THE CRITICS’ PRIME CONCERN ---- Arthur Butterworth April 2004

It is often claimed by celebrated concert artists that they never read reviews of performances; claiming that they neither care one way or the other what other people think of them. They probably take to heart Kipling’s excellent advice in his well-known poem "If":

"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
and treat those two impostors just the same"

This certainly seems to be a good philosophical attitude towards criticism, although I suspect most concert artists, even the ones who claim never to read concert reviews, do in fact take a great deal of notice of what other people think of their performances.

While art and book critics have a clear-cut objective: to write what they think of a new book or new painting, the music critic has two things to consider. Consideration of an established work in the repertoire, such as a Beethoven symphony, a Mozart concerto or a Verdi opera requires little if anything in the way of comment on the work itself since such pieces are so well-known and have long since been accorded a place of universal acclaim that everyone knows about them anyway. However, the way in which these long-acknowledged masterpieces are recreated - their live performance - is indeed of concern to the critic so that his commentary is likely to be almost solely concerned with this, although he might make some passing observation as whether the work itself still appeals; such as describing Berlioz’s "Symphonie Fantastique as "this old war-horse". Even the most firmly-established and popular masterpiece, however, depends for its impact on the listener on the way it is brought to life by the performer. In this way music, opera or drama, differ from a painting, poetry or a novel. So it is the way how it is performed than what.

However, the first performance of a completely new piece of music, or a work that is new to the critic’s own experience, calls for more comment than the way it is performed since it is not easy to assess how effective the quality of performance has been until the work itself has been unfolded in its entirety. Thus critics often use the phrase: .. . "it seemed to be played efficiently" ... or:... "the performers do not appear to have unravelled the new work’s secret yet"... Performers of new works might thus feel a bit side-lined when reading a critique which hardly mentions their contribution at all but concentrates primarily on assessing what the composer has created. In this case what is performed is more important than how.

Are critics necessary? It is often said that critics are those who themselves have failed at the task of what they are criticising in others. This does at times sound like sour grapes but it is to miss the purpose of criticism as a pertinent part of artistic, or indeed any other kind of communication. Without critics the creative artist, the performing artist or any other kind of communicator has no means of knowing whether his intended message is being understood by those to whom it is addressed: the reader of the book, the viewer of the painting, the listener to the music, or indeed the voter choosing the candidate after reading the manifesto.

The critique is a way of holding a mirror up to our performance, in whatever sense one means by the word "performance". How does it come over to others? Without criticism we should never know. It is sometime thought that criticism is inevitably a hostile thing; but this is not so. Constructive and appreciative criticism is no less to be met with than its opposite, and concert artists are then very ready indeed to quote in their marketing brochures, all the nice things that have been said about them.

Professional artists have long realised, whether they like it or not, that critical assessment is part of life. Amateurs however might once have been rather patronised by the critical fraternity, if indeed the critics have been bothered to notice them at all. It is all very well and good that young children, or even modest adult performance in some local situation, should be encouraged and even given some excuse when performance obviously does not aspire to great accomplishment. Such situations are generally obvious to everyone concerned. However, in recent times even amateur effort sets out to impress the public by its endeavour. Works of challenging technical requirements are attempted, and the public is asked to pay for a seat just in the same way, and often just as expensively, as for a professional presentation of the same thing. Local operatic societies and suchlike bodies should then expect to have their public performances assessed with no less critical rigour than the professionals would expect. The not-infrequently heard cry... "What a nasty critic Mr XYZ was in the paper last week! does he not realise we are only amateurs?" This is a childish, pathetic, cry-baby attitude.

With so much expertise in every walk of life, amateurism with its excuses for indifferent public presentation is no longer viable, nor should it be, unless it is offered free and maybe for a modest circle of admiring friends. The patronising "write up" in the local paper after the annual light opera in the village hall, when every one is praised and no fault can be found convinces no one; it merely serves to feed the ego of self-preening performers who have probably displayed only the most rudimentary abilities. On the contrary, the honest critical assessment of amateur endeavour which compares amateurism with professional ability is an enormous tribute to the amateur; it considers him worthy of comparison and thus takes it seriously rather than blandly patronising something that would otherwise tacitly be regarded as poor or insignificant, only worth a benign childish ‘pat on the back’ for trying.

Many distinguished practitioners of the art of criticism have followed their calling from the outset, never having aspired themselves to be performers at all, but have discovered that analytical turn of mind which is capable of impartial assessment of what they read, observe or hear. Their interest lies in comparing one experience with another, of learning to evaluate by constant practise in the patient business of considering all the differing experiences they pursue; it is indeed a very necessary and complementary art to that of the composer or performer. Though they may often resent critical opinion, the creative artist and the performer cannot properly exist without their critics, for to be ignored by them is the worst fate of all; it signifies a complete indifference and consigned to being a nonentity.

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