Prior to 1960 writings about classical music were not only common in American newspapers and weekly to monthly periodicals. As pointed out in a 1995 article by Samuel Lipman, whole magazines like Etude, Musical America and the Musical Courier were devoted to music, and musical columns were carried in many wide-circulation magazines like The New Yorker, Esquire, and Good Housekeeping. At midcentury, contemporary composers and their small circle of aficionados were increasingly capturing citadels of the music establishment, but before World War II music writing in American remained in the great music-consumer oriented tradition of the past."
Writers in that tradition include Michael Praetorius 1570-1621 ("Syntagma Musica"), Johann Mattheson (1681-1764), Charles Burney (1726-1814), Ludwig Köchel (1800-1877), Robert Schumann (1810-1856), Sir George Grove (1820-1900), and Romain Rolland (1866-1930). In America it included Henry Finck (1854-1926), Sigmund Spaeth (1885-1965), Deems Taylor (1885-1966), David Ewen (1907-1985), Olin Downes (1911-2001), and Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990).
After 1960, with the prominent exception of Harold C. Schonberg (1915–2003), longtime classical music critic of the New York Times, a new school of music criticism with a different orientation replaced the above writers. A British music critic, Andrew Porter (1928 -) and Anthony Tommasini (1948 -) epitomize new music critics at the top of their profession.
Porter became editor of The Musical Times in 1960 and wrote for many British papers including the London Times Literary Supplement. Anthony Tommasini is a senior music critic of the New York Times and one of the few remaining big names among newspaper critics. Prime requirements for the post-1960s school of critics are a flair for colorful prose and musical erudition. Established writers render authoritative-sounding value judgments on music and performances for the >95% of readers who did not attend the concerts being described, and often have little interest in post-concert assessments. Those assessments can, however, mean everything for performers without established names. Depending on their status, our contemporary music critics subtly emphasize their links with a mysterious circle of deeply informed cognoscenti by dropping names, arcane information and confident assessments like this piece from Porter.
“Who could have foreseen that ricky-tick minimalism, soupy neoromanticism, and holy monotony would be the next waves? In Palermo, individual voices – [Luigi] Nono, [Franco]Donatoni- sang strongly. Morton Feldman’s ‘False Relationships and the Extended Ending’ was an orderly, seductive piece.“
Less established classical music newspaper critics – who as a genre have been increasingly displaced by freelancers or removal of classical music columns from many papers altogether – seek to describe events vividly. When dealing with experimental or perhaps outright obnoxious music, they throw out hints such as that it is “controversial”, but they are usually cautious about either embracing or criticizing contemporary music.
Harold Schonberg made no bones about his views – especially his dismissal of serialism:
''I thought the serial-dominated music after the war was a hideously misbegotten creature sired by Caliban out of Hecate, and I had no hesitation in saying so.''
At other times he warned readers not to mistake Schonberg for Schoenberg.
He wrote books that revealed heavy-duty scholarship, but this was worn lightly and used not to enhance his credentials but rather to inform and entertain readers about great music and musicians of the past. These books took time and were not produced prolifically. They include The Great Conductors, The Great Pianists (1964, revised 1987), Lives of the Great Composers, Facing the Music (an anthology of essays on musical topics) and a biography of the great pianist, Vladimir Horowitz (1992). In his regular reviews Schonberg did not spend much time offering opinions about concerts that few readers attended, but rather provided insight and information that entertained while they added to music lovers’ knowledge.
Schonberg’s successor, Donal Henahan (1921-1912) was a decorated fighter pilot in World War II, after which he studied piano, voice, and classical guitar at the Chicago School of Music. He emulated to some degree Schonberg’s probing style and independence of view, uncovering, for example, that composer Charles Ives had cheated in claiming earlier dates for some of his works once he was recognized as an American musical pioneer. Henahan wrote no popular books but gained a Pulitzer Prize for music writing in 1986.
There are a few post 1960s “emancipated” music writers besides Schonberg who have not hesitated to call spades spades rather than digging implements. These include the late Henry Pleasants (1910-2000), Nicolas Tawa (1923-2011), and Samuel Lipman (1934-1994); and at times, Richard Taruskin (1945- ) and Terry Teachout (1956 -).
It’s hard not to envy music lovers of the past when I reflect on, for example, Henry Finck’s record of his meeting with Richard Wagner. Speaking in a direct and unassuming way to readers of his book as though to friends over coffee and brandy, Finck’s detailed account begins this way:
I was before the two great men [the other Wilhemj, the Fritz Kreisler of his day], took off my straw hat and told Wagner I had come all the way from America to write up the festival for the New York World and the Atlantic Monthly
A cloud passed over his face. “The newspapers have treated me shamefully”, he said, “I need no critics here”.
“But I am not a critic”, I protested. “only a young man of twenty-two who has come simply to describe the new works”
That placated him. “Very well”, he said. “have you a Patronatschein?”
“Three”, I answered proudly.
“I had made up my mind” he said, ”to admit no one to the rehearsals, not even Liszt. But I have admitted a few others, so you might as well come too”.