9 Criticism

9.1 Introduction: u and non-u


The discussion of Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s Beethoven cadenza in Chapter 1 offered a snapshot of how performance criticism works, of the prejudices it summons up, and of its tendency to privilege belief over experience. In this chapter I want to look more closely at this toxic interaction of belief, prejudice and judgement, where beliefs are specific to WCM—the kinds of beliefs we were looking at in Part 1—but prejudice is structural, rooted in conservative, white, middle-class upbringing and culture, within which beliefs about WCM sit comfortably.

In that Kopatchinskaja example we saw her artistic choices associated damningly with her gender: ‘a lady with her violin’ and her ‘childish’ cadenza (would that word have been used of a male soloist?). Much of what follows is, one way or another, about fear of the Other. And much of the other is characterised by critics, more or less explicitly, as effeminate. So we shall be dealing here implicitly with gender and sexuality. The next most common Other, unsurprisingly, is the interloper or foreigner—either literally the performer from a non white-western culture who is felt not to understand adequately what’s required, or metaphorically the musician whose performance is unwelcome because foreign to the critic’s understanding of how a score should sound. Closely related is class, at issue whenever a performer (the composer’s servant) has the presumption to do anything that’s noticeable. Servants should be invisible, or in this case, so transparent as to be inaudible.

This may seem a shocking way to begin to look at performance criticism. But after all we’ve seen in previous chapters it cannot come as a surprise to find that people who critique performance think in terms of right and wrong, proper and improper, belonging and foreign; and once you think in those terms your metaphorical language, as you write, very easily extends into binaries such as strong and weak, master and servant, masculine and effeminate, healthy and unhealthy, normal and abnormal, straight and deviant, us and them. This is where the ideology takes one, and not by an indirect path: for these are the categories in which WCM thinking deals.

And so there is nothing surprising or out of place within this culture—apart from the furore it sparked—in the way that a clutch of male critics described the opera singer Tara Erraught as Octavian in Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne:

I stand by every word of what I wrote… she is dumpy of stature and … her costuming makes her resemble something between Heidi and Just William. Is Jones [the stage director] simply trying to make the best of her intractable physique…? (Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph, 21 May 2014)[1]

Financial Times writer Andrew Clark referred to the singer as “a chubby bundle of puppy-fat“, The Independent‘s Michael Church described her as “a dumpy girl“, the Guardian‘s Andrew Clements called her “stocky” and The Times‘ Richard Morrison labelled the opera star as “unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing“.[2]

None of this has anything to do with Tara Erraught’s singing, of course, but it’s the kind of commentary that follows easily, for a critic with a sense of entitlement, from a particular way of thinking about how the world should be in their dreams. Music is supposed, it seems, to construct a Utopia in which everything they most like is ideally presented; an enticing mix of what they know—what is comfortable—and what they desire. Followers of the links in the second of these quotes should not be surprised to find that some of the reviews have been edited in their online versions to remove the most offensive phrases. That at least indicates some shame.


Continue to 9.2 ‘The metaphorical language of record reviews

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[1] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/opera/10844053/Rosenkavalier-row-I-stand-by-every-word.html. For a similar case from 2019 see https://www.bbc.com/news/amp/entertainment-arts-49522172.

[2] https://www.stylist.co.uk/life/critics-spark-outrage-after-calling-opera-singer-stocky-dumpy-and-chubby/56423

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