Can music criticism survive recent onslaughts?

Can music criticism survive recent onslaughts?


norman lebrecht

November 03, 2019

From my launch piece in an important new magazine, The Critic:

Arriving as assistant editor of the London Evening Standard in March 2002, I dismissed nine critics and hired 12. This caused a bit of a stir since critics were held to be sacrosanct, but I felt the field was in need of a shakeout with far too many old-timers recycling idées fixes and few signs of renewal.

Not to mention the vested indulgences. One dear man informed me that it was his right to have an after-show dinner with a glass of wine on my budget, the better to digest a performance (as it were) before he reviewed it. Another confessed he could hardly bear to hang around for the second half of a concert. A third had to be regularly rewritten by the night desk….

Ever since its 18th-century origins in the London coffeehouses of Swift, Addison and Defoe, criticism has been a fragile organism. An opinion is no more than a bubble in the air and we would all be much the poorer if some spoilsport went round pricking it. Aware of my responsibilities to preserve the bubble, I increased review rates and allowed the rumbling tummy to carry on charging his dinners. Picking, training, editing and sustaining a critic is one of the toughest challenges in journalism and I am proud to have helped quite a few of them to spice up the public conversation. Which is why my heart sank twice this past summer at a pair of onslaughts on the genre….

Read on here.



  • AnySchiffInAStorm says:


    Probably keeping off the ephemera of the private lives, dress codes, family relationships, and uncorrotborated allegations of the abuse of political power would not guarantee the survival of music critics – but these would at least guide them (sometimes) towards the MUSIC

    We should not have to read any further bigoted blather about ‘henchmen’ on this blog – or anywhere else either.

    Music criticism should be about *music*.

    • Bone says:

      In America, a group of so-called “sports journalists” have walked out en masse to protest being told by the publisher that their focus on non-sports narratives is killing their brand – stick to sports.
      Music critics – if NL and his blog are any indication – seem to have missed this important development: people sometimes want to read about a particular topic and not deal with unrelated subjective opinions. Music critics should have stuck to music; now they are reaping what they have sown.

      • Dennis says:

        The unnamed site which you refer has always been only tangentially about “sports” as such. It’s “sports” as refracted through the lens of extreme left-wing politics, glossed over with a layer of gratuitous filthiness and vulgarity (a great many of its headlines and articles would not be publishable in an ordinary daily paper).

    • V.Lind says:

      Has any of that been published by critics? Or was it by reporters?

      • AnySchiffInAStorm says:

        David Nice claims to be a ‘critic’ – yet his political tirades on The ARSE Desk are full of this crapola.

  • Peter says:

    Do people actually aspire to be critics ?
    I thought it was a last remaining option for those who don’t have enough skill to perform, but like to share very strong opinions on those that do.

    • V.Lind says:

      Someone who has never read Kenneth Tynan, whose theatre criticisms, collected in books, can still conjure up the sense of what happened in a particular theatre on a particular night.

      Or Arlene Croce, at the New Yorker, whose reviews could make you SEE a dance unfold.

      Or Neville Cardus, who could recreate a concert…as well as a cricket match. (And that latter is a REAL talent).

      And that’s just a few modern examples. There is a distinguished history of criticism as a distinct form. All literary education is essentially training in criticism. (Or was, when I was a student — nowadays I suspect the Harry Potter and LOTR series are senior year projects and need only be discussed subjectively).

      But it’s all moot now anyway as papers get rid of critics and anybody’s comment is as good as anyone else’s — however misspelled, illiterate, uninformed and meaningless it might be.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Indeed. Also on this site one often sees, in the comments sections, specimen of intended criticism which is mere ventilation of postmeal digestion misery, which read like music criticism at its worst. But real music criticism is part of a ‘social contract’ between performers, audience and media, with a little part to be played by composers in case they are still alive (after their yesterday premiere review). Real music criticism is a profession based upon erudition, taste, understanding and musicality – the question whether a critic can play an instrument is moot.

        • Petros Linardos says:

          “the question whether a critic can play an instrument is moot”: I have to respectfully disagree. I’ve read some of the most interesting insights from specialists.

          A pianist has more to say about another pianist, a composer about another composer. For medieval or renaissance music, a scholar usually has more to say than the generic newspaper classical music critic.

          All of the above may be highly opinionated, but they know what they are talking about. I want to read ‘their’ opinions, no matter how much they differ from mine. I don’t care to read ‘my’ opinions written by someone else.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Maybe you are right. But the danger of players-turned-critics is a form of subjectivity often expressed as envy, jealousy, bitterness, and straightforward unfairness, arrogance without any real critical substance. I know of quite some music critics who pour their hatred over the performers, in one way or another. And also: there should be a strong element of objectivity, or at elast: the intention to offer objective observations. Music criticism is not only about opinion but also about information, it needs a core of fact. Also, for instance: an expert on early music describing a concert with 19C repertoire may hear or understand something that an ‘expert’ misses because of being too close.

  • V.Lind says:

    What makes this publication important? Its name, which implies its plans? Okay, but it needs to lift its online game. There’s a typo (or a mistake — benefit of the doubt) in yours, and they misspell Martin Scorsese’s name in the tease alongside your piece.

    I once got a letter from an editors’ association that was trying to get me to join it. They lost me with the envelope, which misspelled my name, which I had spelled over the phone to them. It does tend to diminish seriousness and certainly importance.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    Why do we need critics? I’ve never understood why anyone would take any notice of some old blokes opinions.

    Mind you Milton Shulman in the Evening Standard was a great help and saved me a lot of money. Everything he absolutely hated, I knew I would love and everything he loved, I knew I would hate. Then there is Billington in the Guardian, a knowledgeable man whom I always listen to.

    I thought the Garden only ever gave single tickets to critics and don’t understand why you object you are after all supposed to be working not having a jolly. Window cleaners don,’t take their other halves with them on their rounds!

    • V.Lind says:

      As a female who was a critic from youth to middle age, I appreciated the two-ticket policy a most of my work was done at night and I was more comfortable not being alone. The sounding board element was also useful.

      But it stayed work — I had to point out to one or two people who cancelled late on and said, it doesn’t matter, they were free, that I worked for every ticket I got (not true, actually — companies I covered regularly would often offer me tickets to things I would not be covering — even in the halcyon days there was not always space for everything — as it would only increase my knowledge of the state of the company and what it was doing).

      And companies often called me — as recently as last month this happened — when a show was undersold and they were trying to paper a house, as they reckoned a critic could round up people who were at least interested in what they were offering. Unlike one gala concert I went to, complimentary to me, of course, where the very pricey tickets had not sold all that well. A conference in an unrelated field was being held in the building, and organisers swooped on it and offered a raft of tickets to its participants, who straggled in, bemused, utterly under-dressed in a black-tie-and-evening-gown setting, to hear a world-famous artist whom I will not name as the individual is one of this blog’s favourite whipping…pick your own sex.

      As the manager of a top company once said to me, “There are ALWAYS more tickets!” But I do not think they should be getting handed out to cybergenic yout’s so that they can waft airily about how much fun they had online.

  • Caranome says:

    In a word, “no”. In a world where 99% of the population don’t care and don’t know about real classical music; where Andre Rieu, Bocelli, PBS fundraiser concerts etc. are considered great classical performances and high culture; where we are told classical music needs to be accessible, inclusive and not be so elitist, which leads to “crossover” and modern music of which 95% is unlistenable, how do you expect media companies to have expert critics on staff to write critiques that are understood and cared about by its readers? Do you see anywhere a column “On Latin?” or “The Amish Life?” Who wins? A scholarly article on Wintereise by a professor or video of Hauser and Lola sitting on each other’s lap looking meaningfully at each other while playing in front of some waterfall? It’s not a pretty picture but the realistic one.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Exactly in such cultural climate music critics could help to keep the art form alive and on the rails. One does not need to write inaccessible incrowd pleasers to write in a meaningful way about classical music concerts, without sinking to populist levels.

  • Bruce says:

    Whenever the topic of art criticism comes up, I always want to mention Hermann Hesse’s essay “About Good and Bad Critics,” in which he clearly outlines what qualities a critic needs in order to be a good one, and what the point of a critic is. I can’t find it anywhere online — you may have to find a copy of his collection called “My Belief” — but here is a pretty good essay about the essay:

    My basic takeaway is that a critic should not try to be “objective” and “unbiased,” but rather have a fully formed set of tastes and biases, which he can make clear to his audience so that readers, knowing the lens through which they are being shown the performance/ exhibit/ whatever, can decide for themselves whether they would like it.

    Some random person (as in ENO’s recent scheme) saying “I liked it, it was great” is not as good as someone with an established identity — someone who has been able to lay out in print, “this is how I like things, and this is why” — saying the same thing and providing actual reasons beyond “the costumes were shiny” or “the tenor was exciting.”

  • Anon says:

    ‘Barely had this loss sunk in than English National Opera, a company in deep doldrums, invited “10 individuals from the general public” to volunteer for a scheme that would grant them one free ticket for 10 productions in exchange for a review that they would post on ENO’s website within 48 hours. ENO, in other words, was looking for amateur critics of no experience or substance to publish tame views on its own site’

    Given that ENO Response required candidates to submit a headshot implies they are looking for exemplars of the young patrons they would like to attract rather than amateur critics.

    In the near future everyone will need to operate with a sexy co-pilot in order to survive.

    • AnySchiffInAStorm says:

      [[ one free ticket for 10 productions in exchange for a review that they would post on ENO’s website within 48 hours. ]]

      So they are looking for 10 people to write uncritical hype of any crap whith ENO stages? Those aren’t ‘critics’. It’s usually called a claque.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It is amazing that many people prefer amateurism in the arts but not in dentistry. They expect the utmost professionalism from lawyers and judges and firebrigade officers, but culture is apparently not so demanding.

  • M McAlpine says:

    I can’t for the life of me see why critics should expect a second seat for a companion. In none of my business trips did my wife ever get a free seat to accompany me. Why should critics be so privileged?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Sometimes composers are offered an entire row for their premiere because staff know there won’t come many listeners.

      Some 10 years ago, a weekend festival at the Southbank of music by Louis Andriessen was a great audience success since the hall was almost completely filled by schoolchildren on duty.

  • Edgaar Self says:

    Thanks, Bruce, for mentioning Hermann Hesse’s essay on good and bad critics. I’ll look it up, as I have his collected essays and “My Belief” but don’t recll it. He was a great lover of music, as passages in “Steppenwolf” and “The Glass Bead Game” attest, as was his great friend Thomas Mann.

  • Plush says:

    The world famous trumpeter and superb musician who told me that critics are leeches and whores who make a living off of his work is certainly right. He deeply resented them.

  • Edgar Self says:

    And yet,– I’m grateful to the critics I’ve read with pleasure and profit: Hans David, Joachim Kaiser, Donald Francis Tovey, Richard Capell, Bernard Gavoty, J.W.N. Sullivan, Samuel Langford, Ernest Newman, John Ardoin, Irving Kolodin, Abram Chasins, even Bernard Shaw and Neville Cardus.