How to Become a Music Critic
George Bernard Shaw
This article appeared in the Scottish Music Monthly for December 1894
It was reprinted in the New York New Music Review for October 1912 and in Bernard Shaw, How to become a Music Critic, ed. Dan H. Laurence (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1960), pp. 1-6.
My own plan was a simple one. I joined the staff of a new daily paper as a leader writer. My exploits in this department spread such terror and confusion that my proposal to turn my attention to music criticism was hailed with inexpressible relief, the subject being one in which lunacy is privileged. I was given a column to myself precisely as I might have been given a padded room in an asylum; and from that time up to the other day--a period of nearly seven years--I wrote every week, in that paper or another, an article under the general heading "Music," the first condition of which was, as a matter of good journalism, that it should be as attractive to the general reader, musician or non-musician, as any other section of the paper in which it appeared. Most editors do not believe that this can be done. But then most editors do not know how to edit. The late Edmund Yates, who did, believed in a good music column as an important reinforcement to a journal. He placed a whole page of The World at the disposal of his music critic. And the success of this page proved that in the hands of a capable writer music is quite as good a subject from the purely journalistic point of view as either painting or the drama, whilst the interest taken in it is much more general than in party politics, the stock exchange, or even the police intelligence. Let me add that Edmund Yates had no more special interest in music than he had in chemistry; for young musical critics should be warned that of all editors for their purposes, the music-amateur editor is the very worst. Only, let me in justice add, too, that the critic who is a musical amateur and nothing else is equally objectionable.
It is quite clear that if music criticism is to win from all papers the space and consideration allowed it in The World, the critics must be persons of considerable accomplishment. There are three main qualifications for a music critic, besides the general qualification of good sense and knowledge of the world. He must have a cultivated taste for music; he must be a skilled writer; and he must be a practised critic. Any of these three may be found without the others; but the complete combination is indispensable to good work. Take up any of our music papers--those which are taken in by the organist as The Lancet is taken in by the doctor--and you will find plenty of articles written by men of unquestionable competence and even eminence as musicians. These gentlemen may write without charm because they have not served their apprenticeship to literature; but they can at all events express themselves at their comparative leisure as well as most journalists do in their feverish haste; and they can depend on the interest which can be commanded by any intelligent man who has ordinary powers of expression, and who is dealing with a subject he understands. Why, then, are they so utterly impossible as music critics? Because they cannot criticize. They set to work like schoolmasters to prove that this is "right" and that "wrong"; they refer disputed points to school authorities who have no more authority in the republic of art than the head master of Eton has in the House of Commons; they jealously defend their pet compositions and composers against rival claims like ladies at a musical at-home; they show no sense of the difference between a professor teaching his class how to resolve the chord of the dominant seventh and a critic standing in the presence of the whole world and its art, and submitting his analysis of the work of an artist whose authority is at least equal to his own. A man may have counterpoint at his finger ends; but if, being no more than a second-rate music teacher, he petulantly treats composers of European reputation as intrusive and ignorant pretenders who ought to be suppressed--a very different thing from genuine criticism, however unfavorable, of their works--he obviously puts himself out of the question as a member of the staff of any general newspaper or magazine.
It is not so easy to cite instances of writers who fail because, being critics, they have neither literary skill nor musical culture. A man cannot become an expert in criticism without practising an art of some kind; and if that art is not music, then he naturally confines himself to the art he is accustomed to handle, writing about it if he has the requisite literary faculty, and if not, teaching it. As to the literary artist who is neither musician nor critic, he has every inducement to devote himself to pure literature, like Mr Stevenson or Mr Rudyard Kipling, and no temptation whatever to eke out his income by sham musical criticism. But since, for the purposes of journalism, the literary qualification is the main one--since no editor who is supplied with entertaining "copy" ever asks whether it is criticism or gossip, or cares whether its technology is a bit sounder than the sham sailing directions given in Gulliver's ship, cases are not lacking of journalists taking the post of music critic merely because it is the only opening that presents itself, and concealing their deficiencies by plenty of descriptive reporting and scraps of news about music and musicians. If such a critic has critical and musical faculty latent in him, he will learn his business after some years; but some writers of this sort have not the faculty, and never learn.
It is worth remarking here--at least I cannot resist mentioning it--that the experienced editor has usually found the mere musician critic so useless on a paper, and the mere journalist critic so sufficient for all purposes, that the critic whose articles are at all readable by people who only read to be amused is usually suspected by his fellow journalists of being a musical impostor, a suspicion which reaches absolute certainty in the mind of his editor. When my own articles on music first began to attract some attention, the cream of the joke was supposed by many persons to be the fact that I knew nothing whatever about music. Several times it happened to me to be introduced to admirers who, on discovering from my reply to the question, "What put it into your head to write about music?" that I did so because it happened to be the art I knew most about, have turned away cruelly disappointed and disillusioned by this prosaic explanation, which seemed to rob my exploits of all their merit.
Even when the hypothesis of my total ignorance became untenable, I still used occasionally to encounter people who appealed to me to candidly admit that my knowledge of music did not extend to its technicalities. They missed, I imagine, the Mesopotamianism of the sort of music writing which parades silly little parsing exercises to impress the laity exactly as the performances of the learned pig impress the rustics at a fair.
A critic who does not know his business has two advantages. First, if he writes for a daily paper he can evade the point, and yet make himself useful and interesting by collecting the latest news about forthcoming events and the most amusing scandal about past ones. Second, his incompetence can be proved only by comparing his notice of a month ago with his notice of today, which nobody will take the trouble to do. Any man can write an imposing description of Madame Calve, or of Slivinski, but if you turn back to his description of Miss Eames or of Sapellnikoff, you will find, if he is no critic, that the same description did duty for them also, just as it did duty, before he was born, for Catalani and Pasta, Cramer and Czerny. When he attempts to particularize the special qualities of the artists he criticizes, you will find him praising Sarasate and Paderewski for exactly those feats which their pupils, Miss Nettie Carpenter and Miss Szumowska, are able to copy to the life. Whether he is praising or blaming, he always dwells on some of the hundred points that all players and executants have in common, and misses the final ones that make all the difference between mediocrity and genius and between one artist and another.
I know this by my own experience. Nearly twenty years ago a musician who wished to help me accepted a post as music critic to a London paper. I wrote the criticisms, and he handed the emoluments over to me without deduction, contenting himself with the consciousness of doing generously by a young and forlorn literary adventurer, and with the honor and glory accruing from the reputed authorship of my articles. To them I owe all my knowledge of the characteristics of bad criticism. I cannot here convey an adequate impression of their demerits without overstepping the bounds of decorum. They made me miserable at the time; but I did not know even enough to understand that what was torturing me was the guilt and shame which attend ignorance and incompetence. The paper, with my assistance, died, and my sins are buried with it; but I still keep, in a safe hiding place, a set of the critical crimes I contributed to it, much as a murderer keeps the bloodstained knife under which his victim fell. Whenever I feel that I am getting too conceited or am conscious of crediting myself with a natural superiority to some younger brother of the craft, I take myself down by reading some of that old stuff--though indeed the bare thought of it is generally sufficient. And yet neither in literary ability nor knowledge of music was I unpardonably deficient at that time. I should have been a very decent critic for my age, if only I had known how to criticize. Not knowing that, however, my musical knowledge and power of literary expression made me much more noxious than if I had been a mere newsman in music and a phrasemonger in journalism. When I broke out again, about ten years later, I had graduated as a critic, as a writer, and as a citizen (a most important item) by constant work as an author, a critic of books, pictures, and politics, a public speaker, and a social reformer, including the function of the wirepuller and committee man, as well as of the theorist and Utopian. All this had nothing to do with music; yet, in my music criticism, it made all the difference between an execrable amateur and a reasonably competent workman. I was enormously helped as a critic by my economical studies and my political practice, which gave me an invaluable comprehension of the commercial conditions to which art is subject. It is an important part of a critic's business to agitate for reforms; and unless he knows what the reforms will cost, and whether they are worth that cost, and who will have to pay the bill, and a dozen other cognate matters not usually included in treatises on harmony, he will not make any effective impression on the people with whom the initiative rests--indeed he will not know who they are. Even his artistic verdicts will often be aimed at the wrong person. A manager or an artist cannot be judged fairly by any critic who does not understand the economic bearings of profits and salaries. It is one thing to set up an ideal of perfection and complain as long as it is not reached; but to blame individuals for not reaching it when it is economically unattainable, instead of blaming the conditions which make it unattainable; or to blame the wrong person--for instance, to blame the artist when the fault is the manager's, or the manager when the fault is the public's--is to destroy half your influence as a critic. All the counterpoint or literary brilliancy in the world will not save a critic from blunders of this kind, unless he understands the economics of art.
I need say no more as to the accomplishments of a music critic, because I have already brought myself face to face with an economic difficulty in my own path. The emoluments of a music critic are not large. Newspaper proprietors offer men from a pound a week to five pounds a week for music criticism, the latter figure being very exceptional, and involving the delivery of a couple of thousand words of extra brilliant copy every week. And, except in the dead season, the critic must spend most of his afternoons and evenings, from three to midnight, in concert rooms or in the opera house. I need hardly say that it is about as feasible to obtain the services of a fully-qualified music critic on these terms as it would be to obtain a pound of fresh strawberries every day from January to December for five shillings a week. Consequently, to all the qualifications I have already suggested, I must insist on this further one--an independent income, and sufficient belief in the value of music criticism to sustain you in doing it for its own sake whilst its pecuniary profits are enjoyed by others. And since this condition is so improbable in any given case as to take my subject completely out of the range of the practicable, I may as well stop preaching, since my sermon ends, as all such sermons do, in a demonstration that our economic system fails miserably to provide the requisite incentive to the production of first-rate work.