What are critics for?

“Pay no attention to what the critics say. A statue has never been erected in honour of a critic.”

It was Jean Sibelius, enigmatic character and mighty composer, who put the above into words. But so say all of us, I expect.

Most people who know me know that, if I’ve done (or tried to do) something for you, the worst response you can make is to start by pointing out something I haven’t done. By all means tell me what I haven’t done, but not until you’ve said something nice. Try “thank you”, for example. It’s not a difficult phrase in most languages. I can even say it in Turkish – goes down a storm with the barbers and greengrocers round here.

So what are critics for, if not to pick holes? Well, that’s interesting. The starting point for this post was hearing of the recent death of Edward (Ted) Greenfield at the fine age of 86. He was the first music critic I was really aware of, reviewing classical recordings on what the Third Programme (now Radio 3) called Record Review (now CD Review), which I’ve listened to most Saturday mornings since (can it be that long?) 1967. Hearing what he said, and reading what he wrote in The Gramophone and The Guardian (whose touching obituary is well worth a read), I soon formed the impression that he must be in the pay of the companies whose offerings he reviewed: how could they be so relentlessly complimentary, so deferential, so … uncritical?

I was wrong. Over time it became clearer and clearer that he had a completely different approach from critics as a breed, the generality of whom are simply bound by the need to find something different to say, a solipsistic something which draws attention only to the critic. Greenfield commented, as he signed off on his career at The Guardian, that critics are “expected to be sour. I would much prefer it if, instead of ‘critic’, we could find a crisp word meaning ‘one who appreciates’ … My own consistent belief is that the music critic must aim at appreciation above all, trying never to let the obvious need for analysis in nitpicking detail get in the way of enjoyment … My aim always is to go to a concert, or put on a CD, wanting to like.”

And (here I go again) so say all of us. All of me, anyway.

Last week I went to one of the BBC Proms (world’s greatest music festival, no contest) and for £5 in total I had an excellent home-made salad while queuing, read a bit of my book, had an hour chatting to my best friend, got a place three rows from the front of the Arena, right in the middle, made polite conversation with the people standing around me, witnessed three outstanding pianists work their way through all five piano concertos of the C20th Russian composer Serge Prokofiev and, after three hours of the most exciting music making, bowled off home high and happy.

The newspaper reviews? The concertos are patchy, not Prokofiev’s best work, the pianists struggled with the brutal fingerwork, they programmed the pieces in the wrong order, all very well but only a well-resourced music festival could put on a sequence as mad as this. And the rest.

I daresay all those points are correct. I agree with some of them. But – as you will learn over time I suppose – one of the phrases I use most frequently is “being right isn’t the most important thing”. The fact was that the fantastic concentration and commitment of the soloists made for music making both intense and joyous, the astonishing virtuosity of the playing and the interaction between piano and orchestra set the air on fire, each of the five performances sent the audience into fresh paroxysms  – and the whole experience was an elevating voyage of discovery. Oh, and I predict that the youngest of the soloists, Daniil Trifonov, is destined for real greatness. And when Russia gives birth to a great pianist (think Emil Gilels, think Sviatoslav Richter, think – a quirky choice of mine – Samuil Feinberg) the whole of music feels the results.

After a lifetime’s passionate affair with music and the other arts my views are probably slanted, maybe unbalanced. But one thing I’ve learned, too often the hard way, is that while a discriminating spirit is very desirable, a critical spirit is not. It’s not especially useful to look for the trees rather than the wood. To set out primarily to find fault is not good for the soul. It’s not very clever just to be clever. So I have come to prefer the Greenfield approach: you’ve invested time and (usually) money in attending a live performance or listening to a recording, so why waste that by identifying only the bad? Why not start with the presumption that you are likely to find a lot to enjoy? Why not just be nice? You may surprise yourself.

And that is a lesson for relationships and for life.

I believe.


2 thoughts on “What are critics for?

  1. Thanks Alan, and good to hear from you. Quite a feat to play a whole symphony from memory and I wish I’d witnessed it: pass on my congratulations. Yesterday I was actually across the road at the ‘Proms Extra’ singing session on the Verdi Requiem – a FREE three hour masterclass with the fabulous Mary King as teacher. This whole festival is the BBC at its superb best, and if any meddling neanderthal politician dares to interfere with it I cannot predict what I will do. But, whatever it is, I will do it with my bare hands.


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