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COMPOSERS AS CRITICS, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 25th February 1956

It is often said that a composer cannot be a good critic of music, and that even a performer is debarred by proximity to the art from perceiving its qualities or defects. In which case one must presume the ideal critic to be a person so inexperienced in every branch of musical practice that he can utter views detached and objective. The folly of such notions is self-evident, but nevertheless they persist.

The truth is, we (the whole human race) are all composers. It would be difficult to find one human being incapable of inventing a simple melody. Babies hum, street boys whistle, men croon, old ladies twitter. It matters not that they cannot write their creations down (what a relief!) or that these would be unoriginal if they did: the point is that everyone is basically a potential composer, and a fully-fledged composer is merely a man whom the inward Divine Disquiet has impelled to acquire the technique of writing a composition down.

The act of listening to music is itself a mode of composing. All along the line, the listener is subconsciously foreseeing the next move, almost as if there were a score of the music unfolding itself in his mind. If his forecasts of the next notes is continually wrong, he will doubtless find the music incoherent or distasteful. If his forecasts are too infallibly correct, he will think it trite.

The more experience a man gets in writing music (that is, in providing the “next notes”, with the requisite elements of surprise and suitability), the more sensitive he is likely to become in forecasting the movements of another composer. In fact his criticism of music will be more valuable than the opinions of the ideally inexperienced critical “expert” who probably does not exist.

At any rate, there has been in Cambridge for almost ten years a club where young composers get their works performed and thereupon receive criticism from one-another. As critics they have to attune their minds to many different genres of expression. We have witnessed works for chromatic tom-tom, works with no accidentals, works to be performed “senza espressione”. We have heard general remarks varying from “Your manipulation of sonorities [sic] is most adroit” or “He should take a lesson from Sousa” to an angry “That gives me physical pain”. We have also heard observations of a more technical type, relating to form, harmony, placing of climax, use of medium and so on.

One year our meetings were attended by a young composer from Bohemia, who had studied under Palmgren. He brought a large bound volume of music manuscript and proceeded to play from the beginning. When at last he could be brought to a pause, we told him various home-truths. (His music would indeed have been thought old-fashioned by Grieg). He smilingly agreed with us, but pointed out that these works were juvenilia written eight years previously. We asked to hear a more recent opus. None was forthcoming, and at the next meeting he arrived with the same volume again, and played a further half-hour of juvenilia.

Other young composers, however, sometimes disdain to expose themselves to an audience which can answer back—perhaps in fear that a young rival whom they personally dislike may assail them with all too apposite disparagement.

But whether a composer can be a critic or not, the club still thrives, and is doubtless of value, even if its members end up not as composers or critics but just as human beings.

Peter Tranchell