Music Criticism

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MUSIC CRITICISM. Diverse literary genres emerged in the early modern period that voiced opinion on works of music or their performance, and as such constituted the field of music criticism. The genres most commonly associated with such writing in the present day, the formal, critical review of a concert, opera, edition, or recording, were, however, only beginning. The main genre in music criticism as a whole was the essay, usually done in polemical terms.

It was unusual to write upon specific works or composers in any context prior to the middle of the eighteenth century. The study of music in philosophical and scientific theory by definition did not concern itself with music itself; the closest it normally got to musical practice was in the field of tuning. Treatises or handbooks on musical composition defined rules and practices; they only occasionally gave examples from particular works or discussed the style of any composer. (One exception might be noted: the commentaries of the Franco-Flemish theorist and composer Johannes Tinctoris upon the music of his contemporaries in Liber de arte contrapuncti of 1477.) Yet we know that a vigorous critical discourse took place among people involved in music. It can indeed be argued that the music review grew directly out of informal discourse in opera boxes, foyers, and salons.

The most important context within which publishing music criticism emerged at the turn of the eighteenth century was the "quarrel," a highly contentious dispute between intellectual factions. Such disputes, and the polemical essays written in their regard, were related to the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns, the debate over the authority of ancient sources in France and England in the 1690s, but took particular directions within the musical world. The first querelle in Paris arose over an essay contending the virtues of Italian music by François Raguenet in 1702 (La parallèle des italiens et des français, en ce qui regarde la musique et les opéras) and that of his critic Jean Laurent Le Cerf de la Viéville in 1704 (La comparaison de la musique italienne et de la musique française). Raguenet argued in acid, polemical terms that French music was stuck in an outdated style; Le Cerf called him a traitor to French musical tradition. Querelles broke out periodically in Paris, over Jean-Baptiste Lully in the 1730s, over a visiting Italian company (the Bouffons) in 17521754, and over the rivalry of Christoph Willibald von Gluck and Niccolò Piccinni in the 1770s. A parallel series of quarrels over Italian opera took place in London, begun by John Dennis in his 1706 Essay on the Operas after the Italian Manner and revived by a variety of authors through the 1730s.

Religious discourse also spawned critical commentary that played an important role in the evolution of public musical performance. In England in 1711 the Reverend Arthur Bedford, a colleague of Jeremy Collier in the movement against the theaters, called for great music of the past to serve as models for the present, a very new idea, in his influential Great Abuse of Musick. In France both orthodox and Jansenist writers claimed that sacred music was being secularized and attacked the growing practice by which churches put on public concerts for paying audiences.

Music criticism first took root in theoretical treatises and in periodicals in Germany, chiefly in Berlin and Leipzig. The main figures tended to be at odds with court musical life; they shaped a polemical discourse that laid the groundwork for the German intellectual leadership of musical life in the nineteenth century. Johann Mattheson began the tradition in Hamburg, originally in Das neueröffnete Orchestre (1713) and the periodical Critica Musica (17221725). Johann Forkel, organist at the University of Göttingen at the end of the century, wrote the first biography of Johann Sebastian Bach, but in one of his short-lived periodicals attacked the master's son Johann Christian Bach for pandering to the nobility and writing superficial music.

The burgeoning of periodicals during the eighteenth century brought practical music into a far closer relationship with other areas of written discourse than ever before. In the course of the century, treatment of music evolved from simple reportage to critical commentary. Lists of newly published works gradually took on a critical dimension, especially in the many German periodicals. Reports on opera and concerts at first only gave the names of works and performers, as well as details of notables present, but by the end of the century often had an important critical element. In some periodicals, the Mercure de France most notably, the author reported opinions supposedly voiced variously by the public and connoisseurs. Neither the author nor the connoisseurs he cited yet had strongly based intellectual authority. By 1800 critical reviews had developed the most fully in Parisian daily newspapers and in German music magazines. One senses a fully empowered reviewer in reading pieces on new opera productions in the French capital and reports on concerts in the Leipzig-based Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung.

Another important new authority that began to develop in music criticism during the eighteenth century was the canon. Prior to around 1700 there existed few repertories where old works were performed regularly in any sense as classics. That practice began first in England, in the performance of older works as "ancient music," and then in France as la musique ancienne. The querelle des bouffons was in fact fought over the entirely unprecedented authority that stage works by Jean-Baptiste Lully had acquired in their regular revivals. In Berlin the operas of Karl Heinrich Graun and Johann Adolf Hasse stayed on stage in similar terms. By the same token, commentary on the many performances of music by George Frideric Handel bestowed upon him a respect no composer had ever received. Throughout Europe, a new kind of canonic language thus began to develop in music criticism, whose only precedent was the honoring of masters such as Giovanni Palestrina and Girolamo Frescobaldi as pedagogical models. Nevertheless, in France and Germany the works did not stay on stage after the late 1780s, and a new movement of canonic taste began as music by Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven was established as "classical" internationally.

See also Ancients and Moderns ; Bach Family ; Gluck, Christoph Willibald von ; Handel, George Frideric ; Haydn, Franz Joseph ; Lully, Jean-Baptiste ; Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus ; Music ; Opera ; Palestrina, Giovanni Pierluigi da .


Cowart, Georgia. The Origins of Modern Musical Criticism: French and Italian Music, 16001750. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1981.

Ottenberg, Hans-Günther, ed. Der Critische Musicus an der Spree: Berliner Musikschrifttum von 1748 bis 1799: eine Dokumentation. Leipzig, 1984.

Weber, William. The Rise of Musical Classics in Eighteenth- Century England: A Study in Canon, Ritual, and Ideology. Oxford and New York, 1992.

William Weber