Schonberg, Harold Charles

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Schonberg, Harold Charles

(b. 29 November 1915 in New York City; d. 26 July 2003 in New York City), influential Pulitzer Prize—winning classical music critic of the New York Times and the author of several books on composers, conductors, pianists, and other performers.

Born in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City’s Upper West Side, Schonberg was the son of David Schonberg, a salesman, and his wife, Minnie (Kirsch) Schonberg. Both of his parents were immigrants who settled in New York City. Schonberg grew up in Brooklyn, the oldest of three known children including one brother and one sister.

As an adult Harold wrote that his father had been an avid record collector; David Schonberg recalled that his son could “memorize” music on the recordings even before he could read. The boy played the piano from early childhood and was encouraged by an aunt, who was one of his early teachers and had had a professional career as Alice Frisca during the 1920s.

“I had a strange sort of disease. Music was always in my head, waking, and apparently sleeping, and so it is today,” Schonberg wrote in his 1981 book, Facing the Music, which is a collection of his Sunday columns for the New York Times.

Schonberg wrote that his long, constant preoccupation with music annoyed many of his schoolteachers. He claimed to have known that he wanted to be a music critic by age twelve, from the time he attended a Metropolitan Opera performance of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. “I had a critical mind from the beginning,” he wrote. “A critical mind is constantly asking questions, probing, reading, comparing, trying to work out a rationale.”

As a college undergraduate Schonberg had his first article published in 1936 in a monthly magazine called Musical Advance. He was offered a regular column. Schonberg earned an AB at Brooklyn College, graduating cum laude in 1937, and an AM from New York University in 1938.

The bespectacled, cigarette-smoking, chess-playing journalist signed on in 1939 with the American Music Lover, a monthly publication that evolved into the American Record Guide. “The magazine was a two-man operation,” Schonberg wrote. “I was assistant editor, record critic, feature writer, typist, proofreader, makeup man, floor sweeper and I loved every minute of it.” On 28 November 1942 Schonberg married Rosalyn Krokover, a dance critic for the Musical Courier as well as the author of books on dance. The couple was married for thirty-one years until her death in 1973.

Schonberg served for four years in World War II—not as a pilot as he had intended, but as a code breaker and paratrooper. He attained the rank of first lieutenant in the U. S. Army Airborne Signal Corps, serving through January 1946. That fall Schonberg began working as a music critic for the New York Sun. He volunteered to cover city-side news and features as well. Years later he attributed his facility at filing reviews on deadline to his hard-news training. Schonberg also worked as a contributing editor for the Musical Digest during 1946–1948.

Schonberg began his long career with the New York Times in 1950. He was named record editor in 1955 and chief music critic five years later. Schonberg won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1971, the first music critic to do so. He served as the New York Times’s chief music critic until 1980, when he became a cultural correspondent. Schonberg also contributed numerous literary reviews of books, especially crime fiction, to the New York Times under the pseudonym Newgate Callendar.

Schonberg had widespread influence as a critic, and yet he wrote that he considered his coverage mainly “informed opinion.” His overnight reviews were terse, his Sunday pieces more in-depth. A specialist on the piano and historical performance practice, Schonberg disliked jazz and wrote that serialist music—with themes derived from the twelve notes of a chromatic scale—was “a hideously misbegotten creature.” Although Schonberg was an unabashed classical music lover, he did not consider himself a cheerleader for musicians. He preferred to keep a professional distance.

Apart from his newspaper work Schonberg spent considerable time researching and writing books. As a pianist he described himself as “capable,” but when he wrote The Great Pianists (1963) he more than capably captured the essence of skilled keyboardists through history, from the baroque harpsichordist and organist Johann Sebastian Bach, to the “modernists” Sergei Rachmaninoff and Josef Hofmann, to the “dazzling” Vladimir Horowitz. In 1985 Schonberg wrote The Glorious Ones: Classical Music’s Legendary Performers, including some of the pianists from his previous volume as well as the emotion-charged conductor Leonard Bernstein and the opera singers Maria Callas, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti. The third edition of Schonberg’s The Lives of the Great Composers was completed in 1997, when the author was in his early eighties. It spans nearly four centuries of music, from the opera pioneer Claudio Monteverdi to “the new eclecticism,” including minimalists, neoromanticists, and “advance atonal” composers.

In addition to music Schonberg was passionate about chess, covering the well-known matches between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in 1972 and between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov in 1984. He wrote Grandmasters of Chess in 1973.

On 10 May 1975 Schonberg married Helene Cornell. They were married until her death in May 2003. Two months later Schonberg died at Saint Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan of congestive heart failure. He was eighty-seven years old.

As to Schonberg’s legacy, he wrote in Facing the Music that “At best a critic can do nothing more than throw ideas around and make his readers think. Each critic has his strengths and weaknesses, and each follows his particular vision.”

The introduction to Facing the Music contains significant information about the author and his work. One of the columns in the book, “A Critic Reflects on Forty-four Years in the Business,” details his philosophy and experiences as a critic. Obituaries are in the New York Times (27 July 2003) and Washington Post and Los Angeles Times (both 28 July 2003).

Whitney Smith