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Alan Bush aged 75
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Writing Home
The Composer Speaks
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In My Eighth Decade
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The Byron Symphony
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The Composer and Criticism
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Some Thoughts About My Chamber Music
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My Studies and Friendship with John Ireland
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Recollections of the Royal Academy of Music's Centenary Celebrations, 1922
by Alan Bush

The Composer and Criticism
by Alan Bush (1971)

Composers are subject throughout their lives to criticism of their works. It has always been a tradition in Europe that a young musician with the ambition to compose should seek instruction. Sometimes this started as a family affair, as with Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Otherwise the parent of the aspiring youth sought for him a private teacher. From the early years of the 19th century these first lessons were often followed by study at a music college or academy. To this tradition there is indeed no known exception among the great composers of the past. Even Richard Wagner, an utterly disordered student if his own recollections are to be trusted, submitted in his youth and early manhood to systematic instruction, first from Christian Mueller and then from Christian Theodor Weinlig, two eminent Leipzig musicians.

The study of musical composition comprises the working of technical exercises of various kinds and the presentation for discussion of creative work. This latter process inevitably includes criticism. Sometimes this has taken a rather unexpected form, as for example with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, since Thomas Morley of the late 16th century the most distinguished and successful composition professor of British musical history. It is reported that work of poor quality was torn up and even stamped upon and the student ordered out of the room with the injunction not to bring such rubbish into the classroom again. It does not appear that the learned professor thought it necessary to analyse and thus expose the weaknesses of the particular item in question. No doubt its designation as rubbish was justified in nineteen cases out of twenty, but the pedagogic method employed would hardly find favour nowadays.

It seems to me that a teacher, in criticising weaknesses in a young composer's work, must do so within the terms of reference of the piece in question. The teacher enters into the framework of idiom and formal construction, together with any resulting conventions which may come into operation. Artists, whether creators or performers, operate in any particular artistic enterprise within a system of conventions, which they have themselves accepted more or less consciously.

As a young composer I was lucky. My period of study fell between the years 1916 and 1927. The generally accepted principles which had ruled in Europe for two hundred years had received a first serious body-blow in 1894 with the startlingly successful performance of Debussy's Prelude à l'après-midi d'un Faune. Thereafter a period of increasing chaos in musical theory set in; but this did not seriously affect British music until after the Second World War. In my young days I started from a launching pad built up by my forefathers and not seriously questioned by myself; from this point I developed such additional modes of procedure as my individual experiences as a human being suggested to me as appropriate to my creative musical work.

Today, a young composer in many parts of Europe and the United States enter a gladiatorial arena of mutually contradictory musical styles and their consequent conventions; his musical sensibilities are assaulted from all angles; his own individual voice is often drowned and his expressive inclinations deformed even within his own consciousness. Yet he may receive help from a teacher even in these circumstances. The historical disciplines starting with the Organum of the eleventh century, the various styles of developing polyphony up to the end of the sixteenth century, the harmonic and contrapuntal idiom of the early eighteenth century and the thematic and formal developments of the late eighteenth century, culminating in Beethoven, are all great artistic achievements. A young composer can, from study and practice in these styles and with a teacher's encouragement, derive technical expertise and also an understanding of what makes up a developed style with its appropriate conventions. He or she can then apply such expertise and artistic understanding to creative work and derive benefit from a teacher's criticism, and especially from the latter's practical experience of the usual pitfalls into which the inexperienced composer is likely to tumble, unless he or she happens to equal in talent the young Mozart.

It is usually assumed that the relations between composers and music critics are those of hostility. Indeed, throughout the history of musical journalism, which started during the early 19th century, there have been some practitioners of it who could be justly accused of malicious and venal hostility to some composers, while others have made careers for themselves through sycophancy in the interest of successful and therefore influential composers, singers, instrumentalists, and more recently of orchestral and operatic conductors; this sometimes takes the form of unjust denigration or neglect of their rivals.

There is little object in stressing this side of the profession. It is more profitable for a composer to try and formulate what he or she thinks the function of a music critic should be. In the first instance, it must be realised that a musical criticism is a news item in a daily newspaper or a periodical, general or musical. The performance of a work, either new or previously performed, or the appearance of an artist, new or already known, is brought to the attention of the general public. As a composer, I would hope in the case of a new work of mine, for a description of it and of its place in my repertoire to date, including an assessment in general of the relative importance of the genre. There would follow an evaluation of it within the terms of reference just set forth.

It is perhaps a strain of naivety in me that for so long I continued to hope that I might learn something from a critic's praise or blame. In my 44 years of concert appearances as composer, conductor or pianist I can only remember one occasion on which a critic wrote something so penetrating that I have tried to put it to account in my compositions ever since. This happened in connection with the first performance of my Violin Concerto, played by Max Rostal, to whom it is dedicated, and which took place at a Promenade Concert in 1949.Two years after the performance, a comprehensive article about the work appeared in a magazine "The Strad", by Noel Long, an admirable if little-known composer who has earned a well-deserved reputation as an authority on musical education in schools. In general, he praised the concerto highly. At one point, however, he wrote the following:

"The introduction, described as the first attempt of 'the violin to impose its ideas on the world', seems to me to be the only passage in the work which is not effective apart from the programme. Its musical significance is paramount; but one only realises it retrospectively...Thus this pregnant passage sounds, at first hearing, merely wayward."
(The Strad, July 1951).

On reading this paragraph I recognised its truth. Every detail of the work is thematically integrated, and this is true of the introduction as of the rest. But what may be correct from the point of view of the composing method used may not, for all that be expressively effective. I have tried conscientiously to improve in this respect and have been grateful to Mr Long ever since.

Criticism, private and public, is a necessary part of musical life. Among the artistic creations of any age there is in the nature of things a majority which are average, or, in other words, hardly above the mediocre. From this most necessary body of artistic work masterpieces appear which present the various problems of the age, ideological and artistic, in concentrated form. Mediocrity is, likewise, in the nature of things, the characteristic of most musical performances and predominates in the writings of music critics. This unavoidable state of affairs has to be accepted. What is really serious is the generally prevalent lack of perspective and consequent inability of the critic to find the rightful place for a work or a performance in the general development of musical art. It is not a question of a critic being intolerant. A critic must have a principled standpoint, even it is a palpably absurd one. Arnold Hauser wrote:

"The art of a historically complex age can never be can never be more that the expression of a social stratum, of a group of persons with some common interests; it will exhibit simultaneously just as many stylistic tendencies as there are different cultural levels within the relevant society...Art can express the structure of a given society either positively or negatively, can assent to it or reject it, promote some features and oppose others, serve as a propaganda weapon, defence mechanism or safety valve..."
(A. Hauser, The Philosophy of Art History (Routledge, Keegan & Paul, London, 1959), p. 268).

In conclusion, I would like to say that I have myself no reason for hostility to music critics. Over the years the square inches of newsprint which have been favourable to my works have considerably exceeded the areas of denunciation. My criticism of the critics is not that they are spiteful, but that, with one or two exceptions, their general knowledge musical and otherwise, is either limited or superficial. A little knowledge about a good many things is no adequate source from which he can assess the rough and tumble, the confusion of musical, or indeed of artistic life in general in our heterogeneous society. No wonder, if, in an effort not to be left behind, he tried to find positive value in drivel or find fault with works which, exclude all superficial novelty-mongering, but which, precisely on this account, achieve real worth.

© 2001 Alan Bush Music Trust