Departing music critic: Expertise is no longer valued

Departing music critic: Expertise is no longer valued


norman lebrecht

June 03, 2018

The excellent Canadian writer Colin Eatock explains why he is giving up his career as a reviewer of concerts and opera.

I believe that our culture (and by “our culture” I’m talking about North America, and perhaps also Europe, to some extent) has undergone a fundamental shift. Expertise is no longer much valued in the cultural sphere; rather, it seems that the currently prevailing belief is that any one person’s opinion is as good as any other’s. Furthermore, if critical judgements are acknowledged at all, they are the judgements of the masses, expressed in economic terms: what is best is what sells the most.
There are some determined “elitists” who steadfastly oppose this trend. I wish them well, but I’ve come to the conclusion that to stand against this sea-change is to defy the incoming tide, as King Canute once tried to do. And even Canute knew when his feet were wet.
As a profession, classical music criticism emerged in the early 19th century and remained an esteemed aspect of musical culture to the end of the 20th century.  It had a good run. But to cling to the idea, in the year 2018, that music criticism remains somehow relevant, and to soldier on with it, is to behave like a child clinging to a much-loved but hopelessly broken toy who refuses to throw it away….

Read on here.




  • Michael Endres says:

    Spot on.
    PC will do the rest, politicising everything, trashing our cultural heritage and applying their ideology to all previous centuries.

    • Hedwig says:

      Nothing to do with PC but with lack of musical education and the more and more common feeling that nothing is worth any struggle. I’m a bit tired to read on this blog always and always about “PC” and “identity politics” I’ve worked for the education project of the BPhO with kids from all “origins” – it could be tough with children of a non-classical background but really awarding – and those who are not interested or won’t fit in came from all backgrounds as well. There’s work to do for all you keyboard warriors…

      • Michael Endres says:

        “Nothing to do with PC but with lack of musical education” ?
        Lack of music education has a lot to do with revised school schedules and the diminished funding for music schools, which supply affordable lessons.
        These are almost always political decisions.
        I have seen it first hand how school curricula were changed and classical music was virtually deleted from the curriculum. It was described in all these cases as ‘elitist’, ‘no more longer relevant’, ‘wrong side of history’, ‘dominated by dead white males’ etc.
        ( From a keyboard warrior who has taught for 27 years in 3 different countries at tertiary level, incl. affiliated precollege departments. )

        • Barry Guerrero says:

          Thank you Michael. That is truly the elephant in the room. I don’t think kids necessarily need exposure to ‘classical’ music per se, but just the fundamentals of music in general: melody, rhythm, harmony, easy sight singing, etc. That would go a long ways in promoting the understanding of what music is made of. It’s no different than having to learn the fundamentals of English or any other language. People need to understand the fundamentals of music, so that they can see, first hand, the advantages of interesting rhythms, functional harmony, song form – you name it.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Not agreed AT ALL. Music – classical music – is NOT something like a foreign language you have to learn. Because, at schools, children are not supposed to use it or to become professionals. The whole point of music education at schools, on every level, is that they get to know that it exists, and they should be taught to listen to it, and open their ears and soul. Only for the children with a natural perceptive ability, in this way music begins to mean something. The others won’t have the same experience but at least they will know it’s there, and maybe later in life they may come back to it.

            Classical music is not something intellectual. One can dress-up music education with historic stories and biographical details, but the heart of the matter is perception and that is, for music, not an intellectual or rational thing at all. Classical music is related to an ordering principle in nature, which is also nested in the human mind, and which presents itself in terms of sound in a musical work, creating an imaginary space which can be ‘entered’ by a perceptive listener. That is why the idea that it is ‘outdated’ is, with all due respect, utterly stupid: nature, like mathematics, is never outdated.

          • Tamino says:

            Spot on, Mr. Borstlap. Thank you.

          • steven holloway says:

            Very well said, Mr. Borstlap!

          • Barry Guerrero says:

            And I disagree right back at you. “Back in the day” (as they say), children were taught to sing and play instruments in addition to being exposed to classical music. The two go hand in hand in an effort to help make it stick. Simply teaching classical music because ‘it’s good for you’ does not work in most cases. Why do I know this? . . . because I’ve worked in public education classrooms. Have you?

    • Jaime Herrera says:

      I agree. Cultures cannot be equated. They are different, though not “equal.” And (unfortunately) the arts have been assaulted by PC, as have so many other things. Please don’t ask me to like or appreciate things I cannot. I know what I like, as the man said. I think Mr Eatock made the wrong decision (in quitting) but, then again, I do not feel as he does. Critics are an essential part of musical culture – as Heifetz said, “critics know.” Teachers grade kids’ school work so why can critics not grade professional music making? I have always favored new violins over old – I care not what anyone else says. Some day, I will be proved right. In the meantime, I will continue saying it. (I know my comment meanered all over the place – thank you for your forbearance.)

  • Been Here Before says:

    Sad but true. The first paragraph brings to my mind the closing chapter of the NYT bestseller “From Dawn to Decadence – 500 Years of Western Cultural Life” by the late great cultural historian Jacques Barzun. If my memory serves me well, he defined our time as “The Demotic Age.”

    One can only hope that there will be enough determined “elitists” to carry on with the Western cultural tradition through the 21st century. I am certain that Bach’s fugues, Beethoven’s Symphonies, and other great masterpieces of the Western civilization will survive as long as there is human kind.

    • John Borstlap says:

      A point of view where many perceptive people have been before. ‘Everything that needed to be said, has already been said. But because nobody was listening, it has to be said again.’ (André Gide)

      It may be helpful to remember that complaints about cultural decline is of all ages, with books like ‘European Decadence from Stonehenge Onwards’. Which does not mean decline did not happen – Plato and Aristotle complained about the decline of musical culture when audiences began to favor spectacular mass performances with virtuosi, using modes strictly taboo’d by the philosophers. When Nero burned-down Rome, he played the lyre on his balcony, enjoying the spectacle and adding his musical commentary, a bit like today’s rap and hiphop think they comment on the current state of civilization.

      If you read Berlioz’ memoirs, filled to the brim with absurdist stories of incompetence, corruption, and populist kitsch which were endemic in music life in the 19th century, you begin to think that side has always been a part of the culture. The letters and articles of Debussy complain about similar declinist routines. And in the 1820s, Beethoven saw his aspirational Enlightenment ideals swallowed-up in populist entertainment, and he complained that his works were performed less and less, audiences preferring Rossini. It is a volatile art form and indeed with peaks and deep, deep valleys.

  • Alexander says:

    I only read the excerpt you posted here. Judging ( 😉 ) from the text one can guess that criticism doesn’t sell itself any more at ( let me speak so) an “industrial scale” – i.e. critics won’t have enough to feed themselves .
    To enlarge on the subject one also can say that ( like all around the economics in the epoch of globalization) some Internet services AKA YouTube and cloud MP3 (etc) music libraries made a personal judgement easier, at the same time one also could note that nobody discard an interesting ( nowadays that is often the synonym for “creative”) opinion , including critical judgement . Otherwise, today , when the world is tending to experience new ways and standards of living , creative ( means “fresh”, “innovative”, “deeply original” and so on) criticism is on the top of agenda…..
    Hopefully that Canadian critic is just tired for whatever reasons ( or, as our lovely Opera Chic used to say – whatevs) … wish him every creativity and originality … and a good health , of course ….
    just my opinion of course – this phrase is a kind of disclaimer for the posts on this blog 😉

    • Lausitzer says:

      Sometimes it really makes guessing unnecessary to simply read the whole text. It goes on with these remarks:

      “It was fun while it lasted, and the free tickets were much appreciated! But at the same time, the precariousness of the work has taken a toll. For the last decade, the life of a freelance critic has become an increasingly difficult and frustrating struggle – and the end-result of the struggle was not any kind of advancement to a more secure, ongoing situation, but just more struggling.”

      To be added is here that this is not specific to music criticism. The description applies to all kinds of freelance media work.

      And I find it quite ironic when in this context a point is made by quoting the author of a blog that is dormant, or presumably in fact dead, for meanwhile four years.

      One final note: It is astonishing, to say the least, how little it meanwhile takes to belong to the “elitists”.

      • Alexander says:

        thank you for the attention to my modest person and for your answer , you definitely have some creativity and fine choice to rhyme “at least” and “elitist” , sounds interesting to my ears .
        I , of course , is on my own and with my own opinion, that said it was a pleasure for me to read your reply from the beginning to its end.
        Let me wish everyone ( one more time) who is engaged in different sort of criticism the same I wished that Canadian blogger , to you also 😉
        To keep the pace with your last lines I would write here the temporary motto I created ( 😉 ) and put on my FB wall recently – “I am who I am – spirits on and carpe diem ” 😉

  • Sharon says:

    Perhaps the real reason for the decline in professional criticism are the internet blogs, like Slipped Disc, which publish the criticism of anybody.

    It is true that a person like myself, with no musical training, cannot distinguish the criticism of the people who have a lot of music training, unless they discuss the performances using technical terms or from a technical standpoint, from one who knows nothing except what sounds good to them.

    However there is an upside to amateur performing arts criticism. For one thing it can increase attendance at performances of less well known artists and venues that professional reviewers would not review, including amateur, student and community performances, and give the performers publicity that they would not otherwise have.

    People who would not travel, give up a favorite TV show or the possibility of sex to see unknown performers would travel to see a performance or given performers if it had good even amateur reviews. It would also give a lot of free publicity to performances and emerging performers.

    Artists can make hay while the sun still shines by repeating programs that have had good recent reviews. It would not require extra rehearsal time but would bring in paying audiences who could then be put on snail mail and email lists thus increasing the base for audiences for future performances

    On line amateur reviewing has also been a major factor in the explosion of off-off Broadway, in my opinion.

    Have you heard of Martin Denton, the former amateur online reviewer of off-off Broadway? He literally changed New York City theatrical culture by publicizing and thus bringing audiences to performances where the audience would previously have consisted almost solely of the family and friends of the people connected to the production and perhaps the small mailing list of the indie theater.

    Denton was able to review so many shows because, although he started this as a hobby, he was a information technology employee for a hotel chain which liked what he was doing and eventually allowed him to do it full time as a way to increase New York City tourism. What a fortunate coincidence for New York City indie theater! For years, both before and after he retired from the hotel chain, he reviewed another play every night. Thus, he brought people even from out of town to off-off Broadway theater. (I know all this because I saw an off-off Broadway play written about him).

    For a while after he retired from the hotel chain he published off-off Broadway plays in addition to continuing reviewing.

    Although now Denton has now retired from all reviewing and no longer maintains the website, other websites have taken its place. I review, as an amateur, very frequently on the New York City theater review site, Show-Score. This site gives audience members incentives, like invitations to lectures and tours, to write a review. I frequently use the site, which itself has exploded in the last three years, to determine what theater to see. (I believe that the website was also started by a now retired IT guy).

    Perhaps classical music can do what literature has done. Maintain sites, like Amazon and Google Books, for amateur reviews and use other websites, as well as paper media like the New York and London Review of Books to present what other experts in the book’s topic, have to say. Many times these reviews are written presupposing that the reader or potential reader has some background in the topic but most of the time it would only be such a reader who would be interested in the review.

    If Eatock reviewed using technical terms and from a technical viewpoint he would not have been able to publish in general publications. However, he would have had a loyal following among those who already have music training.

  • Roger says:

    From reading only the excerpt published here, I think part of the issue, at least in the UK, is that newspaper critics don’t actually have the expertise. Their reviews read more like fashion reviews or a summary of productions from the last forty years, instead of any critical analysis. If the people being published in newspapers don’t have that musical expertise then what makes their opinion more valid except for the fact that they have a platform.

    • A Nonny Mouse says:

      With respect, this is not correct. Many UK critics have had excellent musical training and possess a comprehensive understanding of their specialist areas. Any directive to avoid technical terms and in-depth analysis in national newspaper comes from the editors, who are catering for a general audience. A handful of critics have come in from other directions – general journalism, other spheres of the music industry or sometimes further afield – but they know their stuff as well as anyone, and sometimes better.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    It’s a funny thing that the visual arts and theater seem to be thriving – at least to some extent – but classical music is treated as something imported by aliens. What can you do about it! There have been tons of books written in the effort of trying to introduce classical music to people, and to try to explain why it might be ‘good for them’ (always a mistake, in my book). Thrown in the fact that it’s difficult to sell a newspaper these days, and it’s not hard to see why music critics feel the way Mr. Eatok does here.

    For better or for worse, classical music will still struggle on in some fashion. Jazz survives, yet jazz gets almost no support from newspapers or blog sites.

    As a final note, I wish Mr. Eatok the best in whatever his next endeavours might be.

  • SoD says:

    Am I really the only one who is actually rather optimistic about the future of classical music? Sure, the world of art critics is undergoing a huge change for sure, but there are more people listening to classical music than ever before in the history of mankind. This is a fact. As recordings and performance videos have become more widely available, more and more people from different socio-economic backgrounds are discovering this world. The audience is there, the big question that remains is how that can be turned into actual concert attendance. Here in Finland we’ve achieved great results with affordable ticket prices – for example, a student or an unemployed person can go to the opera for 20 euros. The recording world is of course facing huge challenges as well, but it’s not the audiences fault that the market is so over-saturated with Beethoven symphony cycles and Tchaikovsky concertos and whatnot.

  • John Borstlap says:

    In the 5th century, one poet wrote to another: ‘It seems to me better to no longer use the iambic tetrameter and such methods, since there are hardly any readers left who know what they are. It is better to use the simple colloquial language of the people so that they can understand.’ Soon every town or settlement had a thick wall built around it, in an effort to be protected against wandering, violent scum. But the monks in their isolated monasteries, deep in the forests and on top of inaccessible mountains, preserved cultural artefacts and manuscripts, which formed the basis of the Italian renaissance. Civilization requires, for many people, just too much effort to uphold, and because of the weight of numbers the ‘meaning of life’ sinks to basic biological levels. The decline of music criticism, being merely a side effect of the declining status of classical music, is one of those signals of a civilization in decline, but this decline has been prepared already half a century ago when the capitalist consumer society gradually began to reduce any activity to price, not to value, and emancipation movements, however justified in themselves, had the unfortunate side effect of liberating the masses from any incentive to take part in life forms higher than farm animal pursuits.

    But any civilization went through periods of decline, the causes of which are different, and it is quite possible that the resistence against such demeaning of life will get some critical mass and momentum, and turn the tide. Look at China nowadays: even after centuries of decline and a crumbling culture, and even under a communist regime that some decades ago initiated a general social and cultural suicide with millions of deaths and destruction of the country’s heritage, it nowadays enjoys something like a revival, and where pockets of age-old culture and wisdom have survived – secretly, being handed-down from generation to generation.

    • Adam says:

      That’s a very good point.

      Also – the excellent Mr. Eatock raises an important issue.

      I’m afraid I have no ideas whatever. Canute’s tide is coming in…..

  • DAVID says:

    Expertise is no longer valued and indeed no longer needed in a culture that promotes the delusional idea that anyone can be an expert right off the bat, regardless of experience and/or competence. To even suggest that one’s judgment might actually be wrong, that one may actually have something to learn from a more competent authority, or that one may have to expend considerable effort in order to truly understand any given subject-matter, are all notions that have simply become antithetical to our contemporary culture. This sad state of affairs may be the result of many factors coming together: the decline of our education system, the rise in contemporary narcissism, the sheer idiocy of a political correctness gone mad, and a propensity towards the lowest common denominator as opposed to that which requires effort and perseverance. The internet may be the very locus where all these factors come together, it truly is a “cult of the amateur” to quote the title of Andrew Keen’s book. We would literally have achieved nothing, had western culture always been that way, which perhaps points to its clear decline — the point where we expect everything to come to us easily without having to work for it, when the expectation of instant gratification has simply become a given. Together with this, in my opinion, is a deeply seated shallowness, a profound superficiality that avoids like the plague any notion of seriousness about life itself. Rather we are to remain in a perennial infantile state, always on the mode of having fun, quickly dispelling anything remotely reminding us of the gravity of existence — the very prerequisites to most significant art. No wonder then that classical music is in such a precarious position, and in this regard it is probably not alone. In a world without any depth, where only appearance matters, it has been reduced to just another experience to be “shared” on social media in order to increase one’s popularity index — not as something that might actually be transformative and call in question our self-obsessed selves.

    • Sharon says:

      You make some good points. I believe that the main culprit is commercial TV and especially TV advertising which psychologically manipulates to cause people to believe that consumerism is everything, brainwashes people and makes it easy for people to “veg out” and dumb down.

      However, apart from the psychological manipulation of TV I believe that many, many people just do not have the physical or psychological energy to appreciate more complex or intellectually challenging forms of art. People even in developed countries and even those who consider themselves to be middle class, are struggling so hard to find or keep a living wage job, struggling to stay out of or claw their way out of debt, and provide some economic opportunity for their children, that they are spent at the end of the work day. They veg out in front of the TV when they should be sleeping because all they can emotionally absorb is very light fare and frequently people are so stressed they cannot fall asleep.

      I myself find this blog relaxing and frequently blog when I am on breaks from my mad overtime nursing shifts. Part of the reason is that it gets my mind off my problems, the problems of my patients, the problems of those close to me, or serious national and global political and economic issues.

      Nevertheless this “light entertainment” blog has whetted my interest in classical music and I hope to listen actively to it, both on radio and in live concerts, when previously I would fall asleep. I am beginning to read books and articles by academics on classical music.

      My blogging on the amateur theater review site show-score has encouraged me to learn more about playwrights and theater genres by reading academic books on the subject.

      What I am saying is light fare and amateur criticism and discussion can sometimes act as a springboard for some to a higher level of aesthetic appreciation.

      We need to ask the question of how can we encourage people to intellectually process complex art and music given current economic and cultural conditions, not just pine for the good old days and say that the situation is hopeless

  • william osborne says:

    Traditional arts criticism as we know it today is in many respects anachronistic. This form of criticism appeared in the 19th century and was closely associated with the rise of the bourgeoisie and cultural nationalism. The principle effect of most arts journalism was to celebrate the artist-hero as a symbol of the nation-state’s creative identity. The prototype of this type of journalist in classical music was Robert Schumann.

    After WWII, this sort of nationalism and its representative artist-heroes went into a gradual remission and were replaced by the aesthetics of global capitalism. We thus saw a corresponding decrease in the status of arts journalists, since their function as spokesmen for the nation-state’s creative virility became irrelevant.

    Global capitalism requires a new kind of feullitonist, a generalist gadfly who is part of a marketing apparatus focusing largely on international celebrity like jet-set conductors, pop stars, famous movie actors, and best-selling authors. Since original thought and social commentary seldom fit with the corporate media’s financial interests, publications like the NYT and much of The New Yorker are already a kind of People magazine for yuppies. We generally see cultural gossip with a touch of niveau couched in these publications’ self-consciously affected, apolitical urbanity.

    This explains the success of chatty and congenial classical music journalists like Alex Ross, Anne Midgette, Anthony Tommasini, and Mark Swed. The arts are made innocuous. What a different world from the writers like Edmund Wilson, Paul Goodman, Harold Rosenberg, Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy, and Susan Sontag. The message would seem to be obvious: if you want arts journalism to remain alive, then have the courage to be somebody.
    So perhaps one way to revive the value of arts journalism would be to return it to the traditions of the public intellectuals that existed in the USA until about 1960. In the middle of the 20th century, New York intellectual culture was receptive to intellectual generalists such as those centered around the “Partisan Review.” These writers included luminaries such as Edmund Wilson, Paul Goodman, Harold Rosenberg, Lionel Trilling and Mary McCarthy. Susan Sontag was probably the last writer of that lineage.

    These generalists shared a desire to exhibit intellectual range, and they were not afraid to challenge the status quo. They found a way to pay attention to specific intellectual topics and yet comment on the larger cultural context in which those topics appeared. This is something sadly missing in most of today’s arts journalism. After the ravages of McCarthyism, wider social perspectives in the arts became too suspect and the field as a whole became self-censoring and narrowed.

    If arts journalists want to maintain their status, they need to exhibit a wider range of knowledge, and be more prepared to present controversial social and aesthetic perspectives. If they remain the bunch of relative one-dimensional wusses they are today, they will be happily forgotten.

    This is, of course, already happening on the web where writers are not constrained by the conformist, obedient values of the corporate media. And in any case, the idea of spreading news printed on thin sheets of organic matter is so 20th century — not just enivomentally ridiculous, but so arcahic that it’s almost gauche.

    • Sharon says:

      Actually there was a strong effort, Mr Osborne, to use cultural nationalism as part of the cold war, especially in the Kennedy and Krushev administrations. The Kennedy administration was trying to say that capitalism fosters room for cultural creativity, not smothers it, through its cultural councils, Kennedy Center etc. There was also much more cultural touring sponsored by the US State Department However, this did not last too long.

      There is still a small effort to do this through having the President present NEA awards and having cultural affairs officers in US embassies and consulates but I would agree with you that this is largely window dressing

    • John Borstlap says:

      Marxist generalizations…. Schumann was not supporting nationalist or social ideas but was fighting philistinism, that is why he set-up the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. And there have been so many entirely different forms of music criticism that it is impossible to simply lay a grid of some political philosophy over it, given the complexities of history. There have been excellent critics and critics with less abilities, and down the range to spiteful envious losers trying to take revenge on a world which had rejected them.

      Alex Ross is OK as Tommassini is – Ross wrote a really good and excellently researched book about 20C music history, revealing the human side of a rather hermetic subject (‘The Rest is Noise’). And to describe The New Yorker as ‘a kind of People magazine for yuppies’ is ridiculous….. only because the magazine wants to treat subjects as subjects and not as political instruments? The difficulty with the neo-marxist world view is that it wants to push everything within its narrow framework, while spotting a couple of obvious ills of today’s consumer’s world (for which one does not need to be a marxist to see them) should be something it should be content with.

  • tod says:


    I do think that the notion of ‘anyones opinion is as good as the other’ and the whole post modern drive to abolish the human race and replace it with technolgically dependent, highly stimulated cyborgs lacking any meaningful individuality is bad.


    It is also a good thing that people don’t much value “experts” anymore as a concrete rule. So it depends on what someone means when they say “expert”, why should this or that person be considered an expert? Should it be for totalitarian cultural reasons, or based on the substance of their arguments/criticisms?

    I think experts should be judged worthy of the title based on the substance of their work and people should be held responsible for telling themselves and others why this or that “experts” work and/or opinion is valid.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    To some degree, I think critics have dug this hole for themselves. What is the role of critic today? . .

    I know that’s a loaded question and we could debate it forever. All I can tell you is what I look for in a review:

    I don’t want a critic to so much say whether he/she liked or disliked something in a subjective manner, but rather have the ability to describe what they heard and/or saw in an almost objective manner, to the point where I can DECIDE FOR MYSELF if the event is something that I would like to go see (or should have seen). In other words, I would like them to be more descriptive in a cold, impartial manner, and not use their column as a forum for expressing their personal likes or dislikes (or worse yet, diatribes or sycophantic behavior).

    We have two ‘major’ newspaper music critics on the left coast. One of them is really, REALLY good (L.A.), the other one not so much (S.F.).

  • Jon H says:

    We cannot be at every concert at once. So there is a place for someone to provide a view of it. It has it’s limitations – it doesn’t really replace being there and having one’s own opinion, but short of a recording it gives everyone else an idea.

    • Alexander says:


    • Jon H says:

      And good criticism is important (as long as the recordings do not exist), because when books are written on the conductor or orchestra, they will be looking at those reviews and drawing conclusions – so careless reviews can skew history.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Um…I only read the reviews of concerts I have actually attended. I usually have a “view” of the concert having attended it, but I don’t know much formally about music. Reading expert opinion after the concert helps me think about what I heard, and what I thought about the concert. It is like “marking my own homework”.

  • collin says:

    It’s not so much anti-expertise, as anti-self-annointed-experts.

    I’d gladly read Beethoven’s critique of Boulez and Furtwangler’s interpretation of Beethoven. I’d care about how Mozart felt about a performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger.

    But why should I need the New York Times’s critique of Boulez and Furtwangler? Why should I care about how the NYT felt about a performance of Wagner?

    Because the NYT decided that they should promote their erstwhile food critic to book critic to chief classical music critic, I need to heed the NYT music critic?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Actually, having composers’ opinion about their collegues is almost always saying more about the author than the subject. Louis Spohr found Beethoven lacking in aesthetic education and understanding of beauty; Hugo Wolf found Brahms’ music entirely devoid of musical ideas; also Mahler thought that Brahms’ development sections were faulty and that he was a ‘small-chested little man’; Tchaikovsky and Brahms had a deep contempt of reach other’s music although they got on very well at music festivals when drinking beer together; Debussy judged Stravinsky’s Sacre as ‘negro music with modern conveniences’ while Stravinsky thought Pelléas ‘a great bore’, Scriabine thought the entire Schubert oeuvre ‘music for teenage girls’, etc. etc.

      From the music critic we expect to have a balanced, well-informed opinion, based upon experience and professional insight plus – the rare thing – musical perceptivity which is a different thing altogether. A music critic should have studied musicology, music history, having been trained as a musician to a certain level (does not need to be on concert performance level but enough to know how music ‘works’), and should passionately love the art form. There should be a special course at university level, of – say- at least 3 years, to produce critical professionals. And still their writings could end-up in Slonimsky’s ‘Lexicon of Musical Invective’. No wonder people shrink back from such responsibilities.

      And then, even the best music critic can get a performance, or a piece, wrong – because they had a sleepless night or a quarrel with the editor, or they don’t like the personality of the conductor and thus focus their thoughts on him instead of the music, etc. etc. This can result in a jubilant description of a flop or a bitter complaint about a masterful rendering – it remains hit or miss.

      • John Borstlap says:


        Another funny thing: both Ravel and Britten thought Brahms was totally overrated and a pretentious misfit, although Ravel – the master orchestrator – claimed that Brahms was a super orchestrator, i.e. his music was merely brilliant scoring and nothing more. Britten regularly played some Brahms pieces at the piano to remind himself how bad it all was, and with every playing session he found it even worse.

        About Boulez we can be short: he thought of himself as the outcome of an inevitable historic lineage, where all internal forces of music led to HIM:

  • Sanity says:

    We live in an age when Yusif Eyvazov and his ilk are invited to sing at Covent Garden and the Met.

    That is all you need to know.

  • Mark says:

    “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.”

    ― Brendan Behan

    • John Borstlap says:

      Hilarious! One could also say: it is not enough to be a gyneacologist to understand love.

      ‘Confronted with something he has no clue about, the wise man keeps his mouth firmly shut, to avoid loosing his wife’s and his neighbours’ respect.’ To-Fu, 11th century.

  • Luigi Nonono says:

    I strongly believe it is the critics themselves who killed off music criticism. By misusing their positions to wield power and judgement, to use personal opinions to play god with people’s careers and lives, they destroyed their own value. Also by bad writing. Time was, the esteemed critics had their reviews collected and published as books. In that form they provided a valuable history of music in performance. I suspect Andrew Porter was the last to have that honor. And he was obsessed with opera nearly to the exclusion of all else.
    People are more confident now, and don’t want to be told what is good or bad. Critics have failed to take that into account.

    • John Borstlap says:

      ‘If many people do agree with me, I get the feeling that I must be wrong’. (Oscar Wilde about art criticism)

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    I regularly read the critic Jay Nordlinger who writes about music for The New Criterion. He explains why he went to a concert, what he heard and why it was an important concert, if indeed it was. While he expresses his opinions, they are considered and balanced.