Toscanini, The Toscanini Musicians Knew, a series of interviews with musicians who had worked with the conductor, was deliberately written as a corrective to what Haggin felt were misinformed opinions and misrepresented facts about Toscanini which were beginning to circulate at that time. It might be considered revealing that Haggin left out most of an interview that he had with conductor George Szell, because he believed that Szell did not approve of much of Toscanini's work.

As a critic, Haggin was trenchant, imperious, and meticulous, having little patience for mediocre music, musicians, or fellow critics. He engendered enmity by criticizing RCA for issuing badly-recorded or badly-mixed recordings of Toscanini and "enhancing" them with artificial stereo sound. He was strongly critical of the interpretive style of conductor Wilhelm Furtwngler, who at the time was considered Toscanini's polar opposite and greatest rival. His writing style, though passionate, was also concise and clear -- a far cry from the flowery and opaque music criticism prevalent in the 1930s and '40s, and he was not ashamed to make value judgments about composers and works which offended some readers, and endeared him to others. (For example, Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, he once wrote, is "an inflated monstrosity of straining, portentous banality.") He also made some of his most passionate judgements in a position of "meta-criticism," sometimes spending more column inches in criticising his fellow critics' opinions than in making his own.

Iconoclastic his entire life, Haggin didn't fit well into the mainstream music-criticism establishment; in his later years, he wrote mostly for lesser-known journals. Based solely on his critical canon, however, Haggin belongs in the pantheon of great music critics of the past 150 years, along with French composer Hector Berlioz, Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw, and British critic W.J. Turner.

See further

  • Arturo Toscanini, Contemporary Recollections of the Maestro, ISBN 0-306-80356-9

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