Criticising the critics 5: pianist says no-one should write about music

Criticising the critics 5: pianist says no-one should write about music


norman lebrecht

January 30, 2012

There’s an odd piece in the Telegraph by the US pianist Jonathan Biss, in which he seems to be arguing that, since it’s impossible to convey music in words, everybody ought to just shut up and listen. I hope he’s writing tongue in cheek, though I fear not. The piece sounds like a publicist working overtime on Biss’s Beethoven cycle. See what you make of it.

Myself, I can hardly bring myself to write about the Biss cycle after reading his strictures.


  • I have considered this issue at some length on my blog.

    I am more than happy to listen, but I also like to write up what I’ve heard afterwards – so that others who were not at the performance to enjoy at least a sense of what it was like to “be there”

  • ariel says:

    He has a more than strong point – it is all very personal – and the only person who can comment on how a work was played would be the composer and lucky for most performers the composer is usually a dead . All
    else is according to “ones ” taste and knowledge of the works played and even then matters little . The sense
    cross-eyed pianist refers to is his own and if lord forbid someone may have a low opinion of that “sense” –of
    what value could his report be ? But if one is in agreement with the cross-eyed pianists’ knowledge and taste we
    will put some value to what he reports .

  • A Student says:

    Ironic considering he just gave a lecture on a few of the Beethoven sonatas in Oxford. Perhaps talking about music is alright…

  • Karen says:

    I did not read what he wrote to mean ‘everyone should just shut up” – not at all. I thought it was a well written piece – thought-provoking and worth a read.

  • Anne S. says:

    Norm, Thanks for pointing out Mr. Biss’ piece. I have recently read and enjoyed his Beethoven ebook. I also read the Telegraph essay carefully. I think his take is far more nuanced than your comment leads one to believe. He is a very thoughtful pianist and he is not implying that we ought to “kill all the critics”.

  • Spencer Means says:

    With respect, I believe Mr. Lebrecht has misread Mr Biss’ piece. In no way is he saying that, “since it’s impossible to convey music in words, everybody ought to just shut up and listen.” He is merely reflecting, as a musician turned writer, on how difficult it is to write meaningfully and inspirationally (to a potential listener) about a musical work. I would think this is to some degree an unarguable fact hardly worth repeating. He does not seem to be addressing performance criticism at all, and, in fact, he ends the piece by praising those writers whose writing (about music, not its performance) DOES send a listener to a new work, or which even inspires a new, great work. The article may not be profound, but it is not negative, it does not attack critics, and it certainly doesn’t suggest that anyone stop writing about music.

  • Michael Scott says:

    Having just finished Jonathan’s “e-book” last night, I’d say [Full disclosure: I live in Indiana; Jonathan Biss and Joshua Bell have wear the mantle of hometown heros.] he’s not writing tongue-in-cheek.

    He’s spending a lot of time, it seems to me, seriously trying to wrestle the act of communicating the ineffable nature of music into submission.

    The Chicago Sun Times has recently decided that it’s going to stop endorsing candidates in Presidential elections with this explanation: “But our goal, when we’re not too much on our high horse, is to inform and influence your thinking, not tell you what to do.”

    “As many of you have told us, you can make up your own mind, thank you very much.”

    I wonder if that concept wouldn’t be something to consider when it comes to musical criticism.

    • Michael Scott says:

      Pardonnez-moi. I believe I meant to say, “….Bell wear the mantle…”

      Or maybe it was “…Bell have long worn the mantle…”

      Take your pick.


  • Another student says:

    I must have missed the bit where he actually preached and told people to stop writing. Biss’s piece seems more a rumination on the ineffability of music, the fact that the experience of hearing music is essentially mercurial. It’s all well and good to be sarcastic and blase about this kind of thing, but scholarship struggles with the same problem, viz. Carolyn Abbate. Although there are problems with what he says, perhaps if Norman were to think so hard about his writing as Biss clearly does, his judgment would put him off the pointless arrogance of this blogpost.

  • Eric says:

    After reading the article, it seems he actually makes a strong case for music writing. Take one of the concluding sentences: “But if the writing is sharp, honest, and fervent, it might produce a spark that turns a reader into a listener, or a passive listener into a more active one. ” Is that not a very clear statement in favor of music writing? I think your interpretation of the article was odd, not the other way around.

  • JLZ says:

    Norman, I’m puzzled. Nowhere in that article does Biss say that one should not write about music. He does not question the validity of criticism as a profession. Indeed, the title and subtitle of the article already contradict your description of it. “A book about music that strikes a chord
    It’s not easy turning sonatas into sentences, but sharp writing can produce a magical spark.”

    What are you talking about?

    • The argument he makes is that writing about music is futile. The case has been argued better before and is, of itself, futile.

      • Anonymous says:

        That’s absolutely not the argument Biss is making. How is it possible that you would say that? “SHARP WRITING CAN PRODUCE A MAGICAL SPARK.” He then goes on to list sharp musical writing that he enjoys. He says it is harder for him to enjoy an Alex Ross article because he is so close to the music itself. You are willfully misreading this column.

      • Biss says: “the only thing worth doing is also nearly impossible: to convey something of what the emotional experience of listening is like.” Is this really that difficult, despite the whole instruction manual? And if it was even more difficult, would that make the end result more refined and elusive? Words are really no less abstract than music. Read an Emily Dickinson poem or Shakespeare and see how many times the same word is used twice with completely different meaning. Who is trying to tie them down? You can just make yourself vulnerable.

        And to then ask the question how could an essay on music be expected to reproduce the effects of the real thing (!?)…Who brought that up? Who is going around looking for this “reproduction?” OK we got it. It’s not about reproducing the effects of the real thing. It’s not a report card. It’s not platitudes about spirituality or beauty.

  • Tony says:

    As a sound engineer or producer one has to get used to the idea of others assessing one’s work and writing about it. In my opinion it is a simple fact of life. If one does something in public one invites oneself to be observed and criticised by others. If you like what you read, then you smile. If you don’t like what you read, then it is still worth reading and only protesting if there is some glaring factual error. The more fuss you make, the longer the upset goes on.

    I was the engineer for Jonathan’s Schubert recital CD released by Wigmore Hall Live and one reviewer reported in his first paragraph:
    “This recital was not available to review on the afternoon of 12 May 2009, it being a concert solely for Friends of Wigmore Hall. However, such exclusivity did not prevent less than complimentary comments circulating afterwards about the performances. Of course, all a reviewer can do is report on what is offered for sale rather than speculate about how the final result was achieved, for Jonathan Biss’s playing is technically impressive, yet the impression given is more ‘studio’ than ‘live’ (save for applause), for the majority of the non-musical ‘noise’ is Biss’s quite audible if performance-involved breathing.”
    As far as I am concerned in full recollection of the event and the subsequent post-production, what the reviewer says may not have been what everyone wanted to read but was expressed in good faith and no distance from the truth as it happens.

  • Max says:

    Mr. Lebrecht is a provocateur. I’m not sure he even believes what he writes. Actually in many instances I hope he does not. No matter his opinion, simply being featured on his blog drives traffic to what, in this instance, is a thoughtfully considered essay. That’s a good thing.

  • I do understand the whole idea of the essay. You can’t devise art. The Kreutzer Sonate isn’t the Kreutzer Sonate because it’s about the Kreutzer Sonate which then becomes the “Kreutzer Sonate”. As little as a review is about reproducing the music at a festival which came about thanks to the book of a reviewer whose colleagues might inspire one to think they’ve gone to the museum, something which works great as a review but might make the whole going seem a bit too sensational. Anyhow, when you burn all your bridges like this, that’s also devised…