In Memory of the Critic’s Trade

Back when most of the leading newspapers in the United States employed paid, officially designated music critics, the artists reviewed were, quite naturally, pleased by positive reviews and less happy with negative ones. The only unpardonable offense was when nobody showed up at all – when the concert on which a musician had spent many hours, perhaps years, planning and preparing would be over and relegated only to memory.  

This affront is more rule than exception today, for there are likely no more than 20 Americans who still make most of their living writing in newspapers about classical music. In the mid-1980s, The New York Times published more than 1,000 concert reviews a year and there was a column every Sunday devoted specifically to debut recitals. The Daily News had a full-time critic, as did the New York Post; Newsday, after 1987, had two. Reviewing was a good way for young writers to make a poor living: In addition to the newspapers, there were classical music reviews in New York Magazine and the Village Voice as well as in those publications specifically devoted to the field – Ovation, Keynote, Classical, Musical America and others. Coverage at The New Yorker was so copious that critic Andrew Porter was able to assemble a large volume of his published criticism every three years or so.  

…a lot of history has already been lost – and the private recordings that find their way onto YouTube can only tell us so much.

The profession isn’t entirely defunct – there are some extraordinary critics still on the beat. In cities with major arts centers or celebrated orchestras, such positions are easier for an editor to justify in tough financial times (and it has been mostly downhill since the advent of the internet). But it is now more common for a newspaper to find a general assignment writer to write some nice words about the local production of “The Nutcracker” or a visit from Yo-Yo Ma – the so-called “big-ticket items” – while leaving a city’s more venturesome endeavors alone.  

As such, a lot of history has already been lost – and the private recordings that find their way onto YouTube can only tell us so much. Many local newspapers have either folded or been taken over by big companies with minimal interest in presenting any sort of intellectual record of a given place. The critics are mostly gone and – as astonishing as it may seem to some of those we have tossed and gored – I think we will be missed. Maybe composer and critic Virgil Thomson said it best: “Perhaps criticism is useless. Certainly, it is often inefficient. But it is the only antidote we have to paid publicity.”

I was fortunate enough to work as a daily critic for more than a quarter-century. I began as the junior music writer at The New York Times, where I might be sent out to anything from a program of 15th-century Korean court music to an accordion festival, along with plenty of Brahms and Beethoven along the way. I wouldn’t have confessed it at the time, but I was utterly unprepared for my new eminence, and few things would make me happier now than an opportunity to delete the majority of my early Times work from archives and distant memories. Although I had collected records since childhood, knew a good deal about contemporary composition and played the piano acceptably, I had scant knowledge of huge portions of the repertory and no understanding of the day-to-day challenges and intricacies of the music world. Moreover, I had not yet developed much human empathy for my fellow mortals. So I approached my new job with the prim, Robespierrean surety and acid cleverness that then seemed to me the most important qualities of a working critic.

The Times was used to steep learning curves – developing a voice with which to speak through New York’s most powerful and prestigious newspaper is never an easy adaptation – and my editors were good enough to keep me on. Over the next quarter-century, at the Times, at Newsday and finally at The Washington Post, I learned a great deal, and if I remained capable of producing the occasional dunderheaded howler, at least there were fewer of them.

…for better and worse, there are few gatekeepers, people to guide a curious reader toward writing that will be both authoritative and as open-minded as possible.

Over time, I learned that writing withering reviews – especially of the glib, dismissive “Joe Jones played Mozart last night; Mozart lost” variety – are the easiest to bang out, but a string of insults is hardly criticism. It was much more difficult to put across serious and unhackneyed thoughts about a performance that had been moving and effective. And the middling performances – a baroque trio ensemble in a church basement, say – were most difficult of all. It is genuinely good for the community that such events exist – they are unpretentious, generally well-played and provide a pleasant afternoon for people in the neighborhood – but it is hard to say much about them. Put it this way: If I find a young writer who can give me 750 truly gripping words about yet another performance of “The Four Seasons,” I’ll know that I am in the presence of a gifted critic.  

Music criticism will go on – in a few papers, in small journals and on the web (some of the record reviews on Amazon are startlingly erudite, but they are in the minority). Still, for better and worse, there are few gatekeepers, people to guide a curious reader toward writing that will be both authoritative and as open-minded as possible. And with the near-disappearance of copy editors at most daily newspapers, all sorts of factual and lingual mayhem slip through into what you read. Worst of all, almost nobody gets paid.  

I became a writer to explain the world to myself, to conquer the chaos in my head and create a couple of paragraphs that might sum it all up, fixed and unassailable as a logical theorem. Now that I no longer have newspaper duties, I only accept assignments when I think it at least possible that I will be interested in both the subject and its treatment. As such, outright pans are rare (critics who cover a daily beat have no such leisure).  

There came a time when I thought I was being too tough on people I knew personally, in some dubious attempt at “fairness.” Philip Glass has been a friend since I was a college kid begging for tapes of his music to play on the radio. In the mid-1980s I found myself unresponsive to several of his works in a row and said so in print.  

Trouble was, when I heard one of the pieces I hadn’t liked a few months later, I decided that my initial assessment was wrong and I started to question my impartiality, with the fear that I had been too determined to be coolly objective and missed the music. I knew that Virgil Thomson had assessed the work of many of his friends and used to brag that he could “review” his grandmother. But I didn’t want to review my grandmother – or my friends. And so I told Philip that I would no longer review his new works. He shrugged and grinned. “Oh, that’s okay, Tim. I don’t like everything you write either.” 

Tim Page

Tim Page is a Professor in two divisions at the University of Southern California – the Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism and the Thornton School of Music. …more 

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13 Responses

  1. Debbie Burke says:

    Hey Tim- nice piece. I’m a jazz blogger and do it for the love of meeting (at least virtually) musicians around the world. It has hundreds of interviews and through it I’ve gotten to hear and expound on a LOAD of great music I never would have otherwise stumbled upon. I hope I’ve given some people a reason to explore jazz, and if I’m successful in that endeavor, I’m happy. –Debbie Burke (Tasty Jazz Jams for Our Times)

  2. The legacy of your craft was more than the artists you wrote about. It was to expand audiences and get the word out there when the internet did not exist. You were our voice. You turned people on to expanding their horizons if they read your writings. For that alone, I say, thank you thank you and thank you!!

  3. Tom Moore says:

    Not only has the internet demolished print news and criticism, it has also close to eliminated any incentive/profit/possibility of issuing recordings of either old works or new.

  4. John Russell says:

    Tim Page , both as music critic for the NYT 35 years ago and as mentor to aspiring writers (of all kinds) today, is an empathic and erudite leader along the path of instructive/constructive journalism. As a minor recipient of a couple of less-than-favorable sentences in a review (in the mid-80s of Puccini’s Le Villi at the Bkln Academy of Music), I realized even then, he was as kind and helpful to me as possible. His generous nature has always been lurking behind his writing, no matter that he now might wish to retract or rewrite that early material.

  5. David Patrick Stearns says:

    I love your sentence about how the act of writing somehow orders one’s inner chaos. Now I know why I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for the last 45 years…when i haven’t written in a few days I start getting unusually nervous.

  6. Ah, the halcyon days of the 80s into the early 90s in NYC and the abundance of both outlets, critics and cultural offerings that defined the time and still maintaina special place both within outside the community. Reich, Glass, Adams….While not totally new, if you recall, Glass’s The Photographer opened the first fully formed BAM NEXT Wave Festival; Reich’s Different Trains, Adams’ Nixon in China and Robert Wilson/David Byrne’s The Forrest. We were both there at that time; that wave. New waves now that other after us are being to ride. I like to say with individuals such as yourself and artists of the calibre mentioned, my wave was a pretty dam good adventure.

  7. Thanks for the excellent piece, Tim. Among other things, I would like to think that well-written and passionate reviews helped inspire an interest in classical music – something that is always valuable. Sad that the Times (“All the news that’s fit to print”) chooses to follow, not lead, when it comes to classical music coverage.

    Paul Henry Lang in the New York Herald Tribune was one of those erudite critics and I recall his 1962 review of a Marlboro concert at Carnegie Hall before we recorded the Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos with Rudolf and Peter Serkin and the Beethoven Triple Concerto with R. Serkin, Jaime Laredo and Leslie Parnas. He wrote, “they played like amateurs.” Rather than an insult, he was reflecting upon the infectious enthusiasm of the music-making and using the Latin expression for ‘love’ to make his point.

    More people should have the opportunity of learning that there is nothing to match a LIVE performing Arts experience. Critics are an important exponent of that message.

  8. A brilliant and thoughtful piece, Tim. I’m a fellow displaced music critic (31 years at The Seattle Times before they shrank to the point where that job disappeared). I still write the occasional freelance piece for them, and for other outlets, but so many memorable performances/productions go unremarked and undocumented by any but the immediate listeners. It’s tough on performers, presenters, and people who care about the present and future of great classical music.

  9. Roger Cole says:

    As a 45 year veteran of the symphonic world… one of my greatest disappointments is that our concerts now almost NEVER get reviewed….unless we have a superstar soloist. In the ‘good old days’ we had duelling critics in both local newspapers. We loved to hate them…but those reviews made a record of the classical musical culture in our city.
    We occasionally get some nice pre-concert pieces which supposedly boost ticket sales…but as stated…now our concerts (most of which are terrific) go into the ether never to be remembered again. Such a sad commentary on our culture.

  10. Mr. Page, I have admired your work for a long time, especially with The Washington Post. Thank you so much for this informative and historic look at the role of the critic, past and present. I am a freelancer here in DC, but I am active as an organist, choral director and vocal soloist. But I also have sustained myself through the years with a ‘9-5.’ Again, many thanks and I hope to continue to follow your work.

  11. Thank you for your many years of lucid and informative commentary. It’s important we all understand that criticism doesn’t, or shouldn’t, automatically imply a negative opinion.

  12. Jeffrey Day says:

    As a (former) long-time arts journalist (and sometimes critic) the bigger problem is lack of serious, informed insightful arts journalism. I’ve never understood the focus on criticism and its disappearance. It was/is only one part, and I’d say only a small and not the most important part, of arts journalism.

  13. John Chittum says:

    While the large papers and critics disappear, local groups are popping up to take their place. Also, many long time critics turn to blogging platforms to continue the work, even with minimal or no pay. Some examples:

    Jay Harvey, long time critic in Indianapolis. Once his position at the Star went away, he moved fully to blogging. He maintains high readership!

    In Kansas City, there are lots of local magazines covering criticism locally, nationally, and even globally. The KC Star occasionally has reviews, but they’re unreliable and only cover the largest events. KCStudio regularly has criticism (lots by Libby Hansen, keeping arts journalism rolling in KC!). There was a magazine called KC Metropolis that, sadly folded. In their wake, myself and a few others have stepped up and started an online magazine, DiaKCritical

    I think it’s important to talk about the loss of positions at major newspapers, but just like chamber music, and other non-pop (and even pop forms), there are healthy, hardworking, local groups still making it happen.

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