The Welsh National Opera production of Il Seraglio. © Johan Persson

The Critics Circle

My Dear Mozart

The plight of music criticism

Tom Sutcliffe

Published: 17/01/2011

“My dear Mozart, it is too exquisite for our ears; there are far too many notes in it.” History has not been kind to Emperor Joseph II’s recorded music criticism after attending a performance of The Seraglio. Mozart’s reply, without hesitation, was that he had written exactly as many notes as were necessary. Stendhal claimed that Mozart later felt the emperor had perhaps been partially right. But, of course, Joseph was in reality a fan not a critic, even if he took a quite critical  view on this occasion.

One of the difficulties for music critics, or rather for classical music critics, in the 21st century is that new music is a drag on the market. The classical music public is at best dutiful and more often simply resistant to new music and new opera. And that means only a small minority is going to care very much about the way “the critics” react to new serious musical works. Most so-called serious composers these days work in university music departments. There has grown to be a terrible separation between different kinds of music as the 20th century wore on. Melodies ceased to matter very much in the classical symphonic repertoire after the  Second World War. Indeed today it would not be possible to say there is any composer writing a series of symphonies or concertos about which the public is eager to learn. Which was not true with Prokofiev and Shostakovich in the Soviet Union. I am not saying there are no popular modern composers. John Adams and Thomas Adès each has a real following across the world. But they are very much the exception.

It is not healthy that the different music markets are so distinct these days. And the business of concert reviewing, too, has changed radically over the last 100 years since the days when Bernard Shaw was earning his bread and butter providing a newspaper with what he thought about last night’s concert - and mainly for two reasons. On the one hand live music has become a less necessary part of the wider public’s musical experience because of broadcasting and recordings as a result of which the audience can choose to love and enjoy music in an entirely private way, at home without stirring through the front door. In addition, the programmes of music that is being performed live in public - whether of vocal, choral, solo, chamber, or orchestral music - have generally become much more predictable and conventional. Which is a very good reason why newspapers no longer review the full spread of concerts in the capital. And that is something which members of the Critics Circle Music Section are not happy about.


 Music picture

The Welsh National Opera production of Il Seraglio
© Johan Persson


It’s true that live music is best, and that the discipline of listening and enjoying what you hear (when you cannot switch it off and on again later and have to concentrate in a “current-time” way) makes for a different sort of audience experience. Just the same, most of what is offered in concert programmes in a metropolis like London has been performed at much the same standard and even perhaps with the same artists on many previous occasions during the last decade or few.

As it happens, the whole business of concert-going is only a little over 200 years old. Before the “classical” era, music was mostly occasional - written for public diversion or acclaim, and of course much of it for the church or the princely courts. Listening to music that argues its way into your head is something comparatively recent. Most music that people heard and enjoyed in earlier days was song or dance. Not that such factors are entirely absent today.

And, of course, critics who are being paid to respond promptly (overnight - though that is rarer these days, because of how little attention is paid to new music) are in a mug’s game. Critics are commonly wrong in their initial reaction to something they have never heard or seen before. Though it is alas generally a safe bet that a new opera, say, is not going to be able to stand the competition from the operas of the past - all of which continue to be popular, especially the genius Puccini whose operas have never ceased to be the most popular of all, invariably bankable for opera companies, almost 90 years after his death.

So music critics have a tough time. But, then, the compensation is they mostly do really love their work. Indeed members of the public have been known to wonder whether it can be work at all.


Enquiries about the Critics' Circle should be made to the Hon Gen Sec Rick Jones by email or telephone 020 8698 2460.