In Defense of Music Critics

“Ignore what the critics say. No one ever made a statue of a critic.”

So said Jean Sibelius to his colleague Bengt von Törne. Composers have always led, with critics and then music theorists then eventually coming to understand, in analytical terms, what the composers have devised in their creative work. So creative thought is a higher order of intellectual activity than analytical thought; but what about the work of critics? What is the value of criticism?

In his foreword to Aaron Copland’s What to Listen for in Music, William Schuman wrote that, “We expect a fine composition brilliantly performed, but how often do we think that it should also be brilliantly heard?” Music is communication between performers and listeners. A listener who can’t understand what a performer communicates causes this communication to fail; no music takes place. (Of course, the performers themselves are usually listeners, too; but this is not always so. For example, in a poor acoustic, members of a large orchestra are often unable to hear much of the piece they’re performing, beyond the parts being played within their section.) Listening is a skill, therefore, and as essential in the creation of music as are composition and performance.

The critic, then, is a listener who is able to communicate in words the experience of one who “brilliantly hears.” Critics offer us the formal expression of the role that skilled listeners play in creating music.

(One other note: I think that music criticism tends to approach its subject in a way that makes more sense than film criticism. We don’t send classically trained opera critics to appraise punk rock shows, but that’s exactly what happens in film criticism. Writers trained to assess the merits of Lawrence of Arabia are routinely sent to review summer blockbusters and shoot-em-ups, and they tend to miss the point just as completely as would the opera critic at the punk rock show.)

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