Roles in Music

Music Criticism

“To like or not to like: that is the question”

“How was the pianist at last night’s concert?”

This question, or variants thereof, can be heard at innumerable breakfast tables around the world wherever classical music has a voice. But who determines if the pianist (or violinist or soprano or visiting conductor) was “good”? Is “good” to you the same as “good” to me? How many different kinds of “good” can there be? The cynic’s answer would be as many as there are people in the world. All too often one reads in the local newspaper that the concert you thought was a thrilling experience was, according to the paper’s critic, a total disaster. How can that be? Were you at the same concert? Is one person’s opinion more valuable than another’s? Let’s take a closer look at what constitutes valid music criticism.

The First Music Critic is Born

The first music critic was probably born the day some cave man beat a stick against a rock while humming a few notes and was told by someone nearby that he or she could do it better. Anyone can be a critic (and let’s face it – most of us are), but just what does it take to be a qualified professional in the field?

The Fully Qualified Critic

The completely qualified critic probably doesn’t exist. He or she would have to know all the important works of at least a hundred major composers plus representative works by several hundred more; he would need experience as a musician in a symphony orchestra, a chorus, a chamber music ensemble or preferably all three; he would need a thorough training in music theory, analysis and composition as well as in the essentials of conducting; he would have to be familiar with all the musical ensembles in his city and to stay abreast of new performers, new trends and new music, not only in his own city but throughout the country and in major musical centers throughout the world. In addition to knowing so much about the world of music he would need a wide knowledge of the other arts – literature, theater, dance, painting, sculpture, architecture and film - which impinge on the world of music. He would need to know foreign languages - German, Italian and French for sure; perhaps bits of others as well – plus the basics of history, esthetics, acoustics, philosophy and psychology. And it goes without saying that a good critic must know how to communicate; in other words, he must have a way with words.

The Partially Qualified Critic

This is a tall order indeed, and anyone tempted to be drawn into the profession might well simply throw up his hands in frustration and seek a calling more compatible with mortal abilities. In place of this mythical, perfectly qualified critic, though, we might find an individual who is only fractionally equipped for his profession but who, in most instances of ordinary day-to-day competence, does have something to contribute to a readership less informed than he or which has less formal training or perceptual acuity.

The Essentials

If a critic can be at best only partially qualified, what then are those qualities that distinguish a good critic from a mediocre or poor one? In considering this issue, we should consider first the various functions of a critic and his responsibilities. Different writers have different agendas and different priorities, but the great majority of them assert that the critic must seek to 1) help readers establish artistic rapport with the music, 2) stimulate their minds, 3) guide them in forming their own powers of perception and critical faculties, 4) broaden their range of interests, and especially 5) foster a spirit of enthusiasm and enjoyment.

Add a Touch of Humility

All the critic’s erudition and wide-ranging knowledge would ideally be tempered with a sense of humility. Few men are more contemptible than the brilliantly censorious critic who is deliberately wounding just for the sake of a witticism. You’ve probably heard the one about “Pianist X played Beethoven last night. Beethoven lost.”

The Critic as Catalyst

The critic must go beyond merely expressing judgments, however experienced and erudite he may be. Rather, he must act as a catalyst, urging his readers to think for themselves, setting up reactions in their minds and assisting them in gaining a clearer understanding of music. Claude Gingras, music critic for Montreal’s La Presse for more than half a century, writes for his readers “because an interpretation of a work did not transport us the way we expected, because the magic did not work or, on the other hand, because a certain aria made the world around us melt away and we want to know why. What was the ingredient that was present or lacking? In other words, I write to help the public understand how art works.” In a nutshell, what Gingras is saying is that he wants to convert passive listeners into active ones.

It follows, then, that a conscientious critic is a steward of musical life in his community – guiding, helping, educating, urging his readers to acquire a more sensitive and informed understanding and appreciation of the wonderful world of music.

New Music

Another essential duty of the critic is the explanation and appraisal of new music and new styles. It is with respect to these that the public, and even professional performers, will have the most need of the critic’s guidance. Most music of the past has already been discussed in numerous sources, which the inquisitive reader need only seek out in a library. A critic’s evaluation of older music, even if different from that of common consent, rests on the spade-work of his predecessors. But no such spade-work exists for music just composed. Analysis and evaluation of this music are the domain where a critic’s readership needs him most.

Musical America Magazine

In 1918, following the New York premiere of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, a critic for the journal Musical America called the work “an orgy of discordant sounds” and hoped that “the future may hold better things” Well, this particular writer truly missed the boat, for few listeners today would agree that Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony contains much in the way of discords, and it has become one of the most popular and beloved symphonies composed in the twentieth century. The same journal, many years later in 1990, found much to admire in another premiere, The Schubert Birds by Canadian composer Michael Colgrass. This was a hit. Here the critic was far more helpful to his readers, many of whom probably had not heard the work: “What Colgrass offers is a rich tableau of sustained musical discourse in which instrumental lines take on roles similar to those of characters in a play. The element of conflict is basic to the musical thought, and this is what ultimately gives The Schubert Birds its poignant, personal quality.”

Composers as Critics

Sometimes composers double as critics. If they can write prose as well as they write notes, they can be valuable observers of the new music scene. In particular, Hector Berlioz and Robert Schumann, both writing in the mid-nineteenth century, left some of the most incisive commentary ever penned on new music of their time. It was Schumann, for example, who announced to the world “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius” with regard to some of Chopin’s earliest published works.

… And the Old

Closely allied with the critic’s assessment of new music is his duty to champion resurrection of the old - worthy compositions to which fate has not been kind. An abundance of musical riches from such composers as Karol Szymanowski (Stabat Mater), Max Bruch (Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46)and Edward Elgar (Violin Concerto, Op. 61), to name but three, is still awaiting endorsement from North American critics while a handful of superpopular warhorses receive countless performances.

Other Issues

The reportorial aspect of the job must also be briefly mentioned, if only to distinguish between journalism and criticism. Technically speaking, any trained journalist could report on a musical event – the who, where, when and why, but only a real critic can report on the how of a performance or a composition. Another obligation of the critic is the necessity to challenge what is popular and pretty but pretentious and fraudulent. The famous nineteenth-century composer and critic Robert Schumann reminded us that “the critic who does not attack what is bad is but a half-hearted supporter of what is good.”

Good Writing

Still another essential quality in the successful critic’s arsenal is the ability to write well, thereby engaging the reader in stimulating thought. In one sense, the critic is an entertainer as well as an educator and director of public taste. He must, through his literary skill, engage his readership’s attention and proceed to maintain it while he formulates his experiences and ideas. If he cannot write in clear, intelligible prose, then no matter how important the topic or how earnest the intention, he has lost his cause. The imaginative force, emotional tone and conviction of the critic’s words must capture and hold the reader in order to persuade and convince him of the critic’s judgments.

The Intuitive Faculty and a Love for Music

Good writing is a skill and can be learned, but the intuitive faculty is a gift of nature. A critic must instinctively be able to determine the good from the bad, the exciting from the indifferent, true rapture from mere mass hysteria. If he cannot, no amount of experience, training or knowledge can help him. Of cardinal importance for this intuitive faculty is a deep love of music. To many observers, love is the sole activity that gives criticism its raison d’être. A critic who does not listen to music in hope of obtaining the greatest possible satisfaction from it and transmitting enthusiasm (or disappointment, if that is the unfortunate case) to the readers, is not properly constituted to impose his views on the public. This does not presuppose that a critic will be equally sympathetic to all composers, schools and periods. But he must nevertheless be able to distinguish varying degrees of quality.

The Critic's Responsibility ...But to Whom?

What about a critic’s responsibility? For whom is he writing? The reader? His employer? The performer? The composer? Himself? The critic writing for a daily newspaper must remember that he is writing for essentially a lay readership (not specialists) and that his work must be intelligible to those whose familiarity with music may be limited. This is certainly not to say that the critic should pander to the lowest common denominator of taste, intelligence or level of education, but let him remember that a daily paper is not the proper forum for scholarly and technical treatises.

Much controversy surrounds the critic’s responsibility to performers. Some believe in a severely inhuman approach and feel free to be unkind, even cruel. Others feel conscience-bound to respect the arts; if there is something to fault, words can be found to express the writer’s views without being malicious and unconscionably nasty. The Fallacy of the Single Standard may be invoked here – nothing but the best is a meager diet indeed. Most critics innately want to be kind, but sometimes the requirements of the job prevail otherwise. Perhaps instead of thinking in terms of praise or blame one could think of simply being discriminating. William Littler, recently retired critic of the Toronto Star for many years, writes that “the critic is not the artist’s agent. Neither is he or she a cheer-leader for the local symphony orchestra. The critic exercises a concerned individual’s conscience.”

A Few Final Words

In summary, we may define an ideal critic as a person of vast learning who uses his or her knowledge in a manner as to excite and inform others about a subject for which the critic holds great love and esteem, ultimately helping readers to see and hear musical marvels that might otherwise pass unobserved. We look to the critics to provide us with stimulating thoughts and observations based on informed insight and years of experience.

By all means read what the critics have to say about the pianist at last night’s concert. You need not agree with them. But if they have done their job well, you will know not only if they liked the pianist at last night’s concert, but, more importantly, why or why not.

Robert Markow