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The Attentive Listener: Three Centuries of Music Criticism

This engaging anthology brings together a wide range of classical music criticism from the United States, England, Western and Eastern Europe, Russia, Scandinavia, Latin America, and Canada. The commentaries of writers of genius such as Heinrich Heine, E.T.A. Hoffmann, George Bernard Shaw, and Willy are set beside those of brilliant composer-critics such as Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann, Claude Debussy, and Virgil Thomson. By turns sober and satirical, the 100 short essays explore such key topics as the nature of musical taste and criticism, the cult of the charismatic performer, cultural nationalism, program music, and the impact of modern technologies on composers, performers, and audiences.

The art of criticizing music is as old as music itself, but music criticism as it is practiced today is a product of the 18th century. As the selections in The Attentive Listener show, the rationalist, inquiring spirit of the French and German Enlightenment transformed writing about music from a narrowly scholastic discipline to a broadly humanistic one, a process that culminated in the flourishing trade of popular music journalism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Music and words have always been uneasy bedfellows. In the words of an anonymous contributor to the Guardian Weekly, "writing about music is about as easy as sculpting with fog." Yet the best critics of the past 300 years have demonstrated that it is possible to write precisely, meaningfully, and entertainingly about this most elusive art.

"This volume has clearly been compiled by one with a great love of music and an ardent appreciation of those who are able to capture some meaningful aspect of the experience of listening to it within the much more concrete and concept-laden realm of words. . . . Haskell, through his translations of a very high quality, succeeds in showing how each critic faced this task and that the best of them contributed as much to the world of literature as to that of music." (Musicology Australia)

“Everything in this engrossing anthology returns, in the end, to ETA Hoffmann’s own justification for the noble art: criticism should, above all else, ‘lead people to listen well.’” (BBC Music Magazine)

Click on this link to read Harry Haskell's Carnegie Hall program notes: