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Becoming a classical music critic

By Sigurd Neubauer


“Talk about imposter syndrome; I have it,” says Fiona Maddocks with a laugh in response to what it takes to become a classical music critic. She’s one of Britain’s most influential ones, writing for The Observer, which is The Guardian’s sister publication.

Maddocks is also the founding editor of BBC Music Magazine as well as of Channel 4 and The Independent.

Now, the celebrated music journalist is out with a new book on Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943); Goodbye Russia: Rachmaninoff in Exile (Faber, 2023). We have covered her book in a separate interview.

Maddocks is also the author of Hildegard of Bingen, Harrison Birtwistle: Wild Tracks and Music for Life

“I’ve wanted to be a music critic ever since my early teens,” Maddocks explains but emphasizes that she’s not a musicologist. “I studied music but thought that finding words for describing music is very difficult; by learning how to play the piano, I was hoping that mastering an instrument would provide me with some insights as I thought people needed encouragement to appreciate classical music.”

On what it takes to appreciate it, the music journalist per excellence puts it bluntly: “What people have to do is to listen,” she says while underscoring that her objective as a critic is to use her writing “as a bridge to those who want to listen.”

Maddocks is the chief music critic at The Observer; and the author of numerous biographies 

Overcoming stereotypes  

As we have argued in a separate essay, the world of opera – as well as of classical music – can be a wonderful place. 

For those who are new to it, finding the “right” opera will be of utmost importance for the curious explorer to better understand the artform and over time develop a passion for it. Not all operas are created equal, of course. Simply being introduced to the “wrong” opera on a first outing can deter the best intentioned among us from ever returning.

The same applies, of course, to the world of classical music. Classical music, unfortunately, does have a stigma to it as it is often perceived as “out-of-date” or even “elite,” she explains.

Responding to why classical music has a stigma, Maddocks responds by providing the following anecdote: “It is like asking about literature in one’s own language, except for that one never would. One must have the confidence to say that I like Charles Dickens (1812- 1870) but I am not so keen on George Elliot (1819-1880).”

When it comes to music, she emphasizes, it is somehow different. “If people feel that they don’t speak a musical language, but perhaps they initially don’t like the sound of something but perhaps they would get to like it more if they listened to it more because they have already switched off and determined that it is not for them.”

Appreciating music takes time and effort and is not easy.

Most of the major cities around the world have a local classical radio station, illustrating that a global interest in the artform exists

“Appreciating it is a difficult thing because it takes time to explore it. In contrast, it only takes a few seconds to look at a painting to decide whether one likes it or not. But with music, it is more complicated,” she explains. “If a symphony lasts 40 minutes, one has to give himself 40 minutes.”

To drive home her point, Maddocks points to her experience as the founding editor of BBC Music Magazine, which launched in September 1992. “My publisher used to put CDs on the cover. Once we included one by Anthon Bruckner(1824-1896), she decried it as ‘too long.’ She wasn’t a musical person, but I advised her that one must give the music the time that it gives you,” the music critic recalls. 

But the interest in opera and classical music is there. Most of the major cities around the world have a local classical radio station, illustrating that a global interest in the artform exists.

In Britain, for instance, The English National Opera recently performed Das Rheingold, the first part of Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) four-opera Ring Cycle, which was completely sold out. And so too was Philip Glass’ Akhnaten, Maddocks points out. 

She’s also critical of her own music industry, especially when it equates “opera as elitist,” which is, she argues, “an assumption that needs to be challenged.”

Much of it has to do with the fact that attending a sporting event and/or a rock concert could be more expensive than a night out at the opera or at the local concert hall.

Eleanor Dennis, Katie Stevenson, Idunnu Münch starring in the Wagner's Das Rheingold. Photo credit: Marc Brenner/ the English National Opera (ENO), 2023

Responding to what the criteria are for evaluating a performance as a music critic, Maddocks reveals that it is “never an absolute” as to whether it is “good or bad.”

Instead, she explains, the reviewer must assess what the performer is trying to do and whether “it is working for me. If not, what is it?”

If the reviewer doesn’t like the experience, “it is probably not because of technical reasons – such as the singer not hitting a note unless it is a consistent problem – as most artists are so well trained, especially if they have studied in Britain or the U.S.” 

Continues the music journalist: “Artists are better trained today than ever before as there is an expectation that somehow we go on and always improve,” adding that “we have come to expect perfection. In the past we accepted imperfection.”

At the same time, she prefaces, one must acknowledge if the reviewer draws a different conclusion from the performance than the audience about whether “it has a better time than me.”

After all, “a lot of the review is about what it was, who it was, and where it was. There are only a few words left after that,” she says, but quips: “In the end, the reviewer must write something that interests people.” 

On what it takes to build trust with the reader, Maddocks explains that one must be true to oneself, adding that “she’s always on the side of the performers. They have to perform and do their best; and so must I as a critic.”

She always brings a notebook with her, but never really uses it, the journalist adds. Instead, Maddocks may jot down words such as “loud” to describe the overall experience. 

“We live in a golden age in classical music in terms of quality, but how do we pay for it is the real question. We are all very worried about what is happening with composers without the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] to support it. But it is a very dicey time,” Maddocks concludes.

Chrystal E. Williams (L),Anthony Roth Costanzo (C), and Haegee Lee (R) starring in Glass' Akhnaten. Photo credit: Belinada Jiao/ENO
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