Confessions of a Music Critic
By Christopher Morley
148 pages, including index.
With colour and black & white illustrations
First published 2021
Retail price £11.95
When I was growing up in Yorkshire in the 1960s and 1970s, critics employed by regional and local papers regularly reviewed concerts, both amateur and professional. Ernest Bradbury reigned at the Yorkshire Post while, at the local level, correspondents such as Malcom Cruise provided almost daily reviews in the Huddersfield Examiner. These men, and countless other journalists throughout the UK, provided an invaluable service. They gave their readers informed commentary and appraisal of professional concerts. For amateur performances they were, if anything, more valuable still, raising public awareness of the activities of local orchestras and choral societies, not in an uncritical way but in a balanced and sympathetic fashion. For some five decades Christopher Morley has been the leading commentator on musical life in Birmingham and the West Midlands, writing principally for the Birmingham Post, the region’s leading daily newspaper. In this book he looks back at his career and at many of the musical personalities whose paths he crossed.
Christopher Morley came to Birmingham as a music undergraduate and thus began a life-long association with the musical life of the city and its surrounding region. Graduating in 1969, he began his working life as a teacher of music in secondary schools. His move into journalism was unplanned: the music critic of the Birmingham Post, Kenneth Dommett, was looking for an assistant and appointed him on the recommendation of the composer John Joubert, who had been Morley’s final-year university tutor. His career at the paper was not seamless: when Dommett was eased out as part of an internal reorganisation, Christopher Morley resigned in protest (it’s not made clear exactly when this happened). However, in April 1988 he re-joined the paper when he was appointed as the Chief Music Critic of the Birmingham Post. The way in which he was taken on by the Birmingham Post – both times - seems very informal from the vantage point of 2021. Nowadays, there’d no doubt be a lengthy recruitment process and, in any case, it’s hard to imagine a regional British newspaper taking on a music critic. But informal though the process may have been, it worked: Morley clearly found his niche
His position with the Birmingham Post and his longevity in the role gave him a ringside seat from which to observe the Birmingham region’s vibrant musical life over the ensuing years. Inevitably, and understandably, there’s quite a lot of focus on the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, including short sections on the four conductors – Simon Rattle, Sakari Oramo, Andris Nelsons and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla – who have been the orchestra’s Music Directors since 1988. Morley also discusses Symphony Hall, the city’s marvellous concert hall, opened in 1991. There are also lively reminiscences of some of his overseas trips to cover concert tours not just by the CBSO but also by the CBSO Chorus, the Birmingham Bach Choir and the Birmingham Festival Choral Society. His recollections of these overseas trips, and many solo forays to foreign countries, including Germany, Norway and Italy, to report on indigenous music activities are entertaining. That said, there were occasions when I wished he’d said more about the musical side of the trips in question, though he gives a good picture of the social aspects of those visits. He has a section where he recalls a 2017 trip to Japan to appraise some of the country’s orchestras and here I think he strikes a very successful balance between the musical and non-musical aspects of his visit.
The book includes a short chapter, ‘How and Why’, in which he discusses how he goes about his work – the note-taking during concerts and so on - and what I might call the logistical side of his reviewing work. It was instructive to learn that in the days when newspapers operated the traditional typesetting system he often had to leave a concert before the end in order to telephone through his review in time to meet a 10pm deadline. Of course, all that’s now a thing of the past because everything is done online. It was sobering to read that he hasn’t set foot in the premises of the Birmingham Post for some 15 years. As he says, that side of progress is sad and dehumanising.
Christopher Morley relates other career interests which he has pursued besides his work as a critic. These include writing programme notes and notes for CDs. An important part of his professional life has been his long teaching association with Royal Birmingham Conservatoire where, among other things, he instigated a Criticism and Journalism class. One non-musical activity that caught my eye was the work he did for a time as an Italian interpreter for the police and the courts service. (Morley’s mother was Italian and he is bi-lingual.)
So, there’s plenty of lively detail about Christopher Morley’s career, which must have been a fascinating one. However, as I read the book, I had an increasing impression of disappointment about what is not in its pages. I was surprised, for instance, that there’s no discussion of the music of the Birmingham-based composer John Joubert, even though I know that Morley is a great enthusiast for his former teacher’s music. Ex Cathedra has built a strong reputation in Birmingham and beyond, not just as an expert choir but also for its important musical education and outreach activities, yet it only gets a passing mention. And while the CBSO and CBSO Chorus rightly receive their due, it’s a pity that there’s no reference to the important activities of the CBSO Youth Orchestra and the CBSO Chorus’s junior ensembles in developing young musicians.
I would have liked to read more about Christopher Morley’s view of the profession of music critic. To be sure, there are many brief comments along the way, but his view of the profession – and of its future – would have been worthy of a separate chapter, I think. National and regional newspapers have reduced significantly their coverage of music, and the arts in general, in recent years and much music criticism has now moved online, a trend about which Christopher Morley makes clear his reservations. It would have been good to read some of his thoughts as to the present state of the profession in general and its possible future: I’m sure they would have been firmly expressed.
The profits from sales of Confessions of a Music Critic are to be donated to the Gwyn Williams Bursary Fund. This fund, established in memory of a former viola player with the CBSO, gives financial assistance to young string players as they build their futures.
This is an entertaining book, written in a light and informal style, but I came away from it feeling that it’s something of a missed opportunity.