Top critic, RIP

Top critic, RIP


norman lebrecht

October 01, 2019

The death of Martin Bernheimer has robbed the profession of music criticism of one of its bravest, most distinctive voice.

As chief music and dance critic for the LA Times for 30 years, Martin took down inflated reputations with panache and braggadocio, without ever being needlessly cruel. He took music personally and, if someone mistreated the art, Martin hurt. He won a 1982 Pultzer Prize and did his best to run Zubin Mehta out of tinseltown.

Retired by the LA Times in 1996, he reviewed regularly for Opera magazine and the Financial Times until quite recently, always with a glint in his eye. He kept abreast of new trends and was a supportive voice in the Slipped Disc comments section. We should have got him to write more.

Martin was 83.

Here’s a vivid Washington Post obit by Tim Page.

Bless his memory.




  • Martin Bernheimer escaped Nazi Germany and fled with his parents to South America, thus forfeiting his inheritance to the great Bernheimer empire in Munich, now owned by his cousin Konni Bernheimer. I was lucky enough to have some conversations about his life experiences, and for those, I am grateful and will cherish his memory and knowing him. Baruch dayan emess.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    Hopefully someone will take some of his best reviews and publish them in book form.

  • Adam Stern says:

    I grew up in Los Angeles coincident to Martin Bernheimer‘s tenure with the L. A. Times. I was a devoted fan, even on those occasions when we disagreed on a piece of music or a performance thereof. But there was no denying the passion, insight, and sincerity of the man…when he spotted something false or cheesy that indicated a cheapening of or insult to the art, the sparks would really fly.

    And then there was the pointed Bernheimer wit… I remember his review of a performance of Berlioz’ rarely-played “Lélio” that featured actor Ben Gazzara as narrator. If my recall is accurate, Bernheimer wrote that Gazzara’s reading was delivered “with phlegmatic stoicism worthy of Sgt. Friday.” (I realize that this barb may not register with a lot of the under-40 crowd…maybe even under-50?…but I couldn’t resist sharing the memory.)

  • Dimsky says:

    I remember attending a visiting lecture of his at the University of California, Santa Barbara in about 1972 or ‘73, I believe. He spoke of the Los Angeles Philharmonic of then Mehta’s day as one of the best “2nd rate” orchestras in the world. He could be caustically honest if not cruel. Will miss him.

    • william osborne says:

      I remember hearing the LA Phil live under Mehta and thought it was absolutely incredible. Sadly, during that era it was a sort of sport to demean the LA Phil. It will be a happy day when the remnants of the “top 5” bigotry is finally gone for good.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        It has gone, I would say. The west coast orchestras comfortably compete, as do places like Dallas and Pittsburgh.

  • Marc Shulgold says:

    A terribly sad day for me. Bad enough to lose Jessye Norman – but the worst news of all was learning of the loss of a man who truly changed my life. In 1969, I wandered into his music criticism class at UCLA. There was something about his dry, often off-color wit that attracted me, along with his no-nonsense approach to music and writing about music. I graduated and then stuck around, attending his Monday morning classes as an auditor. One thing led to another, and Martin offered me a part-time gig at the LA Times’ music desk. In my 12 years there, he taught me everything about about critical thinking, about writing with clarity and personality. I finally grew to a point where it was time to move on, and he encouraged me to do so. In 1987, I began a 22-year career at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver as music/dance writer. All along, we kept in touch. Others on the outside may have had a negative opinion of him, gained, no doubt, by reading his sometimes acerbic commentary. But I knew the man. Yes, he was often proud to display his absence of fear (reviewing Callas’ farewell recital at the Shrine Auditorium, he wrote that her voice “could curdle molten lava”). But he was always truthful in his passionate love of music. A student in his class once asked him if he ever lost his critical focus during a brilliant performance. “I live for those moments,” he replied with a smile. RIP, my dear old friend.

    • Nora Bernheimer Caruso says:

      Thanks, Marc. Nice to hear from you. Didn’t you also help to catalog and organize his record collection?

  • SoCal Peter says:

    In the Sunday edition falling closest to the New Year, the LA Times cultural supplement, Calendar, would feature Bernheimer’s review of the past year in classical music, in the inimitable form of his Sixtus Beckmesser Awards. Reading them was an annual delight, even in cases where I disagreed vehemently with his praise or censure. Each column would end with an appreciation of musical notables who had shed their mortal coil that year, under the heading “Ave atque vale”.

    Ave atque vale, Martin Bernheimer.

  • M2N2K says:

    Even when disagreeing with some of his opinions, reading his reviews was always a pleasure and often educational. He was a genuinely honest and knowledgeable classical music critic of the highest quality.

  • The last of the postwar era newspaper-beat greats. I admired him enormously.

  • Klaus Lang says:

    Wie traurig, lieber Martin, mit Dir nicht mehr korrespondieren zu können. Seit gemeinsamen Münchener Hochschuljahren kannten wir uns und haben 6 Jahrzehnte lang, trotz längerer Unterbrechungen, immer wieder einmal zusammen über musikalische Höhepunkte geschwärmt. Ich werde mich gern an Deine Begeisterung und an Deine humorvolle Ironie erinnern. Wie traurig, dass meine Mails nicht mehr von Dir beantwortet werden !

  • Steven Holloway says:

    What is this?? Martin was a “supportive voice” in SD comments? I’m not at all sure what ‘supportive’ means in this context, but I do know that he wrote, “One may want to forgive Lebrecht’s passing errors, along with his hyperbole. Still, the little slips make one all the more leery of big gaffes.” He then proceeds to list a sample of nine of those big gaffes, followed by quotations re SD from two eminent executant musicians, both outright damning. He could have added many more such quotations. There are likely by now SD readers who would believe it if you mentioned you were Mahler’s godfather and seduced Dame Ethel Smyth. Some of us detect some real ‘braggadocio’ in not a few SD posts. Yet here you say that Martin’s writings had an element of braggadocio, i.e., not merely bragging, which HE did not, but bragging about things false, to be accurate, and that he sure as hell didn’t do. A drop of irony in this.