Musicians and critics

Way back in the late 1970s when I began my career as a professional music critic I learnt that musicians respond to press criticism in one of three ways. The vast majority let it pass, accepting it for what it is – the valid comments of an informed listener – whether or not they agree with the critic’s opinions. But others feel obliged to respond largely, I suspect, through a sense of insecurity.

These musicians fall into two groups. The first, responding when you say nice things about them, with a gushing letter describing you as “informed” and declaring their undying respect for you and your “perceptive comments”. The second, responding when they perceive (sometimes wrongly) that you didn’t like their performance, with a stream of vitriol describing you as “uninformed” and declaring that they dismiss your “ignorant comments” as the ramblings of one who has no idea what they’re talking about. Of these two groups, I think in my case that the former is rarely accurate while I am almost proud to be associated with the latter. What’s the point of a critic who knows so much about something that he regards himself as superior to the performer; the type of critic who writes (as I have actually seen in print) “when I play this work I would always start the crescendo at least a bar later”? As I have always told my musical criticism students (and, by the way, I run a pretty good course on musical criticism so if any music conservatoires are reading this, I’m available for hire!!), the job of the critic, especially at a live concert, is to be the mouthpiece of the audience; to give an informed opinion but not to get up on to a pedestal and talk down to anyone who listens. The musicians want to know how their performance came across, while the audience likes to have a valid opinion on which to hang their own less confidently voiced ideas. Once you start lecturing, showing off a depth of knowledge far beyond that which is the norm in any concert/recital audience, you have stepped outside the realms of criticism and entered the realms of frustrated performer. Surely there’s no validity in that.

In my time I’ve had some really wonderful encounters with enraged musicians who fall unquestionably into that latter group. There was the Swedish organist who, having churned out no less than eight CDs in the space of a year, objected when I wrote a review on the ninth which included the comment; “xxx xxx must be pretty tired of so much exposure to the microphones by now, and I have to confess there is a touch of the routine about his unenlightening trudge through the [Bach] Prelude”. (At that point, he blew a fuse and fired off a missive, apparently unaware that the very next sentence of my review read; “However, by the Fugue, his enthusiasm is restored and we have an account as bright and breezy as if he is fresh back from a holiday far removed from either organ or recording apparatus”.) Within days of the review appearing I received this from him; “My playing of Bach can never be described as ‘routine’. I devote many hours into preparing every bar for my recordings. Your cruel review made me want to commit suicide”. It’s wrong for a critic to respond – we usually get the last word so we shouldn’t deny it to others once in a while – but I couldn’t resist a reply on this occasion, sending him a postcard with the message; “I’m delighted my review almost had one positive result”. The trouble was, he gave up playing for six years and I had a few sleepless nights until he re-surfaced.

Then there was the famous English composer, best known for his sickly choral arrangements of Christmas Carols, who objected to a review I had penned for The Musical Times (Ah! there’s a magazine that used to be worth reading). I expressed the view that they all looked the same to me, describing them as “formulaic” and adding; “once you have heard one oh-so-sweet flute descant, you have heard them all” and “one can quickly grow tired of endless successions of butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-your-mouth added sixth harmonies”. The composer sent a vast letter to Stanley Sadie, the then editor of the magazine, who forwarded it to me with suitable editorial underlinings and comments to let me know whose side he was one. It began; “Dear Dr Sadie. I wish to tell you how much I respect your work as editor of The Musical Times. Under your guardianship, this noble publication has risen to great heights of academic and musical scholarship, and is respected throughout the English-speaking world for the breadth and depth of its insight and observation. So I am at a loss as to why you should employ such lightweight and ill-informed ‘critics’ as Marc Rochester, whose name is totally unfamiliar to me. Who is this Marc Rochester? I’ve never heard of him and I suspect nobody else has. He knows nothing and parades his ignorance in esteemed company with which he has no right to associate. His sole purpose in his appallingly written review of the “xxxxxxxxxx” was to denigrate me. I have no interest in his opinions. They are worthless. Like Jeffrey Archer and Andrew Lloyd Webber, I have become used to the carping and destructive criticism of those who envy our popular success. I am surprised that you have allowed your magazine to jump on to the bandwagon usually the preserve of tabloid newspapers”. Stanley found the bit about Archer and Lloyd Webber particularly amusing, adding a comment over the name on the embossed notepaper from the composer, “Who is HE?”.

Best of all was the physical response to my criticism from an eminent Cambridge College organist of the 1970s and 80s. While George Guest was Director of Music at St Johns’ College Cambridge, he created a choir of considerable acclaim and they produced some ground-breaking records for the Decca label and its subsidiaries – most of which still exist on CD transfers, so that shows how good they were. I’ve written admiringly about many of his recordings. But I always found it vaguely daft that he felt the need to turn, in his later years, into a quasi Welsh nationalist. He was Welsh by birth, lived nearly all his life in England, and for most of his life passed himself off as an English gentleman . As retirement loomed, he suddenly became aware of his Welsh roots and started to parade them with increasing blatancy. He studied Welsh and eventually got an O level in the language. On the strength of that, he asked to be an adjudicator at the National Eisteddfod held, that year, in Caernarfon. It was, to me, a ridiculous spectacle; an eminent Cambridge musician, a pillar of English choral music, standing in a draughty marquee, commenting in schoolboy Welsh on the antics of various Cor Meibion and Penillion groups made up of farmers and farmers’ wives, with a gravitas not helped by the fact that it was so muddy he was obliged to wear green wellies and a plastic mac. I was in charge of the event’s press coverage for one of the Welsh national newspapers that year, and wrote a very long piece about how the Welsh only rule on the Eisteddfod field was being stretched beyond credibility by “ersatz Welshmen with an O level pass in Cymraeg as their solo qualification for pontificating on activities which, in other circumstances, they wouldn’t touch with a bargepole”. Funnily enough, George took this personally, and he never forgave me. It may have been fuelled by the fact that he had been largely responsible for appointing me to my the sub-organist’s post at Bangor Cathedral and that I had resigned from the Royal College of Organists on a point of ethics immediately after he had been appointed its President – and that was a genuine coincidence. Matters came to a head after Evensong in Southwell Minster one sunny Thursday several years later. Attending as a delegate to the Incorporated Association of Organists conference held in nearby Nottingham, I was not surprised to see George Guest there and, afterwards I went up to him to say hallo, myself having long forgotten the dispute. He hadn’t! He grabbed my tie and threw punches in my general direction. I responded, and the congregation of elderly organists, even more elderly ladies (who inhabit all Anglican choral evensongs) and incredibly ancient clerics, hobbling out of the Minster, were greeted to the unedifying spectacle of two portly gentlemen laying into each other. Frank Fowler, a kindly and talented organ builder, managed to separate us and while George was led off by his embarrassed wife, I was hustled into a nearby pub. I wrote to apologise to George, but he never replied and died not long afterwards.

Has my policy of always voicing my true opinions been a mistake? Might it not have been better to ingratiate myself with those on whose talents critics feed and, irrespective of my true feelings, always said nice things? Should I not have cultivated friendships with musicians rather than risked alienating them? No. If I did that I’d have made an enemy of the person whose opinion I value most highly; myself! And if a critic doesn’t tell the truth, there’s absolutely no point in him writing anything. I’ve made mistakes (a classic being my assessment of Arvo Pärt as someone “having a joke at our expense”) and often changed my mind after committing things to print, but all my criticisms have always been and always will be, genuine and fair assessments made on the basis of what the performer has presented there and then, and informed – but not governed – by my own experience and knowledge. Once a critic starts to look over his shoulder, either to cement or create a friendship with a musician or to impress his readership, the value of criticism is negated. Our job is to say what we think and then face the consequences, be they suicide threats or the odd punch on the nose in a Nottinghamshire churchyard.


2 Responses to “Musicians and critics”

  1. 1 Bryan Ellis
    May 9, 2010 at 6:49 am

    That was no mistake, Arvo Part IS having a joke. Surely he can’t be serious with his silly music!

  2. 2 Chang Tou Liang (Singapore)
    May 17, 2010 at 10:39 am

    Absolutely brilliant! Amen to all that. By the way, was that John Rutter (the Richard Clayderman of youth choirs) you were writing about?

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