The Life and Legacy of a Most Erudite Music Critic

Andrew Porter, who covered classical music for The New Yorker from 1972 to 1992, has died at the age of 86.

ShutterstockDonCarlosHungaryStampOne of the pinnacles of arts criticism is the ability to fundamentally change the way people view a film, painting, TV show or piece of music. Andrew Porter, who covered classical music and opera for The New Yorker from 1972 to 1992 via the column “Musical Events,” did that and so much more.

Porter passed away this week in London at the age of 86. From today’s New York Times obituary by senior writer Margalit Fox:

To the work of criticism, Mr. Porter brought a formidable training in music performance (he was an accomplished organist); a deft linguistic ability (he translated the librettos of dozens of operas from the original French, German and Italian into highly regarded English versions); a deep knowledge of music theory, music history and composers’ biographies; a keen attention to the historical context in which a work was composed or performed, and to the prevailing political winds, both musical and non-, during those times; a ready command of the entire production history of an opera or the publication history of a score (he was an occasional opera stage director); the abilities of an intellectual gumshoe (he made a major discovery involving Verdi’s Don Carlos that altered the way the opera is understood); an acute sensitivity to the architectural and acoustic qualities of concert halls; a robust cultural understanding of the city in which that hall was located; an appreciation of the ways in which music dovetailed with allied arts (he wrote a good deal of dance criticism early in his career); a phonetician’s familiarity with the vowel sounds of a given language, and how they rendered the words of that language more or less singable; a passion for fealty to a composer’s historical intent that was matched by a commitment to the work of 20th-century composers; and much else.

NPR Music’s Tom Huizenga celebrates yet another one of Porter’s impressive accomplishments. The ability to redefine a journalism beat:

Tim Page, former music critic of The Washington Post and now a professor of music and journalism at USC, says that first and foremost Porter was a scholar. “Some thought perhaps the scholarship sometimes overtook the criticism because he included so much background information,” Page says. It was a departure for a New Yorker music critic.

“He really changed the definition of the gig in that he really examined music in great detail and taught you a lot about music,” Page said.

ShutterstockConcertViolinsAfter leaving The New Yorker, Porter continued to write in the UK for The Times, The Observer and other outlets. In 1988, blogger Bruce Duffie began an interview with Porter by asking, ‘What is the real, ultimate function of the music critic?’

“It’s a big general question, so you don’t get an answer,” Porter replied. “You could say, ‘What is the function of this music critic writing here, or that one writing there?’ There’s no big, simple answer to that. The function of a critic on a daily paper is different from that of a critic on a weekly paper or a monthly paper, or a critic who writes books…”

There is also, this afternoon, a remembrance from current The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, who leads with the staggering suggestion that Porter was ‘the most formidable classical music critic of the late twentieth century, and, pace George Bernard Shaw and Virgil Thomson, may have been the finest practitioner of this unsystematic art in the history of the English language.’

Ross recalls how after years of being so severely intimidated by Porter that the pair exchanged only a few words, he was finally able to work up the courage to have lunch with the South African native in London a few years ago. RIP.
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