The Trouble with Critics!

Who are the best music critics and why? Our reviewer Jeremy Nicholas revels in that good old love-hate relationship between musicians and critics. He finds both pearls of wisdom and embarrassing blunders…

I first became a music critic at the age of three. I sat for hours with my right ear pressed up against the speaker of the family radiogram, listening over and over again to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (I still have the ancient LP – Carl Schuricht on Decca LXT2513). Clearly, I judged it to be an interesting and stimulating experience or I’d have been out in the garden beating up my younger brother playing cowboys and Indians.

An innate love of music and an endless curiosity about its manifold delights are the prime requisites for a music critic. But what are the other essentials? Do they need any qualifications? In Berlioz’s words (himself one of the finest critics of his day): ‘Where do they come from? At what age are they sent to the slaughter house? What is done with their bones?… Do they have females, and young? How many of them handled the brush before being reduced to the broom?’

Well, there have certainly been very few females. Like record collecting, reviewing seems to be a predominantly male occupation. You don’t have to be a composer. Dr Johnson reasoned that ‘you may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables.’ It’s a truism that a critic should know something about all music and all about some. He should also, I think, be a professional amateur: professional in the sense that he needs to be highly trained in the history, composition and performance of music and in the ability to express his thoughts clearly in a stimulating fashion; amateur in the true sense of the word – he should remain a lover of music and its craft.

Why has no statue been put up to a critic?
Composers and musicians – indeed, any artist – have an understandably cynical view of those who sit in judgement on their efforts. My friend, the late Jeremy Sinden, the actor, after receiving a particularly vitriolic notice, assured the Daily Telegraph: ‘While the critic caused me a somewhat uneasy breakfast, I contented myself with the knowledge that I had given him a perfectly ghastly evening.’ Sibelius’s advice was to take no notice of the wretches – ‘No statue has ever been put up to a critic’ – while Max Reger’s celebrated put-down is still rehearsed gleefully by any victim of a critical savaging: ‘I am sitting in the smallest room in the house,’ wrote Reger. ‘I have your review in front of me. Soon it will be behind me.’

Music criticism as a profession did not exist before the eighteenth century, as it had to wait for the advent of the press to take off. Rival composers had slagged each other off routinely for centuries – Jehan des Murs pooh-poohed the musical innovators of the early fourteenth century; Giovanni Artusi, an Italian ecclesiastic and musician, attacked the novelty of Monteverdi’s music. Daily newspapers and periodicals started to appear in the early 1700s, coinciding with that period in musical history which saw the zenith of the old-style polyphonic writing, represented by Johann Sebastian Bach, and the new Italian melodic style of Telemann and Handel. There was much to debate and 1722 saw the birth fo the first periodical devoted exclusively to the discussion of music. Called Critica musica, it was produced in Hamburg by the prolific theorist, composer and lexicographer Johann Mattheson. He can claim to be the first professional music critic. The German temperament in particular has always been well suited to polemic and philosophical debate. Moreover, Germany and Austria were the heart of European music during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and so naturally supplied most of the important figures in musical criticism.

The composer and writer E T A Hoffmann, for example – the inspiration for Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann – promulgated the works of Beethoven. Robert Schumann, whose editorship of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik opened with the prophetic words: ‘Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!’, launched the career of Frédéric Chopin – Schumann would later draw similar attention to the young Brahms. The Viennese Eduard Hanslick, a non-composer, was the most celebrated critic of the day, championing the music of Schumann and Brahms, bitterly opposing that of Liszt and Wagner: Wagner immortalised him by caricaturing him as the pedantic town clerk Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger. (In an early version of the opera, Wagner actually called the character Hans Lick.) Many composers were also professional critics – Weber, Wolf, Smetana, Cui, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky (who was the only important composer to write a song about music critics), D’Indy, Debussy, Sorabji, Constant Lambert, and the waspish Virgil Thomson.

Who are the best critics?
Before the end of the nineteenth century, the music critic had acquired the power to make or break careers. Among them were Julius Korngold in Vienna (father of Erich Wolfgang) and George Bernard Shaw, who wrote under the pseudonym of Corno di Bassetto. Shaw could claim to be the most stylish, trenchant, perceptive and witty of them all. Dip into any page and you will find a nugget. For example: ‘Madame Stavenhagen [wife of the famous pianist]… has a very good voice and a very good ear; what she lacks is sensibility of vocal touch. If she would only cultivate that quality, and then communicate it magnetically to her husband’s left hand, the future would be a golden one for both of them.’ The scholarly Alfred Einstein, the Wagner-loving Ernest Newman and the persuasive, cricket-loving Neville Cardus were Shaw’s successors in Europe while America spawned the likes of James Huncker, W J Henderson, Olin Downes and the man who did so much to stimulate my own interest in music, Harold Schonberg.

In days gone by, press deadlines were more relaxed, the space allotted more generous, the opinions more considered. ‘A piece of music is an art work,’ wrote film composer Elmer Bernstein, ‘and to judge it by “instinct” in four seconds has about as much validity as trying to evaluate the worth of a woman by the size of her bust.’ But the critic has to try. Sometimes he gets it wrong: ‘Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, like the first pancake, is a flop.’ (Nikolai Soloviev, Novoye Vremya, 1875); sometimes he’s spot on: ‘Varèse’s Hyperprism reminded us of election night, a menagerie or two and a catastrophe in a boiler factory.’ (Olin Downes, New York Times, 1924).

And the secret behind good reviewing?
But the music critic merely expresses his own personal, educated opinion. Sometimes he forgets that no one is more aware of his or her faults and merits than that most self-critical of all animals, the creative artist. In the end, the most valuable service a critic can offer is to guide and stimulate others to think for themselves and form their own critical opinions. Or perhaps you have other ideas?

Classic critical blunders
Reviewing a work that wasn’t performed: Neville Cardus cited a critic who misidentified an encore as a Chopin Nocturne; when corrected he persisted, ‘From where I was seated it sounded like Chopin.’

Reviewing a concert you didn’t attend: Russian musicologist Sabanyev savaged the Scythian Suite, noting that ‘Prokofiev had ‘conducted with barbaric abandon’. The performance had been cancelled.

Slagging off a singer or instrumentalist only to discover you confused the victim with another artist. This happens rather often – check any national paper…

Passing judgement on matters beyond your understanding: The Boston Herald deplored Slonimsky’s choice of Chávez, Charles Ives, Ruggles and Cowell for his Paris concerts – ‘If Mr Slonimsky had chosen Loeffler, Hill, one of Deems Taylor’s suites, Foote’s suites… Paris would now have a fairer idea of what Americans are doing in the arts.’

Trying to be a prophet: Ernest Newman – ‘If The Messiah was sung today as it was sung in Handel’s time, there would hardly be a bar of the solo parts that the plain man would recognise. The eighteenth century feeling for the expressive power of coloratura has vanished from the earth, never to return.’

Dressing prejudice as objective fact: Constant Lambert – ‘In Petrushka the composer plays the role of effects man… a concert performance of the work is intolerable to those unacquainted with every detail of stage action.’

Classic CD magazine, 1996


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