The End of the Critic?

The End of the Critic?

Is the era of the critic coming to an end? The digital age seems to suggest it is, writes Michael Quinn.

“The golden age of music magazine publishing and the dominance of the critic in the middle of the twentieth century has recognisably passed”. Is the era of the critic coming to an end? The digital age seems to suggest it is, writes Michael Quinn.

This year brings a reminder, albeit obliquely, of an age in which composers were read as well as listened to. June will see the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert Schumann, a composer who, during an all too short compositional life, devoted the decade from 1834 to co-founding, editing and copiously contributing to the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (‘New Journal for Music’), in the pages of which he fulminated against ‘the recent past as an inartistic period with only a notable increase in mechanical dexterity to show for itself’ and furiously agitated for ‘a new, poetic future’.

Schumann was at the vanguard of a generation of composers who also wrote about music. Liszt, Berlioz, Hugo Wolf and César Cui all led double lives as composer-critics unafraid to comment on their peers, although none, perhaps, was so prolix as Schumann, whose commentary on Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique occupied no less than six issues of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik and was later submitted as his doctoral thesis. Nor, arguably, were any as prescient as Schumann, his forays into journalism framed by a rousing fanfare for Chopin – ‘Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!’ – and a no less enthusiastic encomium for the young Brahms in his final article, entitled ‘New Paths’.

Composers and musicians have always regarded music as a topic of intellectual as well as creative curiosity, but the emergence of newspapers early in the seventeenth century gave them a public platform for the first time. Critica Musica, the first journal devoted entirely to music, was founded in Germany in 1722 by the composer Johann Mattheson and prompted a long succession of rival titles, a surprising number of them with composers at their editorial helm.

Significantly, composer-led musical debate in the nineteenth-century was not confined to the fons et origo of contemporary criticism – the review of a performance. The agenda was considerably wider, embracing theory, social context, working practises, the economics of making music, differences in national tastes, and politics.

Battling from inside the bearpit, Berlioz’s Les Soirées de l’orchestre collected more than two decades of his journalism in 1852, largely from the Journal des débats, Rénovateur and the Gazette musicale, which he edited on occasion as well as being a prominent member of its board. It remains a revealing portmanteau portrait of an age and its achievements, its attitudes, affectations and failures seeming all the more illuminating for coming from someone who also laboured at the coal-face of composition.

Having put the critical cat squarely amongst the compositional pigeons, however, Schumann also precipitated a blurring of the roles of composer and critic that would have unforeseen consequences. Debussy, in a letter to his fellow composer Edgard Varèse in 1911, would echo the complaints of many when he observed that criticism had become ‘no more than a trade’, ruefully adding that ‘so-called artists have contributed a great deal to this state of affairs’. Composer-commentators, it seemed, had been replaced by the professional critic, a breed that rapaciously multiplied over the next century, only to now find itself in the twenty-first century, dwindling and endangered.

The golden age of music magazine publishing and the dominance of the critic in the middle of the twentieth century has recognisably passed, certainly so for music titles that sidestep the all-encompassing ambitions of their nineteenth-century predecessors in favour of niche interests or national pre-occupations. All too often they pursue an antique folly: the notion that music is predicated on a presumption of singularity and isolation; a loveless marriage of monolithic and myopic conceits that has ossified over time into page-filling punditry or the academically abstruse.

‘Serious’ music magazines continue to be in deferential thrall to the notion of ‘art’ music as a dust-laden bulwark against the intrusion of music that is ‘other’ and, therefore, less deserving; a stance that refuses pluralism in favour of a narrow-minded specificity bordering on the solipsistic. They root themselves in a fixed critical trajectory in which the punditry of the professional critic is prime.

Arts pages in newspapers, too, have been shrinking with an alarming rapidity over the past five years as websites and blogs have disrupted and re-ordered the priorities of readers and editors to the point where musical debate has been relegated and critics are becoming an endangered species – dinosaur-like creatures seemingly ill-equipped to adapt to or keep pace with evolutionary change.

Undoubtedly the digitisation of the means of production and consumption has revolutionised not just how music is made and how we listen to it; more significantly it has re-energised and radicalised how we engage with it intellectually. The developing migration to the internet has led to a fast-proliferating number of websites dedicated to musical criticism. Increasingly, the professional critic must jostle for position with commentators drawn from academia, non-musical backgrounds, and the hitherto unsolicited and silent record-buyer.

The roster of contributors to musicalcriticism.com, which launched in 2007, includes established critics, academics and musicians alongside a chemist and a finance manager; bbc.co.uk/music employs only professionals, but its coverage of classical and new music is slight in comparison to other genres. And while pitchfork.com – now in its second decade and ‘The indie music site everyone loves to hate’ (slate.com) or ‘The most influential tastemaker on the music scene’ (Wired) – allows direct contact with some of its critics, it tells you nothing about who they are or what their agendas might be.

 Musicians, composers and listeners are beginning to make public their own reflex responses to the pluralist new musical world they find themselves in. As active engagement replaces passive consumption, the filtering mechanism of professional criticism is now being supplanted by the contributions of those who make music and those who consume it. Perhaps the ‘new, poetic future’ imagined by Schumann nearly two centuries ago is finally about to be realised.

Published on 1 April 2010

Michael Quinn is a freelance music and theatre journalist based in Co. Down.

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