American composers reflect on the state of music criticism in America today John Corigliano



Photo by Christian Steiner

Art criticism belongs to the business of journalism. Journalism is supposed to be clear, accurate, researched reportage. In order to be able to report what happened at a premiere, the reporter must be able to differentiate between what the composer wrote and what the performer(s) played. The only way to do this is to hear the performance with the composer’s score in hand. I have attended performances of mine in which the players were absolutely lost and the work was largely improvised. I have never had a critic comment on this. This is not acceptable.

In order to write an accurate review of a new work the critic must put aside his or her personal tastes and feelings and provide a clear picture of what happened that night in the concert hall. The critic is not an “everyman” reacting to a new experience, and it is disingenuous in the extreme to pretend otherwise. He is, or should be, a specialist—a professional, who must be able to describe the events in a clear way to a readership of non-musicians.

Criticism is first a description of content. What was heard? What were the materials used? How did they move and change through time? Secondly, criticism is a description of intent. What did the composer mean? How closely did the score (and performance) come to realizing that intent? What was the response of the audience (the “everymen”) in the room? And thirdly, criticism is a description of context. How does this piece fit into larger cultural patterns which define the present but respond to the past? This last question is not an invitation to the airing of personal prejudices. The taste of the critic is not really important for the reader. His studied observations are. If a critic’s judgment is as idiosyncratic, as incompletely informed, as a general reader’s, than a music column devolves into an exercise in prose style.

What are the standards imposed in the hiring of music critics? I have known people who have had reviews printed in major publications simply because they called the paper to ask for work. Worse, the editors who should supervise and question critics often know less about the art than the critics do. The two main concerns in writing reviews seem to be: A) can one get the piece in on time? and, B) is it readable? A real knowledge of music seems relatively unimportant. How else does a sports reporter end up as the principal music critic of The New York Times? This happened at least once. Never to my knowledge, however, has a music critic been sent over to sports. The reason is obvious. Neither the editors nor the public would put up with ignorance of sports because they both know the field. Critics are never accountable for errors or the airing of outrageous prejudices. Musicians who know this are afraid to speak up, and most readers do not know the critics are behaving badly. An occasional letter to the editor might mention this, but there is never anything done about it. Accountability is essential for everyone, even the IRS and music critics.

All of the problems above cannot be solved by composers writing about them. It is the critics themselves that must set real musical standards, make themselves accountable to someone, and generally improve their profession. It certainly is a daunting job if done correctly, and everyone knows the financial reward in this profession is minimal. Critics must therefore write with the same ideals as the composers they write about (who are also, most often, drastically underpaid). They must also defend their profession and raise its standards. They are its only hope.