Last Sunday, New York Times literary critic Dwight Garner wrote “A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical.” The essay, a call to arms for incisive and judgmental thought about contemporary writing, spawned a companion list of Five Critics Who Deserve Statues (in honor of Jean Sibelius, who reportedly said "No statue has ever been erected to a critic").
Unfortunately, none of the nominees in the Times’s list spent much time parsing new music, so we picked up a copy of Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective to find the five most vicious music critics.
1. Olin Downes
Olin Downes, a music critic for the Boston Post and the longtime New York Times chief music critic (from 1920 to his death 1955), was one of the champions of critic-adverse Sibelius. He was less admiring of Stravinsky (he called The Rake’s Progress “ersatz”), Max Reger (whose Piano Concerto was described as “a most inflated pretentious bag of wind”). However, Downes seemed to reserve his most barbed vitriol for composers of the Second Viennese School, particularly Schoenberg. He called the composer’s A Survivor from Warsaw "poor and empty music;" the Five Pieces for Orchestra “so disagreeable that, whatever its merits, we cannot find the courage to wish to hear it again. At best, it appears as the music of raw and tortured nerves;” and Variations for Orchestra “tortuous, meager-hued music, anemic music. It is geometrical music, important only on paper; hideous, without vitality, and signifying nothing that matters.”
2. Eduard Hanslick
Austrian critic Eduard Hanslick was fortunate to live in the time of Liszt, Wagner and Strauss, but that doesn’t mean he was supportive of their works. Wagner and his circle were victimized in Hanslick’s essays for Austrian papers and in his books. Liszt’s B-minor Sonata was “a musical monstrosity, Never have I experienced...a bloodier battle against all that is musical;” the Strauss tone poem Don Juan was rather “a confusion of blinding color splashes;” and “Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto gives us for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear.”
3. Louis C. Elson
The prolific writer Louis C. Elson wrote several tomes on classical music, including a dictionary, a history of American music and Shakespeare in Music. The Boston-based writer was just as prolific in sharing his pointed opinion, often in the city’s Daily Advertiser. He said that Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was “modern ugliness,” and on a second hearing “seems to need a veterinary surgeon.” La Mer recalled to him, "a series of symphonic pictures of sea-sickness.” Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy was “The kind of ecstasy that is sold in Russia for two rubles a bottle.” But Mahler’s Fifth Symphony inspired a judgment written in verse (a conceit that George Bernard Shaw would employ on occasion): “With chords of ninths, elevenths, and worse,/And discords in all keys, /He turns the music inside out/With unknown harmonies.”
4. Philip Hale
Elson’s sometime collaborator, Philip Hale, is often remembered for the published set of program notes he wrote for the Boston Symphony during the ensemble’s 1909-10 season. He didn’t let his association with the symphony color his opinion of compositions, though. The critic wrote Brahms’s Piano Quartet was “dry, insipid, and of trifling importance,” and called the same composer’s Symphony in C “grand and impressive and all that. So is a Channel fog." Those pale in comparison to the writer’s takedown of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which Hale penned more than 70 years after the work’s premiere: “Do you believe way down in the bottom of your heart that if this music had been written by Mr. John L. Tarbox, now living in Sandown, N.H., any conductor here or in Europe could be persuaded to put it in rehearsal.”
5. Henry Edward Krehbiel
The musicologist Henry Edward Krehbiel, who authored the guide How to Listen to Music, could be vicious when he didn’t like what he heard. The opera specialist spewed venom on Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande (“combinations of tones that sting and blister and pain and outrage the ear”), Puccini’s La Bohème (“superficial”) and Strauss’s Salome “There is not a whiff of fresh and healthy air blowing through Salome except that which exhales from the cistern.”). He could be biting for purely instrumental pieces, too: "Of the Scherzo Humoresque for four bassoons by Serge Prokofiev…the work itself and the manner in which Mr. Prokofiev played it, moved us to pity for the beautiful instrument which he belabored.”
Weigh in: What critics - modern or historical - do you find especially tough? Leave your thoughts below.