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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Not All Is Lost - the Decline of Serious Music Criticism

by Norman Lebrecht / June 28, 2000

THE world is going to the dogs was the theme of the Prince of Hesse Memorial Lecture delivered at Aldeburgh last week by the veteran music critic Andrew Porter. "Serious, scholarly music criticism," sighed Porter, has "disappeared" from our daily press. Most concerts pass unreviewed; few debut recitals are ever reported.

Critical authority has been usurped by powerful "arts editors", usually women and often, in Porter's view, acting "in connivance with publicity ladies" to subvert cultural priorities. "The celebrity interview," said Porter, "ousts the serious review." Even the headline has turned glib and self-mocking.

These strictures should not be taken lightly. Porter introduced music criticism in 1953 to the Financial Times, where he wrote for 20 years, before transplanting his richly informed reviews to the New Yorker, and then returning briefly to the Observer. Among current practitioners he is acknowledged either as doyen or dodo, depending on the day's acidity levels, but his opinions are always sound and his proclamation of the death of music criticism is not far from the truth.

Look at any arts page, here or in America, and you will find fewer concert reviews than a decade ago and infinitely fewer than the days, within Porter's memory, when a national newspaper would employ five music critics full-time to cover every cellist and contralto who drew bow or breath in a metropolitan hall.

Some of the space formerly expended on reviews is now filled by artists giving their views. The writ of arts editors has greatly increased; so, too, has the prevalence of big-haired PR ladies who ruthlessly lunch. Porter is well versed in their ways: his twin sister, Sheila, once a Covent Garden press officer, has been a leading independent publicist for 30 years.

That "serious, scholarly" music criticism has been pushed into a corner or a coffin is undeniable. But whether that represents an irreparable loss to humanity is a matter that a golden-age critic like Porter cannot judge impartially. Let me, therefore, adjust the picture gently and suggest that all, perhaps, is not lost.

Fewer people go to concerts nowadays than 50 years ago, which means that fewer people want to read about them at "serious, scholarly" length. A newspaper is a mass medium. Minority interests find outlets elsewhere, either in special-interest journals, which flourish as never before, or on the internet, where some of the liveliest music criticism - often amateur, but not unscholarly - is now to be found.

Despite the decline in attendance, interest in music has not waned. People who never go to concerts or opera still want to know what is going on and why, to be kept abreast of trends and intrigued by personalities. Mention "Bayreuth", "Bartoli" or "Mahler" and most people will venture an inflamed opinion.

Music journalism has mutated to meet more varied needs. Its modern forms include the star profile, the informed polemic, the amuse-gueule eve-of-premiere piece. This column, among other concerns, cuts the edge of dawning issues and investigates the inner workings of a secretive and defensive music industry.

There remains room on the page for traditional music criticism, and some of it (in this paper at least) is as penetrative as ever. But it takes a strong-minded arts editor to achieve the right balance and prevent live reviews being, sometimes unfairly, pushed to the margins.

The pure music criticism that Porter espouses was, in any event, never ethereal. Critics are not born but groomed. They owe their careers to the doyens who chose them and they perpetuate the caste with protégés of their own. Self-selection produces a certain detachment, but it also breeds a cliquey unreality and a dangerous commonality of opinion, which one sometimes hears being shared over interval drinks.

Porter's pack adulated Benjamin Britten to the point where criticism was superfluous, forming not so much a clique as a claque at each Britten premiere. Their attitude set a precedent for the reception of future British composers, several of whom had the spark crushed out of them by premature overpraise.

Nor was critical behaviour always pristine. In my forthcoming book on Covent Garden, I expose another critic who received under-the-table payments from the opera house. Porter himself chides a colleague who reviewed a book by his wife and extolled it as a "must for opera addicts". It is upon such conduct that Porter's requiem loses its dolour, and leads one to rejoice at the passing of the priestly caste, and its replacement by a tougher kind of love.


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




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