What critics do (or ought to)

What critics do (or ought to)


norman lebrecht

March 13, 2016

In a response to A O Scott’s new book in defence of criticism, Fiona Maddocks writes about her own practise in today’s Observer.

Here, in part, is what she has to say. It cuts close to the core of the matter. 


fiona maddocks

For many years, I resisted reviewing, feeling ill-equipped to pass judgment. Now I see it’s as much about conveying mood, intention, purpose, joy. Criticism is a form of passionate advocacy.

It’s also about being responsible. Failure to me can be very heaven to someone else. Ask why something didn’t work instead of dishing out blame. Show me someone who sets out to do badly.

The murderous review has its place. It’s a constant temptation, an easier option than a whole bagful of nuance, and great entertainment (except for those at whom it’s aimed). Whether you resort to it often or just once a season will probably reflect your temperament. When the Observer’s Philip French died last year, having written thousands of film reviews, it was his fairness that won unanimous praise.

Recently, I read an article headed “What critics want”. The title struck me as odd. It’s nothing to do with what I want. I have no checklist or expectation, except to engage, on full beam, and report accordingly.

(c) Fiona Maddocks


  • Eddie Mars says:

    Perhaps she could pass a few hints on “how to do it” – to her dear chum Andrew Clements at the Observer’s sister paper, The Grauniad, hmmm? 😉

  • Alexander Hall says:

    Never forget that all reviews are subjective and are characterised by what psychologists call “selective perception”. I am surprised less by the huge swings of opinion and wildly contradictory statements about musical events than by the failure to notice basic aspects of a performance.

  • Benqui says:

    When all is said and done one has to incline to the view that musical criticism is ‘a phoney profession’. However articulate and informed a musical commentator can be, and however long they have done it, writing a newspaper/magazine account or article is not the same as performing or composing. It really is not real work and the skills necessary are not in the least comparable to realizing/creating a musical experience.

    Having met several prominent critics in various circumstances, I’m always amazed by their ability to speak ex-cathedra, as if the habitual appearance of their thoughts in print give them some sort of importance or immortality. It’s really not so.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Music criticism is a real profession and should be exercised by people with real knowledge of music, of performance, and with the ability to handle language well. The critic forms part of the musical tradition: not as a participant of the creative framework of composer/performer/audience, but as the outsider there to report and to inform in the media. That there are lots of crooked amateurs in that area is regrettable but not a demonstration of criticism being wrong or superfluous.

      What I find irritating in music criticism is its cautious, bland descriptions, as if following the biography of the performer’s agent, or the obvious unpreparedness if new works are presented. The performer sticks out his/her neck, and so should the critic do. With new music, the welcoming, a priori positive approach is doing new music damage because so often it contradicts the overall experience of performers and audiences – probably the fear of appearing in the next edition of Nicolas Slonimsky’s “Lexicon of Musical Invective” which lists a hilarious colelction of music reviews, many of them about works which meanwhile have calmly entered the core repertoire.

      • Benqui says:


        “Music criticism is a real profession and should be exercised by people with real knowledge of music”

        What do you mean by ‘real knowledge of music’?

        Understanding music is at root being able to hear it in a certain way or experience it in a certain manner, and the long and short of it is that this ability can be achieved through repeated present-focused listening ALONE. One need only position oneself and then be willing to listen closely and repeatedly, until the unique shape of a given musical entity engraves itself on the mind’s ear.

        Contemplation of formal patterns, apprehension of spatial wholes, intellectual grasp of large-scale structural relations are of an entirely different, and lesser, order of importance. One can readily forgo them and still have entrée to the essential. Music for listening appreciation, of whatever scale or ambition, lives and dies in the moment and it is there that it must be fundamentally understood, there that its fundamental value lies. No reflective analysis of or theoretical grip on musical architecture can substitute for the real-time, part by part synthetic apprehension of a musical work.

  • Janis says:

    I’m sorry, I still don’t know what it is that critics are supposed to do, and that article struck me as a smokescreen. Whether they are decent folks or not, I still can’t see what it is I’m supposed to get out of what a critic does. There are people that bang the drum on behalf of certain performers or shine a spotlight on certain activities or events, and this can be useful. One example is your article on the new Israeli-pop project that Andreas Scholl is doing, which I otherwise wouldn’t have known about. That’s useful to me and others.

    But I really can’t see the utility of reading someone else’s opinion on the music itself. I’ll listen, and I’ll like it or not, and if I know of anyone else with similar tastes to my own, I’ll probably tell them about it.

    I don’t think they shouldn’t talk about it. We all opine about whatever it is we like, which is just typical human behavior. But honestly, the only thing I’ve ever consistently gotten from critics — both the pros and the self-appointed ones — is the smug insinuation that I’m liking the wrong things, peppered with onanistic wordplay. A lot of times, I also get the feeling that there is a long-simmering hidden war going on behind the scenes between two or more people involved in the project and the critic that I know nothing about, and that instantly and completely makes me reject the whole exchange. I resent being dragged unawares into someone else’s grudge match.

  • Samuel says:

    “Criticism is a form of passionate advocacy.”

    That had got to be one of the laziest, self-indulgent, asinine utterances I have ever heard. Points for creativity, but…bloody hell.

  • HugoPreuss says:

    For anyone who understands German, Georg Kreisler has the perfect take on music critics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKvaLBtXRvM I looked for an English version of the text; unfortunately without success. Perhaps there is something out there. At any rate, the text about the a-musical music critic who sees his mission in destroying music is unfair, but quite funny.

  • SaltyDoc says:

    “…engage, on full beam” seems a naval allusion. Pardon my ignorance, but can you tell me the source of its usage?