Christopher Morley's Golden Anniversary as a music critic



Picture Birmingham in 1969. It's a city of blue-and-cream buses. The Victorian Central Library is still open, but the Rotunda is brand-new and out at Gravelly Hill the first pillars of Spaghetti Junction are just starting to rise. That's the world in which the Birmingham Post's chief music critic Christopher Morley filed his first classical music review. Now, as Christopher celebrates his fiftieth year reporting on the Midlands music scene for the Post, it seems astonishingly distant. To put it another way, when the CBSO celebrates its 100th anniversary next year, he will have been reporting on the orchestra for more than half its entire existence.

"I hadn't realised that!" says Christopher "But yes, 50 years is a long time to observe things". The fact is that – talking to him, or reading the thousands of articles in which, over half a century of concertgoing in Birmingham and the Midlands, he's praised the good, chided the complacent, mocked the pedantic and generally celebrated the region's music-making from grassroots to international level – you wouldn't guess that he was such a …well, "veteran" doesn't seem right. He's still far too much of an energising force for that.

In uncertain times for print journalism he's maintained the Post's reputation for the best music coverage on any regional paper, practically single-handed. And he's recently set up a regional review website, to take his reviews and those of his devoted team of assistants (he calls them his "heroes", and I'm proud to be one of them) to the global audience he feels Birmingham's music deserves. And yet when he began writing for the Post, journalism was still in the steam age. Concerts would finish at 9.30pm; and Christopher would have to write his review and dictate it down the telephone for a 10pm deadline. He remembers those days vividly.

"The work of the girls on the copy desk was amazing - they had to take the copy from theatre, music and ballet reviews, copy from the House of Commons, sports results. I mean there used to be times when I'd be in the middle of dictating a review and the copyist would say, 'Sorry Chris, we've got to stop a minute. We've just got the results from the Hall Green dog track'! Last thing at night in the Post and Mail building, the atmosphere was just so good - all the lights on, people writing to meet the deadlines, the printer's ink. The cartoonist would be there at the end of the evening, doing his topical cartoon. And downstairs these huge rolls of newsprint going round and round".

Christopher Morley came to Birmingham from Brighton. His mother came from Naples (his parents met in Italy while Morley senior was serving in the British Army) and Neapolitan song echoed through his childhood. At Birmingham University, he studied music under the late John Joubert – a defining moment. " I fell in love with Birmingham, and I fell in love – so I decided to stay". Journalism was not, at first, part of the plan.

"I had ambitions to lecture at university and I did - I taught at Birmingham Conservatoire for 22 years" (He doesn't mention that in 2017 he also wrote the definitive history of the Conservatoire). "I had ambitions to conduct, which I did" – and he still cherishes memories of conducting a run of West Side Story at Dudley Castle in 1992 (Christopher met Leonard Bernstein in Venice while a student, and still reveres him as a musical hero – "It was my tribute to him, if you like"). "And I had ambitions to write about music, which I did and am doing. Of course writing about music meant I had to stop all my conducting".

To which one can only really reply that conducting's loss was the readers' gain. John Joubert first suggested Christopher as an assistant to the then-music critic Kenneth Dommett in 1969, but until Terry Grimley offered him the post of chief music critic in 1987, he also worked as head of music at the Earls High School in Halesowen, and for a period ran his own music shop, Cottage Music in Moseley. "That was a means of escaping from school!" he laughs. "I was hopeless as a businessman".

And music criticism has had its ups and downs too. No sooner had he got his break on the Post than he was sacked (he'd confused the violinists Ralph Holmes and Raymond Cohen in a review – we've all been there) – then discreetly hired back a few weeks later after it was clear that the arts desk couldn't cope without him. Against that were highs: helping Dommett review the world premiere of Shostakovich's 15th Symphony, over a crackly live radio broadcast from Moscow. Reporting for the Post from Edinburgh, the Proms and William Walton's villa on Ischia. Touring with Birmingham's choirs and orchestras (amateur and professional alike). Chronicling the CBSO's meteoric rise under Simon Rattle and his successors – and watching Birmingham transform itself beyond recognition. After half a century with your ear to the ground, you see things that others miss. Christopher was the first critic, in Birmingham or anywhere else, to realise that Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla was destined to follow Andris Nelsons at the CBSO.

Criticism can be a thankless task – more than one outraged performer has mistaken Christopher's tough love for a personal attack (Often they haven't read past the headline – the one part of the review that he doesn't actually write). That's an occupational hazard: we laugh now at the amateur operatic group who took the huff and banned him outright from future productions. But real artists value intelligent criticism, and while Christopher has reviewed giants ranging from Pierre Boulez to Luciano Pavarotti, he continues to take amateur music every bit as seriously. Students, choral societies and amateur orchestras across the Midlands know that they'll get no fairer – or better informed – appraisal of their work. The Post is still Birmingham's paper, after all: and while the national media vanishes ever deeper into its London bubble, it's what makes the work of Christopher and his team so vital. Fifty years on, he has no plans on giving up yet.

"Our role is to support the arts" he says. "To support, to give constructive advice, to recognise all the wonderful things that are going on here. I feel it's great that a critic can be on good terms with performers and composers. We all take each other seriously, we respect each other's integrity. There's no 'them and us' feeling. The Post has an incredible history of arts coverage, going back to its founder, John Feeney. Eric Blom, Ernest Newman, Havergal Brian – some of the best critics of the last century wrote for this paper, and I'm proud to be part of that. The musical life of Birmingham and the Midlands deserves proper coverage. It's too good to be ignored".

Richard Bratby

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