Norman Lebrecht

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Norman Lebrecht
Lebrecht in 2004
Born (1948-07-11) 11 July 1948 (age 74)
London, England
Alma mater

Norman Lebrecht (born 11 July 1948) is a British music journalist and author who specializes in classical music.[1] He is best known as the owner of the classical music blog, Slipped Disc, where he frequently publishes articles.[2] Unlike other writers on music, Lebrecht rarely reviews concerts or recordings, preferring to report on the people and organizations who engage in classical music.[1] Described by Gilbert Kaplan as "surely the most controversial and arguably the most influential journalist covering classical music",[1] his writings have been praised as entertaining and revealing, while others have accused them of sensationalism and criticized their inaccuracies.

He was a columnist for The Daily Telegraph from 1994 to 2002, and assistant editor of the London Evening Standard from 2002 to 2009. On BBC Radio 3, Lebrecht presented beginning in 2000, and The Lebrecht Interview from 2006 to 2016. He also wrote a column for the magazine Standpoint, which ceased publication in 2021.[3]

In additions to writings on the classical music industry, Lebrecht has written 12 books on music[4] and novels The Song of Names (2001) and The Game of Opposites: A Novel (2009). The former won a 2002 Whitbread Award and was adapted into a film of the same name directed by François Girard. A work of social history, Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847–1947 was published in 2019.

Early life and music journalism[edit]

Norman Lebrecht was born on 11 July 1948 in London, England,[5] to Soloman and Marguerite Lebrecht.[6] He attended Hasmonean Grammar School in London,[6] citing Solomon Schonfeld as a childhood role model.[7] From 1964 to 1965, Lebrecht attended Kol Torah Rabbinical College, a yeshiva school in Israel, and then Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan (1966–1968) and Hebrew University in Jerusalem.[7] Following his graduation, from 1970 to 1972 Lebrecht worked at the Kol Yisrael news department, part of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.[7] He returned to London in 1972,[7] where he was a news executive Visnews Ltd. from 1973 to 1978.[5] In 1977 Lebrecht married the sculptor and writer Elbie Spivack; the couple has three daughters.[5]

Beginning in 1982, he was a special contributor to The Sunday Times until 1991.[6] The 1980s saw the publication of various books on music by Lebrecht: Discord: Conflict and the Making of Music (1982),[8] The Book of Musical Anecdotes (1985),[9] Mahler Remembered (1987),[10] and A Musical Book of Days (1987).[11] Following his leave from The Sunday Times, Lebrecht released The Maestro Myth: Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power (1991),[12] which charts the history of conducting, from its rise as an independent profession in the 1870s to its subsequent and purposed preoccupations with power, wealth, and celebrity. The following year he released two books: Music in London (1992),[13] as well as The Companion to 20th-Century Music (1992).[14] In 1993 he became a music columnist for The Daily Telegraph in Britain, holding the post until 2002. During this time he released wrote When the Music Stops: Managers, Maestros and the Corporate Murder of Classical Music (1996),[15] a history of the classical music business, presenting an exposé of its backstage workings and predicting the collapse of the record industry. Herman Trotter of The Buffalo News wrote that Lebrecht's "widely discussed 1992 book "The Maestro Myth" seems to have been a warm-up for his current magnum opus."[16] He also published Covent Garden: The Untold Story: Dispatches from the English Culture War, 1945–2000 (2000),[17] covering the history of the Royal Opera House. Beginning in 2000, he presented (a cultural debate forum where "issues in the arts are debated and hotly disputed by makers and consumers of culture") on BBC Radio 3, whose output centres on classical music and opera.[18]

Other books and broadcasts[edit]

His career as a novelist began in 2002 with The Song of Names (2002),[19] a tale of two boys growing up in wartime London and the impact of the Holocaust.[20] It was published in 2001, and went on to win the 2002 Whitbread Award for First Novel. Lebrecht won the award at the age of 54.[21] Also in 2002 he was an arts columnist and assistant editor of the Evening Standard, writing a weekly column until 2015.[22] Gilbert Kaplan wrote that "From his perch in London he has covered and uncovered the classical music world in his full-page weekly column in the Evening Standard which through the internet is must-reading around the world ... concentrating on reporting on the organizations and the people managing – or as he often sees it, mismanaging – the classical music world as well as the stars who dominate this culture. All this with a sensibility normally associated with a political reporter or even a police reporter. He was the first to predict the demise of the major classical record companies – now documented in his recently released book The Life and Death of Classical Music."[1]

From 2006 until 2016 he hosted The Lebrecht Interview ("Classical music critic Norman Lebrecht talks to major figures in the field"), also on BBC Radio 3.[23] Lebrecht in 2007 launched his classical music blog Slipped Disc, for which he writes.[24] It attracts over one million readers per month.[4] He also wrote a monthly column for the culture magazine Standpoint, which ceased publication in 2021.[4]

His 2007 book Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness: The Secret Life and Shameful Death of the Classical Record Industry (US title: The Life and Death of Classical Music) was 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. The book, however, was withdrawn from the market after its publisher discovered that it contained numerous libelous claims.[25] In 2007 the founder of Naxos Records, Klaus Heymann, sued Lebrecht's publisher, Penguin Books, for defamation in London's High Court of Justice.[26] 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.[27] The case was settled out of court. As a result of the settlement, Penguin issued a statement acknowledging the baselessness of Lebrecht's accusations and 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.[27] 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.[27]" The settlement did not extend to the US edition of Lebrecht's book.[26]

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".[28] One blogger used this statement to charge Lebrecht with hypocrisy in light of the Naxos lawsuit.[29][30]

Despite this criticism of classical music blogs, Lebrecht launched his own, Slipped Disc, in March 2007, as part of In 2014, his blog became a standalone commercial website, supported by advertising and promotions.[24] The blog primarily focuses on classical music industry gossip. When asked by one interviewer whether he found such gossip interesting personally or whether he covered it for the sake of viewership, Lebrecht confirmed that the gossip

is the human comedy, that's what I like. I came into music because nobody was writing about it in a way that interested me. . . . What is important to someone who's just got out of bed, had a shower, got dressed, and is having their morning coffee? It's not Sibelius Four. It might be, "What happened to this conductor last night?"[2]

Recent books and adaptations[edit]

His second book on Mahler, Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World was published in 2010.[31] In 2014, Lebrecht received the Cremona Music Award from Mondomusica and Cremona Pianoforte in the Communication category, citing that book, and his other books and articles, and recognizing his "commitment ... to the diffusion of the music culture at a global level."[4]

The Song of Names, a feature film based on the 2002 novel, was released in 2019. Directed by François Girard, it stars Tim Roth and Clive Owen.[32]

Another novel, The Game of Opposites: A Novel (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group), was published in 2009 in the US.

Lebrecht published a work of social history titled Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847–1947 by Oneworld (UK) in October 2019 and by Simon & Schuster (USA) in December 2019. David Crane in The Spectator called it "Norman Lebrecht's urgent and moving history."[33] Rebecca Abrams in the Financial Times described the book as "[i]mpressively wide-ranging in scope and unflaggingly fascinating in detail".[34] Tanjil Rashid wrote in The Times: "Claims to have 'changed the world' tend to be exaggerations, but Lebrecht's subtitle, How Jews Changed the World 1847–1947, seems understated. The world wasn't changed, it was remade."[35] Mark Glanville wrote in The Times Literary Supplement: "Lebrecht's book is an extended meditation on the question of what it is about Jews that has enabled them to change the world in so many different ways. He guides us through his chosen period (1847–1947) in a breathless present continuous, with an enthusiasm that holds the reader's attention. Besides major, familiar figures, such as Einstein, Freud, Marx, Proust and Schoenberg, his kaleidoscope of characters includes Rosalind Franklin, whose important work on the double helix has still not been fully recognized; Leo Szilard, who split the atom; and Albert Ballin, to whom Lebrecht attributes the invention of the hamburger."[36]

Critical reception[edit]

Lebrecht's polemical writings have drawn strong and diverse responses; Gilbert Kaplan described him in 2007 as "surely the most controversial and arguably the most influential journalist covering classical music."[1] 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".[37] The American composer Gunther Schuller, in his 1998 book The Compleat Conductor, described The Maestro Myth in these terms: "A remarkably knowledgeable and courageous, no-holds-barred exposé of the serious degradation and venality in the conducting business, the wheeling and dealing of the power-broking managements that control most of the music business."[38] Schuller went on to say: "It is sobering reading, to say the least, and is highly recommended to anyone concerned about the integrity of the art and profession of music." On the other hand, music critic Michael White described the book as merely "a compendium of gossip about who earns what and slept with whom to get it."[39] Lebrecht himself was described by musicologist Richard Taruskin as "a sloppy but entertaining British muckraker".[40] Several 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.[41]

Roger Dettmer, The 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.[42]

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.[43]

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".[26] Upon being awarded the 2015 Cremona Music Award, Pianist Grigory Sokolov, 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".[44]

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • Lebrecht, Norman (1982). Discord: Conflict and The Making of Music. London: A. Deutsch.
  • —— (1985). The Book of Musical Anecdotes. New York: Free Press. Also published as Hush! Handel's in a Passion: tales of Bach, Handel, and their contemporaries
  • —— (1987). Mahler Remembered. London: Faber and Faber.
  • —— (1987). A Musical Book of Days. London: HarperCollins.
  • —— (1991). The Maestro Myth: Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power. London: Simon & Schuster.
  • —— (1992). Music in London: A History and Handbook. London: Aurum Press.
  • —— (1992). The Companion to 20th-Century Music. London: Simon & Schuster.
  • —— (1996). When The Music Stops: Managers, Maestros and the Corporate Murder of Classical Music. London: Simon & Schuster. 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.
  • —— (2002). The Song of Names: A Novel. London: Headline Review.
  • —— (2007). Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness: The Secret Life and Shameful Death of the Classical Record Industry. London: Allen Lane. Also published as The Life and Death of Classical Music: Featuring The 100 Best and 20 Worst Recordings Ever Made
  • —— (2009). The Game of Opposites: A Novel. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
  • —— (2010). Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World. London: Faber and Faber.
  • —— (2019). Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847–1947. London: Oneworld Publications.


  1. ^ a b c d e Kaplan, Gilbert (2 September 2007). "Norman Lebrecht – Mad About Music". WQXR. Retrieved 28 October 2021.
  2. ^ a b Brown, Jeffrey Arlo (28 June 2018). "The Human Comedy: An Interview with Norman Lebrecht". VAN Magazine. Retrieved 28 October 2021.
  3. ^ White, Michael (11 August 1996). "Where Norman Lebrecht Went Wrong". The Independent. Retrieved 28 October 2021.
  4. ^ a b c d "Cremona Music Award, "Communication" category – Prize winner: Norman Lebrecht". Cremona Musica. Retrieved 28 October 2021.
  5. ^ a b c Cummings, David M, ed. (1998). International Who’s Who in Music and Musicians' Directory. Vol. 1 Classical and Light Classical Fields. Cambridge: Melrose Press. p. 328. ISBN 978-0-948875-92-2.
  6. ^ a b c "Lebrecht, Norman, (born 11 July 1948), writer and broadcaster". WHO'S WHO & WHO WAS WHO. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ww/9780199540884.013.U2000090. (subscription required)
  7. ^ a b c d Rogatchi, Inna (28 January 2020). "A conversation with novelist Norman Lebrecht". The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 28 October 2021.
  8. ^ Lebrecht 1982.
  9. ^ Lebrecht 1985.
  10. ^ Lebrecht 1987a.
  11. ^ Lebrecht 1987b.
  12. ^ Lebrecht 1991.
  13. ^ Lebrecht 1992a.
  14. ^ Lebrecht 1992b.
  15. ^ Lebrecht 1996.
  16. ^ Herman Trotter (8 June 1997). "How Managers and Marketing Created a Symphony of Greed," The Buffalo News.
  17. ^ Lebrecht 2000.
  18. ^ at the BBC
  19. ^ Lebrecht 2002.
  20. ^ Daniel Walden and Evelyn Gross Avery (2006). Studies in American Jewish Literature, State University of New York Press.
  21. ^ Emma Brockes (8 January 2003). "Late starter; Norman Lebrecht has just won the Whitbread first book award – at the age of 54. He tells Emma Brockes why it took him so long," The Guardian.
  22. ^ "Norman Lebrecht quits Evening Standard" – Rhinegold
  23. ^ BBC Radio 3 – The Lebrecht Interview
  24. ^ a b Slipped Disc | The inside track on classical music and related cultures, by Norman Lebrecht
  25. ^ Johnson, Andrew (28 October 2007). "Music Critic's Book Is Pulped as Penguin Loses Defamation Case". The Independent. Retrieved 1 August 2020.
  26. ^ a b c Johnson, Andrew (28 October 2007). "Music critic's book is pulped as Penguin loses defamation case". The Independent.
  27. ^ a b c Wakin, Daniel J. (20 October 2007). "British Critic's Book Is Withdrawn". The New York Times.
  28. ^ 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". London Evening Standard.
  29. ^ "Norman Lebrecht and Unchecked Trivia". Retrieved 28 October 2007.
  30. ^ "Maestros, Masterpieces and Unchecked Facts". 20 October 2007. Retrieved 20 October 2007.
  31. ^ Lebrecht 2010.
  32. ^ "Clive Owen WWII film The Song of Names getting TIFF Gala Presentation". The Loop, 23 July 2019.
  33. ^ Crane, David, "Is there no field in which the Jewish mindset doesn’t excel?," The Spectator (26 October 2019)
  34. ^ Literary Hub
  35. ^ Rashid, Tanjil. "Genius & Anxiety by Norman Lebrecht review — Jewish makers of the modern world".
  36. ^ "Bottled energies" by Mark Glanville, The Times Literary Supplement, 28 February 2020
  37. ^ Robert Craft (26 April 1992). "Masters of the Pit and the Podium". The Washington Post. Retrieved 11 July 2017.
  38. ^ Schuller, Gunther (1998). "1. A Philosophy of Conducting". The Compleat Conductor. Oxford University Press. p. 4. ISBN 9780199840588.
  39. ^ White, Michael (11 August 1996). "Where Norman Lebrecht Went Wrong". The Independent. Retrieved 20 February 2020.
  40. ^ Taruskin, Richard (22 October 2007). "Books: The Musical Mystique". The New Republic.
  41. ^ John von Rhein (14 August 1992). "Maestro Myth Seldom Lets Facts Spoil Its Story". The Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 11 July 2017.
  42. ^ Roger Dettmer (23 August 1992). "Author's account of conductors is 'Maestro Myth'". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 11 July 2017.
  43. ^ Martin Bernheimer (12 April 1992). "Conduct Unbecoming". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 11 July 2017.
  44. ^ Martin Bernheimer (28 September 2015). "Grigory Sokolov refuses award because it has previously been won by Norman Lebrecht". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 13 September 2017.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]