An organic view of the decline of music criticism

An organic view of the decline of music criticism


norman lebrecht

February 16, 2014

Paul Jacobs, Grammy-winning head of the organ department at Juilliard, is playing upwind from us today with the San Francisco Symphony. Paul has been talking to Elijah Ho about the social effects of the progressive disappearance of music criticism in print media, especially in the USA:

I think the decline of the role of music critics is indicative of a general cultural trend: the ability, or desire, to listen critically. This is the unavoidable result of a culture that does not emphasize a proper music education or its vast history…Consequently, everything has been reduced to a matter of personal opinion, where all positions are equally valid, without any critical thinking, crucial listening, drawing distinctions, etc. – I mean, these are the building blocks of the Western tradition going back to the Greeks!

paul jacobs

More here.


  • Arnalta says:

    Paul Jacobs says:

    “I think the decline of the role of music critics is indicative of a general cultural trend: the ability, or desire, to listen critically”


    Sorry, this is just arrogant.

    The only real value of music critics is to draw our attention to repertoire we might have missed. And that is all.

    Charles Rosen said:

    “One brute fact often overlooked needs to be forced upon our consideration: most works of art are more or less intelligible and give pleasure without any kind of historical, biographical, or structural analysis. […..] In the end we must affirm that no single system of interpretation will ever be able to give us an exhaustive or definitive understanding of why a work of music can hold an enduring interest for us, explain its charm, account for its seduction and our admiration [….] Listening with intensity for pleasure is the one critical activity that can never be dispensed with or superseded”

    And an excellent quote by another:

    “As skilled a writer on music as a critic may be, he or she surely can’t imagine that one’s prose, even at its most lapidary and eloquent, can capture even a minim of the essential character of a piece of music which merely a single hearing of the music itself would afford but a casual listener. Alone of the arts, music addresses and speaks directly to the center of feeling, bypassing altogether, and with no need of the interposition of, the intellectual faculty. For one to imagine that one could capture and transmit even the smallest part of the essential character of such a thing through the agency of a medium that requires the fullest interposition of the intellectual faculty to even begin to comprehend is, well, unimaginable…”

    A person doesn’t need to know anything to enjoy and appreciate music. I’m NOT talking about instant gratification, nor am I saying that the experience cannot be deepened or improved with time, but you do hear people criticizing those who don’t “understand” certain strands of one type of music music where the suggestion is that they lack the intellectual capacity or taste (whatever that is) to appreciate it.

    The point I am trying to make is that music ultimately should be able to transcend education, intellect and culture in a way that literature, for instance, cannot.

    • sdReader says:

      I got stuck on the very PJ sentence you quote because “the ability, or desire, to listen critically” is not a trend. I guess he means a decline in this. Perhaps Ho misquoted him.

      I agree with the second half of what Norman quotes though.

      And you don’t mean “arrogant.” You perhaps mean snobbish.

      The Rosen quote, your second quote, and your third paragraph all make sense. Few would disagree. But they don’t invalidate what PJ says: that, in effect, we must discern and discriminate. And he is right to refer to “building blocks” of Western culture.

      You last paragraph is nonsense.

      • anon says:

        Did you not just call Yuja Wang a “Deutsche Grammophon bimbo” on another post here? Yet now you are claiming that to listen critically is snobbish?

        Either you can accept the marketing-driven relativism that is taking over the classical world, or you can accept that there are aesthetic standards in the field. But not both.

    • “music ultimately should be able to transcend education, intellect and culture in a way that literature, for instance, cannot.”

      This is an interesting topic to me, and I’m not sure I agree. Of course music in some sense can go “straight to the heart” and bypass the intellect, often more than other art forms, but it seems that some music does this better than others. It seems to me that saying music should be able to transcend intellect could come dangerously close to defining good and bad music in terms of its immediate appeal, which after all is a chief problem for classical music in general these days. When it is readily accepted that to read and enjoy Joyce Ulysees you need lots of time, patience, footnotes, and a sense of the period of the author, why should this not be the case for Carter Night Fantasies? I for one am happy to have the help of a guide in this, which I think musical critics at their best can be. Criticism may fall short of this in general, and of course no words can substitute the thing in itself, but for me, it has its place.

      Plus, it helps sell records, which is a useful thing to sustain the art! And the mere fact of giving space in newspapers to classical music helps to elevate it to relevancy. The ideal world would be flush with critics and such an informed and interested public that they are able to disagree with them.

  • Bates says:

    Critical thinking, standards, and value judgments are necessary to the maintenance of civilization. Our society is based on hard-won truths that life is better than death, freedom superior to slavery, the constructive better than destructive, and hundreds more such distinctions.

    Since about the middle of the 20th century, we have been sliding toward a society in which discriminating between one thing and another is seen as incorrect–at best snobbish, smug, or “intellectual.”

    It now has reached the point where almost anything not illegal (and even some things that are) is acceptable–“Whatever turns you on.” Manners, which evolved to keep us from each others’ throats, are disappearing. People with serious control issues roam free, often armed, and feel that they have the “right” to act as they see fit, regardless of norms; others have died as a result.

    Critical thinking and the ability to make distinctions among the good, bad, and so-so are needed if society is not to collapse This is not arrogance, snobbishness, smugness, or over-intellectualism. It is a matter of the simple survival of a humane society.

    • Bernard NM says:

      Bates says:

      “This is not arrogance, snobbishness, smugness, or over-intellectualism. It is a matter of the simple survival of a humane society”


      Survival of a humane society?!

      Give me a break.

      If all professional music critics were to vanish tomorrow would it really have even the slightest impact on our ability to appreciate and profoundly love music?

      • ed says:

        Bernard- I don’t think Bates was addressing the relevance or need for music critics, per se, as opposed to the need for ‘critical thinking’ in a civilized society. I would submit that our finest composers not only tap into our deepest consciousness, but apply sophisticated ‘critical thought’ in their use of musical metaphor.

  • dubuquecello says:

    The problem with classical music criticism is that it’s largely boring.

    Concert and album reviews have always been premised on the idea that people understand what’s being talked about. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. Reviews are dense, painstakingly-detailed pieces interesting only to aficionados. They forget few people listen to classical music anymore.

    Criticism *should* be a gateway into the truly mind-bending, life-altering pieces that classical outfits play on a regular basis. They should incorporate light text, pics, video, whatever it takes to capture the essence of a hot set at a classical show, or a blow-away album release that could turn the music world on its head.

    I largely ignore classical critics because humoring them means sacrificing valuable time that should be spent listening to, and playing, the music.


  • When critics were two a penny, we often used to regard them with indifference or contempt. Now that they are rare, they are sorely missed. Come back, critics, all is forgiven!

  • Geoff Radnor says:

    I have never studied music, not at any level. I do not know a b flat from an e minor. I have no knowledge of musical theory. But I went to my first concert because of what I read in a newspaper about the artist. I have attended many more since that far-off day 60 or so years ago. I enjoy all the great romantics, but there is so much more to hear that the other parts of the genre such as early Baroque and 21st century music have no room in my head. It is full of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Sibelius, Schubert etc. etc. So much music so little room.

    Reading the great critics have given me the desire to hear more. Neville Cardus was one. If they can attract the attention of just a few then it is all worthwhile. But the newspapers today don’t want to pay for writers of classical music or opera. It is all about the big money of pop and rock and roll and celebrity news.

    I have even seen and heard Gabriela Montero in a room with a capacity of 50, very special.

    Thank You slippeddisc.

    • JK Johnson says:

      Thank you, Geoff Radnor, for your point of view.

    • Stephen says:

      Art criticism should be aimed in two directions it seems. Shine a critical and sensitive light on the art itself, and with a sense of the subjunctive create the possibility of attaching the reader to the work.

      We have lost this, and have allowed that “personal taste” is somehow “universal proscription”.

      And to think we have allowed the sum of great organ literature to be reduced to 16 bars of Bach in a horror film.

      Paul Jacobs gives me hope.

  • Edward says:

    It seems the entire body of comments above is based on a very small section of the complete interview of Elijah Ho with Mr. Jacobs. Several of the above comments have hit on the real thrust of the interview which leads me to believe some have read it in its’ entirety which includes me. I have heard Mr. Jacobs in concert several times and would have to state that he is a passionate performer who has always thrilled his audiences. He does give commentaries on what he plays and the audiences are grateful for them. I do know that even those who have never heard the pipe organ are on their feet at intermissions and demand more at the end of his concerts. In the area in which I live people want to know when he will be returning. Aside from the talk of music critics Mr. Jacobs is quite simply a nice guy who believes very much in his work as a performer/artist and enjoys meeting people, as I have observed, in receptions following his programs. He is one of the great musicians of our age in my humble opinion.

  • Without wanting to put too fine a point on the observations by the excellent Mr. Jacobs, who is a genius of the organ, about the present decline of music criticism, let me say that I think the problem is prior to the critics: the problem is with the publishers, who use wrongful standards for the selection of their music critics. In short, it’s another grave situation that is the fault of Rupert Murdoch, or whoever is operating him.

    On the point of the publishers, if that point is made, let me say that I was so chagrined with the New York Review of Books, which very seldom publishes music articles, and then publishes articles by non-musicians who praise the Beatles of the Minimalists, that I allowed my subscription to lapse. The New York Review is excellent in a number of topics, but culture is not always one of them: they allowed an article to be published claimed that R. Crumb is “the most popular cartoonist of all time.” So, I want to ask, who was Walt Disney? You mean Charles Schulz isn’t even close?

  • Edgar Brenn says:

    I think Paul Jacobs is neither arrogant nor snobbish. Music education is being thrown out of the window everywhere. To be able to listen to music attentively and critically is like reading a book cover to cover, paying attention to the sustained argument(s) its author lays out, and engage in critical reflection/discussion. Listen to any classical radio station – with exception of a few -: it is almost impossible to hear a whole symphony or concerto, instead the listener is (mis)treated with a hodge podge of musical snippets. How can one develop a critical ear if a sustained argument contained in a symphony, opera, concerto, etc. as a whole is not even presented to the listener? The availability of music “snippets” everywhere is mirrored by opinion soubdbites/tweets etc. The criticism which offers deep insight and a sustained argument, thereby -at its best- causing curiosity in the one who hears or reads it: such criticism is rare indeed. Jacobs is right in his observation. What is at stake is not only well informed and educated criticism, but the very basics of education at large, and cultural/musical education in particular, from earliest age on.