The world of the classical music critic is small and intimate. Tim Page who is senior classical music critic for The Washington Post said in a recent interview that there are only twenty to twenty-five people making the bulk of their incomes in this way. He says he can name most of them.
THE CRITICAL GLUE OF VIRGIL THOMSON
For Page, the legacy of Virgil Thomson as a classical music critic serves as a fraternal glue among friends and colleagues who are working or have worked in this field. For example, in talking about his career—how it began and developed, Page spoke about Anthony Tommasini, senior music critic for the New York Times, and John Rockwell, longtime New York Times music and arts critic. Page, Tommasini, and Rockwell all knew Thomson personally and worked with him on books that featured Thomson and his work:
Selected letters of Virgil Thomson, edited by Tim Page and Vanessa Weeks Page
Virgil Thomson: Composer On The Aisle, a biography by Anthony Tommasini
The Virgil Thomson Reader, co-edited with Virgil Thomson and introduction by John Rockwell
Page said that Thomson had a "huge influence" on him and that Thomson was a "fan of mine, which made me feel very flattered. At parties he was always saying nice things about me to the New York intelligentsia." Still, Page says he does not want to be a "relativist" about Thomson. "His opinions were wrong a good deal of the time but he [Thomson] was more fun to read than a critic like Olin Downes." Page said Downes is "practically unreadable today" with "romantic" prose that "gushes."
PAGE'S PATH TO MUSIC CRITICISM
To understand Page's approach to classical music criticism, which includes an element of teaching the public about classical music, one needs to know about his career path. In 1979 after graduating from Columbia University with a degree in literature (however, he also studied at Mannes College and considers his primary training was as a composer), he sent an unsolicited review of Pierre Boulez's recording of Anton Webern's music to the Soho News, a small arts paper located in lower Manhattan. His review was published and then he was hired to be the Soho News music critic for a sum that eventually grew to $100 a week.
In the early 1980s after losing successive jobs at Soho News and Saturday Review because the publications folded, Page was invited by John Rockwell to be a regular stringer (paid-by-the-job reporter) at the New York Times. In the introduction to Music From The Road, Page's first collection of critical essays on music, Page describes the five years he spent writing for the Times where suddenly what he wrote was being "debated in Lincoln Center restaurants" and around the world as working in a sink-or-swim maelstrom. He said that making an error in a New York Times review made the sky fall. In 1987, he became chief music critic of Newsday and in 1995 chief classical music critic of The Washington Post. In 1997 Page won the Pulitzer Prize for "his lucid and illuminating music criticism" in The Washington Post.
DEFINING THE CRITIC AND CRITICSIM
Page said, "There is no bar to pass in music criticism. If you set yourself up as a music critic and someone pays and prints you, you are a music critic." In the preface to Tim Page On Music, his second collection of critical essays on music, Page outlines what he calls the duties of the classical music critic: "get the facts; cover the news; remember your position, but don't let yourself be seduced by it; say it straight; and be courteous." Page said he believes in providing a "dispassionate report on what I heard." He is also careful to say that dispassionate does not mean non-passionate but he wants to avoid hysterical hype and prejudgment.