Andrew Porter: Distinguished music writer and critic who penned librettos and wrote piercingly on classical music for 'The New Yorker'


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The Independent Online

“Music critic” seems a wholly inadequate term with which to describe Andrew Porter, who has died in London aged 86. He called himself a “writer on music” – which encompassed reviews, articles, librettos, opera translations, and much more.

In The New Yorker magazine – where Porter was music critic from 1972-92 –Alex Ross, author of The Rest is Noise, called him “the most formidable classical-music critic of the late 20th century.” He goes on to say that  “pace George Bernard Shaw and Virgil Thomson, [he] may have been the finest practitioner of this unsystematic art in the history of the English language”. Thomson himself, the American composer and critic, once said of Porter, “Never before has The New Yorker had access through music to so distinguished a mind.”

His elegant style, profound erudition and comprehensive knowledge of matters both musical and non-musical made him an awe-inspiring figure who was able to discuss a work in its musical, historical and social context – a discussion that often occupied so large a part of his writing that a comment on the actual performance and its performers was sometimes almost a footnote at the end.

“Musicians delight in sharing their discoveries and enthusiasm,” Porter once wrote; “performers champion works they love. And one of the rewards of a music critic’s life is being able to share delight with more than an immediate circle of acquaintances.”

Andrew Brian Porter was born in Cape Town, South Africa, where his father was a dentist. His English mother had considered becoming a professional singer, but gave up the idea on marriage. While still at school in Rondebosch, he was enlisted by the conductor and composer Albert Coates – who had worked with Skryabin and had been a disciple of Arthur Nikisch – to accompany rehearsals and play continuo in Bach’s B minor Mass. In 1947 he came to England to study English at Oxford, and was organ scholar of University College. In 1949 he contributed music criticism to the (then) Manchester Guardian and, in 1951, to The Times.

On settling in London, he came under the influence of Desmond Shawe-Taylor, music critic of The New Statesman, and often deputised for him, and Alec Robertson, who invited him to broadcast on the BBC Third Programme. From his time at Oxford onwards, he spent his vacations abroad, listening to operas in Germany, France, Austria and Italy – a habit that continued throughout his life.

In 1952 he was invited to join the Financial Times as its first music critic and he stayed for 20 years. As well as this, he was, from 1960-67, editor of The Musical Times, a period which his successor, Stanley Sadie, called “one of the journal’s finest hours. During this period of Andrew Porter’s editorship it has increased not only in its size and circulation, but also in its influence, its literacy, and its adventurousness”.

He also wrote regularly for Opera magazine – becoming associate editor, then a member of the editorial board – and for Gramophone.

In 1972 Porter began his 20-year stint with The New Yorker and was able in due course to publish, between 1974 and 1991, five volumes of his writings for it. He preferred praise to blame, always looking to find the best in people, but did not mince his words, on one occasion referring to a performance by the revered pianist Vladimir Horowitz as “grotesque”, and of Schumann’s Carnaval as “clattery and eccentric”. He concluded: “The Book of the Piano says of Horowitz that ‘even at his most provocative and controversial, he compels his critics to suspend judgment, listen, and marvel.’ Not this time.”

On another occasion, a man with more than a passing resemblance to Porter was beaten up in the lobby of La Scala, Milan, by supporters of the Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer, in revenge for some adverse criticism Porter  had written of her. “I’m not Andrew Porter! I’m not Andrew Porter!”, the unfortunate lookalike protested.

Perhaps rather unfashionably for the time, Porter thought that opera should be sung in  the language of the audience. His written  prose had a musical quality which served  him well for his English-singing translations of operas, of which there were more than  30 – from the original French, German and Italian – the most widely celebrated of which is perhaps Wagner’s Ring cycle, triumphantly performed and recorded by the English National Opera, conducted by  Reginald Goodall. He also translated Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. “I always try to translate in a way that sings,” he told an interviewer in 1988.

He also discovered in the Paris Opéra library the original full version of Verdi’s Don Carlos, by his own account adding about an hour of music that had been deleted by the composer, after rehearsals for the premiere in 1867 had indicated that it would be far too long. The excised passages had been bodily cut from the autograph and from the conducting score, but finding intact choral and orchestral parts allowed the missing material – long thought lost – to be reassembled.

Although the core of his musical interests was 18th- and 19th-century opera, his knowledge was all-encompassing: Boulez, Birtwistle, Philip Glass, Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter at various times preoccupied him, and he wrote original librettos for The Tempest (John Eaton, 1985) and The Song of Majnun (Bright Sheng, 1992).

He tried his hand at directing operas – by Handel, Mozart and Verdi. He had an appreciation of everything visual. Reserved and private, but acutely observant, Porter spent hours watching the wildlife at his Italian  country home.

He is survived by his younger sister, Sheila.

Andrew Porter, writer on music: born Cape Town, South Africa 26 August 1928; died  London 3 April 2015.