Critical Theory

Critics say the stangest things.

How about this, from James William Davidson, music critic of The Times from 1846:

He has certainly written a few good songs, but what then? Has not every composer that ever composed written a few good songs? And out of the thousand and one with which he deluged the musical world, it would, indeed, be hard if some half-dozen were not tolerable. And when that is said, all is said that can justly be said of Schubert.

Or this, by Louis Spohr, written in 1860 about Beethoven’s Ninth (“Choral”) Symphony

The fourth movement is, in my opinion, so monstrous and tasteless and, in it’s grasp of Schiller’s Ode, so trivial that I cannot understand how a genius like Beethoven could have written it.

No less an authority than  Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Fifth Edition) had this to say about Rachmaninov

Technically he was highly gifted, but also severely limited. His music is well constructed and effective, but monotonous in texture, which consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes…The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninov’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last and musicians regarded it with much favour.

And finally, Lawrence Gillman wrote this in the New York Tribune of February 13 1924 concerning George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue:

How trite and feeble and conventional the tunes are; how sentimental and vapid the harmonic treatment, under its disguise of fussy and futile counterpoint! Weep over the lifelessness of the melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive.

I think I’ve made my point. We all make errors of judgement and music critics are certainly no exception. The same no doubt goes for literary and art critics too. In fact,  I’m sure it would be quite easy to dig up laughably inappropriate comments made by reviewers across the entire spectrum of artistic endeavour. Who’s to say these comments are wrong anyway? They’re just opinions. I can’t understand anyone who thinks so little  of Schubert, but then an awful lot of people like to listen what sounds to me to be complete dross. There even appear to be some people who disagree with the opinions I expressed yesterday!

What puzzles me most about the critics is not that they make “mistakes” like these – they’re only human after all – but why they exist in the first place. It seems extraordinary to me that there is a class of people who don’t do anything creative themselves  but devote their working lives to criticising what is done by others. Who should care what they think? Everyone is entitled to an opinion, of course, but what is it about a critic that implies we should listen to their opinion more than anyone else?

(Actually, to be precise, Louis Spohr was also a composer but I defy you to recall any of his works…)

Part of the idea is that by reading the notices produced by a critic the paying public can decide whether to go to the performance, read the book or listen to the record. However, the correlation between what is critically acclaimed and what is actually good (or even popular) is tenuous at best. It seems to me that, especially nowadays with so much opinion available on the internet, word of mouth (or web) is a much better guide than what some geezer writes in The Times. Indeed, the   Opera reviews published in the papers are so frustratingly contrary to my own opinion that I don’t  bother to read them until after the performance, perhaps even after I’ve written my own little review on here.  Not that I would mind being a newspaper critic myself. The chance not only to get into the Opera for free but also to get paid for spouting on about afterwards sounds like a cushy number to me. Not that I’m likely to be asked.

In science,  we don’t have legions of professional critics, but reviews of various kinds are nevertheless essential to the way science moves forward. Applications for funding are usually reviewed by others working in the field and only those graded at the very highest level are awarded money.  The powers-that-be are increasingly trying to impose political criteria on this process, but it remains a fact that peer review is the crucial part of the process. It’s not just the input that is assessed either. Papers submitted to learned journals are reviewed by (usually anonymous)  referees, who often require substantial changes to be made the work can be accepted for publication.

We have no choice but to react to these critics if we want to function as scientists. Indeed, we probably pay much more attention to them than artists do of critics in their particular fields. That’s not to say that these referees don’t make mistakes either. I’ve certainly made bad decisions myself in that role,  although they were all made in good faith. I’ve also received comments that I thought were unfair or unjustifiable, but at least I knew they were coming from someone who was a working scientist.

I suspect that the use of peer review in assessing grant applications will remain in place for a some considerable time. I can’t think of an alternative, anyway. I’d much rather have a rich patron so I didn’t have to bother writing proposals all the time, but that’s not the way it works in either art or science these days.

However, it does seem to me that the role of referees in the publication process is bound to become redundant in the very near future. Technology now makes it easy to place electronic publications on an archive where they can be accessed freely. Good papers will attract attention anyway, just as they would if they were in refereed journals. Errors will be found. Results will be debated. Papers will be revised. The quality mark of a journal’s endorsement is no longer needed if the scientific community can form its own judgement, and neither are the monstrously expensive fees charged to institutes for journal subscriptions.

26 Responses to “Critical Theory”

  1. Artistic criticism makes sense as a attempt to engage the reader with a particular work. There are very few works that will appeal to everyone, so the reviewer is well disposed to write a review that will ensure those who will appreciate a work either go and experience it, or have their appreciation deepened; and those who won’t will be able to tell that they should stay away.

    Have you pursued Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise? It is an exceptional read and his reviews in the New Yorker are very engaging artistic critiques. In short, he is a good critic, and a pretty good answer to your question of why this ‘class of people’ should exist.

    And of course there a plenty of poor critics, who give you insight only into their tastes, which are uninteresting, rather than insight into the work. At least one of the examples you give above (I’m looking at you, Lawrence Gillman) use high-falutin’ language to disguise the reviewers’ attempt to do this. So perhaps it is interesting to ask why poor critics today people keep their jobs… but, no, that’s because the publications that they are writing in care about eyeballs on advertisements.

    In an attempt to illustrate my point, here is another negative review of a work that has proven enduringly popular:

    “The basic problem, however, must be placed at the feet of Mr. Adams’s score. He writes in a mechanical, modular manner that a fairly intelligent computer could be programmed to duplicate.”

    With hindsight, we can see that the reviewer, in fact, had no idea what he was talking about, notwithstanding the great advances in computational power since 1987.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:


    You wrote: “Who’s to say these comments are wrong anyway? They’re just opinions.”

    I’m not prepared to comment on the specific examples you gave, but there surely is such a thing as good and bad in music, art, theatre etc – otherwise a 5-year old improvising in his second piano lesson is as great a composer as Beethoven, and the apocalyptic short story I wrote in primary school about the sea turning to jelly makes me as great a novelist as Tolstoy. Reductio ad absurdum.

    Critics have two tasks: to do their best to elucidate what makes for good and bad art; and to apply their best understanding to specific works of art so as to help others appreciate those pieces better. I woud like to suggest that these are their ONLY valid roles. I can certainly think of some critics who have justified themselves in the latter capacity as far as I am concerned (eg, Dorothy L Sayers’ notes on Dante’s Divine Comedy).


  3. telescoper Says:

    I agree with the comments that say that there is a role for people who explain and enhance the understanding of art and music. There’s a lot of music that I enjoy now largely because of reading about it and persevering. I think you often get a lot more out music if you’re prepared to put something in, and it’s a great help to be led along the way by someone who both knows about and loves their subject. The problem is that it seems to me very few critics do this.

    There’s a similarly important role to be played in science exposition too, incidentally.

    It’s difficult to apply objective criteria to art, because it is always challenging its own boundaries. Neither can you rely on mere popularity to tell you what’s good. Many works now regarded as classics were hated by either public or critics (or both) at the time they were produced.

    I think Miles Davis was a great musician, but JS Bach might have had a hard time understanding Kind of Blue . I’m not sure about that though. Bach loved to improvise, and I have a suspicion he would have liked Jazz. After all, he basically invented the walking bass!

  4. John Peacock Says:

    Spohr wrote some very fine music indeed, particularly his chamber works. You should try the octet and nonet (the finale of the latter was a radio 3 theme tune for many years, so you would probably recognise it). And you can see his point about the finale of the 9th: it’s a radical experiment, which is at times highly successful, but at others just odd. I’ve never been convinced by the passages for solo quartet, and most conductors just seem to want to get the closing pages out of the way as fast as they can. So I suppose my point is that even past criticism that we now regard as misplaced can arise from undue emphasis on points that are valid in themselves.

    And for what it’s worth, any time I’ve heard music by John Adams, I also find it uninterestingly mechanical and formulaic – leaving aside the question of whether a computer could achieve the same effect. Minimalism strikes me as a retreat from the challenge of writing genuinely original music into the safety of a formula. This can work sometimes (the cantus firmus mass, sonata form), but one can point to serialism and neoclassicism as other examples of formulaic failure. The early works by Schoenberg are among the greatest music ever written (Verklarte Nacht, Gurrelieder), but the 12-tone stuff just doesn’t move me. Ditto Stravinsky: after the great early ballets, it’s as if he just didn’t know what to do next.

    So actually, Peter, here’s the antiparticle to your comment: excessive critical veneration of stuff that is not good. The only decent thing Stravinsky wrote after going neoclassical was Pulcinella (where he was using existing material by Pergolesi). And yet everyone talks about his later output in tones of awe. Are there other cases where the emperor may be lacking clothes?

    • telescoper Says:


      I plead ignorance on Spohr’s own music, but his comments on Beethoven’s 9th haven’t predisposed me towards him.

      I really enjoy most of John Adams’ music, especially Nixon in China but also his setting of Walt Whitman’s The Wound Dresser. I think minimalism had something interesting to say, although I find a lot of Philip Glass tedious and pedestrian. Adams isn’t entirely a minimalist composer anyway.

      I always think you should judge composers by their best work rather than their worst, so both Schoenberg and Stravinsky are high in my estimation despite producing some things I don’t like. There’s good 12-tone music and bad, of coure, and when it’s bad and atonal it’s pretty bad.

      What you say about critics often liking stuff which is “bad” just underlines my point that it’s difficult to be objective. Only time will tell what is great and what isn’t.

      There is so much music out there that if you approach it with an open mind you can turn up something new and interesting virtually every day. And who cares if nobody else likes it?


  5. telescoper Says:


    I can think of many examples from Bach’s keyboard work where the left hand figures are very like a walking bass line. You can hear it in the opening Aria from the Goldberg variations, for example.


  6. Bryn Jones Says:

    The composer Sibelius famously said, “Pay no attention to what critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic.”

    Some composer, conductor and critic by the name of Rene Leibowitz in turn described Sibelius as “the worst composer in the world”. Leibowitz is today mostly remembered for making that stupid comment.

    As for scientific refereeing, submitting to Nature is an interesting experience because the journal uses two independent referees. I once got a patronising, dismissive report from one referee, while the other was adulatory, almost embarassing. This shows that there is a lot of noise in the refereeing process.

  7. There is quite a difference between expressing a personal opinion and saying something like ‘all harpsichords should be burned’ or ‘period instruments play out of tune’ … the first is akin to calling for book-burning, the second is a factual claim which may have been true in the 60’s and 70’s but is absolutely not today. Careful you don’t get sued for defamation by some period instrument orchestra.

    You can say ‘I don’t like X’ and no-one can claim your opinion is right or wrong – but opinions can be based either on knowledge, or the lack of it. If the last time you actually listened to a harpsichord or viola da gamba (or whatever) was 20 years ago …

  8. Anton Garrett Says:

    OK everybody who says that period instrument performances have improved in the last 30 years – how? I’m willing to be educated, but am sceptical. You can’t improve the tuning, because the primary frequency was surely tuned correctly in performances 3 decades ago and you can’t then do anything about the overtones, which differ from those of modern instruments in a way that Peter and I dislike.

    Just to be controversial, I’ll bet that Beethoven, at least, would prefer his symphonies on modern-instrument modern-size orchestras.


  9. Hi Anton,

    It’s probably more about the way in which the instruments are played than about the instruments themselves. Don’t forget that it’s possible to make an excruciating sound with a modern violin – you should hear me try to play one! And, as someone else commented, modern-instrument performances of Baroque music have changed enormously over the past 30 years as well, largely thanks to the period-instrument gang.

    And Beethoven was deaf 🙂


  10. Anton Garrett Says:

    Anthony: You wrote, “It’s probably more about the way in which the instruments are played than about the instruments themselves… modern-instrument performances of Baroque music have changed enormously over the past 30 years as well, largely thanks to the period-instrument gang.”

    Perhaps, but my question stands: HOW? Specifics please!


  11. Probably best to give examples – I’ll see what Youtube has to offer later on…

    But to give some specific gross generalisations for how things have changed over the past 30 years…

    Period-instrument performances: more competent, more soul.

    Modern-instrument (Baroque) performances: more energy, less ponderous.


  12. Okay, here’s a modern-instrument comparison, of Bach’s Orchestral Suite no. 3 (i):

    1962, Karl Richter

    2008, Paul McCreesh

    And a period-instrument comparison, of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, first movement:

    1984(?), Nikolas Harnoncourt

    c2000, John Eliot Gardiner


  13. telescoper Says:

    That reminds me I forgot to mention how awful period flutes sound too…

  14. John Peacock Says:

    Anton, you seem to be arguing that people shouldn’t play any better in tune today because the instruments haven’t changed. But what has changed is the time that people devote to them. Bear in mind that the standards of good intonation are extremely demanding: your ear can tell if someone is out by even a few % of a semitone (which itself is only a 6% change in frequency) – so musicians have to control pitch systematics to close to 1 in 1000 precision. With strings, this is done entirely by ear, which is rather impressive.

    But stringed instrument playing in period bands was always good; the problem is the winds. Even good modern wind instruments with lots of mechanism will have notes that are out of tune by 5-10% of a semitone. (see discussion at You have to learn which they are and lip them into pitch. Early instruments are much worse, and the vanilla fingering will often give a note that is out by 30% of a semitone. So a huge amount of error correction is needed, and it takes a lot of practice. When period bands were getting going, they tended to use good modern players who temporarily took up the old instruments, and this doesn’t work: you need to specialise. In the past, the best players wouldn’t want to specialise in this area – but now they do. The difference this makes is obvious when you listen to e.g. any of the late-70s records of the academy of ancient music.

    With brass, the problem is different again. They play on a harmonic series, but the notes of this are not always in tune with a given scale, and again need lip bending. Worse, the harmonic spacing only becomes usably small in frequency rather high up the series – so you have to play high, and there is a constant danger of hitting the wrong harmonic (splitting). Modern instruments avoid this by valves that change the pipe length. I know from direct experience that modern players took a long time to adapt to valveless brass. I heard a prom in 1980 where the academy of ancient music did Handel’s water music. The horns were splitting all over the place – several dozen fluffs in the space of 15 minutes. I heard the same piece just the other night, and there were zero splits, even though the horns were improvising ornamentation that would have been considered impossibly difficult 30 years ago.

  15. John Peacock Says:

    Peter: I tend to agree on period flutes, which often don’t inspire. But I hope you agree that period oboes sound hugely better than modern ones in e.g. Bach & Handel.

  16. Anton Garrett Says:

    John: I appreciate the details; thanks. What you say seems to me to confirm the superiority of modern instruments, however!

  17. John Peacock Says:

    Anton: mechanical superiority is not necessarily a good thing. You can buy electronic “wind controllers” that let you waggle your fingers as if you were playing a real instrument, but the tone is always perfect and tuning exact (or, rather, equal tempered – which is not the same thing). To me, this is cheating: mountaineering with a GPS rather than learning to read a map.

    So it’s an interesting question when mechanical improvement spoils the fun. I think people would once have said that the early wind/brass instruments were so bad that you spend all your time fighting them, rather than thinking about music. But clearly there is pleasure to be gained if you can overcome these problems and achieve musical aims. It’s a bit like rock climbers forswearing pitons and taking pride in getting to the top the natural way. But of course, this is just the performer’s view. It’s the listener who pays the bills – so in this analogy it’s essential that the climber doesn’t fall.

    • telescoper Says:


      A propos my little post about the transcription of Coltrane’s Giant Steps, I wonder if you can explain why it is that clarinets evolved into the modern Bb transposing instruments? Presumably they didn’t start out like that. I’ve played on an A clarinet but never seen one in concert pitch. I’ve also tried to play a C-melody saxophone but didn’t like it at all.


  18. John Peacock Says:


    The clarinet story is complicated – part history, part acoustics. In early days, many instruments came in various keys to simplify fingering. These died out as mechanisms improved. Mozart wrote his concerto in A; given his dominant stature, this froze the A clarinet as a standard (reinforced by Brahms with his quintet). But flat keys on an A clarinet are tough, so you need another one (all clarinettists use a pair). Now, why is this not the one in C? The fact is that the longer ones sound better: more mellow, less shrill. Even the Bflat is a bit less nice than the A. The piccolo Eflat is a piercing pigsqueal of a instrument, and the C has quite a bit of that character. Mahler & Strauss use all of them, explicitly to exploit these different characters.

    Now, the higher instruments are all scale models, so how can the sound vary? Two reasons, I think: the player’s mouth cavity doesn’t change, so that breaks scale invariance. Also, the harmonic balance for a given note on the C clarinet should be similar to that of a lower note on the A or Bflat. But the high harmonics that make a sound unpleasant are less distressing to the ear on a lower note. One solution would be to build a C clarinet with the same bore diameter as the A – but then your fingers would all be further up the tube, and extra mechanism (or more fingers!) would be needed to open/close holes lower down the tube.

    Why all this doesn’t apply to the oboe or flute isn’t clear, I agree. But in the end, you can’t calculate what will sound good – you just have to accept what your ears tell you.

    By the way, on your Coltrane transcription: if you’d ever looked at the notes for something like Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto, you wouldn’t think what Coltrane was doing was especially hard. But the critical difference is that Coltrane was just creating it out of his head rather than just reading dots. That takes real musicianship – and although jazz isn’t really my thing, I have a huge respect for people who can improvise in this way.

    • telescoper Says:

      I thought it wouldn’t be straightforward! From what I’ve heard myself I’d agree with you that the A clarinet has a warmer tone than the usual B-flat one.

      I don’t know whether reeds have changed much over the years either. I find it makes a big difference on tenor sax what kind of reed you use.

      I once saw a film of John Coltrane playing. It was hard to escape the feeling that if he had taken the horn out of his mouth it would have just kept playing on its own.

  19. How many clarinetists does it take to change a lightbulb?

    Only one, but he’ll go through a whole box of bulbs before he finds just the right one.

    I’m not sure about the flute, but there are transposing oboes that have been used – e.g., the oboe d’amore is an oboe in A and the cor anglais is pitched in F.


  20. […] was also reminded of Traherne’s poetry when John Peacock commented on another recent post because it was he that introduced me to the truly wonderful musical settings of some of […]

  21. […] all the griping about musical taste  in two of my earlier posts this week (here and here), it’s probably good to put something up which I think is a masterpiece. You may, of course, […]

  22. […] time for a proper post today so I’m going to rehash an old piece from about six years ago. In particular I direct your attention to the final paragraph in which I predict that peer review […]

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