Music Critique — Role and Understanding

Reflection / A Personal View

2018-10-27 — Original posting
2018-11-02 — Amendments, streamlining, and corrections (Thanks to my daughter Deborah for careful reviewing!)
2020-11-16 — Addendum

Table of Contents

New Orleans newspapwer "The Mascot", cover for 1890-11-15 (source: Wikimedia commons)
New Orleans newspaper “The Mascot”, 1890-11-15


In an earlier note, I have written about how I see my own role as lay music critic, focusing on the lay aspect. Since that note, my involvement in concert reviewing continued and has deepened. Some more thoughts have accumulated. These are not only about my own reviewing activities. They equally originate from reviews that I run into in online and printed media, and from the interaction with artists and concert organizers.

However, with this note, I do not intend or try to establish general rules for music critics (how could I?!). Rather, I see several main reasons for this posting:

Providing an Explanation on my Personal Philosophy

Readers will easily note that my reviews are vastly different from those encountered in printed and online media today. The difference isn’t just in the format and the length, the amount of text. It also extends into the fundamental way in which I approach and discuss music in general. Here, I want to explain my personal philosophy that I use with articles in this blog. In particular, this applies to concert reviews, but also to comparisons of recordings, and to discussions of media that I receive for the purpose of getting them reviewed.

When I started this blog (and, in fact, even long before that), I have not tried following the path of other music critics. Rather, I have merely tried voicing my personal opinion, my (often spontaneous) thoughts, views and feelings. My reviews are typically far more detailed than many others. Some see my comments as more direct and more critical. This has occasionally caused upsetting on the part of (primarily lay) readers. I should point out, however, that more often than not, musicians seem to like my comments. Even if my reviews are critical. This actually has been a major motivator to me, in writing this blog.

What I See in Other’s Music Critique

At the same time, I could not resist uttering my thoughts and opinions about trends in music critiques that I read in (primarily printed) media. I’m particularly addressing those in the Zurich area and its neighborhood, but I suspect that these are not much different from those in other (at least German-speaking) areas.

I don’t mean these thoughts about other’s “critiques” to be comprehensive / complete in any way. I’m merely pointing to trends and observations that often leave me dissatisfied, if not often upset. And which I find counter-productive to both readers and musicians.

But again: that’s my personal opinion & view, and I merely want to explain why my reviews are what they are. I’m definitely not trying to set rules for others. I’m not pretending to have the authority to do so. Quite to the contrary: I would find that presumptuous, inappropriately patronizing.

Lastly, this is also an indirect response to opinions and claims that one particular critic has uttered recently. I’m not trying to open a debate here (and therefore I won’t mention names), but I just felt a need to express a contrasting opinion. So:

What Shouldn’t and Cannot Be the Intent of Music Critique

Keep in mind that all these remarks primarily refer to my own reviews, my own work as (amateur) concert critic!

Educate Musicians?

Beware—No!!! Who am I to tell musicians how and what to play! I’m not a musicologist, nor a musician myself. And even if I were a musicologist: I’m not a teacher, nor do I feel qualified to teach others what to do, and how to do it. I primarily use my own musical education to shape and support my personal opinions and judgements. I don’t claim that these are universally valid or “objectively true”. At best, my opinions and their expression in critiques and reviews may be a tiny stone in a giant puzzle. They are one opinion in many that tells other listeners how I personally view a particular piece of music. At the same time it may tell a musician how I (and maybe others) perceive their performance(s).

Educate Listeners?

Should music critique educate listeners about the details (form, structure, etc.) of a composition, about the historic background of a composition, of a composer? I don’t think music critique is the right place for this. Feuilleton sections of printed media, or the corresponding online media are of course welcome to post such content. Especially if it is presented in appealing and easy-to-understand form, there can’t be enough of such information. However, I don’t think it’s a good idea to combine this with a concert review. People are typically interested in either one or the other, but not both combined. In “mixed content” people are likely to either ignore or skip the musicological part or the critique segment.

Therefore, such mixed content is likely wasted effort. One can easily extract musicological information from Wikipedia, or by using a search engine, such as Google. Posting such content in itself may be justified. But then, it should not come under the guise of a concert critique. That said, I don’t imply that concert critiques must strictly be limited to performance aspects. New or other, (yet) unknown music, unknown artists or other performance aspects may not be easy to locate in the usual channels (Wikipedia, Google). These are worth some space in a concert / media review. However, with the bulk of the events in today’s concert life & repertoire, this should be a (rare) exception.

Tell People What’s “Right”?

Should music critique try telling people how to listen to music, or about what is the “right” way to play? I once heard a representative of a prominent local newspaper state that “sometimes, they need to tell their readers what nice music is” (or something along these lines). I find this rather snooty. There is no “objective truth” in interpretation.

The Performance Aspect

At best, there is (more or less of) a (current) consensus on how a given piece may have sounded at the time of the composition. Or a consensus on how a composer might have pictured a given piece to sound. So, music critique may try pointing listeners to aspects of a performance (or a recording) that is particularly historically correct, and/or where a performance is particularly interesting or attractive, and why. In my view, critique should not try injecting firm opinions, but it may open the listener’s view to new, maybe novel aspects in a performance.

Maybe critique can open the view to alternative ways of performing a piece. And it can—and probably should—point out aspects that are deviating from, opposing the composer’s intent (i.e., the score). In other words: it may indicate where a performance is deviating from expectations that a listener might have from reading the concert program / announcement.

There are of course cases where a performance is in gross disagreement with the score, in terms of tempo, dynamics, articulation, phrasing, and the like. These are areas where I think critique has an important role. There (and only there), critique should rightfully inform (and maybe gently influence) audiences. Where I do that myself, I try not to do it in a patronizing way, merely as my personal opinion, keeping in mind the complex interplay between “authenticity” and originality.

Literary Ambitious, “Glossy” Texts?

I sometimes see concert reviews that are elaborate, beautiful, artful (if not demanding) literary products that fit the glossy style of a newspaper. If the main attraction of a concert review is in its literary qualities, not in what it says about the concert, the performance, the recording which it claims to discuss, then I think it misses its purpose. Only too often, such critiques—aren’t, in that they merely touch on the actual performance in one or two sentences, wasting the bulk of the text on information on the venue, artist, composer, historic background.

Destroying Careers?

That’s a rather sad chapter. A performance, an artist may fail. It is one function of music critique to tell audiences how to rate such incidents, and it should inform about possible reasons in the case of concrete circumstances (e.g., health issues or other reasons for an artist’s indisposition) that led to the mishap. Critique may (and should) point out the nature of the mishap. However, with the exception of extreme cases (à la Florence Foster Jenkins), it should be left up to the listener to form an opinion about an artist’s ability to perform a given piece, to fill a given role. And to decide whether to attend future performances of a given artist, to buy his/her recordings, etc.

A Concrete Incident

What I’m alluding to here is a recent case where several newspapers actively and obviously not only challenged a conductor’s ability to head the local orchestra. They were clearly aiming at “shooting off” that artist. I’m not necessarily insinuating that the critiques I’m referring to were written with the intent to destroy a career. I’m merely describing how I read these reviews.

Once these critics succeeded (!), at least one of them followed up with an article which outlined how bad this failure was for this artist, how poor his perspectives, how empty his concert schedule now were. Pretended compassion? I see this as utterly poor, if not guileful journalism. It is the function of an artist’s employer, not of the journalists, to terminate a contract. In that particular case, bashing also indirectly hit the orchestra, as that conductor originally was the ensemble’s unanimous selection for that position.

Indirectly, of course (but only indirectly), critiques may of course play a role in the termination of a contract, or decisions on future engagements of a given artist. However, with the exception (maybe) of instances where an artist consciously and deliberately deviates from the score / a composer’s (perceived) intent, critique should avoid being personal and negatively targeting a given artist.

What Music Critique Can and Should Do

What critique can achieve depends on the size and type of its readership. The intended target audience also has an influence on style and content of a music review.

The Scope of Readers

I don’t think that music critiques are among the reader’s top favorites. Music itself does not play a central role in today’s life. On the other hand, concert and media reviews are often compact, and so they fit into today’s pattern of quickly digesting compact information. I personally find this trend somewhat unfortunate, as it narrows the scope of the information that the critic can convey in a review. The trend towards critiques with loads of marginal, if not irrelevant information (see above) only makes this worse.

My personal critiques fall out of this pattern. They are substantially longer than the “usual” reviews, and they are not intended for printed media. I don’t claim that my language is easy to read. But at least, I try helping the reader through clear structuring with subtitles and limited-size paragraphs.

Whom Can and Should Music Critique Address?

I see different types of readers:

People Who Did Not Attend the Concert

For a media review, this also applies to people who do not know the recording that the critique discusses. I often see myself in the situation of reading reviews on newly released media, or about concerts in the area. I may be interested in particular artists (soloists, orchestras, conductors), so I’m curious to read how they performed in concert, or in a recording.

Similarly, I may be interested in a specific piece of music, or in music of a particular (group of) composer(s), or in music of a given time, or a specific socio-geographic area. And this again may trigger my interest in an article. This is a case where I might want to read through an article with a wider scope. Examples are articles about composers, about the circumstances under which they composed, or the musicological background. Still, in my view, the article should focus on the main topic (the review) and be to-the-point. Its literary quality remains secondary. But sure, a well-written article may be pleasing to read. But that can’t be a primary objective to the author.

People Who Attended the Concert / Bought the Media

Again, it happens to me quite often that I attended a concert, then run into reviews by others. This at least makes me curious about the reviewer’s opinion. This is especially true if I have reviewed a concert myself.

A review is more than a casual second opinion, as when talking to one’s neighbor in a concert. Rather (ideally) it provides a well-formulated, considerate opinion with the associated justification / reasoning. Such second opinions may widen the reader’s scope and interest (see also below).

Artists? Artists!

It may sound odd if reviewers think they are (also) writing for artists. Indeed, many artists (especially seasoned ones) ignore concert reviews / critiques. Often, it may rather be an agency which may collect reviews on their artists, for use in promotions, and the like.

However, there are definitely artists (especially younger ones) who do read critiques and reviews on their concerts and recordings. These may indicate where they have potential for improvement, where they failed or made mistakes. Especially if the review is written by an “educated” critic.

But, shouldn’t one assume that artists know better than any reviewer or audience member how their performance went? That is certainly (usually) true. However, it often is hard or impossible for an artist to know how an audience member perceives their performance. For example, whether mishaps made it into the listener’s ear. Or whether the audience felt the same way about a tempo, the sound balance, or the clarity of a performance.

Tunnel Vision?

Also, it does happen that from endless rehearsing, or from working hard on adopting a piece, artists develop a kind of “tunnel vision”. They fail to see or consider alternative performance options (tempo, articulation, dynamics, etc.). In such situations, reading carefully written, well-founded reviews may turn out very useful to the artist, especially early on in a career. I have encountered a fair number of such situations with my reviews.

Sure, there are likely artists who might have been annoyed by my review, and I may never get feedback from them. However, where I did receive an echo from artists, it was always positive, even for critical reviews. This actually is the most rewarding aspect in my work as music critic.

Concert Organizers, Artist Agencies

Overall, the most avid readers of concert and media reviews may be artist agencies and concert organizers. Both are eager to lay their hands on good reviews, for use in promotional material (ads, concert brochures, etc.). This saves them the work and costs to hire an expert (e.g., a musicologist) for writing such material.

The tricky aspect for a reviewer is that these people are primarily or exclusively interested in positive statements. It would be devastating for critics’ reputation if they followed the temptation to write “into the hands” of agencies and organizers. Especially because getting quoted seemingly makes one’s name known to a broader public. In the long run, this definitely is counter-productive and may put an end to a reviewer’s career.

One reason for such unwanted (positive) bias is with concert organizers, who are offering free press tickets to accredited reviewers. Still I try very hard to stay sincere, even if the resulting review is unusable as advertising material. Similarly (or even worse), agencies (also artists sometimes) provide free CDs or DVDs for reviewing.

The reviewer receives actual goods (value), which again may seem to put pressure on the reviewer for writing a positive comment. Again, the critic ought to avoid feeling influenced. Actually, one should keep in mind that the costs for media are essentially negligible these days.

Indirect Goals with a General Audience

These “indirect goals” depend on the type of reader, as mentioned above:

Reviews in the Aftermath of a Concert Visit

In this case, reading a review may show an alternative view, a second opinion. This may either reconfirm or contradict one’s opinion. Mostly, people will be looking for reconfirmations. However, the reviewer must of course not seek to offer reconfirmation, e.g., by merely following the perception of an audience (e.g., as expressed in the applause, or in discussions). True value in a review is only found if the reviewer is expressing his/her genuine opinion.

I expect reviewers to justify their judgement. In parts, such justification can also stem from a reviewer’s track record from past reviews, publications, etc.

At the same time, by conveying genuine, personal views, a review may present alternative views on given music or performance. With this, it may help expanding a listener’s scope, open one’s ears and mind for other aspects of a piece, a performance. And with this, it may lead to a richer, deeper listening experience. It may point to aspects that a listener so far has overlooked, ignored, or wasn’t aware of.

All this also applies to media reviews on artists or music that one is already familiar with. Simply put: music critique may help driving people away from simply (passively) consuming music, but to listen actively / consciously, and with an open, possibly critical mind.

Reviews About Concerts or Artists in General

There is the aspect of re-confirming, deepening, expanding, intensifying, maybe contradicting of a listener’s own experience and perception of music performances in concert or through media. However, I see an important function beyond that in music reviews, even if a reader has not attended a given concert, or doesn’t know a specific artist:

Widening the Areas of Interest

Reviews may stimulate the reader’s / listener’s curiosity, motivate people to explore other, maybe less known composers, or less popular genres, such as chamber music, up to “abstract” levels such as string quartets? Similarly, it may make people interested in older music (e.g., pre-baroque) , newer (post-romantic), maybe even contemporary and experimental music?

HIP vs. Romantic Performances

Even within the realm of music and performances that one may feel intimately familiar with there is potential for expansion. Critiques may point to alternative readings of a score, alternative performance styles and philosophies. For example, for people who are fanatic about historically informed performances (HIP) may learn to appreciate older, more romantic views / performance styles. And, of course (more important in my personal view!), people who are “stuck” with performances from the 50’s and 60’s of the last century may learn about the benefits of historic performances & techniques, of playing on period instruments, etc.

Overall, critiques can and should expand a reader’s scope, curiosity, experience, and ultimately one’s expertise. Music is such a wide field: nobody can ever be exhausted!

Supporting Concert Organizers and Artist Agencies?

Contacts with artists, concert organizers and agencies are among the most gratifying aspects of my activities as a concert / music reviewer. The interests of concert organizers and artist agencies are fairly obvious. Reviews help them promoting concerts and artists. For me as reviewer, it’s undeniably pleasant to feel pampered by such institutions, be it through press tickets / access to concerts, free CDs for reviewing, or just through open, sincere, hearty, friendly personal contacts.

Supporting Artists?

Artist support has the potential to be tricky. In my short career as music / concert reviewer so far, I have had an unexpected number of very / extremely pleasant, heartwarming, personal contacts with artists. These contacts often approach the level of personal friendships. And I can’t deny that I have thoroughly enjoyed—and continue to enjoy—every single one of these contacts. However, once you are friends with an artist, it may seem hard, if not impossible to deliver a critical review?

Personal Bias?

I do see advantages in staying at a distance. It avoids the dangers of personal bias. However, such contacts typically start with an enthusiastic, very positive review. This means that the artist has a good potential of not failing completely. And even if the review was (somewhat) critical, but detailed and thoroughly supported by arguments / justification, artists may still like it and see it as very helpful. This will typically not be an obstacle towards establishing personal contacts, maybe even developing a level of friendship.

The key point is that the initial and subsequent reviews must be sincere and well-supported by arguments. And if you are friends with an artist, there is always the chance of discussing / explaining critical statements on a personal basis. And I will always point out that my remarks are my personal judgement as a listener. I’m not a musician.

In conclusion: delivering thorough and sincere reviews is the best, the optimal way for me to support artists.

Power and Influence of Critics??

In a general article about the role of music critique, one critic recently talked about the influence and the “power of critics”. True, this may be valid categories for people who intend to make a (partial) living from writing music critiques. Whether news agencies hires a person for writing reviews, or whether one gets a review assignment for a specific concert obviously depends on one’s reputation and track record.

But other than that, I think that music critiques ought to be about music, artists and composers only. I don’t think critics should seek attention through tabloid-like writing style. Nor should they fall into the trap of writing artful literary products with minimal actual critical / reviewing content. In short: music reviews should be about the music, not about the critic, not self-promotion.

Where do I Stand? Statement of Purpose

I’m not in the scope of the comment about power and influence that I referred to above. I never made any money out of my reviews. Quite to the contrary: I pay for scores, for travel, the blog site is not free either. I spend plenty of time and effort to maintain the blog. The occasional press ticket is a partial compensation for my work at best.

Why then do I do it? Well, for one, my intent is outlined above. And then, I can refer to the statement of purpose for this blog: I have been listening to music since I was a child, and now this has become a more central part of my life. Rather than just enjoying it, I felt it may be useful to share my thoughts about music with others. Ideally, this may enable them to enjoy music even more—hence this blog!

Addendum (2020-11-16)

I have created a write-up on what my personal scope, possibilities and restrictions are in reviewing concerts and music media. In parts, that document bears similarities to the text above and also complements it in some ways. However, that separate write-up is not just a general reflection, but primarily intended for agencies, organizations, and artists who might want to ask me for a concert or a media review. That write-up is also available in German.

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