I: Objectivity

These days, the arts and culture section of the national German daily for which I was fortunate—and on some days unfortunate—to be able to write for twenty years and eight months has almost ceased to contain the little word “I”. The reason: its new editor in chief, more beholden to the objective sciences than the fine arts, isn’t fond of seeing his authors write in first-person singular. Facts, facts, facts! A journalist has to remain objective. And especially when “you” voice an opinion, it should—as a generalisable one—be well founded enough and come close enough to objective reality that “you” can presume to speak for everyone and not just, in a relative and individual sense, for yourself.

In matters of art, however, proving statements is a tricky proposition—and it’s most sensitive of all, if not impossible, in the emotive art of music. All manner of musical things can indeed be measured, of course—like durations, frequencies, tempi, and so on, and there exists a well-established and refined analytical terminology to facilitate description of musical works and performances. But all that remains rather superficial, and if used as one’s sole tools of music criticism, this terminology quickly loses its edge. “We” can’t hope to get to the bottom of expression and message, content and effect via this route alone. Robert Schumann, the music critic and composer, assumed that “notes are a higher order of words”. He distinguished critics, who sensed and perhaps grasped this vague “higher” quality, from reviewers who contented themselves with sorting out note lengths and intervals. Schumann writes: “Critics and reviewers differ; the former stand closer to the artist, the latter to the artisan.” Schumann himself was a bit of both: as a critic, he was subjective and a paragon of empathy, a true embodiment of his fictitious alter-ego Florestan; as a reviewer, he was Florestan’s likewise fictitious brother Eusebius, a paragon of sobriety.

The great German literary and music critic Joachim Kaiser, who came to be as good as forgotten during his own lifetime—such that the realisation of what had been lost hit quite suddenly and painfully when he passed away in 2017—always wrote Florestan-like and in the first person as a matter of course. Other great music critics such as Gerhard Rohde, who died in 2015, never wrote “I”—they preferred the royal “we”. But do I think that those of us who have survived them should attempt to lower the bar back down to Schumann’s level: the music critic of 2018, insofar as he or she actually still exists somewhere amidst the digital revolution’s irritations and tribulations, would be well advised to write as objectively as possible and as subjectively as necessary. At the Music Journalist Academy in Heidelberg, where I go every spring to train young music critics, there exists no fundamental ban on the word “I”. And the plurale majestatis is also allowed. Participants should write in a way that feels natural to them. But in view of how inflationary the general “I”-chatter on Twitter and Instagram has now become, I do recommend to our Academy scholars that they limit their use of the first-person singular, handling it like one would chilli or something similarly intense in the kitchen: with good sense.

II: Crisis and Ratings

Joachim Kaiser gave his autobiography, which he dictated in 2008 (just like he’d always dictated everything), a title possessed of his very own brand of grandeur spiced with a pinch of the polemic: Ich bin der letzte Mohikaner [I Am the Last Mohican]. Of course, for that matter, the music critic Paul Bekker had already assumed himself to be the last of his breed back in the 1920s. Music criticism, after all, has been in crisis for as long as it’s existed. But since the beginning of our millennium, when print media’s business model began disintegrating as advertisers shifted their focus to the online world, the tried-and-true forms of bourgeois public life have been crumbling away while new media have thrived, turning all forms of journalistic commerce inside-out—and in this, music criticism’s crisis has for the first time become an existential one.

It’s not for nothing that people nowadays consistently prefer to speak of “music journalism”. Subsumed beneath this term, music criticism lingers on as a dying specialised skill that annoys and disturbs. It’s quite definitely the case that criticising the delicate, ephemeral, memory-laden, and insubstantial art of music, be it with regard to a work or a work’s interpretation and performance, only ever causes trouble. It angers the criticised musicians and their agents. It annoys music consumers who’ve grown used to seeking relaxation at concerts and to being pleasantly distracted by Schumann’s Träumerei in everyday life, like when riding a lift or at the dentist’s office. It’s a thorn in the eyes of streaming services that offer symphonies chopped up into “songs”. And it’s vexing to arts and culture editors and publishers whom the crisis has forced to constantly worry about readership: music criticism, as a “special interest” and a discursive textual form, requires far more (expensive) layout real estate but binds far fewer readers to the paper than, say, a story about Bitcoin, tax hikes, or Angelina Jolie’s breast surgery. Topics like this last one, by the way, are part of the expanded present-day notion of culture. Music criticism, however, as a way of dealing with an art form; as the expression of a subjective opinion on it that is based on objective grounds (that are also explained) and perhaps even on a critical consciousness that is itself based on knowledge of the repertoire, a musical horizon, and practical musical experience; as a summons and a challenge to become familiar with something new, experienced, heard … these days, no music journalist is expected to deliver an overall package like this one. And anyone with the ability to do so would, in fact, be hopelessly overqualified.

Six years ago, the Austrian music magazine Österreichische Musikzeitschrift published a special issue entitled Musikkritik – ein Anachronismus? [Music Criticism – An Anachronism?]. In 2013, Musik & Ästhetik reformulated the question: “Schafft sich die Musikkritik selbst ab?“ [Is music criticism abolishing itself?] And it was in the simple past tense with a “once upon a time” sort of tone that Cornelius Hell, who writes for periodicals including Quart and has asked and long since answered the same question for himself, ascertained: “Arguments and criteria were the very heart of criticism. And music criticism was the first kind of criticism to go; these days, it typically limits itself to operas.”

III: Praise and Derision

Hell is unfortunately right about this. Only in opera reviews—their shrinking length notwithstanding—is true criticism still taking place. Sometimes brutally. To be sure, this discourse is less about musical matters—it’s more about visual factors, the directing, the extras used onstage. In all other categories of music criticism, however, one hardly still finds truly negative reviews in the classic sense—those that feel obliged to report on something considered a failure; that argue and criticise; that specify reasons not to attend something. Instead, one mainly sees endorsements … 24/7, via all channels, in blogs and on the radio, in the papers and the specialist magazines. A music journalist’s job in 2018—in the era of digital transformation, in the information age, in service of ratings, and under the whip of crisis—is to uncritically recommend, to moderate, to advertise, to convey, to interview, to present, to announce, to praise, to serve media partnerships, and to provide rankings and tips. Praise! Praise! Praise! I’m frequently amazed that this redundant, non-stop cheering about everything (or, for that matter, nothing) doesn’t seem to bore anyone. If everything’s really so great! All so unquestionably fresh! Never seen before! And if all the young cellists and sopranos, whoever they may be, are so unassailably first-class and authentic, why should I still bother going to hear them?

The job of the music critic, as I’ve been doing it for nigh on forty years now—partly freelance and partly as a regular employee, like the vast majority of my colleagues—brings with it many joys. But also numerous hardships. Three hours of sleep typically have to suffice. “Weekend” and “vacation” are largely unfamiliar concepts. And for texts as long as the one you’re reading right now, it typically takes six to eight hours of pure writing time at an average hourly wage of eleven Euros before taxes, and that’s not even including time for research or preparation. One can’t live from it. Nor is it healthy. And I know of no music critic who’s ever gotten rich from it. What’s more, music critics are professional listeners who write about what they’ve heard for others, something at which they don’t always succeed. And music critics are fallible, just like everyone else. But evening after evening, they’re there live, with every lively musical event new and different, full of contradictions. And that is our great fortune.


Eleonore Büning

is a music critic and has written for media including taz (Berlin), Die Weltwoche (Zurich), Die Zeit, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAZ Sunday Edition).

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