'Sometimes, unforeseen, a masterpiece seizes the knocker, batters down the door and enters unopposed'

By John Terauds on January 17, 2014

(Alex Gregory cartoon for The New Yorker.)
(Alex Gregory cartoon for The New Yorker.)

On the 60th anniversary of legendary theatre critic Kenneth Tynan’s first review in The Observer, the Guardian has posted the piece online.

Tynan’s language feels and reads even older than its two-plus generations of distance from us. It is full of poetry, metaphor and an inner music that makes today’s prose feel as thin and naked as an undressed stick person on a Hollywood red carpet.

What has moved me most deeply about the piece is Tynan’s lyrical yet succinct summation of his new role as a critic:

Critics in the past have seen themselves variously as torch-bearers, pallbearers and lighthouses shining over unmapped seas; I see myself predominantly as a lock. If the key, which is the work of art, fits snugly into my mechanism of bias and preference, I click and rejoice; if not, I am helpless, and can only offer the artist the address of a better locksmith. Sometimes, unforeseen, a masterpiece seizes the knocker, batters down the door and enters unopposed; and when that happens, I am a willing casualty. I cave in con amore. But mostly I am at a loss. It is a sombre truth that nowadays our intellectuals go to the cinema and shun the theatre. Their assistance is sadly missed; but their defection is my opportunity.

This description is timeless — except that today’s sombre truth of criticism and intellectuals (a word now laden with so much baggage that we need to remind ourselves that it really means people curious enough to ask questions) lies in not knowing where it is going.

(You can read the full article here.)

But criticism will continue. Absolutely — as sure as day follows night — even though its manifestations and means are changing so fast that not even the clearest crystal ball can make predictions on the form that will resonate most potently with its audience a decade from now.

It has been as exciting as it is frustrating to behold all of this change from the inside.

A couple of reflective walks in Canadian snow, the catalyst of so many big personal decisions, have convinced me that I’ve reached the end of my exceedingly scenic, 13-year journey as a music critic. Reading and re-reading Tynan’s words this morning confirmed that this is the time to take a prolonged break.

I have a few more concerts to go to, and some reflections to jot down before the end of the month. But as of February, my biggest hope is that my defection will become someone else’s opportunity.

John Terauds

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