Given the overwhelming volume of reviews and essays published in newspapers, periodicals, blogs and specialist journals across the world over the course of hundreds of years, compiling a ‘history’ of music criticism is an ambitious project.
Yet, as editor Christopher Dingle puts it in his introduction to The Cambridge History of Music Criticism, the history of music criticism can be thought of as an “alternate history” of music, focusing on those who chronicle and critique it. As he points out, for all its limitations as a benchmark of the success (or otherwise) of a piece of music or performance, “music criticism frequently provides the only record of what actually happened and even how it sounded.”
While Jean Sibelius famously claimed no statues were erected to honour critics, classical music enthusiasts may nonetheless be familiar with the names of better-known critics such as the much-quoted Eduard Hanslick of Vienna, or the likes of Hector Berlioz, Ethel Smyth and Peggy Glanville-Hicks who wrote criticism in addition to composing music.
This extensive compendium, however, starts by taking us back to the Middle Ages and the discourse on plainchant to be found in the correspondence of monks, in an opening chapter by Christopher Page. The book surveys the state of criticism from then on – focusing particularly on geographic areas or language groups, from Vienna to Singapore – through to the post World War II era.
The compendium is extensive. There are 34 chapters exploring topics such as music criticism in imperial Russia – in a chapter by Emily Frey – to chapters by Laura Hamer exploring the role of critics in the formation of musical canons, and gender in music criticism, respectively.
The book is – inevitably, given the topic’s breadth – certainly not comprehensive, and there is plenty of ground left to tread. Dingle acknowledges that this history doesn’t include folk music, musicals, film or television music (nor does it touch on video game music), though it does extend into jazz and pop criticism in later chapters. It is also largely confined to major centres – Australia, for instance, doesn’t warrant its own chapter (though Glanville-Hicks gets a mention, as does Neville Cardus’s stint writing for the Sydney Morning Herald).
This history more or less comes to a close at the turn of the 20th century. A number of chapters begin to touch on the effects of social media (the monks’ correspondence of the 21st century?) and the digital age, but the full effects of the online shift are still playing out today, and will no doubt be the subject of future research.
All in all, The Cambridge History of Music Criticism is an incredible resource in a field where much formal research is still to be done, and it will no doubt be an important springboard for further studies into this vast and fascinating topic.
The Cambridge History of Music Criticism
Edited by Christopher Dingle
Cambridge University Press, HB, 842pp
Available online from Booktopia