LSM-ONLINE-LOGO2JPG.jpg (4855 bytes)

Back Issues
LSM Issues
LSV Issues
Throat Doctor
Concert Reviews
CD Critics
Books Reviews
PDF Files

About LSM
LSM News
Guest Book
Contact Us
Site Search
Web Search
The Lebrecht Weekly


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

What Makes a great critic

By Norman Lebrecht / October 2, 2003

Arts criticism is not the quintessence of art. It is a tertiary adjunct, neither creating nor performing what has been created but standing one pace ahead of the crowd to chuck bouquets or ordure at the passing cavalcade.

Bad critics, and there is no shortage of them, strut the interval lobbies in a thicket of acolytes. Good ones, downcast by the magnitude of art, drink alone at the far end of the bar. Great critics eschew sycophants and stimulants. They stand apart, right or wrong, revalidating the art of their time.

Two of the finest critics ever to grace the arts died in July. Alexander Walker was film critic of the Evening Standard for 44 years, the most trusted of first-sighters and beyond comparison the most stylish. Three generations of readers were guided down dim-lit aisles by the pencil-beam of Walker’s perception. When he started reviewing, film was politely deprecated as an entertainment, not a proper art form. When he died, aged 73, it was universally acknowledged as the premier art of modern times. That validation arose, in no small part, from Alexander Walker’s evangelical ardour, his caustic and compelling conviction.

Harold Schonberg, who died in New York, aged 87, was music critic ofthe New York Times from 1960 to 1980 and thereafter its cultural essayist. He came into the post with his art-form in its prime. Leonard Bernstein was packing Carnegie Hall with eager-faced kids, Stravinsky had embraced atonality and new waves of reconstructionist composers were breaking all known conventions. By the time Harold retired, his art had been redesignated ‘classical’ and forsaken by the mainstream.

No reflection, this, on Schonberg’s critical achievement. I remember him warning, years ahead of the trend, that American concert life would atrophy if it did not wake up and engage with its times. Sainte-Beuve, the paramount French literary critic of the first half of the 19th century, once said that a critic ‘is a man whose watch is five minutes ahead of other people’ s’. Harold's was sometimes five years ahead, sometimes light-years behind. Throughout Bernstein’s golden era, Schonberg attacked his Philharmonic programming and lampooned Glenn Gould's piano playing. He was never more readable than when utterly wrong. His verdicts became, in time, immaterial: Lenny entered history and Harold became fish-wrapping. But the sparks struck by his flinty reviews fire the glow that endures as Bernstein’s halo.

Alexander Walker, too, was a chronicler of decline. In 1974 he wrote a book called Hollywood England, an upbeat account of Britain's burgeoning film industry. At the time of his death he was two-thirds of the way through a history of its demise. Nothing roused Alex’s dander more than the deadhead arts and film councils which presided over the diminution of a once-verite art covering all aspects of British life to a thin stream of stripping frenzies - The Full Monty and Calendar Girls (both of which he adored). Among Walker's 20 books, this last one would have been his angriest. Schonberg wrote best selling dynastic histories of great pianists andconductors. He refused dinner engagements at which musical personalities might be present, the better to nourish his detachment.

I was fond of both men and at times, over a well-chosen menu, would find myself wondering what had formed them – what, specifically, makes one critic the conscience of his art. The fundamental job spec hardly needs restating: clarity of expression, an infallible memory (Alex could reel off plots and casts of thousands of movies), lightly-worn technical expertise, social graces and a pair of open eyes and ears, ever-ready to be astonished.

Beyond these skills, serious practitioners bring something extra to the art. No great critic was ever a monomaniac. Neville Cardus wrote about cricket by day, music by night. David Sylvester, the contemporary art guru, maintained a keen interest in moral philosophy. Clive Barnes, the once-feared Butcher of Broadway, was as well versed in dance as he was in drama. Harold Schonberg started out chasing police waggons as a crime reporter. He played chess to championship level and wrote scintillating despatches from the 1972 Fischer-Spassky showdown at Rejkyavik.

Alexander Walker was among the first cadre of civil servants to be sent to Strasbourg in 1949 to form an experimental European administration. He thought better of it, and bunked off to the nearest cinema. But films were not his sole fixation. Anyone who visited his flat woud have been dazzled by the art he had bought, piece by piece over his life, amounting to a representative collection of late 20th century British work. It included an early Freud, Bacon, Hockney, Bridget Riley and other artists less serenaded but no less significant.

Alex took it for granted that a film critic must know more than sprockets and stars if he is to give a rounded aesthetic interpretation of the next120 Californian minutes of overwrought violence and emotion. ‘What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?’ challenged the Caribbean Marxist commentator C L R James. Expert knowledge of a disconnected field, no matter how esoteric, gives a critic a healthy quarantine from the fevers of artistic over-engagement, as well as a truer sense of his or her own modest worth. 'Criticism is prejudice made plausible,' said H L Mencken, who wrote volumes of it. Humility is found in all great critics, along with a lovable humanity.

Bad critics go to a show eager to fawn or find fault. Good critics rush to judgement before the curtain falls. Great critics take their seats, whether in a Soho studio on a Monday morning or at the Metropolitan Opera on gala night – prepared to fall in love. They may despise the producers and question the credentials of every cast member but when the lights go down their breathing quickens like a child's on its birthday. Their verdict may amount to defamation and damnation in a brutal phrase that will resound for a generation. But the loathing they vent is the effluence of love, of an all consuming love that has been rudely dashed but will quicken again tomorrow, regardless of today’s despair. The echo of that love is the legacy of a great critic, the epitaph of a Walker and a Schonberg. Theirs was an unconquerable optimism, a faith without doubt that art can redeem the miseries of mankind.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001