With the tenderness of an ocelot

Apart from song itself, there are other, lesser, stations along the route that words and music travel together. Odes are read, appreciation books are published, program notes are commissioned, all these and more by way of saying or writing something about music. Amid these forms of the printed word, the one with probably the most impact and therefore the most responsibility is music criticism.

Reflections on music criticism in this light were set into action recently by E. P. Dutton's release, in paperback, of ''A Virgil Thomson Reader'' (hardcover, 1981). Little as I had read until then of Thomson's Herald Tribune criticism ( 1940-1954), he had always been pretty basic to what I call the ''Shavian dilemma ,'': whether 'tis nobler to have a professional, insightful musician writing criticism as best he can or an accomplished writer who may know little or nothing about his subject.

Thomson, one of America's foremost composers and a prolific commentator on the music scene, plainly managed both these arts for half a century. For all the controversy he zestfully cultivated, he stands as a lasting rebuff to those who would ban the practitioners of the art from giving their unmatchable glimpse of it to the public. His clarity and his gruff simplicity probably have had more lasting influence through his journalism than through his music.

Especially in his 1939 book, ''The State of Music,'' and to a lesser extent in his subsequent critical writing, Thomson's was an unpredictable combination of crisp insight and mulish generalization. There was also a protective crustiness which he nurtured as an integral part of his style ever since his days in Paris between the wars.

Authoritative as he was, some of his pithy summations read like grocery-counter horoscopes: We are entertained when we see some that bear out in our experience or opinions, but glide gleefully over the gross generalizations and exaggerations: ''Composers living on subsidies, personal or impersonal, tend to write introspective music of strained harmonic texture and emphatic instrumental style. They occasionally write very long pieces. . . . Appearing to be persecuted is, of course, their way of earning their living.''

Thomson as a critic could be scathing. (On a Jascha Heifetz recital: ''The fellow can fiddle. But he sacrifices everything to polish. He does it knowingly. He is justly admired and handsomely paid for it. To ask anything else of him is like asking tenderness of the ocelot.'')

But for his time he was a tremendous boost and hope for the future of music criticism. It is a shame to see that much of his foundational influence on reviewers today survives mainly in sharpened techniques for glib, flip judgments from those who may have no musical experience to back them up. What was, in the gifted and witty Thomson, an artistic curtness, has too often dwindled in others to a license for simple arrogance.

Also, the honor system which artist/critic Thomson represented was corroded to a degree by his sometime favoritism. As pities go, that was a pretty big one, but not so great as the unquestioned power-and-influence structure the reading public has been encouraged to accept from the system of the disinterested journalist. Isolation from an art is one of the shortest steps I can think of to the kind of disproportionate sway over musical life that so many critics in the metropolitan dailies have acquired.

Certainly not all music critics are czars, and they need not always be musicians to be useful and enlightening. But a critic is more than a reviewer - ought to be, at least.

A critic, through his deep (not cursory) understanding of an art, makes it come alive for readers, carries them along with his informed passions for it, and casts light on the art and its artists, and not, if he can at all avoid it, on himself.

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