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Reviewed by:
  • Ernest Newman – A Critical Biography by Paul Watt
  • Lewis Foreman, Honorary Senior Research Fellow
Ernest Newman – A Critical Biography. By Paul Watt. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2017. (Music in Britain, 1600–2000.) [xvii, 253 p. ISBN 978-1-78327-190-0. £45]

The music critic Ernest Newman for the last forty years of a long life was the doyen of British music criticism, with an extended critical article every week in the Sunday Times. He was a remarkable example of an autodidact in an age of self-made men, the son of a Liverpudlian tailor, who had been born William Roberts. He supported himself as a bank clerk for more than a decade while pursuing his education, developing his intellectual and musical expertise, and establishing his contacts with editors. In late Victorian days, he taught himself languages, music, literature, and philosophy, acquiring in the process a formidable and fluent literary style. Not surprisingly, his adopted nom-de-plume of Ernest Newman stuck.

Apart from Newman’s second wife Vera’s personal and domestic biography of her husband (Ernest Newman: A Memoir by his Wife [London: Putnam, 1963]), there has been no published book-length study of Newman, and so the appearance of an academic heavy-weight “critical biography” of Newman certainly fills a gap in the literature. This new study has been developed from Paul Watt’s Ph.D. thesis, The Intellectual Life of Ernest Newman in the 1890s (University of Sydney, 2009). Watt’s introduction and nine chapters take 217 pages. Writing in his introduction, “The Challenge of Critical Biography”, Watt tells us: “Since this is a critical biography, my focus is on Newman’s work as a writer and therefore precludes a wider investigation of his other activities as a BBC broadcaster and work as a translator, editor and festival adjudicator. . . His books and articles are, in my view, the most tangible expressions of his critical persona” (p. 7).

Styling the first four chapters, “The Freethought Years”, Watt takes us from the “Formation of a Critical Sensibility: the 1880s and 1890s” through Newman’s “Social, Literary and Musical Criticism 1893–1897” to an extended account of the trenchantly critical Pseudo-Philosophy at the End of the Nineteenth Century published in 1897 (London: University Press) over the pseudonym Hugh Mortimer Cecil, and the basis of his early musical reputation, Gluck and the Opera: A Study in Musical History (London: B. Dobell, 1895).

The second part is structured in four chapters and a brief conclusion. Newman’s criticism and essays from his maturity are covered in the chapters “From Manchester to Moscow: Essays on Music 1900–1920” and “The World of Music: Essays in the Sunday Times, 1920–1958”. One very useful feature of Watt’s narrative is the use of subheadings within chapters, and the two pages on, say, “Battle Fatigue for British Music”, are a useful view of how it looked in the early 1920s.

It is amazing how sometimes one can read two different people’s accounts of a life or events and find that they inhabit seemingly almost separate worlds. I turned to this book with enthusiasm, expecting at least some examination of my personal areas of interest in Newman, and was disappointed to find none are discussed. I was particularly interested to see what Paul Watt might have to say about my own interest in the Newman story—his almost symbiotic relationship with Bantock before World War I (I explore it in “Granville Bantock and Ernest Newman: The Role of a Press Champion in Promoting a Composer in the Early Twentieth Century” [British Music: The Journal of the British Music Society 29 (2007): 6–27]), and, at the other end of Newman’s life, the appointment of Felix Aprahamian to the Sunday Times reviewing team in 1949. Neither is explored and Aprahamian does not appear in Watt’s index.

As Watt is the author of an extended history of Granville Bantock’s early years, in his fifty-five-page RMA Research Chronicle account of Bantock’s development of the New Brighton Tower Orchestra in the late 1890s (no. 42 [2009]), it would be reasonable to have expected [End Page 61] him to treat...


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