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.” 

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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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1 Response

  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)

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