Top Five Toughest Music Critics

Think Today's Bloggers Can Be Harsh? Look Back 100 Years

Friday, August 24, 2012

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.


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Comments [9]

listener from Lower Merion, PA

Hard to tell the blogger's intent in posting this: probably the worst way to publicize and advocate for classical music is to re-publish cynical (thoughtless? vile?) words of those who mocked Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Debussy, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and others (unless such venture was to mock the critics, but that doesn't seem to be the case here). There are enough people out there who mock classical anyway--is this blogger adding to the fire? Let's now all listen to Dave Brubeck, Brittney Spears, and Lady Gaga, our favorite "easy listening" (randomly drawn pop icon names; no personal vendettas).

Aug. 27 2012 01:51 PM
Andrew from Lower Merion, PA

Great minds, by definition, are ahead of their time, and are therefore generally not widely appreciated in their lifetimes. Critics, however, often write for uneducated, undiscerning "common folk" who devour popular press, and therefore have their sensibility tempered by a mass mentality that refuses to think cretively or be open-minded. This certainly does not describe all critics. However, abrasiveness of the sort evidenced by these five (I'm not a big fan of Schoenberg either!) indicates either the critic's sucumbing to the sensationalist media-hawk tendency or the critic's own anti-explorative political or artistic agenda. Does one have to be brash or abrasive to comment on the lack of musical qualities of a work?

Aug. 27 2012 12:42 PM

Totally agree - modern politeness and 'understanding' - sometimes used as a way of trying to show us how competent and knowing the reviewer is, is very boring. One who was not so boring was John Barry Steane, who in a review of a cd-release of Puccini’s ”La Boheme”, in the wellknown british magazine 'Gramophone', wrote the following about the tenor Gianni Poggi who portrayed Rodolpho:

”To say that Poggi, the Rodolfo, is indescribably bad would not be strictly accurate but would nevertheless be kinder than any accurate description.”

Steane being mean - in a nicer way? No matter what, it’s one of my favorite quotes from a musical reviewer.

Aug. 27 2012 08:55 AM
Alonso Alegria from Lima, Peru

About that often heard story of a distructively minuscule review ("Why?" was its full text). Could someone place it for me in time and space? President Truman's daughter at the piano, maybe? Who was the critic? Thank you. AA

Aug. 26 2012 06:56 PM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove, New Jersey

Haha, yes, I know that what appeared in the Times blurb was a sentence, not a 'graph. I was thinking in terms of newspaper columns, when a sentence IS often the entire 'graph. My apologies for any confusion.

Aug. 26 2012 02:16 PM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove, New Jersey

One of the best music reviews I've seen wasn't at all a music review. It was, instead, a blurb in the New York Times for a late-night television movie, the Marx Brothers classic "A Night at the Opera," which the Times blurber summed up in only one paragraph: "The Marx Brothers doing to Il Trovatore what should be done to Il Trovatore."

Aug. 26 2012 02:09 PM
Mioul from New York

What about opera critic Stefan Zucker? Once read a lenghty feature he did about tenors and he was putting down tenor Francisco Araiza, going how Pavarotti had charisma, Corelli emotion, another one passion, another one musical precision but how Mr. Araiza has all those qualities in "small doses". Was he paid by some rival tenor to say this? In any case, it was like, dude, did he had sex with your wife or what...

Aug. 25 2012 10:04 PM
Robert Turoff from Princeton, NJ

I recall a review by Harold C. Schonberg of the New York Times something like this: "Ms.__________gave a recital last evening at Town Hall; it was fit neither technically nor musically for public performance." That was all.I don't know why he wrote the review.

Then there was the full page article by Howard Taubman of the New York Times in 1956 which played a major part in destroying Dimitri Mitopoulos's future with the New York Philharmonic. Despite Taubman's later protestations, there was no excuse.

Aug. 25 2012 05:15 PM

Au contraire, today's critics, obeying the modern fashion of political correctness, don't have the courage to call contemporary music what it is (a spade), thus contributing to its slow but sure demise.

Aug. 25 2012 05:11 AM

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