Criticism | The Canadian Encyclopedia



In Canada, printed opinions on music and musical performance began to appear almost as early as the first newspapers (Halifax Gazette, 1752; La Gazette de Québec, 1764; La Gazette du commerce et littérature de Montréal, 1778, etc).


In Canada, printed opinions on music and musical performance began to appear almost as early as the first newspapers (Halifax Gazette, 1752; La Gazette de Québec, 1764; La Gazette du commerce et littérature de Montréal, 1778, etc). Several categories may be noted, eg, writings in the daily press and in popular magazines, periodicals devoted to music alone, and, in later times, broadcast talks on music. About research writings, which often uphold a more deeply studied definition of criticism, see Musicology. Consideration of criticism in the popular music fields is given in the entries for Jazz and Rock.

The early journalistic writings were almost exclusively reports of musical events. The audience's applause, the performers' facial expression and apparel, and the intermission refreshments were often of more account than the music:

'The opera last evening was 'Il Trovatore,' and it was rendered, in the individual singing and in the choruses in capital style. Mrs. Seguin and Miss Howson were the recipients of much favour and numerous bouquets during the evening, and at the close were called before the curtain, where they received a perfect ovation (Toronto Daily Globe, 9 May 1873)

'The programme throughout was well given and was received with much applause. Miss Cambourne in response to a hearty encore sang sweetly 'Turnham Toll'. A vote of thanks was tendered the ladies at the close, for the excellent tea and entertainment.' (Winnipeg Manitoba Daily Free Press, 14 Jan 1885)

Sometimes a strong local pride emerged:

'At last we have in Montreal a complete symphony, and, that being so, we shall have our Concerts Colonne and our Orchestre Lamoureux just like Paris... Forty musicians - recruited from the orchestra of the Théâtre Français and among the best players from other theatres, with our local instrumental teachers - held under their spell for two hours an audience which for a début concert was relatively numerous.' (Montreal La Patrie, 9 Nov 1894)

When essaying description and analysis of musical performances, the writers often betrayed an emotional view of music paralleling that found in much of the standard concert repertoire of the age:

'We did not hear the first part of the Concert, but the 'Laughing Song' she sang with inimitable skill and grace, and being encored she sang a plaintive ballad with such simple sweetness and such touching pathos as almost to draw tears from those who laughed so heartily with her a moment before. It was one of the most affecting songs we ever listened to, and the skill of the artist was shown in the simple and perfectly natural way in which the emotion excited by the words found expression in the music.' (Saint John Morning Freeman, 17 Jun 1873)

However, there were some reviews which offered genuine appreciation of the performance, such as the following early notice on the appearance of the French tenor Auguste Nourrit:

'He possesses one of the truest of voices, with a very extensive range; his delivery is perfectly attuned to the operatic stage and his singing - always clear, agreeable, and gracious - allows one to observe that, assisted by action, costumes, and stage effects, M. Nourrit could expect brilliant success. What we admire most in him is that he contents himself with performing the music as written, without recourse to those fioriture, trills, and other needless ornaments favored by the old school, and on which superannuated singers rely, thus hiding their imperfections under a false glitter and forcing bravos from their more vulgar hearers.' (Quebec City Le Fantasque, 15 Sep 1842)

The late 19th century was in fact not entirely devoid of informed and impassioned criticism. The outstanding case is that of Guillaume Couture, who added criticism to his achievements in orchestra and church music performance and in composition and who is virtually unique in having written extensively in both national languages. The first of many prominent Canadian composer-critics, he began writing detailed and often analytical notices in La Minerve in 1875 and later wrote for La Patrie and the Montreal Star (under a pseudonym, Symphony). The following, from one of his reviews of the 1884 Wagner Festival Concerts, exemplifies his style:

"Most of all, emotion reached an extraordinary degree of intensity in the introduction to Die Walküre. That long and constant repeated figure of the second violins accompanied by that moaning and no less persistent double bass line, at first met with surprise, but soon after with admiration. (Montreal La Patrie, 27 Jun 1884)"

More caustically he wrote of the soprano Christine Nilsson:

"She sang Ah! Perfido - which was her most successful presentation - in a careless and negligent manner; she sang the Jewel Song turning the innocent, fresh, pure, and chaste Marguerite into a flirting coquette, I could even say a trollop; she sang the aria from Judas Maccabeus... in an impossible, unbelievable way, making constant errors in both notes and time-values, changing the text, breathing in the middle of words, introducing into Handel cadenzas in the style of Bellini!... An artist who is only a vendor of notes. (Ibid, 30 Jun 1884)"

The second half of the 19th century saw the first of a series of journals devoted to music: the Canadian Musical Review (1856). Of many journals before 1900, few survived more than an initial season or two; even the strongest, Le Canada Musical, had a total lifespan (not uninterrupted) of only seven years. Significant journals in the later 19th and early 20th centuries include Musical Canada, the Canadian Journal of Musi, the TCMConservatory Bi-Monthly (later revived as the Conservatory Quarterly Review), L'Album musical, La Lyre, and Le Passe-Temps (the longest survivor, 1895-1935 and 1945-9).

The middle and later 20th century saw the Canadian Review of Music and Art, the Canadian Music Journal, Canada Music Book, Musicanada, Sonances, Canadian University Music Review, Aria, Le Tic-Toc-Choc (Journal de musique ancienne), and Les Cahiers de l'ARMuQ. To these general publications may be added more specialized ones of later years such as Opera Canada and Coda: the Jazz Magazine, both of which have continued for over 30 years. (See Periodicals.)

In the earlier period, the note of moral uplift often approximates that of the parallel Bostonian publication of the period, Dwight's Journal. In later years, however, descriptive and reflective commentary on music often gives way to clipped reportage, the language of publicity; as Helmut Kallmann complained in 1968:

"The chronicler will find it easy to discover what Canada's musicians were doing in 1968, but the future historian and biographer will be hard put to discover what our musicians were thinking about their art and what kind of people they were. (Canadian Annual Review for 1968, Toronto 1969, p 478)"

Similar feelings persist, as in this more recent observation by Kathleen McMorrow:

"The historian of the future will suffer no shortage of information on the activities of Canadian musicians and musical organizations during the 1970s and 1980s, but contemporary responses to them, and evaluations of their significance will be more difficult to trace. ('Music periodicals in Canada,' Fontes artis musicae, vol 34, Oct-Dec 1987)"

The first half of the 20th century was a period of cultural expansion, reflected in the emergence of music journalists who acquired local, and sometimes national, prominence and whose articles attracted a steady readership, although their content remained by and large the descriptive chronicling of events. Thomas Archer, H.P. Bell, and Philip King in Montreal, Augustus Bridle and Hector Charlesworth in Toronto, Albert Alexander A.A. Alldrick ('A.A.A'.) and S. Roy Maley in Winnipeg, Stanley Bligh in Vancouver, and George Dyke in Victoria, wrote in English newspapers; Gustave Comte, Eugène Lapierre, Léo-Pol Morin, Paul-G. Ouimet, Frédéric Pelletier, Paul Roussel, and Marcel Valois in Montreal and Omer Létourneau and Léo Roy in Quebec City in French. All were conscientious and lively reviewers.

Those critics most prominent in the 1960s and after have included in English, Kenneth Winters, Winnipeg and Toronto; Jacob Siskind, Montreal and Ottawa; Eric McLean and Arthur Kaptainis, Montreal; William Littler, Vancouver and Toronto; Lorne Betts, Hamilton; Jean Southworth, Ottawa; John Kraglund, Robert Everett-Green, and Tamara Bernstein, Toronto; Eric Dawson, Calgary; Lawrence Cluderay, Max Wyman, and Ray Chatelin, Vancouver; and in French, Gilles Potvin, Claude Gingras and Carol Bergeron, Montreal; François Brousseau, Ottawa; and Marc Samson, Quebec City.

Mention has been made of the phenomenon of the composer-critic. Besides Couture, Morin, and Betts, other examples are Leo Smith, Jean Vallerand, Godfrey Ridout, John Beckwith, Udo Kasemets, Serge Garant and R. Murray Schafer.

Many leading Canadian musical figures have been productive in their incidental writings. These exhibit at times a deeper critical tone, and a tendency to attack larger issues, suggested already in the reviews of Couture. Rodolphe Mathieu addressed fundamental musical questions in his essays, and one thinks of Leo Smith and Luigi von Kunits, both of whom found time to edit musical journals; of Sir Ernest MacMillan's long bibliography of essays, talks, and critical articles; and, particularly, of the writings of Léo-Pol Morin, in whose career the role of critic was paramount rather than incidental, though balanced against others (pianist, teacher, composer).

Morin's reviews, program notes, and essays form a high-water mark in Canadian musical writing, in their security of knowledge and taste, in the span of their subjects, and in their clear, sharp honesty of view. Given the insularity and conservatism of much Canadian culture in his period, Morin's two collections of writings (Papiers de musique, published in 1930, and Musique, edited and published posthumously in 1944) show an astonishing range of topics - current European and US music, the music of Canadian composers, the musical classics, musical education, folklore, jazz.

When reviewing modern trends in Italian music, Morin welcomed the relief from the 'thick and vulgar mists' of verismo and found, in the 'pure air' of Pizzetti, Casella, and Castelnuovo-Tedesco, 'an excellent health precaution in a country where the Mascagnis, Boitos, and Puccinis, though skilled and astute, have devoured musical taste' (Papiers de musique, p 20-1).

In comparing the indigenous view of French-Canadian folk music to the more romanticized one being purveyed in his time through the CPR Festivals as both a patriotic movement and a spark to the hotel and railway trade, Morin frankly admitted:

"They bore us somewhat, these old ballads, with their knitted, crocheted, and woven textures; we do not find in them the same artistic depths as do well-meaning amateurs and glassy-eyed old maiden ladies. We are less sentimental, and not sufficiently detached from our land to view it romantically. We are less comfortable than others when listening to these songs of traditional singers, weavers, and spinners, in manufactured 'local colour' settings such as the lounge of a luxury hotel. (Ibid, p 142)"

Morin wrote on the critic's métier and pointedly wondered in 1930 whether his fellow countrymen had yet outgrown the 'naiveté, childishness, and sentimentality' of the writers on music of 50 years before (ibid, p 158). To Morin's statements of critical purpose may be compared later 'credos' such as those of Detweiler and Winters (see Bibliography, below).

Frédéric Pelletier, who ardently upheld the ideal of an informed musical criticism, occasionally spoke out against what to him were unhealthy journalistic trends, such as the unsigned or pseudonymous review. Reflecting on his responsibility to his readers, Pelletier once wrote:

"The critic must weigh countless factors, of which perhaps the most significant is the tendency of too many readers to take the slightest reservation for a put-down and use that only as an excuse to stay away."

Although Canadian critics periodically have voiced their thoughts on criticism itself, it seems an unspoken rule - as in journalism generally - that critics do not criticize other critics, at least not in publications addressing the same market. The rule is virtually never broken in the daily press, but Thomas Hathaway's Canadian Forum and Queen's Quarterly commentaries in the 1970s and 1980s constituted an interesting exception to it. In the non-critical role of interviewee, Garant once took sharp issue with the critical policies of a veteran practitioner, Gingras (La Presse, 25 Apr 1970; see M.-T. Lefebvre, Serge Garant, Montreal 1986, p 119).

During the 1970s and 1980s the popular magazines in English paid no attention at all to concert music or opera, only infrequently and fitfully noticing recordings and pop music. One journal, Saturday Night, had had fairly regular music coverage by such writers as Hector Charlesworth from the 1890s until its change to less frequent publication and a more streamlined appearance in the 1950s.

The Canadian Forum, smaller in audience and less susceptible to commercial pressures than other journals, has included serious music in its arts coverage regularly during most of its 70-year existence. Forum articles, read in retrospect, give a vivid picture of how several prominent Canadians saw the changing musical world at an early stage in their own careers. For example, Ernest MacMillan in 1924:

"There are here, as elsewhere, several musical publics. Few of the devotees of Dame Clara Butt or Madame Galli Curci are likely to storm the box office on the occasion of a concert by the London String Quartette; the Bach lover may be astonished, but he will hardly be charmed, by Mr. Ignaz Friedman's rendering of the Tannhauser Overture or Mr. Moritz Rosenthal's amazing transcription of Fledermaus. We have among our connoisseurs those who think of musical history as beginning with Debussy, and also those who think of it as ending with Brahms. We have those who dislike Wagner because there is too much sex in his music (whatever this may mean), and those who enjoy him for the same reason. We have the collector of old musicians - the man who can tell you everything about Ockeghem, Robert Fayrfax, and Luigi Rossi in their respective centuries; also the collector of the latest celebrities - the Bela Bartoks and the Kaikhosru Sorabjis... In fact we have a very interesting public. ('Our musical public,' Canadian Forum, Jul 1924)"

Or the even more precocious Northrop Frye in 1936:

"[Delius'] importance will, I am forced to think, become increasingly historical. Composers are now impatient with the long harmonic lethargy of romantic music, and the twinges of contrapuntal conscience which have so sorely afflicted Stravinsky, Schönberg, and even Antheil in recent years may indicate that contemporary music is doing a certain amount of noisy yawning and stretching preparatory to getting up and going somewhere. ('Frederick Delius,' Canadian Forum, Aug 1936)"

In the 1940s and 1950s the range of Forum subjects broadens beyond what was usual in the newspapers of these decades (or even later) in Milton Wilson's regular column on recordings, new music, and books on music side by side with Allan Sangster's regular column on radio, which frequently touched on music as well. Wilson's reviews of current Canadian-composed works (Willan, Weinzweig, Somers), and of recorded works by Schoenberg, Bartók, Stravinsky, and other internationally influential figures were exceptional in English-speaking Canada as sensitive and well-founded commentaries by a non-musician - a corresponding case to the slightly earlier, and more professional, articles of Morin in French-speaking Canada.

Everett-Green stated in 1990 his belief that new works and revivals of unfamiliar ones should receive the highest priority for critical coverage (Globe and Mail, 13 Oct 1990). He spoke as a critic in the daily press; but a 1987 survey by David Melhorn-Boe had analyzed coverage of concert music by contemporary Canadian composers in this country's major cultural and non-specialist periodicals. The early 1980s appeared to him an era of decline. Saturday Night published 'no articles' in this field 1980-5, despite its evidently regular commitment in former decades. Similarly, Vie des Arts 'had been steadily increasing its attention... until about 1978,... but has carried no relevant material since' (ie, to the end of 1985). Melhorn-Boe concluded:

"Art forms with immediate entertainment appeal like jazz, rock and musical theatre, or with strong investment potential like Robert Bateman prints, generally receive more attention in periodicals of the 1980s than do genres that take a more intimate understanding to appreciate or write about. ('Contemporary Canadian music in Canadian cultural periodicals, 1950-85,' Hello Out There! Toronto 1988)"

Considerable changes are seen in journalistic criticism over the years (see Littler, in Potvin, 'Newspapers and journals...,' Bibliography below), but its problems continue to be formulated in rather similar fashion. On the reviewers' side these include: lack of sufficient space; tightness of deadlines; in larger centres, the impossibility of coverage of conflicting events; in smaller centres, and sometimes in larger ones too, an obligation to take assignments in other performing arts (ballet, film) as well as music. On the readers' side are complaints about a confusion of viewpoint which arises when both advance-promotional articles and reviews appear under the same byline, and about the almost total absence of a perspective such as might be afforded by more comment on general musical questions or more reviews of books on music than are provided usually.

An exceptional case among newspaper publications was the weekly musical column of Leslie Bell, which ran in the Toronto Daily Star for some 16 years (1946-62). Rather than reviewing performances, it discussed general topics, in the manner of such popularizers of the 'music appreciation' movement of the 1930s as Percy A. Scholes, Sigmund Spaeth, or Deems Taylor.

Many latter-day practitioners have become members of the US Music Critics' Association (Littler has served as president), and have attended its annual conventions and seminars. It held a two-day seminar on Canadian music in Toronto in 1975.

Criticism itself has been a central concern at several national gatherings. In May 1973 the annual Canadian Music Council conference was devoted to this topic (see Bibliography, below); in 1974 the Winter Arts Festival at the University of Victoria included an extensive exploration of arts criticism; and criticism formed the theme for an international panel as part of the 1975 IMC general assembly held in various Canadian cities (see Bibliography below). In May 1987 the role of critics vis-à-vis new music was explored in a panel discussion at the CLComp annual meeting in Hamilton.

McMaster University's music department sponsored a conference on musical criticism in October 1976, with Canadian and international speakers. In 1981 under Alan Walker, author of The Anatomy of Music Criticism and at that time department chair, McMaster inaugurated North America's first graduate program in musical criticism; by 1990 there were 13 graduates.

Response to critics by those criticized often employs the not very satisfactory medium of the letters to the editor column. Occasionally a controversy can be prolonged into an extended dialogue of viewpoints. Two or three characteristic examples from 1961 are noted in the Canadian Annual Review for that year (Toronto 1962, p 404-5). Critics referred to will not easily forget the curtain speech of the then-conductor of the TSO, Walter Susskind, where they were characterized as 'ill-bred little puppies yapping hysterically' at music's heels - a more original choice of metaphor at least than that of the after-dinner speaker at the 1973 CMCouncil conference who merely classed them as 'the eunuchs in the harem'.

In the heyday of Canadian radio network broadcasting, the late 1930s to early 1960s, talks on music held a regular place. Personalities who gained national prominence through their radio criticisms and commentaries at that time include Harry Adaskin, Ian Docherty, Chester Duncan, and Maryvonne Kendergi. Aside from local arts-review programs on both private and public stations, there have been several CBC network series, among them 'Critically Speaking,' 'Music Diary,' and 'New Records' on the English networks and 'Revue des arts et des lettres' and 'Chronique du disque' on the French.

The short radio reviews on the CBC network series 'Arts National' in the late 1970s and early 1980s and 'The Arts Tonight' and 'Artsweek' in the 1980s and early 1990s had a continuing effect of informing various parts of Canada about each other's cultural (including musical) activities. This is one of the few widespread public means of performing this important function; in print media, the wire service reviews of the Canadian Press and Southam News have a similar aim.

The Canadian Music Journal and the Canada Music Book hold a special place among journals of the 1960s and 1970s (in true Canadian tradition, each lasted only a few years) in that they regularly and at serious length reviewed not only recordings but also books on music and published scores, especially those with a particular pertinence to Canada. Successors such as Sonances and Music in the 1980s continued this practice for books and recordings, but by 1991 there was no outlet for critical reviewing of published scores. Fugue, The FM Guide, and other journals of the 1970s and after have included extended, and thoughtful, record reviews.

A special problem of Canadian musical criticism, since it is a verbal medium, is translation. Possibly a few critics in each of the two national languages can be said to communicate information and values beyond their own regions (through broadcasting, principally); but the country's two language groups remain unaware of each other's best accomplishments in criticism.

Besides individuals mentioned above, the following have been among Canada's active writers of musical criticism: David Barber, François Brassard, G.M. Brewer, Ronald Gibson, Annie Glen Broder, Pauline Durichen, Colin Eatock, Frances Goltman, Ida Halpern, Ronald Hambleton, Karel ten Hoope, Audrey St Denis Johnson, Urjo Kareda, George Kidd, Henri Letondal, Elizabeth Morrison, Peter Mose, Richard Perry, William James Pitcher,Jamie Portman, Herbert Sanders, Edward Schuch, Michael Schulman, John Searchfield, Robert Sunter, Lauretta Thistle, Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer, A.S. Vogt ('Moderato'), and Leonard Wilson.

Further Reading