On John Sinclair

Who is John Sinclair, you are probably asking? Those of you who read my last post, Shy love smiles and acid drops: Letters from a difficult marriage, may remember that he was the husband of the marriage in question, and father of the author, Jane Sinclair. However, as I briefly mentioned in that post, John Sinclair was also a music critic in Melbourne from 1947 to 1985.

As a keen concert-goer I was intrigued, and so did a little digging. I found an interesting man with a passion for some things that might interest us here. This is to say, he had some definite ideas about criticism, and about supporting Australian music and culture. Most of what I’m sharing here came from a 1998 article by Adrian Thomas called ‘“Beware of snakes, spiders and Sinclair”: John Sinclair (1919-1991), Music critic for the Melbourne Herald: The early years’.

If you are interested, read the article, but regarding Sinclair’s background, Thomas tells us that he started out as an artist. In fact, in the early 1940s, newspaper owner Sir Keith Murdoch gave him a stipend over other prominent artists like Sidney Nolan (who was a good friend of Sinclair’s). It was during this time that Sinclair became involved with the Heidi artistic community. Thomas doesn’t know why he didn’t continue with art, but says that his association with this circle and “their artistic beliefs” informed his career as a music critic. He was determined “to encourage a vibrant and enduring musical culture in Melbourne” like that artistic one. He also advocated for contemporary music and championed “those Australian composers and performers whose talents he deemed worthy of support.” In 1947, he was employed as music critic by Murdoch’s Herald, and there he stayed.

The function of the music critic

Sinclair apparently wrote quite a bit about criticism. Re music critics, he argued that, in addition to having the skills necessary to determining “the merit or otherwise of a performance, it is equally important that he [this was 1947] should possess the ability to translate his musical experience into terms accessible to the layman”. He saw criticism as being still “relatively undeveloped in Australia”, and was keen to be part of its development.

He was known, says Thomas, for writing “direct and uncompromising reviews” which “shook the musical establishment”. As is the way of these things, people focused on the negative, but Thomas says that “quality performances were always acknowledged”. I couldn’t resist checking, and I found many positive ones in Trove, alongside some negative ones.

For example, he wrote in 1952 of a young Australian organist, John Eggington, just returned from England, that “certainly, Melbourne organ lovers would find it difficult to recall many occasions on which the playing was as clear, expressive and brilliant as Mr Eggington’s was today”. 

His negative reviews, though, were not gentle. In 1947 he wrote on a recital by Viennese-born Australian pianist Paul Schramm, saying he “sat at the piano, dispassionate and efficient — something of a musical pharmacist dispensing a potion with deft and skilful fingers. He is a natural musician, and a fluid and sensitive interpreter.” However, while it was good playing and musical, it was also “always facile”. Returning to the pharmacist analogy, Sinclair concludes that

Mr Schramm, however, appears more concerned with the effect of his dispensations on his listeners than a personal search in the deeper realms of the composer’s meaning. 

All told, I think Mr Schramm and I were among the few people who weren’t really enjoying themselves last night.

The negative ones caused controversy, which was good for the newspaper business, but even Murdoch himself, writes Thomas, stepped in to give Sinclair his view of criticism.

Anyhow, Sinclair said a few more things about criticism that are more broadly applicable, and appealed to me, such as that it is the critic’s

job to know his subject, to set his standards and then to hold to them so that any thoughtful reader, on the evidence of a series of criticisms, can determine where he and the critic stand in relation to music. Only then can the reader form a worth-while opinion of the music on which the critic has reported. (1952)

I like this point about critics having clear criteria/standards that we can get to know. He also noted in 1952 that “the critic stands between the musician and the public and contributes to the understanding of music by measuring the individual work or performance against the widest possible background”.

And in 1973, in a letter to the Australian Council of the Arts, he said, among other things, that:

I have always believed that my responsibility was to the cause of music in the widest sense [my emph.]; that I had a responsibility not only to make reputable judgements about performance but to understand the many and complex factors that determine the quality of music making in the community.

I like his views on the practice and role of criticism. What about you?

Supporting contemporary music and musicians

Thomas discusses Sinclair’s role in improving what was Australia’s “immature musical culture”, in terms of concert-going behaviour, but my main interest is Sinclair’s ongoing concern with public’s “indifferent attitudes towards Australian composers and performers”. He laid much of this at the feet of the ABC. It was Australia’s main concert organiser and it focused on international performers. He wrote in 1952 that “in the long run it is the quality of indigenous musical activity, and not the playing of visitors that determines the worth of a year”.

The public, he saw, was being trained to prefer the international celebrity. Even worse, the concerts these and local orchestras performed primarily comprised standards from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He argued that “the ABC has an obligation to foster public taste and to provide conditions in which Australian musicians can develop and mature”. He worked hard to promote contemporary music and local composers. I found a 1951 review of a concert conducted by Eugene Goossens in which he praises Goossens for “continuing his very tangible services to Australian composers” by conducting the first Melbourne performance of Margaret Sutherland’s tone poem “Haunted Hills”. Similarly, a review of a 1952 Victorian Symphony Orchestra concert starts:

Much more contemporary music than usual and an excellent standard of performance distinguished last night’s concert by the Victorian Symphony Orchestra under Juan Jose Castro in the Melbourne Town Hall.

Thomas tells us “by the time the ABC tried to change the culture by appointing composer and contemporary music advocate Juan Castro as resident conductor in 1952, a conservative attitude to music was firmly entrenched in audiences”.

Converting audiences to contemporary music has always been a tough ask, but it, like all contemporary artistic endeavour, must be supported if culture is to remain fresh. I have enjoyed getting to know John Sinclair a little more, and greatly enjoyed reading his writing in the Herald.

We don’t hear much about his work in Shy love smiles, but he and Jeannie do discuss music occasionally. I’ll close on something Jeannie wrote to him in 1961 about a concert she attended at Glyndebourne. The work was modern, “Elegy for young lovers” by Henze, with words by Auden. She loved it:

my hair stood on end as the symbols [sic] clashed on and on. You probably read about it. Ah well. Also the audience was more serious and highbrow and sympathetic. Obviously the society ladies were frightened.

They shared some values, it seems. I’ll leave it there.

Adrian Thomas
‘”Beware of snakes, spiders and Sinclair”: John Sinclair (1919-1991), Music critic for the Melbourne Herald: The early years’ in Context: Journal of Music Research, No. 15/16, 1998: 79-90

19 thoughts on “On John Sinclair

  1. I think I know that name… he would have been the music critic who heard Valda Johnstone’s concerts, and I’m pretty certain I’ve got some press clippings in her scrapbook.

  2. Interesting that he doesn’t see an item of criticism as standing on its own. He expects you to know where he is coming from, a bit like a blogger really.
    I agree with him about the ABC. Imagine if they devoted time to poetry and only ever read Milton or Tennyson.

    • Yes, Bill? I was thinking of bloggers and how we get to know each other’s positions. Interesting question re criticism standing on its own. I think it can… As I think you are suggesting.

      • This passage struck me as well. Is he saying that he doesn’t believe it CAN stand on its own, or only that it’s possibly more meaningful to the reader of the criticism/review if that reader has a longer relationship with the critic/reviewer and can therefore better predict whether the reader will connect/disconnect from the work of art themselves?

        • I think criticism can stand on its own, as Bill suggests, but my thoughts are more like yours in that I think he’s talking about readers getting to know a reviewer’s “position” (likes, dislikes, standards, criteria), and once they are aware of that, they can better assess what the reviewer is saying versus their own thoughts and musical preferences. Is that what your are thinking?

        • Yes, those are the kinds of ideas percolating in my mind about it. I know you’re not happy with “position” either, as you’ve dressed it in quotation marks; that suggests to me something static somehow (even though of course one can change position) but maybe “outlook” or is this an instance when ‘aesthetic” would suit? But that sounds awfully fancy-pants for an ordinary lifelong reader, however enthusiastic! Heheh

        • Yes, “aesthetic” could be a better way to describe it. It’s hard to describe, perhaps because as you’ve said, what we are describing is not static, at least not among readers keen to develop their skills and understanding of an art that is also not static. I think you are more than “an ordinary life-long reader”!

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