Leon Fleisher: Music critics are no longer relevant

Leon Fleisher: Music critics are no longer relevant


norman lebrecht

October 01, 2014

The combative pianist, 85, has been sharing his opinions with our San Francisco friend, Elijah Ho.



Exhibit A:

In daily newspapers, the role of today’s critic, somebody once said, is like ‘one who describes an accident to an eyewitness’. This day-after-the-event kind of reporting is no longer relevant. I mean, the event is gone, it’s one person’s subjective impression. I think critics back in Schumann’s day were leaders and teachers of their field. Today, you sometimes get a sports reporter who’s recruited because the music critic can’t make it, or the music critic will report on a program that was not played, stuff like that.

Exhibit B:

Too many young people today play their instruments most wonderfully – they have such command of their instrument – but it’s as though they’re speaking a foreign language, phonetically. They pronounce all the words, but they have no idea of what they’re saying. And I think that’s one of the big differences between the great artists of the time and this level of expertise that is constantly expanding and rising. As I’ve said for a long time, the level of mediocrity is constantly rising.

Read the full, wonderfully challenging interview right here.


  • Neil McGowan says:

    I try to imagine how the world would live, if there were no music critics??


  • Halldor says:

    I take it that this is the same Leon Fleisher who currently quotes admiring reviews from three separate music critics on his website, as well as a link to an extensive digital archive of press coverage from his career..?

  • John Borstlap says:

    In principle, music criticism is good, for it gives performance profile in the media and thus underlines its importance in the wider cultural field. Where criticism is unprofessional, incompetent, etc. etc., it merely undermines the profession. But, for instance, music criticism in Vienna is professional and extensive, and thus contributing to the city’s (the ‘community’s’) cultural identity, of which it is a part, so a circular reinforcing factor.

    Slonimsky’s ‘Lexicon of Musical Invective’ shows how critics can get it all wrong but that should not stop them from trying.

    Wonderful is the story of a music critic in the Netherlands who forcefully condemned a ‘neo-classical’ piece that was not only ‘entirely derivative’ of Beethoven’s style but also and particularly badly written, with pathetic attempts at theatrical expression which fell totally flat and which the audience, being very conservative of course, greatly enjoyed, not knowing better. Later-on it appeared that the initially-announced OOMP (Obligatory Opening Modern Piece) had been substituted at the last minute by Beethoven’s Corolian Overture, information which got unnoticed by the critic.

  • Rob van der Hilst says:

    ‘Judging journalism’ -bottom-line of musiccritic- should not make or have any sence?

    Well, here just one point of defence of it: what is not described publicly anymore, in a judging fashion, will at a certain point in time not excist anymore in everyone’s mind and imagination. It simply does not to excist (anymore) in a broader sence by lack of information on it.
    Byebye classical musicculture!

    • Anonymus says:

      Music critics do not give information on music. They give information on musical performances. Decisive difference. Information on music itself can hardly be given verbally in the first place. That’s actually the reason why we have music…

      • M2N2K says:

        Good critics do give “information” about music as well, but mostly they give their opinions, just like about performances.

  • Guy says:

    He doesn’t say music critics are no longer relevant. He says that the music criticism found in newspapers today is largely irrelevant. That in itself is a moot point, but it’s not the same point advertised in the headline.

    • M2N2K says:

      He clearly says that after-the-event reviews are irrelevant. What else do you expect critics do – write their reviews *before* performances? Looks to me like he is saying pretty much what the headline implies.

  • Pirkko says:

    The problem is, that there’s hardly any proper music critic published in the papers nowadays. The local symphony orchestra’s concerts and the opera premieres might be reviewed, but chamber music – no. And from critics we would hardly know that art music is still written at our time.

    • M2N2K says:

      Are you kidding? Most critics I read – those in the USA, that is – love to write about new music. Quality of writing varies widely of course, but many of them actually prefer reviewing unfamiliar pieces, including everything that is new and recent.

  • Simon S. says:

    It’s natural and understandable that musicians have a rather, err, reserved attitude towards music critics.

    However, as someone who loves music but works in a job which has nothing to do with music, I rely a lot on music critics and am very grateful to them – granted: to those among them who know their job.

    I have neither the time nor the money to attend every concert whose announcement sounds interesting (not even if it’s in the city where I live) nor to buy and listen to every record which might be interesting. I have to make a selection – and the work of music critics helps me a lot in making this selection.

    And yes, I know, there’s this quote by some 19th century composer that no one has ever erected a statue to honour a music critic. Well, I suppose no one has either erected statues in honour of a nurse, a bus driver or a dentist – and yet I wouldn’t like to miss these people.

    Maybe we simply shouldn’t ask musicians what they think about music critics. Critics don’t do their work for musicians. They’re doing it for people like me.

    • mattinson says:

      Simon wrote:

      “As someone who loves music but works in a job which has nothing to do with music, I rely a lot on music critics and am very grateful to them”


      Ultimately all forms of musical performance would exist very nicely if we had no public criticism at all…. Beyond the ephemeral, music critics simply are not important to cultural history.

      • Simon S. says:

        “Beyond the ephemeral, music critics simply are not important to cultural history.” Well, there are exceptions (Adorno e.g.), but in general you are right.

        But not being important to cultural history doesn’t make them superfluous. 95% of currently performing musicians aren’t important to cultural history either (as individuals, not as a whole). But this doesn’t mean they’re redundant.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Well…. I would never think I would come to defend ‘the music critic’…. But music criticism is important to cultural history because it provides the reflection, or a selection of reflections, of music amd of performance practice in a certain time period. And music criticism is important because it is supposed to give attention to the art form.

  • Wise words from a legend. I don’t think that criticism is dead, it’s just that the general public is not interested in being educated about what music is worth listening to. And we live in a world where being mediocre is given equal status with true artistry. The general public now goes to itunes or Amazon to read the customer reviews and consider them cultured as a result.

    • Olaugh Turchev says:

      This rise toward peers’ opinion is also a result of the shameless gate keeping by critics who promote the business over the art.

  • Novagerio says:

    Either way, “no one ever raised a statue to a critic” 😀

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    Wasn’t it Sibelius who quipped that he could not think of a single statue put up of a music critic?

    • If there is ever to be one, I am confident that Mr. Lebrecht will be the first!

      • John Borstlap says:

        But haven’t there been many statues of Stalin? He was, by way of a side kick, also something of a music critic (severely criticizing Shostakovich, Prokofiev).

        Maybe he was not so much a dictator with music criticism as a hobby, but the other way around.

    • Halldor says:

      Yes, it was supposedly Sibelius. There are of course statues of plenty of critics: Augustin Saint-Beuve, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Vladimir Stasov, and Clement Greenberg, not counting statues of composers (Schumann, Berlioz, Debussy) who also worked as critics (and in some cases were better-known in that capacity in their own lifetimes).

  • Cynthia Katsarelis says:

    I’m just happy when classical music is in the news… I know that’s a low standard, but I’d rather that my orchestra appear in print and online blogs as opposed to being ignored.

    • Cynthia Katsarelis says:

      I should add that our area does have a few people writing who are knowledgeable, and one of the local papers keeps a classical music writer who has a PhD in music. But still, real estate in the paper is limited…

  • GEll says:

    Fleischer’s words are a masterclass for any aspiring, young musician, including singers. And not just aspiring but for established and famous or semi-famous ones too.

  • Raymond Clarke says:

    Frankly, some of the customer reviews on Amazon are more informative and stimulating to read than the pretentious drivel served up in the arts columns of the London papers and in the glossy reviewing magazines. I cringe when I read jejune comments written by critics who are desperate to appear well-informed and authoritative, yet who are clearly hopelessly out of their depth in trying to evaluate performances with any insight.

    I read reviews simply because I’m interested in other people’s opinions, but an embarrassing lack of musical knowledge is betrayed too often, for example when glaring errors (such as editing mistakes in recordings which have resulted in the music being accidentally truncated) pass unnoticed by critics who are supposed to know the scores.

  • pianoland says:

    I often read with pleasure the reviews of New York music critics of the 1930’s through the 1960’s — many of whom were both knowledgeable musicians and brilliant writers. But sadly, that level of criticism is long gone…

  • Mallinson says:

    As Brendan Behan has said:

    “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.”

  • Warrior says:

    That is what a good critic SHOULD be doing.
    However, if you read reviews from The venerable NY Times, the critics often spend most of the review summarizing the program notes. Then they either criticize the program choices, or they rave about what an interesting program it was. The actual performance is given the least amount of attention.
    Gimmicky programs are the vogue with critics these days. Anyone who plays new music is proclaimed a hero, whether they play well or not, and anyone who plans a program of pieces that have a connection to each other is also commended. Pure garbage.