2012: A MUSICAL SPACE ODYSSEY Day 5 by JEREMY SIEPMANN / The Joy of Music Festival 2012



2012: A MUSICAL SPACE ODYSSEY
Part 5: Music Criticism
JEREMY SIEPMANN, Speaker & Presenter
Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall
Friday (12 October 2012)

The final session saw veteran music critic, writer, broadcaster and educator Jeremy Siepmann speak about the functions and limitations of music criticism. Simply put, a music critic is merely a reporter, and his opinion is the least important bit of the so-called critique. I love this, because he has confirmed my suspicions all along. Having written over a thousand reviews for the national newspaper, I begin to learn that I am a glorified journalist and little more. The more I write, the less I consider my role as an arbiter of musical quality (if there is such a thing) and grow to respect the composer and performer more. The sad thing to all this is that those who have written far less may still be wallowing in that puffed-up notion of being a “music critic”. By the time they learn, much damage may have been caused. 

Siepmann goes on to read some of the worst critiques in history, specifically those targeted at Beethoven by cloth-eared non-entities and more recently, an irresponsible review of a masterful solo recital by Michael Roll, perpetrated by “a mediocre compose who could not compose his way out of a paper bag”. Did he not note the 10 minute long ovation accorded to the artist? His verdict: Critics often confuse criticism with the confirmation of their own musical prejudices.  

The audience is not sleeping. Siepmann had asked them to close their eyes and listen to a piece of music he had played . Removing the visual disturbances heightens one's response to auditory stimuli, especially the sound of music.

So who needs critics? Promoters and agents who need words and hyperbole to hang on to. Young artists who need to advance their careers. Ultimately, all artists need to be appreciated because they came to give, to share their vision of a piece of music, and by baring their souls to the public they become totally exposed.

Siepmann plays Gould in Brahms

On a more thespian side of things, Siepmann recounted the day he attended that infamous 1961 concert of Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein in the Brahms First Piano Concerto. He spoke less about the performance but demonstrated more on Gould’s body language and extreme fidgetiness. The photos above give you an idea of what happened then. He also touched on Sviatoslav Richter’s American debut, and how he polarised listeners into two camps.

Finally he revealed what a critic ought to be:

A reporter.

A stimulus of independent thought and reflection.

An acknowledger of the evanescence of musical performance.

An educator, for whom someone would have learnt something by reading his article.

Good reviews are easy to write, but it is impossible to write a responsible bad review in a few words. If music criticism expires, Siepmann will not be at its funeral.


It's Question and Answer time, and Jeremy Siepmann takes on queries from the small segment of audience that remained. For example, what were his favourite pieces of music?  Included were Bach's Mass in B minor, Beethoven's Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor (Op.111), Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and Handel's little-known opera Sosarme.