Harold C. Schonberg, the multifaceted Pulitzer Prize-winning chief music critic of the New York Times from 1960-80, died July 26 in Manhattan. He was 87.
He won the 1971 Pulitzer for criticism, the first given to a music critic. His work documented and influenced changes in the world of opera and classical music.
NYC native began studying the piano when he was 4. He attended Brooklyn College and NYU graduate school, where he wrote a master’s thesis on Elizabethan songbooks. He also studied drawing at the Art Students League and illustrated some of his early music articles.
In 1939, he became an associate editor and record critic for the American Music Lover (later the American Record Guide). He served in WWII in the Army Airborne Signal Corps, becoming a code breaker in London and later a parachutist. He remained in the Army until 1946, then became a music critic for the New York Sun on his return to civilian life, and also volunteered to do city desk reporting. In addition, he contributed to the Musical Courier, Musical Digest and Gramophone.
He joined the staff of the Times in 1950 and became record editor in 1955. He became chief music critic in 1960. His musical specialty was the piano; the Times noted, “Few writers have approached his expertise in the instrument, its players and its literature.”
He championed the work of several pianists, particularly Russians. His favorite pianist was Josef Hofmann, but he also praised the likes of Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter, Lazar Berman, Yevgeny Kissin, Earl Wild, Jorge Bolet, Raymond Lowenthal, Guiomar Novaes, Artur Rubinstein and Rudolf Serkin. The Times recalled he didn’t care for the “interpretive excesses of musicians like Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould.”
He wrote in a crisp, direct, often staccato style. In a 1967 interview with Editor & Publisher, he observed: “Criticism is only informed opinion. I write a piece that is a personal reaction based, hopefully, on a lot of years of study, background, scholarship and whatever intuition I have. It’s not a critic’s job to be right or wrong; it’s his job to express an opinion in readable English.”
Schonberg was known for his love of deadlines and being precise under pressure. He also made it a point to not befriend the musicians he reviewed, which at the time was innovative.
He wrote 13 books, some of which remain standard references. Among them are “The Great Pianists” (1963), “The Great Conductors” (1967), “The Lives of the Great Composers” (1970), “Facing the Music” (1981) and “Horowitz: His Life and Music” (1992).
He also was a chess expert and covered the game extensively, including the 1972 Boris Spassky-Bobby Fischer duel in Reykjavik, Iceland, and the 1984 championship match between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov in 1984.
Beyond that, he wrote broader Sunday pieces and reviewed mysteries and thrillers for the Times’ Book Review section from 1972-95 under the pseudonym Newgate Callendar. In a 1979 column, he published the results of a test he made to determine the possibility of distinguishing between male and female pianists: He prepared a tape with performances by a male and a female pianist and asked acquaintances to guess the player’s sex. Results were inconclusive, and the column plus a 1980 followup inspired classical radio stations to present tests of their own.
Schonberg retired as senior critic in 1980, but remained a cultural correspondent for the Times until 1985.
He was widowed twice: He was married about 31 years to Rosalyn Krokover, a Musical Courier dance critic, who died in 1973. His second wife, Helene Cornell, whom he married in 1975, died two months ago. Schonberg is survived by a sister.