Music Critic Michael Steinberg Dies At 80

Michael Steinberg, one of classical music's most insightful and readable critics, died Sunday of cancer at his home in Minneapolis. He was 80.

Music critic Michael Steinberg i i

Michael Steinberg wrote and lectured about classical music in ways that were compelling for novices and experts alike. Terrance McCarthy hide caption

itoggle caption Terrance McCarthy
Music critic Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg wrote and lectured about classical music in ways that were compelling for novices and experts alike.

Terrance McCarthy

Through his books and program notes and with his lectures and commentaries, Steinberg opened doors into classical music using warmth and wit for more than 60 years. He taught music history and criticism, coached chamber musicians and orchestras, and was a music critic for The Boston Globe.

Steinberg was born in Breslau (then in Germany) in 1928. In the months before WWII, he was flown out of Germany via the Kindertransport program and resettled in England with his family. They moved to the U.S. in 1943, and later, Steinberg earned a master's degree in musicology from Princeton University, studying with composers Milton Babbitt and Bohuslav Martinu.

A typical example of Steinberg's fluid prose and effortless storytelling can be found in his book The Symphony, in which he describes his classes with Martinu. They consisted of weekly lunches at a local restaurant, followed by forays back to campus, where Steinberg and another student listened to records with the composer; talked about literature, art and politics; and fed him tea "liberally laced with bourbon."

Steinberg spent two years in Italy on a Fulbright scholarship. After he returned, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and stationed in Germany in the 1950s. Later, he became department head of music history at the Manhattan School of Music, taught at various universities, and in 1964 was appointed the music critic of The Boston Globe.

Music For Non-Musicians

Steinberg's program notes for concerts by various orchestras — including the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic — are masterful examples of how to explain (and delight in) the complicated and joyful aspects of music to non-musicians.

USC professor and former Washington Post music critic Tim Page remembers Steinberg as "a marvelous writer and also a very sweet man." In a review of Steinberg's book Choral Masterworks, Page wrote, "What sets Steinberg's writing apart is its appealing mixture of impregnable authority (he knows this music) and purely personal asides (by the end of the book, we know this man). Choral Masterworks can be read by anybody, from a professional musician to any young listener newly braced by the stoic pessimism of the Brahms 'German Requiem.' "

Steinberg was good at both unfolding grand themes and uncovering small details in music. In the radio essay at the top of this page, Steinberg pinpoints a fleeting passage in a Mozart symphony.

"What a moment it is in the life of everyone who loves music when suddenly you sit in shock realizing the agony, the roiling, beneath Mozart's exquisite good manners, imperturbable for all but a few seconds in the finale of the G minor symphony."

Steinberg retired in 1999, but he remained busy. He continued to write, coach and even preside over poetry readings at music festivals such as Music@Menlo in suburban San Francisco. Steinberg collaborated with NPR on many occasions, discussing the symphonies of Sibelius and Nielsen and the tone poems of Smetana for the program Performance Today. He could also be heard on stage, narrating works by Copland, Kernis and Schoenberg.

Steinberg is survived by his wife, Jorja Fleezanis, the former concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra; two sons from a previous marriage; and three grandchildren.

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