Can a critic kill off a composer?

Can a critic kill off a composer?


norman lebrecht

February 25, 2018

I’m listening to Liza Ferschtman’s fine new recording on Challenge Classics of the violin concerto by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. I cannot listening to it without the memory, unbidden, of the vicious reviews it received in New York, where the critic Irving Kolodin called it ‘more corn than gold’, an epithet that has stuck for seven decades.

Korngold in 1947 was trying to rebuild his pre-War reputation as a serious composer after spending a comfortable decade in Hollywood and the jackals were waiting for him to fail. The concerto, premiered by Jascha Heifetz,  contained – to be fair – some fairly corny clips from recent film scores.

Olin Downes in the New York Times found that ‘the facility of the writing is matched by the mediocrity of the ideas. ‘ But it is Kolodin’s comment in the now-defunct New York Sun that killed the concerto stone-dead and, with it, any hopes that Korngold cherished of a reputational revival. He died a decade later, all but unperformed.

It took 30 years for Korngold’s music to return to the concert hall, and it was the much-maligned violin concerto that led the way, in the hands of Itzhak Perlman and his generation. Today, the concerto is not just popular but almost respectable. What struck Kolodin as corny is now regarded as core heritage, the source of the John Williams school of film composing. Nevertheless, we still can’t hear it without the critic’s killer comment coming to mind.




  • JoBe says:

    “Nevertheless, we still can’t hear it without the critic’s killer comment coming to mind.” Unless, of course, we are fortunate enough to be blissfully ignorant of these critics. The Tchaikovsky violin concerto (I am not comparing both composers and both works here!) was savaged by Eduard Hanslick but has survived nonetheless.

    • Ross Amico says:

      “Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto gives us for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear.” — Eduard Hanslick

      Undoubtedly Kolodin’s is a great zinger, but the music speaks for itself. Long live Korngold!

  • Hilary says:

    a passing similarity with the Star Treck main theme.

    • John Marks says:


      While that also might be the case, the opening section of Alexander Courage’s Main Theme from the Star Trek Original Television Series (OTS) is generally regarded as owing much to the sound-world of Mahler’s First and Seventh symphonies.

      See, e.g., Fred Steiner, “Keeping Score of the Scores: Music for Star Trek,” Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 40 (1983): 4–15.

      Steiner later published another version of that article: Fred Steiner, “Music for Star Trek: Scoring a Television Show in the Sixties,” in Wonderful Inventions: Motion Pictures, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound at the Library of Congress, ed. Iris Newsom (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1985), 287–310.

      See also, Jessica Leah Getman, Music, Race, and Gender In the Original Series of Star Trek (1966–1969); PhD diss., University of Michigan 2015.

      OK Norman, where is my Music Nerd of the Month Award???


      John Marks

  • Cubs Fan says:

    Someone once said, no one has ever built statue of a critic. Kolodin was a snob. The Korngold is beautiful and audiences love it. I wish the symphony could gain the same attention.

  • Gregg Wager says:

    The divide between Hollywood and American concert halls is wide and hostile (still is, I’m afraid). It’s easy to blame these critics, who are admittedly now all but obscure in history compared to Korngold. The world of German-language cinema functioned differently, lacking the Tin-Pan-Alley, self-taught musicians like Irving Berlin that did so well in Hollywood. Meanwhile, American concert halls try to maintain a high-brow distinction that they still don’t fully understand. Here’s to a more civil future between cinema and music in America!

    • Cubs Fan says:

      But a lot of the scores from the Golden Age were written by European trained composers: Steiner, Waxman, Korngold, Rozsa, Tiomkin, and others. The self-taught composers, like Irving Berlin, wrote songs, but not full scores. Many orchestras have seen the light and are now performing soundtracks live with the projected movie: Wizard of Oz, Star Wars IV, Casablanca and even the Warner Bros. cartoons are everywhere. But performing a suite from a soundtrack is really rare. A few years back the local pro band did a suite from Psycho and Waxman’s Creation of the Female Monster for a Halloween concert. Last year they did a superb concert of music written by Elmer Bernstein which was well-received by the large audience. I wouldn’t want to see Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Brahms be completed replaced by film scores, but there is some fine music to be heard from the films. Besides conductor/orchestra resistance, there’s also the difficult problem of obtaining scores, parts and being able to afford it!

      • Gregg Wager says:

        In the early days of ASCAP, songwriters like Irving Berlin were expected to receive more royalties than the “mere background music” of film scores. Thankfully, times have changed. Meanwhile, concert halls have always recognized certain film scores as masterworks outside of the medium they originated in (Prokofiev’s Lt. Kije, Walton’s Henry V, and Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy).

  • Michael Haas says:

    the reason we at Vienna’s University of Music and Performing Arts have been asked to take over the critical edition of all of Korngold’s works – including his film scores – is because his violin concerto is now Schott Music publisher’s most profitable work, with many performance of other Korngold works following on. One may sneer at Korngold, but ultimately, his place in 20th century history is assured and his greatest works – whether the Lute Song or the Pierrot waltz from “die tote Stadt” will be cherished by music lovers for a very long time. Familiarity with his film scores will reveal a depth of creative genius that even he was unhappy to acknowledge. Towards the end of his contract with Warner Bros. he felt as he had been diverted from his true calling to compose “absolute music” and opera . There is still a good deal to discover beyond the Violin Concerto – popular as it is and a critical edition of the film scores will be a first for any film composer.

    • Gregg Wager says:

      In an article I wrote about film music in early German cinema, I mentioned Korngold’s arrangement of Strauss’s Eine Nacht in Venedig, circa 1923. This appears to be a crucial piece of work for him and others. I would sure like to examine a critical score of that.

  • Shalom Rackovsky says:

    I hasten to point out that Norman needed to identify Irving Kolodin as a critic, because otherwise most readers wouldn’t have known who he was. On the other hand, there is no need at all to explain who Korngold was.

  • Bruce says:

    It’s worth noting that Hanslick and others like him are now remembered only for their insults of composers & pieces that are now firmly ensconced in the canon. The same is true for publishers who rejected famous authors & poets, critics who dismissed famous painters, etc. Kolodin’s remark is an amusing zinger, but be honest: when was the last time you heard or read his name before this post? (A likely answer: reading liner notes for a Maria Callas reissue CD. “Here’s what a famous critic said about her in 1957.”)

    In return, some of the retorts are more memorable than the insults. I’m thinking of the famous one attributed to (I think) Glazunov: “Dear sir, I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. Your review is in front of me. In a moment it will be behind me.”

    Or (variously attributed to Coleridge, Swift, and Pope):

    “Sir, I admit the general rule,
    That every poet is a fool;
    But you yourself may serve to show it —
    Every fool is not a poet.”

  • Davyd Booth says:

    Just read Rosa Ponselles experience with Irving Kolodin. She could do no wrong until she refused to sing on his recital series at a reduced fee. He was horrible. These type of critics are like the pigeons who befoul the monuments in the park. Look at Virgil Thompson ; a fifth rate composer who was nasty. Ricardo Muti, who I worked for for 12 years said ‘the critics are important but don’t forget they are on the bottom step of the ladder of music’

    • Sharon says:

      I believe it was Noel Coward who said “Critics are like Bolshevicks. They tear down what they cannot build up.” As someone who is frequently an amateur reviewer for the New York theater website show-score which displays the bloggers’ reviews in one column and the professional reviews in another I generally find that the laymen’s reviews are generally less critical than the professional reviewers’ –and it is the laymen who are paying for the tickets!

  • musicologyman says:

    Kolodin was on the nose. It’s a ridiculously banal piece, and its ubiquity in concert programs and the repertories of some star violinists correlates with the dumbing down and crass commercialization of the classical music world of the present.

  • Luigi Nonono says:

    No, the Korngold is a thrilling piece, particularly when played by Benjamin Bowman (now Concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra). This is an example of when critics are destructive to music and overstep their bounds. Nevertheless, it made for entertaining reading. But he was not a major critic. I remember him as writing for the Saturday Review. I can’t imagine he had that much impact unless other critics agreed. But tastes change. The tide was against Romantic style in those days, which was a mistake, but also a reaction to composers like Rachmaninoff, whose music would wallow in overdoing. But what John Williams “school” of movie composing? I would swear there is no such thing, and I have never liked his scores. His orchestration is pretty good, but his themes are awful, and his motifs redundant. He emulates the oddness of Britten far too much. His theme from Superman is literally unsingable. And I hear few scores by younger composers who have any continuity, any underscoring, rarely even a full orchestra. Movie music has utterly hit the skids.

    • Gene says:

      For what it’s worth, the best theme from John Williams’ Superman score was, um, appropriated from Richard Strauss’s tone poem Tod und Verklärung. It’s an inspired melody and works beautifully in both contexts.

      • Bruce says:

        For what it’s worth, pretty much everything by John Williams is appropriated from a piece of “real” repertoire

        • Ross Amico says:

          And yet somehow he manages to make it sound wholly his own. Whether the influence is Walton, Prokofiev, Strauss, Korngold, or whomever, it pretty much sounds just like John Williams. But he’ll always take crap, because — he’s John Williams.

          I’m not a fan of everything (“Jurassic Park” makes my head hurt), but at his best, he’s pretty damn good. Either that, or he’s fooled everyone for the past 60 years.

          • Cubs Fan says:

            Just today in the mailbox was a notice of an upcoming Boston Pops Concert coming to town. The program is all John Williams. The card goes on…

            “John Williams may be the greatest composer of all time.”

            That settles it! The marketing gurus called it. Who needs Bach, Beethoven, Brahms…or Korngold when we have Johnny Williams, composer of the themes to Lost in Space with us?

            (JW would probably get a chuckle out of the advertisement; he’s actually a very quiet, humble man.)

    • musicologyman says:

      You’re wrong. In any hands, it’s a wall-to-wall schlockfest. The problems are in the score.

  • Sue says:

    Here’s his excellent score for “King’s Row”. John Williams copying Richard Strauss? Phoeey!!!

  • MacroV says:

    I prefer Miklos Rosza’s violin concerto to Korngold’s (though I think they would be a logical pairing on CDs – does anyone make those anymore?). But I love Korngold’s Symphony. Wish it would get played more.

  • Sue says:

    Korngold is excellent, but I also love this:

    And this from 2 minutes:

    • Ross Amico says:

      Still one of my all-time favorite scores. Whenever I do an Oscar show, I’ll play some of this, and then all the current nominees just shrivel up and blow away.

  • Raouf Zaidan says:

    Personally I think that corn is a lot nicer , tastier , prettier , healthier , more useful than is gold . You cannot make corn bread from gold , fresh grilled sweet corn on the cob is the most delicious vegetable that you can find to accompany a barbecued meal . All that glitters is not gold . Maybe Kolodin meant that Korngold’s music was more wholesome , beautiful , interesting , digestible , human , and charming than some of the music of his contemporaries . I realize I may be wrong in my musings here . I just wanted to share the notion . An added thought : look what the golden ring of Alberich brought upon the world of Der Ring des Nibelungens !

  • John Borstlap says:

    When critics get the chance to comment upon young(ish) composers at the beginning of their career, and, after having absorbed the fashionable myths of the modern music establishment of their time, touch the sensitive strings of performers’ insecurities by applying them on the just-heard newling which had the temerity of not strictly following the party line, such careers are torpeded indeed – I have seen that happening quite a few times and know it also from personal experience. Only when (if) a composer’s reputation has been firmly established (which does not mean justifiably so), can a critic no longer influence a composer’s career – then it is the other way around: writing-up nonsense like Philipp Glass, the critic tries to enhance his own profile. This is one of the reasons that so much new music sounds so bland and seems to answer some restricted idea of ‘modernity’, the critics’ filter at the beginning of careers is a factor often completely overlooked.

    Korngold’s treatment by critics after WW II is, in fact, a treatment of a ‘newling’ since he re-entered a field he had left decennia earlier. That in reality he was already a fully-fledged composer was easily ignored – he did not follow the current party line and that was that. The same happened to Walter Braunfels, a gifted German composer who wrote a kind of Straussian music in the twenties – at the time an entirely accepted option like Schreker’s music – and was quite successful in it, then being banned from music life because he rejected nazi invitations, and attempting to start anew after WW II. But it failed because at the time, critics found that sort of music not complying with the Zeitgeist. Only recently Braunfels’ music has been dug-up and it appears to be very good. The same with Berthold Goldschmidt, who had fled the continent and settled in England, who tried to get his music performed but was cracked-down by critics who had just begun to absorb the new spirit of the times. Also Goldschmidt was resurrected, at the end of his long life. And so on and so forth…. not to mention the role of ‘critics’ in the Soviet Union’ who tried to wield power and privilege by representing the ‘correct kind of music’.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      I largely agree with your thoughts in your second paragraph.

      On the other hand, Rachmaninov and Richard Strauss also kept the romantic flame, and got away with it. Why? While Strauss’ career had geographic continuity, the same cannot be said of Rachmaninov. To what extent was the popularity of their music a factor? To my ears their music sounds better than most or all other late romantic music, though I haven’t explored that repertoire very extensively.

      • Hilary says:

        “To my ears their music sounds better than most or all other late romantic music, though I haven’t explored that repertoire very extensively.”
        Comparing Rachmaninov with Medtner is instructive in this respect.

        • Petros LInardos says:

          Thank you. Any suggestions which works by Medtner to start with?

          • John Marks says:

            Perhaps 30 years ago I heard Boris Goldovsky play a Medtner sonata at a charity fund-raiser. He was a real entertainer, and I am sure that his Russian accent got as much care and feeding as Stolowski’s whatever-it-was (“Warsaw Cockney???) accent had gotten. Anyway, Mr. G. loved malapropisms, so he said,

            “In recent years, this sonata by Medtner has been unjustly neglected. Therefore, tonight, I shall ‘glect’ it for you.”

            I cannot recall which of the three piano sonatas it was, but perhaps it was the one in G minor.


            John Marks

          • minacciosa says:

            Sonata in G minor Op.22
            Sonata in E minor “The Night Wind”
            The three Piano Concertos
            Violin Sonata No.3 “Epica”
            Forgotten Melodies (second cycle Op.39)
            Sonate-Vocalise Op.41
            There is much more absolutely terrific material.
            Good source of info:

      • John Borstlap says:

        Both Rachmaninoff’s and Strauss’ reputations were well established before WW I, being of an older generation than Korngold, Braunfels and other late-romantic composers there may have been. Rachmaninoff went on developing (as his later music testifies) although he wrote considerably less in exile; Strauss gradually withdrew in a bland imitation music less interesting than, for instance, Braunfels’, only to wake-up again when his life got shattered by the fall-out of WW II, leading to his very last flowering. Rachmaninoff’s popularity in exile times was due to his music being close to the watered-down versions of late romanticism as practised in Hollywood, so listeners recognized something familiar (the same is happening today with Philip Grass’ popularity, reminding his audiences of the pop music which is also the basis of his own brand). Strauss’ popularity rested on his adherence to the German classical tradition which was in the ears of most audiences in the 1st half of the 20th century, in spite of ‘new developments’. In the twenties Schreker was as popular as Strauss, and his disappearance from the opera stages was due to the strategies of both the nazis (he was Jewish) and post-WW II modernism. So, there have been many different factors at work, and 20C careers of composers do not follow the more or less regular patterns as we see in the 19th century.

  • Raouf Zaidan says:

    I guess we have Kolodin to thank for this outpouring of interesting ideas about the place a composer carves for himself in the history of music . Sometimes a strong opinion , however iconoclastic , antiestablishment , or plain wrong can provide us with a tonic
    to bring out our thoughts and ideas and beliefs to re evaluate , and sometimes defend , what we so love ; in this case magnificently composed music of the late Romantic era .

  • Raouf Zaidan says:

    So , the question now is ; has this critic killed this composer , friends ?