Music criticism, whether conceived as newspaper concert and opera reviews or more widely as critical writing about music, is often understood as a parasitic medium. This is true in the simple sense that music criticism could not exist without the music it takes for its object. Conversely, it is also held to be true that music can exist perfectly well without criticism.
This paper challenges the second of these assumptions. According to the standard view, music criticism stands outside musical works and their performances, offering evaluative and descriptive propositions about them. It therefore does not contribute to the works and performances themselves but purports to contribute to their understanding only.
This paper offers an alternative model, according to which successful musical criticism can be understood as contributing to the works themselves. It is structured in three parts. First, a revised ontology of musical works is offered, according to which musical works are understood in normative terms as fields of experience which are substantively formed and altered by instances of musical performance (including recorded performance). Second, a theory of musical criticism whereby the act of criticism is understood to be partly constitutive of the field of musical experience denoted by the word. Criticism, that is to say, contributes directly to the field of what is to be experienced in a particular work, and thus, if persuasive and pervasive, has the potential to become part of what the work is. Third, I will offer a brief analysis of a ETA Hoffmann’s review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, aiming to show how Hoffmann’s critical appraisal of the work became part of what could be heard in the music.
Finally, I will return to the opening premise and conclude by arguing that music, considered as art, cannot exist perfectly well without the critical discourse that surrounds it, and further by sketching out some of the implications for the practice of music in the present day.