In certain respects the 1920s were, as they say, another country. Some of the racist and sexist remarks I have read (yes, even in music criticism) have taken my breath away. However, certain debates that took place back then seem uncannily close to discussions that are still rumbling on today. Take, for instance, the debate about arts criticism – how much (or rather how little) of it appears in the papers; the quality (or otherwise) of it; and who’s qualified (or not) to write it. Yes folks, it’s all been said before.
On social media I often see critics and performers lamenting the fact that word counts for reviews have been cut (and readers aren’t too happy about it either). At worst, stories abound about critics who have either been sacked or had their duties drastically reduced, and about arts criticism disappearing from certain papers altogether: more on this here.
A pet peeve of mine is the disparity between how the arts are covered in specialist arts supplements and in the main sections of newspapers. There is a particular paper I buy on Saturdays, partly out of long-standing habit and partly because I enjoy its reviews, its food writing and its puzzles (I no longer think much of its news coverage). I am often irritated, however, by how the arts are covered in the main paper: generally speaking, any story about opera has to feature 1) a sensationalist angle, 2) the old chestnut about opera being ‘elitist’, and 3) a glamorous female singer (two particular singers, one not technically an opera singer at all, are featured above all others).
I’ve never quite understood why the specialist critics don’t also write the arts ‘news stories’ (doubtless someone can enlighten me). However, the practice of separating the duties out is obviously a long-standing one. I was really struck by this sentence written in 1926 in the journal Musical Opinion: ‘It is the old, old question, often debated in Musical Opinion, of the “news” side of newspapers (left to technically ignorant sub-editors and reporters) divorced from the columns run by the specialists. The news editors, the virtual autocrats in most offices, regard the experts with tolerance that is not always good-natured’.
In the 1920s fingers were often pointed at daily papers for making the most basic of mistakes, such as getting an opera’s name wrong (the Evening Standard announced Puccini’s new opera as ‘Turindol’). Critics also complained about the press’s obsession with ‘what the newspaper editors call “human interest”’ and the fact that the visits of serious musicians were sometimes ignored, while huge splashes were made of concerts by child prodigies (a sort of ‘Britain’s got Talent’ mentality avant la lettre).
Opera critics in the 1920s evidently felt as though they were being squeezed out. The sad thing, compared to today, is that there was a huge amount of specialist arts criticism in the 1920s. The number of music journals and magazines that were published during the decade is staggering. Opera critics even published books of selected writings, a practice unimaginable now. ‘The good old days’ must have been absolutely stupendous if this was arts criticism on the decline.