History in Harmony: How I Apply My Historical Training to Music Criticism

By David Allen

Whether critics are interested in painting, sculpture, jazz, fiction, or any other art, they are, or at least can be, engaged in historical work. They root descriptions of, and judgments about, contemporary art in an understanding of the past. They might be more prone than professional historians to treating the past on the terms of the present, granted, but they do work that engages history all the same. 

Classical music critics often depend on the same skills as historians, including being able to place a classical music performance in its historical context. Avra Petrides/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Classical music critics often depend on the same skills as historians, including being able to place a classical music performance in its historical context. Avra Petrides/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

For some of us, that’s truer than others. Classical music critics, a shrinking band I joined as a freelancer at the New York Times in 2014 while still a graduate student at Columbia University, cover an industry too stuck in the past. At the expense of focusing on the creations of contemporary composers, classical music’s major institutions, from opera companies to symphony orchestras to record labels, recapitulate history constantly in the form of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. So, in turn, do their critics.

When we write our reviews, the past is inescapable. Want to explain why a conductor’s Beethoven sounds the way it does? History can lead the way. Want to know why a composer is interested in certain aspects of sound, or is confined to writing for certain kinds of ensembles? History helps. Want to demonstrate why the musical landscape resembles what the composer Pierre Boulez called a “museum” to show why that museum came to be and why it exhibits what it does? History gets you there.

How, then, can historical training influence a critic, and criticism influence history? That was the central concern of my participation in Columbia’s History in Action program, part of the AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative. I served as a History in Action research associate during the spring semester of 2015, continuing work for the Times while studying for my oral exams, and beyond.

Fundamentally, my work as a critic depends on the same skills we use as historians. Sometimes, reviews might be explicitly historical, placing a performance within an interpretive tradition, or excavating the history of a piece’s composition. From time to time, writing an obituary or reviewing a particular prominent performer or composer, I’m conscious that my articles might one day become sources for cultural historians or musicologists or future critics. (If so, I apologize in advance.) One learns to shake that idea away, quickly.

Beyond that, though, writing is writing. A review or a feature relies on prior research, often using secondary sources to ascertain the history of a piece of music, and primary sources like scores and recordings to delve deeper. Details matter, but so do explanations of how those details fit into a wider theme. Just as historians write narratives, so do critics. Sometimes that can be explicit, for instance in explaining how a new composition goes; other times the narrative is polemical, interpreting a performance for good or for ill.

Critics’ pieces in newspapers, unlike those of reporters, have explicit arguments, which require evidence. And most importantly, particularly as newspapers cut their arts coverage under perceived business pressures, a critic now must answer the same question asked of every graduate student: So what? Why does a concert matter? Why does an artist? Why does their art? So what critics seek, like many historians, are usable pasts.

For me, at least, the skills I have learned as a historian naturally inform my work as a critic, and vice versa. It’s also worth pointing out that these skills are transferable beyond a specific topic. I try to be familiar with current debates in musicology, and keep up on the research as much as I can. But my academic work is in a distant field: domestic public opinion and United States foreign policy.

My academic writing style has changed dramatically in the three years I have written for a broader public, and, I hope, for the better. With each article for the Times undergoing multiple edits, sometimes involving long discussions about the use of one particular adjective or the placement of a comma, one quickly learns the need for absolute precision. When widely read, every phrase has to be accurately reported and as immune to misinterpretation as possible—a hot bath by Twitter, or an interrogation by an editor writing a correction, awaits if it is not. That same attention to detail makes for truthful, reliable history.

The aim of History in Action, and the AHA’s broader program, is to show graduate students that career paths are open beyond the academy. Ironically enough, in my case that has entailed exploring a field in which the job market is challenging, to put it mildly, or at least as challenging as it is for a historian of American foreign relations. As the Columbia Journalism Review put it recently, “critics at newspapers are dying off even faster than print journalism.”

But my experience at the Times has taught me two lessons for my future career, whatever it may be. One is the importance of persistence, and of taking a chance when it arrives. The other is that training as a historian endows a student with expertise that is in demand far beyond the academy: the ability to search for evidence, then weigh it judiciously; to assimilate information from various sources, selecting what is most important; to think about how to present a story, and about what its most effective medium might be; to have confidence in your intellectual point of view; and finally to write—and write persuasively.

David AllenDavid Allen is a fellow in the Initiative on History and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, and a freelance classical music critic for the New York Times. Follow him on Twitter at @fafnerthekite.

The AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative seeks to better prepare graduate students and early career historians for a range of career options, within and beyond the academy. This post is part of a series called “Historians in Training” featuring graduate students working in diverse settings and exploring career prospects along the way. 

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