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  • Ernest Newman: A Critical Biography by Paul Watt
  • Jennifer Oates
Ernest Newman: A Critical Biography. By Paul Watt. (Music in Britain, 1600–2000.) Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2017. [xvii, 253 p. ISBN 9781783271900. $90.] Illustrations, appendix, bibliography, index.

Ernest Newman was a prominent and prodigious British music critic in the first half of the twentieth century. Though he had no formal music education, Newman, as Watt notes, "was one of the most significant—and controversial—music critics and biographers of his generation" (p. 14). Early in his career, he was a leading champion of British music, particularly that of Granville Bantock, Edward Elgar, and Joseph Holbrooke. While his support of native music diminished as his career progressed, his interest in German music of the late nineteenth century (e.g., Richard Strauss and Hugo Wolf), Richard Wagner, and opera remained steadfast throughout his life. Using Newman as a lens, Watt provides a thoughtful study of print culture, criticism, and music in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain.

Watt provides the first biography of Newman since his widow's 1963 book (Vera Newman, Ernest Newman: A Memoir by His Wife [London: Putnam, 1963]) and Henry George Farmer's unpublished 1962 account, "Ernest New-man as I Saw Him" (MS Farmer 44, University of Glasgow). While Farmer thoroughly covered Newman's early career, when he was entrenched in freethought and rationalism, Vera Newman sought "to rescue Newman from the taint of freethought" and "to repair his coloured reputation in musical circles" (p. 4). By examining New-man's early career and influences in conjunction with his later writings, Watt illustrates how freethought influences the full span of Newman's oeuvre. Watt's monograph serves as the most objective and thorough study of Newman to date, filling a glaring gap in scholarship on Newman.

Watt calls his book a "critical biography … concerned with the motivations—intellectual, personal and economic—behind Newman's work" (p. 2). It is, however, more of an intellectual biography. With Newman as the lens, it is a study of the place of music in intellectual thought and writing in the press. Rather than attempting to address all of Newman's output, the book dips into his prolific career, providing an overview of his work and a deeper exploration of selected topics and publications. Watt's "close and critical reading" of selected works (p. 6) allows him to delve more deeply into Newman's work and influences and to place each work within the broader context of print and music culture. The selection of works focuses on historical and biographical writings as well as what he considers to be most compelling, interesting, and representative of Newman's development as a writer. Watt achieves a nice balance between Newman's prominent writings and those lesser known to music scholars.

Watt divides the book into two parts: "The Freethought Years" and "The Mainstream Years." These are preceded by a two-page chronology of Newman's life and chapter 1, which serves as an introduction to Newman and outlines the aims of the book. Part 1 covers the formative years of Newman's writing from the 1880s through the 1890s, showing how Newman cut his writing teeth in freethought periodicals, which revered logic, reason, empiricism, and rationalism. Chapter 2, after a brief outline of Newman's childhood and education, lays the foundation for this portion of the book. Watt explores the [End Page 109] freethought movement, related philosophies, readings that influenced Newman and the state of music criticism at this time. Newman's social, literary, and music criticism of the 1890s is covered in chapter 3. It was in these articles that he developed his writing style, which embraced an intellectual, scientific approach and the comparative method. His freethought articles served a small market and tended to require a brusque, aggressive tone for "maximum rhetorical affect" (p. 12), a manner that, at times, found voice in his later music criticism. The final chapters of this part diverge from the chronological narrative and focus on individual books: Pseudo-Philosophy at the End of the Nineteenth-Century (London: University Press, 1897) and Gluck and the Opera: A Study in Musical History (London: B. Dobell...


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