Writing about classical music, then and now

Part of a recent BBC Radio 3 Music Matters discussion on writing about classical music, for which I was a contributor, focused on the work of Ernest Newman, a music critic and writer on classical music from an earlier age. I admit I had not heard of Ernest Newman before I received a copy of the new critical biography which I read in preparation for the programme, and the book revealed a number of interesting parallels in writing about music in Newman’s time (the first half of the twentieth century) and today. With the seemingly all-pervasive influence and impact of the internet, one might think that Newman’s approach would have no relevance to writers on classical music today, so it was surprising, and also rather reassuring, to find some common themes.

53b14af573aa8_ernest_newmanErnest Newman, described by Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians as “the most celebrated British music critic in the first half of the 20th century“, left an indelible mark on musical criticism in a career spanning more than 70 years. His four-volume Life of Richard Wagner is regarded as his crowning achievement, but he also wrote many other influential books and wide-ranging essays and of course concert reviews, and was a noted broadcaster. He also had strong views on how classical music and opera should be presented to audiences, and was a keen advocate of music making outside the metropolis, finding ways to bring classical music to a wider audience, music education and broadening the repertoire and ethos of festivals such as the Proms.

At the end of the nineteenth century writers such as Matthew Arnold and Anthony Trollope advocated an approach to literary criticism which was more detached and “sincere, simple, flexible, ardent, ever-widening in its knowledge” (Arnold, ‘The function of criticism at the present time’), and which should not be a platform for promoting personal agendas. Ernest Newman favoured a similar approach in music criticism, one which was founded on intellectual objectivity in contrast to the more subjective approach of other critics, such as Neville Cardus, and which might rescue the profession from accusations of bias, favouritism, anti-intellectualism and poorly-crafted writing.

…truly, there is much to be done in musical criticism; and the main necessity at present seems to be to clear away the obscurities from the subject, and to get critics to see the difficulties that lie in the very nature of criticism in general, and of musical criticism in particular

(Newman, ‘The Difficulties of Musical Criticism’, NQMR, November 1894)

Rather than inform the public for the “thousandth time that Paderewski played or Albani sang this, that or other concert in London“, Newman urged music critics to aspire to more ‘poetical criticism’, to avoid clichés and subjectivity, and to “lift the discussion of the art to a higher plane“. He suggested that music critics should write with intellectual rigour, erudition, clarity, intelligence and detachment. He felt a good music critic should be intimate with the music in order to write about it intelligently and objectively, such experience drawn from repeated listenings and/or detailed knowledge of the score. Newman also disliked personal bias, dilettanteism and impressionistic writing or overly “purple prose” in music criticism, regarding this as the realm of the hack journalist or ill-informed writer who uses extravagant word-smithing or “overwriting” to mask a lack of genuine knowledge. He urged writers to be transparent, and not to hide behind anonymity or a nom de plume to disparage performers or make personal attacks on them, nor should they patronise nor talk down to audiences. In short, he demanded that music critics write well.

Throughout his long career, Newman was, whether he liked it or not, part of a clique of  noted writers, critics and professional journalists whose opinions and reviews were respected by readers, concert promoters and even some musicians, and who were regarded by many as the ultimate arbiters of quality or good taste. Until fairly recently, reviews and articles by journalists and “professional” critics in broadsheet newspapers and specialist music magazines were still regarded as the last word in “proper” criticism. What these people reviewed represented what was valued in culture, and professional critics were regarded as the curators of culture and champions of talent. This attitude still prevails today, to some extent and despite the influence of the internet and the rise of the online reviewer/blogger, with some musicians, festivals and arts organisations setting great store by a five-star review in a leading broadsheet newspaper such as The Guardian or The Times over and above a longer, favourable and possibly more detailed write up on a blog or online reviews site.

Changing times for print media

In the age of the internet, where we find ourselves today, the music itself has not changed, but the technologies through which we discuss, transmit and share it have changed immeasurably.

For newspapers, the need to justify their existence to those who finance them has become a major preoccupation in the internet age, when free-to-access articles and content has become the norm. As newspaper sales decline, so print media must chase more and more “clicks” via their websites – click-throughs to articles and of course (and importantly) to advertising.  To make space for content which the editors and content managers believe their readers demand, arts coverage in newspapers has been squeezed to such an extent that only the “premier division” of concerts and artists merit attention in the mainstream media.

In the 1960s, when I was born, mainstream print publications took the arts seriously, covering and promoting exceptional contemporary talents across all styles of music. Thus did Thelonious Monk wind up on the cover of TIME magazine, for example. When I began covering music for a chain newspaper around 2000, stories were prioritized by the prior name recognition of the subject. Art/discovery stories were subordinate to celebrity news at a systemic level. Industry metrics (chart position and concert ticket sales) became a staple of music “news.” In the age of measured clicks the always-on focus grouping has institutionalized the echo chamber of pop music, stultifying and discouraging meaningful engagement with art music. 

– Craig Havighurst, The Devaluation of Music

Despite this, many readers, musicians, arts organisations, and venues still seem to regard newspaper reviews as more important/informed/accurate than a review on a blog or an online reviews site. A recent exchange on Twitter between a blogging friend of mine and a mainstream music journalist reminded me rather uncomfortably of this view, in this instance perpetuated by the journalist in question, who stated that “Quoting a blogger would……look a little desperate“, and thus inferring that because one is writing for a reputable magazine one’s opinion is somehow “better” or more valuable. It was a shame, but no surprise, to encounter such entrenched views when, fundamentally, we all exist in the same ecosystem of writing about music. I think this rather defensive attitude comes in part from the anxiety shared by many print journalists that their publications and jobs are in decline. A friend of mine, who used to work for a leading glossy magazine, said to me once “People like you [bloggers] are destroying our industry!“, and recent activity would seem to support this view: in January 2018 The Guardian moves to a smaller tabloid format, to save money, while the Birmingham Post, a respected regional newspaper where Ernest Newman cut his teeth as a music writer, has scrapped its classical music budget. Selected events will continue to be reviewed for the paper, but the reviewers will not be paid.

Bloggers and the “democritisation” of music criticism

Into this vacuum stepped independent bloggers and online review sites, and so a greater fluidity and democritisation in writing about high art and culture has developed. On one hand, this is a good thing: readers and potential concert-goers/listeners now have a far greater choice of reading matter and points of view to explore, and writers on classical music are impelled to consider what readers want from these different types of writing. Bloggers can be well-informed and articulate writers, and freed from the constraints of a 500-word (or less) newspaper review and/or a focus on premier league concerts and artists, bloggers can offer long-form or more personal writing and reviews of more diverse/non-mainstream music making, shifting the focus from the capital and the big metropolitan/prestigious concert halls to regional festivals and opera, music societies, young artist platforms, and even semi-professional and amateur music making. For this reason, bloggers have a significant place in writing about music today – they can help to keep culture in the forefront of the collective imagination, and as such their writing/contribution should not be disregarded. (I should add here that some bloggers are also professional (i.e. paid) writers/journalists – the most notably example being Alex Ross – who use the platform of a blog to provide extra or different content and offer “added value” for their readers.)

Such variety comes at a price, sadly, and alongside excellent, high-quality, intelligent, well-researched, and carefully edited writing, there also exists writing of questionable quality or value, by bloggers and professional writers – the kind of ill-judged, unintelligible, ill-informed, self-indulgent or sycophantic purple prose which would probably appall Ernest Newman.

The best of times, the worst of times

The difficulty is, as I see it and based on my experiences as a blogger (first on food and latterly on classical music) and a concert reviewer, is that many of us who blog have to learn and hone our craft in public through each post we publish. Of course professional writers do this too, to some extent, but they do so knowing that their writing is subject to copy-editing and the “house-style” (and ethos) of the publication for whom they write. Editors (apparently) ensure impartiality and objectivity in the reviews they commission, but as Chris Tookey says in his interesting book ‘Better Criticism’, newspaper critics should also “be wary not to be used by their editors as character assassins“, and should not seek to tell the artist how to do his or her job, or think they are somehow “better” than the artists they are reviewing (a rather nasty piece in The Spectator, a review of one of pianist Maurizio Pollini’s recent London concerts, comes to mind here).

Many bloggers are “untrained”, at least in the eyes of the professional journalist who may have had an apprenticeship with a newspaper or magazine; equally many of us who write blogs do have the requisite credentials (I’ve worked in academic publishing; another blogging colleague of mine is a professor of music at a leading London university and a published author, and I know a number of bloggers who are also professional musicians or music journalists/writers). But to maintain quality in one’s writing, the serious independent blogger, liberated from the constraints of a publisher’s “house style” and the sharp eye and red pen of a copy-editor, must be an assiduous self-editor and proof-reader, and be prepared do the necessary research to ensure accuracy and objectivity in what one writes.

Another criticism levelled at bloggers is that we are simply biased “cheerleaders” or fanboys/girls for certain artists, ensembles and composers, and as a consequence we lack objectivity or insight in our writing. This is true up to a point – a blogging friend of mine, who is a keen and very regular concert/opera-goer, writes by his own admission from the point of view of the “punter”, the audience member, and tends to write up concerts for which he has chosen to purchase tickets and enjoyed. But as someone who also writes for a living, his blog articles are intelligent, fair and well-argued – i.e. he can explain why he likes/dislikes a concert or opera performance. But why shouldn’t we celebrate the artists we like and admire? I think this accusation also misses the point of why many of us choose to blog – to share our passion for classical music. And an ability to write in a way which is both well-informed and accessible to fellow concert-goers is very appealing for some readers. I have also come across cheerleading articles in the mainstream press, celebrating whichever artist, orchestra or conductor is “flavour of the month”. (For the record, to preserve my own impartiality and objectivity, I do not review concerts/CDs by friends (except in very exceptional circumstances) and I don’t take payment for my reviews.)

Write – and write well

Considering some of the values espoused by Ernest Newman, I feel the role of critics and reviewers, whether professional writers, “citizen journalists” or bloggers is, first and foremost, to record the event, offering an objective overview of what happened in the concert. Since concert reviews nearly always report on a one-off event that happened in the past, the purpose of a review is to place the concert in some kind of context (a composer anniversary, for example). Additionally, reviews should record and explain the reviewer’s opinion (simply writing “I liked it” is not sufficient!), but this should not be at the expense of ad hominem comments on the performers. Reviews serve another important purpose too: whatever the source of the writing, good constructive criticism can encourage and publicise new talent or rediscover old talent. Above all, I believe we should all be on the same side, that of the music, and we should always endeavour to write well.

Like Newman in his time, I believe we need intelligent, well-informed and well-written music criticism – in the blogosphere and in the mainstream media. Such writing prevents mediocrity and dumbing down, and gives people like me a benchmark against which to measure my own writing, and, I hope, encourages variety, authenticity and objectivity while also retaining my personal, independent voice, on this site and in my writing for other organisations.

Good critics and their readers are exactly the opposite of the passive consumers that many in positions of power and influence would like us to become.

– Chris Tookey (Let’s hear it for good, honest critics)

Writers on classical music, wherever their writing is published and read, are ambassadors to potential new audience members and listeners, and anyone who writes about classical music, from a tweet to a long-form article, is part of a much bigger conversation about the artform – as such their view and input matters.

The internet has made this bigger conversation possible and more accessible like never before.


Further reading

Some examples of suspect ‘purple prose’ – here and here

Criticism needs to change, it’s not fit for purpose in the 21st century – article in The Stage (no paywall, but requires log in to read)

Critics are important – even in the blogosphere

The Devaluation of Music

Time for papers to review the dying art of the critic

Can a concert review be an act of love?

Some music blogs I regularly read and recommend

Thoroughly Good

Boulezian

Corymbus

Susan Tomes

Specs