A Critic’s Greatness

Martin Bernheimer lectures to music students at San Diego State University. (University Archives Photo Collection / Library Special Collections / San Diego State University)
What made Martin Bernheimer great? Let me count the ways . . .

Editor’s Note: The below is an expanded version of a piece that appears in the current issue of National Review.

Everyone is unique, we are taught in kindergarten. That is a fine sentiment. But can we acknowledge that some are uniquer than others? Martin Bernheimer was virtually the uniquest. He was a great critic, of music in particular. He had a first-class mind and a first-class pen. But he was also one of the most extraordinary personalities you’ll ever meet.

I will supply some biographical information, before getting to the guts of Martin.

He was born in Munich in 1936 — a ticklish time and a ticklish place for such a boy. The family made it out. Martin grew up in Massachusetts. He went to Brown University, and then the Hochschule für Musik in Munich, and then New York University. He had a particular love for, and expertise in, Richard Strauss.

“Possibly my fave opera,” he once wrote me about Der Rosenkavalier. “But with age, I wish the last act would begin with the Trio.” He wanted a shorter, less messy evening — and I know just how he feels.

As a young man, he worked for the New York Herald Tribune and then The Saturday Evening Post, where he was an assistant to Irving Kolodin (one of the leading critics in America). He had his biggest tenure at the Los Angeles Times, where he worked from 1965 to 1996. (He wrote about dance, as well as music, in L.A.) In 1982, he won the Pulitzer Prize.

When I knew him, he was back in New York, writing for the Financial Times. I could keep going in a biographical vein, but let’s get to the guts of the guy.

Rob Kapilow does a classical-music program for National Public Radio called “What Makes It Great?” In that same spirit, I ask, “What made Martin Bernheimer great?” And I will count the ways.

First, he had a rare intelligence. Second, he had a deep and wide knowledge. Third, he had an understanding of criticism. He knew what it was (and wasn’t). Fourth, he had taste — the sine qua non. Fifth, he could write, marvelously.

The English language was his plaything. He could be straight, and formally elegant, and he was utterly strict about grammar, the meaning of words, etc. But he loved his puns and other wordplay.

About a static and boring opera production, he would write, “The inaction takes place in . . .” Another line was, “When all was said and undone . . .” There is a type of singing voice called a “baryton-Martin” (a light, tenorial baritone). Bernheimer once joked to me that he was a “base Martin.”

Like some other erudite and serious people, he tended to deflect things with jokes. Another late colleague of mine, Michael Potemra of National Review, did the same thing.

At the FT, Martin was given very little space — very little room for his reviews. He made the most of it. These little reviews were like cut gems. They were “lapidary,” to use a Bill Buckley word.

Here is one opening sentence: “It was an odd, though, at 95 minutes, a blessedly brief night at Carnegie Hall.” Here is another: “Remember A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s convoluted comedy of errors and eros, first performed around 1597? Forget it.” Okay, that was two sentences. Same difference.

He could be very tough, famously tough — infamously so. A friend of mine nicknamed him “Martin Slash-and-Bernheimer.” The headline of an obit called him a “prizewinning music critic with a lacerating pen.” Yes, but he lacerated with a twinkle in his eye. And he was happy to give credit where it was due.

Once, I said to him, “I hate to keep slamming these stupid opera productions. I feel repetitive, and I feel like a fuddy-duddy.” He said, “You must keep slamming them. Then, when something is praiseworthy, you’re all the more credible.”

I have not yet mentioned what was maybe Martin’s most important quality: his honesty. His boldness. He had the boldness of honesty. Martin said what he thought, without pulling punches.

Many of us say we write “without fear or favor.” Bernheimer actually did.

He did not feel the need to socialize with musicians. He did not have to be in the good graces of presenters, publicists, and others in the “business.” He was allergic to hype, allergic to spin. He had no use for fads.

Also, he had no agenda. Let me illustrate what I mean. Many a critic feels he has to treat new music with kid gloves. New music is to be defended, nurtured, promoted. This was not Martin’s view of his job. If he thought the music was good, he said so. And if not . . .

He was a real critic.

Martin had a constituency of one, so to speak: his readers. Not performers, editors, employers, colleagues, donors, or anyone else — his readers. He felt he owed them his best critical judgment, period.

It was not easy to have Martin Bernheimer in your employ, great as he was. In L.A., they howled for his scalp. The publisher, Otis Chandler — bless his name forever — stood by him.

Once, Martin sent me a review he had written for the FT (in manuscript form). I singled out a particular passage for praise. He answered, “FT editors, suddenly hyper-cautious, junked the very line/paragraph you (and I) liked. Said I was too cruel. Moi? Cruel? Made me not sad, just pissed.” That did not happen often, however.

You may wonder why I’m not quoting the line/paragraph. It would take too long to place it in context.

Frankly, there was a purity about Martin Bernheimer. If he heard me say this, he would snort and crack wise. A couple of years ago, I was worried about him, and said I was thinking about him. He replied, “Think impure thoughts.” But he was pure, certainly in his work.

For years, I would see him in the aisles of concert halls and opera houses. In an opera house, we would have a little game, or shtick. One of us would say something like, “What are we reviewing tonight? The one about the Gypsy girl who gets buried alive with her lover?” (That would be a conflation of Carmen and Aida.) “No,” the other might say. “It’s the one where the hunchback leaves his daughter in the ring of fire.” (A conflation of Rigoletto and Die Walküre.)

One afternoon, we were at a concert performance of Tristan und Isolde, which included a video, projected on a large screen. Young actors depicted the characters in the opera — full frontally. When he saw me at intermission, Martin said, “I didn’t know Tristan was Jewish.”

Fairly often, people would ask him at intermission, “What do you think?” “I don’t know,” he would reply. “I haven’t read the review yet.” (Some people over-rely on reviews.) They did not ask him anything after the performance, however. He got out of there like a bat out of hell. His work was done — at least until he wrote — and he did not want to hang out or hold forth.

For many years, we corresponded by e-mail, and his side of the correspondence would be a literary hit, the world over — although it would have to be censored, if not banned, in a number of countries.

We sent each other our reviews, the day after. We did not always agree, far from it. He considered some of my views antediluvian. (Politically, too. He would be amazed to be fêted in National Review.) But did we ever understand and appreciate each other.

I would praise something he had written, and he’d say, “That warms the old cockles.” One of my reviews, I ended with some statement of his. I then told him, “I think Bernheimer ought to have the last word, don’t you?” He wrote back, “And the first and the middle and . . .”

Once, he said to me, “You really nailed that lil’ pekka.” I had written a negative review of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the conductor (whom I generally esteem). Salonen had been the music director in Los Angeles. “We did not have a pleasant relationship,” Martin told me — “despite my charm and his talent . . .”

In late December 2006, we covered a new opera called “The First Emperor.” Neither one of us was enchanted. I sent him my review on the 25th, as it happened. He wrote back, “‘The First Emperor,’ on this holy day?” (He then said, “I ain’t got no holy days.”) For some reason, this line struck me as hilarious, and I would quote it over the years: “The First Emperor, on this holy day?”

We had other lines, regularly quoted — his lines, mainly. He would grin and tell me I was his “best Boswell.”

Fighting ill health, I think — he was not too explicit, and I never pressed — he retired just before the 2017–18 season. I wrote an appreciation of him for The New Criterion. “Did I get the biographical facts right?” I asked him. He answered, “Every semidemihemiquaverette.” He appreciated the appreciation. “Linda joins me in awful awe,” he said, referring to his wife Linda Winer, a distinguished theater critic.

About himself, he added, “Please tell no one, but you actually inspired a furtive tear.” (“Una furtiva lagrima” — “A furtive tear” — is a famous tenor aria, from The Elixir of Love.)

Around this time, I said to him, “You were/are the best. Hands down.” He did not contradict me. What he said was, “We are. 4 hands down.”

Over the next season or so, he would send me notes of the brightest, most encouraging kind: “Right on. Write on.” In one of our last exchanges, I wrote him from the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway. I ended my e-mail, “. . . and greetings from Oslo, town of beautiful blondes and tasty fish.” He replied, “I’ll take the blondes, u take the fish.”

Eventually, he could not write at all, this glittering, glorious writer, and he passed away in late September 2019. (“September” is one of Strauss’s Four Last Songs. The final one is “Im Abendrot,” meaning, “At Sunset.”) I loved him, as you can tell. Many of us did. He set an example for writers. And it was such a kick to know him, I tell you. I’m sorry he’s gone, but he’s not, really — gone, that is. I will often think of him, and grin, gratefully.


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