04 February 2019

Why Do We Need Music Critics?

How many other music schools publish an in-house
journal as professional as this?
There's a very enterprising music school in Singapore which publishers its own quarterly in-house journal which not only keeps everyone up to speed about the school but broadens the students' (and others') minds by including a whole range of articles on a whole range of different topics.  This time, the focus of one of them was on me!  The lady in charge came to interview me about my work as a critic, but ended up getting so overwhelmed by the barrage of words I threw at her, that she decided not to write up the interview, but asked me to write a piece myself.  Knowing the target audience was children and their parents, I kept it quite simple and quite simplistic, but I think it's worth reprinting here;
What is music criticism and why do we need it? Those are questions which I have been asking myself at least once a week ever since I penned my very first piece of music criticism back in 1972.

My musical career began at the age of six when I started singing in a choir. I went on to learn the Piano, the Violin and the French Horn before studying the Organ. In all that time living in London, I was a frequent concert-goer, getting permission (sometimes) to skip rugby practice on Wednesday afternoons at school to go to the Royal Festival Hall, a 15 minute train ride away, to attend the early evening recital and evening orchestral concert. I also spent most of my Saturday afternoons in the local record shop, where we were allowed to listen to whatever records we wanted before choosing one or two to buy.

So it was that by the time I went to study music at University in Cardiff, I had already heard many of the world 's greatest musicians perform both live and on record. The combination of my first-hand experience as a performer and of listening to other people making music, made me an obvious choice when a local paper was looking for someone to review local concerts.  In fact I enjoyed doing this so much that my university tutor, a man called Arnold Whittall, commented that my essays read more like journalism than proper academic writing.

But Prof. Whittall went on to tell me that while there were hundreds of people around who could write complex academic treatises accessible only to other academics, there were very few who could communicate ideas about music to the general public. He encouraged me to keep writing in this way, and recommended me to the editor of the Cardiff-based daily newspaper, the Western Mail, when they were looking for a music critic.  My name was also suggested to the editors of two major musical publications, the Musical Times and Gramophone, and they took me on as a reviewer. From that day to this I have continued to write and present music criticism in parallel with my careers as an organist, choral conductor, music examiner and university lecturer. Sharing my enthusiasm for music remains a deep -seated passion.

The question is, why do we need music criticism at all? Surely nobody needs to be told what to like and what not to like? Music, you would think, speaks for itself.

And so it does. But while we all have our own personal tastes - we don't need anyone to tell us what we like - an understanding of the music we hear, whether we like the sound of it or not, unquestionably enriches our listening experience; and it certainly helps the performer.

Most people hear a piece of music merely as melodious (or otherwise) sound, but if someone points out and explains some of the less obvious elements that have gone into creating the music and in producing the sound, they will appreciate and understand it better. That certainly helps with recorded music, and many people buy recordings only after they have read what the critic has to say about them.

However, most criticism of a live concert appears only after the concert, and you might think that there is little value in telling people about something they have already heard or have missed hearing completely. The value of such retrospective criticism is two-fold.

Firstly, it informs readers about the general musical environment; that is why we have music criticism in our daily newspapers. Newspapers reflect the daily happenings of the world in which we live, and in Singapore music is deeply woven into the fabric of our society. (Did you know, for example, that on average there are over two classical music concerts in Singapore every day of the year?) Only a very few of them are reviewed, but the very fact that reviews of classical concerts appear in the paper tell both the people of Singapore and the world at large that we have an active and healthy musical environment here.

Secondly, every performer hopes that the audience will take some lasting memory away from their performance. By describing and commenting on the performance, the critic helps prolong the experience in the memory of the listener and, hopefully, encourage people to remember, rethink and, most of all, talk about what they have heard.

Criticism is essential in enriching our musical lives. Critics do not want people to accept their opinions or even agree with them. Their aim is to get people to think about music and to appreciate and value the hard work and effort behind any public musical performance.

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