Norman Lebrecht

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Norman Lebrecht
Lebrecht in 2004
Born (1948-07-11) July 11, 1948 (age 69)
Nationality English
  • author
  • broadcaster
  • cultural commentator

Norman Lebrecht (born 11 July 1948 in London) is a British commentator on music and cultural affairs, a novelist, and the author of the classical music blog Slipped Disc. On BBC Radio 3, he presented beginning in 2000, and The Lebrecht Interview from 2006–2016. He was a columnist for The Daily Telegraph from 1994–2002, and assistant editor of the Evening Standard from 2002–2009. He also writes a column for the magazine Standpoint.


His book The Maestro Myth (1991) charts the history of conducting, from its rise as an independent profession in the 1870s to its subsequent preoccupations with power, wealth and celebrity. When the Music Stops (US title: Who Killed Classical Music, 1997) is a history of the classical-music business, presenting an exposé of its backstage workings and predicting the collapse of the record industry. Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness: The Secret Life and Shameful Death of the Classical Record Industry (US title: The Life and Death of Classical Music, 2007) is billed as an inside account of the rise and fall of recording, combined with a critical selection and analysis of 100 albums and 20 recording disasters.

Lebrecht has written extensively about the composer Gustav Mahler, including in his books Mahler Remembered (1987) and Why Mahler? (2010). His interest in contemporary music is reflected in The Complete Companion to 20th Century Music (2000) and in the Phaidon Press series of 20th-century composer biographies, of which he was founder and editor. Other books on music he has written include The Book of Musical Anecdotes (1985), Music in London (1992), and Covent Garden: The Untold Story (2000).


His career as a novelist began with The Song of Names, a tale of two boys growing up in wartime London. It was published in 2001 and went on to win the 2002 Whitbread Award for First Novel. His second novel, The Game of Opposites, was published in 2009 in the US.

Slipped Disc[edit]

In the early blogosphere, Lebrecht was critical of some online trends, arguing in his Evening Standard column that "Until bloggers deliver hard facts … paid-for newspapers will continue to set the standard as the only show in town".[1] One blogger used this statement to charge Lebrecht with hypocrisy in light of the Naxos lawsuit.[2][3]

Despite this criticism of classical music blogs, Lebrecht launched his own, Slipped Disc, in March 2007, as part In 2014, his blog became a standalone commercial website, supported by advertising and promotions.


Lebrecht's polemical writings have often drawn fierce responses. While Robert Craft praised The Maestro Myth as an "exposé of the business practices of orchestral conducting [that] is likely to be the most widely read classical music book of the year,"[4] the opera critic Michael Tanner wrote in The Times Literary Supplement that "this may be the most disgusting book I have ever read". Lebrecht was described by musicologist Richard Taruskin as "a sloppy but entertaining British muckraker".[5]

Journalists have noted multiple misstatements of fact by Lebrecht:

John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune:

Lebrecht writes entertainingly and has a wicked ear for backstage gossip. When he is on - as in his portraits of Karajan and Ronald Wilford, the Machiavellian power broker of Columbia Artists Management - his lance can be deadly. And his contention that our desperate need for cultural icons has made us pump up even limited talents into mythical figures gives sobering pause.

But he fails to tell the whole story and cannot back up his odd melange of history, gossip, fact and bitchy iconoclasm with anything that might give his book lasting value. Nearly every page contains some careless blunder or spelling mistake. Too much of The Maestro Myth in fact betrays the sensibility of a tabloid columnist who cannot distinguish between tattle and truth - and worse, doesn`t seem to care.

A generally skeptical sketch of Daniel Barenboim and his career ends with the unlikely image of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor standing alone "between the shoreline and the stinking slaughterhouses" - razed more than 30 years ago.[6]

Roger Dettmer, Baltimore Sun:

The book [The Maestro Myth] is a syntactic miasma of received gossip, recycled anecdotes, rickety extrapolations and cultural penis-envy, with a gaffe-account in the hundreds. The sheer size and weight of careless mistakes, carelessly written, make the reader wary about anything in the book that hasn't been experienced firsthand.

Factually, for example, we find Cincinnati "the state capital" of Ohio. Philadelphia is a "dreary industrial city" whose orchestra was "founded" by Stokowski on Page 3, but (correctly) by Fritz Scheel on Page 133. In the same breath, though, Scheel is misidentified as the founder of the San Francisco Symphony.

In Chicago (where Claudio Abbado was not "Solti's candidate" to succeed him), Daniel Barenboim (who was) "stands alone between the shoreline and the stinking slaughterhouses," razed more than 30 years ago. The author doesn't bring Toscanini or Sir Thomas Beecham to the New York Philharmonic until 1930 (try 1926 and '28, respectively), and wrongly assigns Tom Wolfe's "Radical Chic" sendup of Leonard Bernstein to the New York Times (it was New York magazine).

There are even mistakes about Mahler, even though Mr. Lebrecht's last book was Mahler Remembered, an anthology. About his native heath, he writes that "Georg Solti never wanted the job" of music director of London's Covent Garden Opera. But Solti did want it; his dilemma in 1959 was whether to take the Deutsche Oper in Berlin plus the Hamburg Philharmonic, or Covent Garden plus the Los Angeles Phil.[7]

Martin Bernheimer, Los Angeles Times:

One may want to forgive Lebrecht's passing errors, along with his hyperbole. Still, the little slips make one all the more leery of big gaffes.

Contrary to what one reads, Kreisler and Joachim were not the only composers who wrote cadenzas for the Beethoven violin concerto. Otto Klemperer did not enjoy much of a U.S. career after World War II. Antonia Brico did not conduct at the Met. Rudolf Bing did not ban Elisabeth Schwarzkopf from that house. James Levine's favored artists at the Met are not "little-leaguers." Klaus Tennstedt never was "the most sought-after conductor on earth." When Zubin Mehta came to Los Angeles, he did not inherit a "world-class, well-run Philharmonic." Leonard Bernstein could not claim the longest tenure of any music director of the New York Philharmonic - that was Mehta. Irmgard Seefried, Sena Jurinac and Hilde Guden did not "trill secondary roles" in Vienna--they didn't really trill anything, but they did sing primary roles.[8]

Although many eminent conductors, from Vladimir Ashkenazy and Daniel Barenboim to William Christie and Franz Welser-Möst, Fabio Luisi and Riccardo Muti, maintain cordial relations with Lebrecht and appear in his radio programmes or post on Slipped Disc, an anonymous informant identified as "one of the world's leading conductors" told The Independent that Lebrecht had for years been getting away with "pompous, preposterous judgment" and "inept research".[9]

Lebrecht received the Cremona Music Award 2014. Pianist Grigory Sokolov, upon learning of his being awarded the Cremona Music Award 2015, refused to accept the honour, making this statement on his website:

"According to my ideas about elementary decency, it is shame to be in the same award-winners list with Lebrecht."[10]

Naxos lawsuit[edit]

In 2007 the founder of Naxos Records, Klaus Heymann, sued Lebrecht's publisher, Penguin Books, for defamation in London's High Court of Justice.[9] Heymann claimed that Lebrecht had wrongly accused him of "serious business malpractices" in his book Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness, and identified at least 15 statements he claimed were inaccurate.[11] The case was settled out of court. As a result of the settlement, Penguin issued a statement apologising for "the hurt and damage which [Heymann] has suffered". The publisher also agreed to pay an undisclosed sum in legal fees to Heymann, to make a donation to charity, to refrain from repeating the disputed allegations and to seek the return of all unsold copies of Lebrecht's book.[11] Commenting on the affair, Heymann said:

"For me it's beyond belief how any journalist in five pages can make so many factual mistakes. It's shocking. Also, he [Lebrecht] really doesn't understand the record business."[11]

The settlement did not extend to the US edition of Lebrecht's book, but Heymann vowed to seek its withdrawal in the United States.[9]

Books and articles[edit]


  • Lebrecht, Norman (1982). Discord: conflict and the making of music. London: A. Deutsch. ISBN 0-233-97442-3. 
  • —— (1985). The Book of Musical Anecdotes. London: Deutsch. ISBN 0-233-97730-9. 
         Also published as Hush! Handel's in a Passion: tales of Bach, Handel, and their contemporaries.
  • —— (1987). Mahler Remembered. London: Faber. ISBN 0-571-15009-8. 
  • —— (1987). A Musical Book of Days. London: Collins. ISBN 0-00-217715-3. 
  • —— (1991). The Maestro Myth: great conductors in pursuit of power. London: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-71018-4. 
         Updated editions published 1997, 2001
  • —— (1992). Music in London: a history and handbook. London: Aurum. ISBN 1-85410-223-0. 
  • —— (1992). The Companion to 20th-Century Music. London: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-71019-2. 
         Revised edition published 2000 as The Complete Companion to 20th-Century Music.
  • —— (1996). When the Music Stops: managers, maestros and the corporate murder of classical music. London: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-81681-4. 
         Also published as Who Killed Classical Music?: maestros, managers, and corporate politics.
  • —— (2000). Covent Garden: the Untold Story: dispatches from the English culture war, 1945–2000. London: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-85143-1. 
  • —— (2002). The Song of Names: a novel. London: Review. ISBN 0755300947. 
  • —— (2007). Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness: the secret life and shameful death of the classical record industry. London: Allen Lane. ISBN 978-0-7139-9957-0. 
         Also published as The Life and Death of Classical Music: featuring the 100 best and 20 worst recordings ever made.
  • —— (2010). Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World. Faber and Faber. ISBN 978-0-571-26078-2. [12][13][14]



  1. ^ Lebrecht, Norman (8 November 2006). "Music writing on the internet is getting better, but online blogs won't be required reading until they start focusing on the facts". Evening Standard. 
  2. ^ "Norman Lebrecht and Unchecked Trivia". Retrieved 28 October 2007. 
  3. ^ "Maestros, Masterpieces and Unchecked Facts". Retrieved 20 October 2007. 
  4. ^ Robert Craft (1992-04-26). "Masters of the Pit and the Podium". Washington Post. Retrieved 2017-07-11. 
  5. ^ Taruskin, Richard (22 October 2007). "Books: The Musical Mystique". The New Republic. 
  6. ^ John von Rhein (1992-08-14). "Maestro Myth Seldom Lets Facts Spoil Its Story". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2017-07-11. 
  7. ^ Roger Dettmer (1992-08-23). "Author's account of conductors is 'Maestro Myth'". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 2017-07-11. 
  8. ^ Martin Bernheimer (1992-04-12). "Conduct Unbecoming". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2017-07-11. 
  9. ^ a b c Johnson, Andrew (28 October 2007). "Music critic's book is pulped as Penguin loses defamation case". The Independent. 
  10. ^ Martin Bernheimer (2015-09-28). "Grigory Sokolov refuses award because it has previously been won by Norman Lebrecht". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2017-09-13. 
  11. ^ a b c Wakin, Daniel J. (20 October 2007). "British Critic's Book Is Withdrawn". The New York Times. 
  12. ^ "Fate, death and Alma", review of Why Mahler? by Philip Hensher, The Spectator (23 June 2010)
  13. ^ The Economist (8 July 2010). "Gustav Mahler: The agony and the ecstasy". Retrieved 8 October 2014.
  14. ^ Botsein, Leon (9 October 2010). "Bookshelf: A Fierce Enthusiasm". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 8 October 2014.

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