MUSIC CRITICS AND WRITERS
Personal thoughts and self-examination
Dr David C F Wright
There is an awful lot of nonsense written about 'serious'
music and the subsequent tragedy is that it is often believed.
It causes us to wonder why these untruths were ever
pronounced in the first place and why they are subsequently perpetuated.
The point of this brief essay is not to decry any composer
or writer on music in any way whatsoever but simply to state examples
and to be objective.
In addition, there is often information about composers
which is not widely known and left out of books which books you would
expect to contain this information.
I recently read a book about Brahms which made no mention
of his Violin Concerto. This was supposed to be a full account of his
life and work and yet for the author to omit one of Brahms's finest
works was unforgivable and would leave readers, perhaps new to Brahms
or to music generally, with the belief that Brahms never wrote a violin
There has been a great amount of talk and articles
recently about Shostakovich being rediscovered. Even a cursory thought
about the expression 'Shostakovich rediscovered' instantly reveals what
an absurd remark that is. If you have discovered something you cannot
Discover means to find out for the first time. Columbus
discovered America once. He did not rediscover it. He had already discovered
it. If you think about it there should be no such word as rediscovery.
It is rather like the word reinvent.
Can we rediscover the wheel? Can we reinvent the wheel?
I remember when I discovered the music of Roger Sessions.
It was one of his symphonies. I acquired a recording and, some months
later, heard it for the second time. That second time was not a rediscovery.
It was a second hearing.
Those of us with years of experience in music and music
making may go for long periods of time without hearing any music by
a particular composer, and it could be a famous composer at that. Then,
after months, perhaps years, we hear a piece and we may say, "I had
forgotten how good a piece that was and how fine a composer he was!"
This is not rediscovery but opportunist reassessment.
Someone said that Walton was Elgar's successor. Whatever
that means it implies that Walton followed in Elgar's footsteps, that
he was a disciple. This then raises the odious thought of comparison
and that the follower, Walton in this case, was inferior to Elgar. This
is the 'disciple is not greater than his lord’ syndrome.
Comparisons can be very misleading, dangerous and have
the effect of creating lies.
Similarly, I have heard people refer to a particular
composer's work as Waltonesque. And when I have listened to that work
with a score before me I see no comparison at all. I refer it to my
colleagues and they respond that the suggestion that this piece being
Waltonesque is as absurd as it is untrue.
Why do people make such ridiculous comparisons? What
is their hidden agenda?
Writers on music and music critics are entitled to
their views which, of course, includes personal likes and dislikes but
they must be impartial.
I was at a party after a concert once when music critics
were imbibing their Pimms and talking about the performance of a cello
concerto we had just heard. The male writers were going to give glowing
reports of the performance because the cellist was 'very pretty and
had damn good legs'. The fact of the matter was that the performance
was very poor. The cellist's entries were often too early or too late
and the tempi were painfully slow. A female critic gave an accurate
account of the performance in her newspaper but was regarded as biased
because she did not agree with all the male critics.
But the cellist was pretty and had damn good legs.
All writers about music can make mistakes. I have.
But when I write critically about a composer I am prepared to back it
up with musical examples and evidence.
There has always been a curious tendency to malign
modern composers but not the established ones. In simple terms and as
an example, Mozart could do no wrong and Webern could do no right. Incidentally,
Webern's glorious Passacaglia for orchestra, Op. 1 is atonal but not
If someone says that Webern's Symphony Op. 21 is rubbish
that is deemed acceptable in some quarters but if someone were to say
that Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony is rubbish there would be a hue and
We move the goal posts. We are unfair. We do music
a great disservice. Our judgements on music are often not musical.
But it is the same in other art forms. John Wayne was
not a great actor but certainly he was a very popular one. On the other
hand, Robert Donat was a great actor but not as well known or as popular
as John Wayne.
Sir Malcolm Sargent, and others, said that Schubert
was not a great composer but a very popular one!
We manufacture greatness where it is sometimes unmerited.
We sometimes set precedents which should never be set. We create falsehoods
Music critics are akin to musical competitions in that
they are often unfair.
While I am pleased that 12 year old Jennifer Pike won
the BBC Young Musician of the Year Final for 2002 and genuinely wish
her well she was not the best player on finals night. I say this from
both a technical and musical point of view not from a personal or prejudiced
point of view. My opinion was that I wanted the pianist to win but her
performance lacked something. Musically the best player was undoubtedly
the clarinettist, although I did not like her histrionics or her choice
of piece. But I have to judge the performance. I do not disqualify her
for her excessive movements or for the piece which I do not like. Impartiality
must be applied.
I said earlier that books on composers should contain
all relevant information. All the books I have read on Walton omit one
of the most vital facts of all. After the war Walton studied extensively
with Humphrey Searle and regularly for about two years. This is expanded
in my article on Walton on this website.
But why do the books not say this?
Is it because their research is sadly lacking? Is it
because of some hidden agenda? Is it that they do not want to give Humphrey
Searle the position he deserves?
Whatever the reason it is a vital piece of information.
There is a published book about the friendship between
Elgar and my great uncle Sir Ivor Atkins compiled by his son Wulstan
Atkins. While I do not wish to be either offensive or difficult I have
evidence that they were not friends. In fact there is a great deal of
evidence from many other sources, which sources have no connection with
my great uncle himself, that Elgar was a very unpleasant man and did
not have real friends. I once heard a brilliant lecture about the Enigma
Variations and the friends of Elgar 'pictured within' and incontrovertible
evidence was produced to show that they were not friends at all but
examples of Elgar's toadying and using people for his own selfish ends.
Elgar's attitude was that he never had to please anyone but he considered
it was everybody's duty to please him.
It is not just music critics and writers on music that
are sly. I have heard concert pianists condemn piano concertos by say
Prokofiev and Bartók as 'tuneless rubbish' and 'spiky music'
and 'not worth playing', whereas the truth is that they cannot play
Prokofiev or Bartók since their respective concertos are far
more technically demanding than say Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven, great
though these composers are. We elevate some musicians as specialists
in early music when it is sometimes the case that they are such specialists
because that repertoire is more straightforward and less demanding.
However, a note of caution: there are early composers who occasionally
wrote very difficult music, difficult to play that is. Locatelli is
As indicated in my essay What makes a great composer?
writers on music can be misleading. In a recent article of mine
about the composer Irving Fine I have made it clear that I regard him
as a great composer. Now this is not hero worship and I have quoted
the same views as expressed by Copland and Bernstein.
I had a letter from someone in reply to this article
tearing me off several strips and writing: Irving Fine is not a great
composer. How dare you say so! If he were a great composer I would have
heard of him and CDs of all his music would be readily available.
For the purpose of this article I will call those of
us who review CDs for the website music critics and that is not to be
taken as derisory in any way.
I have read reviews with factual mistakes. I have made
some too. My recent talk on Locatelli which has been published on this
website contained a mistake which my friend, Richard Noble, graciously
pointed out. This information I had acquired from Grove but it was still
wrong! But I have also read some articles and reviews with musical mistakes.
In one musical journal I read that Dvořák
was influenced by Britten!
My late friend the Irish composer Gerard Victory had
his global requiem Ultima Rerum reviewed in one magazine as Brittenesque.
The reviewer also said that the work was completely atonal and so on.
All of this is completely untrue. I worked with the composer on this
score. I have the score. I know the work. The musical information in
this review was false and ludicrous.
I wrote a gracious letter to the reviewer. He replied
as follows: "I did not appreciate your arrogance. I have been a reviewer
on this paper for 40 years and I do know what I am talking about. I
am well known and respected whereas no one has heard of you."
My own judgement is that CD reviewers should be factual
and impartial. They should not major on comparisons. They should be
competent to review the discs from a technical point of view expressed
in musical terms. Music reviewers, in my view, should be musical, not
necessarily musicians, but those who can talk musically about the items
being reviewed. Someone once said, "You cannot judge unless you have
expert knowledge; the world is full of ignorant experts."
I recently read a review of a performance of that most
sublime of cello concertos, that by Dvořák,
in which the reviewer, a well-known writer, spoke of a clearly identified
passage as being beautifully played on the D string. It was not. It
was on the A string.
I think that as far as possible reviewers should avoid
writing about works and composers they do not like or about music that
they do not understand.
I have to put my hand up and I say that I have done
this. I once reviewed a recital of music of William Byrd which I admired
but did not like. I should not have done so.
Similarly I have read reviews of 'modern' works, the
understanding of which is a real speciality, in which the reviewer hadn't
a clue but wanted to sound important by writing about an unfamiliar
work as if he knew it and was therefore superior!
Reviewers should adopt a ‘horses for courses’ policy
and review works that they know and, in addition, write about styles
of music which appeal to them.
But sometimes there is a conflict of interest.
I do not like the music of Elgar, and for purely musical
reasons which I could demonstrate in detail to evidence my position.
However, I knew the conductor Bryden Thomson and admire his work. If
I were to write extensively about 'Jack' Thomson or review all his recordings
I would be faced with the Elgar series of recording which he made for
I would have to be impartial. With scores open before
me I would have to comment on his accuracy in realising the score etc.
but I would have to bite my tongue on other aspects. Ideally I would
not want to review any Elgar.
Similarly, if someone does not like Webern they should
not review discs of his music. But I would! I never cease to admire
the genius of this composer, one of the most original voices for centuries!
Not everyone has the next problem but I do. I am sometimes
criticised for moralising. Perhaps that is right. But without morals
we would have anarchy.
There are composers, some of whom I knew personally,
who were thoroughly unpleasant if not evil.
The scope and purpose of this essay does not merit
my naming them but let me present a case.
I knew a composer who was sexually interested in children.
There is no doubt about that. He was a predatory and a disgusting individual.
It was known but suppressed.
I am not a violent man but if I saw someone abusing
a child I would want to thump him!
If I purchased his music or CDs I was making a financial
contribution to his perversion and therefore encouraging it. If no one
bought his music or CDs he could not pay for his addiction or it would
be more difficult.
Nonetheless, the majority of people will say that we
are to judge the music not the man, that the world is full of artistes
and people who may be rogues and villains but their art is good.
If this composer had lived on certain estates in some
of our cities he would have been subject to abuse and perhaps physical
outrage which, in my view, would also be wrong and unwise. Do I buy
music and support an evil man even though he may be a good composer?
I was once present at a musical competition where the
judges had already decided who was going to win because that competitor
had 'connections'. All the competitors paid an entrance fee and the
audience had to buy ticket for the concerts. A lot of money was spent
on a forgone conclusion. If you had been a competitor and knowing this
prearranged result would you have paid to enter?
As a comparison one may say that 'Joe Bloggs' is a
brilliant footballer. He is very successful. He has scored the most
goals in a season and it is his contribution that has won the title
for his club. Yet he is a dirty player and vicious with it. He has had
more yellow and red cards than any other player in the league. In fact
his manager has often substituted him in games to prevent him getting
another red card.
I am moralising am 1? But is he a good player? How
does he compare with my unnamed composer?
I am also told that controversial articles on music
are more welcome than merely honest ones. People love controversy as
they do gossip. That is how tabloid newspapers are sold.
I do know that some of my articles and reviews have
been deemed controversial and annoyed people. But I know from my days
in the legal profession shallow people do not like to be challenged
with the truth. And another curious fact is that often lies are readily
accepted and truth dismissed. There needs to be integrity in music journalism.
But there I go again. I am moralising.
Copyright David C F Wright 2002