Rachmaninoff and the Muppets

When I was a kid, Sundays were sacred, and not for the reasons you may think. The subject of my church attendance will have to wait for another day. The much-anticipated highlight of Sundays was to tune into CBC Television for The Muppet Show. Of course, we all remember Kermit, Miss Piggy and even the Swedish Chef. But what about poor old Statler and Waldorf? Those two cantankerous old hecklers have been unfairly neglected, in my humble opinion. In today’s world of internet comment-section experts, they serve to remind us of the wisdom in the old saying, “Everybody’s a critic.”


Of course, Miss Piggy’s career was not significantly damaged by Statler and Waldorf. Some of her artistic forbears, however, faced sharper-tongued opponents. As just one example, when Walt Whitman published his magnum opus, Leaves of Grass, one critic said, “It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.” Another added, “Whitman is as unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics.” Ouch.


These criticisms obviously haven’t withstood the test of time. The real test though is in how well creators have taken the slagging in their stride. Note the story of the great Russian composer and pianist, Sergei Rachmaninoff. When Rachmaninoff was still a fledgling composer, he worked tirelessly to produce his first symphony. The premiere was an unmitigated disaster. (There is some evidence to suggest the conductor of the performance was dead-drunk, but once again, the ample subject matter for terrible conductor behaviour will have to wait for another day.) The reigning St. Petersburg critic had a field day. He wrote: “If there were a conservatory in Hell, and if one of its talented students were to compose a symphony based on the story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff’s, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell.”


The apparent complete failure of his First Symphony sent Rachmaninoff into a long and deep depression. He composed nothing for the next three years. At the urging of his friends and family, Rachmaninoff finally consented to start a course of hypnotherapy to help bring him out of the depths of despair. Progress was painful and slow, but what came out of this long artistic darkness was nothing short of miraculous. Nearly four years after the debacle of the symphony, Rachmaninoff premiered his Second Piano Concerto, one of his most enduringly appealing works. You’d have a hard time finding even the most curmudgeonly of critics today who wouldn’t agree that it’s a brilliant masterwork.


If there’s a lesson to be found here, it may be that we shouldn’t give any of our critics much more credence than we ever gave Statler and Waldorf. My parting thoughts about critics can be summed up in this gem by Christopher Hampton: “Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp post how it feels about dogs.”