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

Another music-filled year, many hits, a few misses, some new discoveries – musicians, venues, repertoire and people – and a couple of memorable performances of my own, solo and with colleagues…..

January

Pavel Kolesnikov (Wigmore Hall) – What impressed me in Pavel Kolesnikov’s performance was his clarity, control, lightness of touch and musical understanding which revealed the hidden nuances and subtle embroideries in Debussy’s writing. His elegant, sensitive pianism created a concert which was highly engaging and deeply intimate. Review here

The Pink Singers (Cadogan Hall) – a gloriously uplifting evening of fine singing and the premiere of a piece for choir written by a colleague of mine.

Deyan Sudjic (Wigmore Hall) – This was the pianist who asked the Washington Post to remove what he felt was an unfavourable review, and I admit I was curious to hear this pianist after reading about this furore….. Review here

Warren Mailley-Smith (St John’s Smith Square) – A concert in Warren’s series exploring Chopin’s complete piano music.

February

Steven Osborne (St John’s Smith Square) – The first of two wonderful concerts by this exceptional pianist which I enjoyed in 2016. Review here

Piotr Anderszewski (Wigmore Hall) – Always a pleasure to hear this thoughtful and sensitive pianist – and an added pleasure was meeting him briefly after the concert. Review here

Nikolai Demidenko (Cadogan Hall) – Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1. Review here

Mark Swartzentruber (Kings Place) – music by Bach, Ravel and Schubert (D959- one of the may performances of this work which I have been studying)

Divine Fire – The Story of Chopin and Sand told in music and words, performed by Viv McLean (piano) and Susan Porrett (narrator). More about this 7 Star Arts mixed media concert here

Denis Kozhukin (Wigmore Hall) – “sweet sonorities and ravishingly spacious phrases, creating a sense of relaxed ecstasy” Review here

March

Akhenaten (ENO/Coliseum) – an enthralling new production of Philip Glass’s opera. Review here

Leif Ove Andsnes & Friends (Dulwich Picture Gallery) – an engaging and varied concert of music by Nordic composers to coincide with an exhibition of paintings by Nikolai Astrup. Review here

Francoise-Green Duo (St John’s Smith Square) – part of the FG Duo’s Viennese Salon residency, appropriately as I flew to Vienna the day after this concert. Review here

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Vienna Konzerthaus) – I couldn’t go to Vienna and not go to a concert! A romantic and uplifting performance of Beethoven’s 5th Concerto by PLA.

Nazrin Rashidova (violin) & Daniel Grimwood (piano) (St James’s Piccadilly) – lovely mixed programme of music by Mozart and Poulenc, plus Daniel’s Nocturne, which was, for me, redolent of Liszt and Ravel. Beautiful colourful playing by Nazrin, sensitively accompanied by Daniel. I was lucky enough to hear this fine duo again in November in Wimbledon.

Peter Jablonski (Cadogan Square) – Ravel’s glorious G major Piano Concerto and Gershwin’s exuberant hommage to New York, Rhapsody in Blue, performed by a pianist whom I had the pleasure to meet and interview shortly before the concert.

Beethoven Choral Fantasy Op 80 & Brahms German Requiem – a wonderful performance of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy by my friend Elspeth Wyllie, followed by an absorbing German Requiem, at St Luke’s Balham

St John Passion/Bach (SJSS) -Polyphony and the OAE, conducted by Stephen Layton. A stunning and very moving performance of Bach’s greatest Passion, on Good Friday.

April

Andras Schiff, The Final Sonatas (Wigmore Hall) – the penultimate piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven & Schubert. My first encounter with Andras Schiff live in concert. Review here

Iphigénie en Tauride (Drayton Arms Theatre) – startling and immediate “opera in a pub”, by Euphonia Opera Co. Review here

St John Passion/Bach (SJSS) -Polyphony and the OAE, conducted by Stephen Layton. A stunning and very moving performance of Bach’s

Rolf Hind (Wigmore Hall) – unusual and sometimes challenging contemporary music for piano by the pianist with the deepest, most elegant bow in London 🙂

Pierre-Laurent Aimard/Vingt Regards (Milton Court) – my first visit to Milton Court at Guildhall. A remarkable concert in a fine acoustic. Review here

May

The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise with Ian Bostridge (Barbican Theatre) – a wonderfully quirky yet sensitive and highly atmospheric reworking of Schubert’s late great song cycle. Review here

Concert for North-West Music Trust (Altrincham) – me at the piano in this instance, playing music by Mendelssohn, Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Schubert (D959). My first “proper” concert of my fellowship diploma programme to a very friendly audience and lovely welcoming hosts.

BBC Young Musician Final – an inspiring and uplifting final to the 2016 BBC Young Musician Competition. Review here

Richard Goode – Schubert’s Last Three Sonatas (Royal Festival Hall) – a perfect evening of beautiful piano playing. The finest reading of the D959 for me….. More here

Steven Osborne/The Music of Silence (Milton Court) – back to Milton Court for music by George Crumb and Morton Feldman. Review here

June

The Threepenny Opera (National Theatre) – a delightfully dirty, louche, foul-mouthed and witty production with fine performances by Roy Kinnear and Haydn Gwynne

Piano 4-hands at Conchord Festival (St Mary’s Twickenham) – a new local music festival in Twickenham. Review here

July

Daniel Grimwood/Markson Pianos Series – Sonatas by Schubert, including the great G major, D894, performed on a magnificent Bosendorfer piano by a pianist who really understands this repertoire

August

Louis Lortie/Chamber Prom (Cadogan Hall) – my first live encounter with this pianist whose programme spoke of Italian holidays and sunshine. Review here

Scenes from the End (Camden Peoples Theatre) – one-woman opera with Heloise Werner. Review here

The Makropoulos Case/Proms

September

Proms in the Car Park – a very unusual concert experience: music by Steve Reich performed in a disused multi-storey carpark in Peckham. Review here

Music Marathon (St John’s SMith Square) – I was delighted to have the chance to perform at SJSS, albeit for 15 minutes (!) as part of the music marathon for London Open House weekend. Great to hear and meet other pianists and I made new friends too!

Nick van Bloss (Wigmore Hall) – intense and athletic Beethoven, and lovely to meet Nick in person afterwards

Igor Levit/Beethoven (Wigmore Hall) – the launch of Levit’s Beethoven sonatas cycle. Review here

October

Steven Isserlis & Olli Mustonen (Wigmore Hall) – a chance to catch up with a friend who used to be my most regular concert companion (now resident in Spain).

Liszt’s B minor Sonata – lecture & concert (Kings Place). An insightful and revealing talk by Alfred Brendel followed by a performance of a sonata which I have never liked! Review here

Two-Piano Extravaganza (Kings Place) – Part of the inaugural London Piano Festival, this concert was a feast of high-class pianism. Review here

Don Giovanni (ENO/Coliseum) – a splendidly raunchy production, made even better by our Secret Seats in the front row of the Dress Circle, plus interval champagne!

Quartet for the End of Time (SJSS) – a privilege to turn the pages for my friend the pianist Daniel Grimwood, and to enjoy the pianist’s perspective of this extraordinary work. Profound and moving.

Dina Duisen and Friends (1901 Arts Club) – music for piano and clarinet at my favourite small venue

The Prince Concert with Stephen Hough (Wigmore Hall) – atmospheric and varied songs by Stephen Hough, including the premiere of his ‘Dappled Things’. Review here

November

Steve Reich (Barbican Hall) – Electric Counterpoint amongst other minimalist wonders

Lulu (ENO) – a visually stunning new production by William Kentridge

Winterreise in English (Wigmore Hall) – revelatory performance by Roderick Williams and Christopher Glynn, the English translation bringing a startling immediacy to the narrative of Schubert’s song cycle.

December

Concert for SPIN/Specialists in Pain International (St John’s Waterloo) – I performed in a fundraising concert with a pianist colleague and soprano Anna Cavaliero. A really wonderful evening of shared music making (www.spiners.org)

Melvyn Tan at Spitalfields Music (St Leonard’s Spitalfields) – fine pianism and three premieres. Review here

Helen Burford (St Nicholas, Brighton) – a typically eclectic and imaginative concert of “global exotica” including a Tarantella for Toy Piano by Stephen Montague. Atmospheric,  quirky and elegantly presented

Russian Winter Weekend Concert (Dorich House, Kingston) – Russian music arranged for flute and harp with Alena Lugobvkina (flute) and Anne Denholm (harp) and a chance to explore the Art Deco home of artist Dora Gordine. A delightful evening

In addition, I have also enjoyed….

Discovering the organ at St John’s Smith Square (more here)

Some fine concerts at my local music society by performers including Ben Socrates, Joseph Tong, Peter Murdock Saint and Jennifer Heslop, Jelena Makarova, amongst many others

The Magic Flute (directed by Simon Burney) at ENO. Magical, quirky and beguiling.

Fine performances at London Piano Meetup Group events by people who are not professional musicians but for whom the piano is a passion, an obsession and more….

Brave (and occasionally tearful!) performances by adult amateur pianists at my workshop at the 1901 Arts Club on 3 December

Accompanying one of my students who played Massenet’s ‘Meditation’ from Thaïs in a special retirement mass for her headmistress, and accompanying a friend at her Grade 5 French Horn exam (which she passed with distinction!).

Making new friends via social media who are proving enjoyable and stimulating concert companions.

The launch of the Music into Words project which explores writing about classical music today – next event is on 12 February 2017 with a great line-up of speakers (book tickets)

And I am very much lo0king forward to 2017 when I will hear

Martha Argerich (for the first time)

Daniil Trifonov

Anna Tsybuleva (winner of the Leeds Piano Competition)

Boris Berezovsky

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

And no doubt much more besides…..