Confessions of a music critic

Confessions of a music critic


norman lebrecht

March 08, 2021

Christopher Morley, Birmingham’s long-serving music critic and arts editor, is about to publish his memoirs.

We’ve had an exclusive sneak peek of how Chris’s career was almost killed off before it got going. Here’s his story:

There was one huge hiccup during my early days as a critic for the Birmingham Post. Ken Dommett asked me to review a CBSO concert in Birmingham Town Hall, which included a performance of the world’s greatest violin concerto, the Beethoven. The renowned soloist was actually not very good on this occasion, and I said so.

Next day I took a party from the school where I was now Head of Music (St Paul’s Grammar School in Edgbaston — what a relief to be in a convent school after my Walsall comprehensive) to see a production of Carmen at the Coliseum, a trip organised by British Rail, who were doing wonderful things in those days.

I returned very late that night to find the proverbial had hit the fan. Telephone lines at the Birmingham Post had been red-hot all day, complaining that I had identified the wrong soloist in my review! I had said it was Ralph Holmes, when in fact the guilty party was a violinist with a very similar name. These lapses of memory do occasionally happen with reviewers (I know that other of my colleagues have been equally as guilty of a similar lapse), but they are unforgiveable, and the editor of the paper had had no choice but to sack me, in order, apart from anything else, to mitigate the legal consequences.

As luck would have it, Ralph Holmes was due to give a recital at the Barber Institute a couple of weeks later, accompanied by the then Professor of Music at Birmingham University, Ivor Keys. I had never taken to Ivor when he arrived as Prof at the start of my final year there, as I had been totally devoted to his predecessor, Anthony Lewis, who had moved on to become Principal of the Royal Academy of Music in London, but Ivor was very kind to me in this matter.

“I’ll arrange for you to meet Ralph during the interval,” he said, and sure enough, the meeting came about. Ralph Holmes shook my hand warmly, and said “Don’t worry, Chris, these things happen!” and that was that. Tutto apposto, as we say in Italian (did I say I am half-Italian?).

I walked home on air that night — but I was no longer reviewing for the Birmingham Post.

Brewin Books publish the Morley memoirs on March 26.





  • CarlD says:

    I look forward to reading the book. Seems that Chris spins a good yarn.

  • marcus says:

    Question is then-who was the sub par fiddler?

  • Miko says:

    Who cares.
    Music critic?
    A vastly over rated activity patronising those who can do what the critic painfully never could.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I sometimes think that it would be nice to have a new type of criticism: the music critic critic, reviewing the music critic’s reviews.

      • miko says:

        …that, my friend, is clearly what you are for.

        • John Borstlap says:

          I say that all the time when he’s complaining about bad reviews but then I’m being criticized. It’s all so misdirected.


      • Joel Lazar says:

        I have the recollection that B. H . Haggin used to do meta-criticism, so to speak, of the other New York critics in “The Nation”, in the 1940s and 1950s…dates may be off. And of course, the Stravinsky/Craft books are full of that sort of stuff.

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    OK folks, let’s try and work out who the “violinist with a very similar name… to Ralph Holmes” could be. C’mon – we can do it.

    Pretty bad this critic got it wrong.

    • IC225 says:

      Pretty bad? Then I won’t tell you which distinguished string quartet recently announced that they’re planning to play “Britten’s Dover Beach”.
      Or…possibly everyone makes the occasional mental slip. Eh?

  • E says:

    Lovely story, so well told. (Also, it is delightful to read that British Rail organized that sort of music outing for schools!)

  • Andrew Constantine says:

    Good luck with the book, Chris. I look forward to getting a copy!

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    I found it online, he mixed up Ralph Holmes with Raymond Cohen :

  • John Humphreys says:

    Aha – but then Chris did become chief music critic of the Birmingham Post and a wise, well informed and sensitive one he was/is. It’s been a privilege to have known him over our 38 or so years in Birmingham.

  • sam says:

    Quel scandale!

    What explosive revelations!

    Confessions to blow up a beloved British institution!

    The English tabloids are in a frenzy!

  • Christopher Clift says:

    I always found Chris to be a kind, sensitive chap, especially when reviewing concerts I’d listened to in Symphony Hall. He always told it as it was – no dressing up the detail, though sometimes he WAS a tad sympathetic in his writing. And he was very kind when reviewing a concert I had arranged as a tribute to my late wife in late 2016 after she had died earlier that year.

  • Joe Kemelhor says:

    The piano accompanist for the second recital was named “Ivor Keys” ? Is that some standard U.K. music joke ?

  • Zandonai says:

    Reminds me of NYT’s Bernard Holland who once reviewed a performance at Carnegie Hall that never took place.

  • Siva Oke says:

    I well remember Ralph Holmes. He had a lovely sense of humour and he would have found the whole thing quite funny! Much looking forward to reading your book, Chris.