Michael Steinberg, music critic and musicologist, died yesterday, peacefully a mutual friend tells me, in hospice, in Edina, Minnesota, of cancer; he was eighty years old. He was a thoughtful, intelligent, rather good-humored man, was my impression. I didn't know him well.
I have seen only two obituaries so far, one by Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times, available online here; the other by Keith Powers, in the Boston Herald, here.
Born in Breslau, Steinberg came to the United States by way of England, one of the fortunate Jewish children saved from the Third Reich by the Kindertransport. To me he was a New Englander with a core that was consummately European, even German. He was careful, even impeccable in thought and speech, quick to observe, eager to consider, a little slower to conclude, almost reluctant to announce the inevitably resulting opinion.
Mark Swed mentions me in his obituary, and I want to set his mention in context. I met Steinberg in August 1975 at Tanglewood, where I was participating in a workshop got up by the Music Critics Association for the improvement of young critics. Just a couple weeks shy of my fortieth birthday, I shouldn't have been there, though I had in fact been writing daily music criticism only a couple of years at the time. The workshop was run by Bernard Rosenberg, who writes about it a little bit here; it was only when I find his citation online while writing this that I recall other "teachers" in the conference included Robert Morgan, David Hamilton, and Ray Blount.
After the sessions we generally repaired to a local bar to continue talk in a less formal setting, and there I felt free to converse on equal footings over brandy-and-sodas. (It was very warm; but I've never liked gin-and-tonics after sundown.) And it was at one of those sessions that … but let Steinberg tell the story himself:
That's an awfully damn East Coast thing to say!" That scornful remark was addressed to me by the composer and writer Charles Shere. I no longer remember what terrible thing I had said that elicited Shere's words. I do remember that he spoke them at Tanglewood in the summer of 1974 [sic] at a workshop on music criticism and that it came as a shock to me that there could be an "East Coast thing to say" or, by obvious inference, a "West Coast thing." I was the Boston Globe's music critic then, and we on the East Coast though of our "thing" as central and normative, and of everything else as eccentric and peripheral.Steinberg printed that as the lead paragraph in a program note to performances of music by Lou Harrison by the San Francisco Symphony; it is reprinted in the compilation For the Love of Music, available here. Presumably this is where Mark Swed found the reference he alludes to in his obituary. The error of date — "1974" for "1975" — is Steinberg's error, uncharacteristic but significant, for by 1975 he was no longer a music critic for the Boston Globe.
I liked Michael Steinberg as a person and respected him as a scholar and a writer. The paragraph I quote above is characteristic. His intelligence, thoughtfulness, and intuitive fair-mindedness were always present in his work, and he was always able to grow beyond his formative "normatives," and that is rare and admirable.