Norman Lebrecht

Norman Lebrecht (born 11 July 1948 in London) is a British commentator on music and cultural affairs, a novelist, and the author of the classical music blog Slipped Disc.[1]

Norman Lebrecht
Lebrecht in 2004
Born (1948-07-11) July 11, 1948
London, England
Alma mater
  • author
  • broadcaster
  • cultural commentator

He was a columnist for The Daily Telegraph from 1994 to 2002, and assistant editor of the London Evening Standard from 2002 to 2009. On BBC Radio 3, Lebrecht presented beginning in 2000, and The Lebrecht Interview from 2006 to 2016. He won the 2002 Whitbread Award for First Novel for The Song of Names, at the age of 54. He also writes a column for the magazine Standpoint. Gilbert Kaplan described him as "surely the most controversial and arguably the most influential journalist covering classical music."[2]

Early and personal life

Lebrecht was born in London, England, to Solomon (a metal merchant) and Marguerite (Klein) Lebrecht.[3] He attended Kol Torah Rabbinical College in Jerusalem, Israel, in 1964–65, and Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, from 1966 to 1968.[3][4]

In 1977 Lebrecht married Elbie Spivack, a sculptor, editor, and author.[3][5] They have three daughters: Naama Shulamit, Abigail Shira, and Gabriella Clara.[3]

Radio and writing career

From 1970 until 1972 Lebrecht was a reporter and producer at the Israel Broadcasting Authority, Israel's state broadcasting network, in Jerusalem, Israel.[3] Then, from 1973 until 1978 he was a news executive in London and New York, for Visnews Ltd., a London-based international news agency.[3] Beginning in 1981 he was a special contributor to The Sunday Times.

From 1994 until 2002 Lebrecht was a columnist for The Daily Telegraph in Britain. From 2002 until 2015 he was an arts columnist and assistant editor of the Evening Standard, writing a weekly column.[6] Gilbert Kaplan wrote that "From his perch in London he has covered and uncovered the classical music world in his full-page weekly column in the Evening Standard which through the internet is must-reading around the world ... concentrating on reporting on the organizations and the people managing – or as he often sees it, mismanaging – the classical music world as well as the stars who dominate this culture. All this with a sensibility normally associated with a political reporter or even a police reporter. He was the first to predict the demise of the major classical record companies – now documented in his recently released book The Life and Death of Classical Music."[2]

Beginning in 2000, he presented (a cultural debate forum where "issues in the arts are debated and hotly disputed by makers and consumers of culture") on BBC Radio 3, whose output centres on classical music and opera.[7] From 2006 until 2016 he also hosted The Lebrecht Interview ("Classical music critic Norman Lebrecht talks to major figures in the field"), also on BBC Radio 3.[8]

Lebrecht in 2007 launched his classical music blog Slipped Disc, for which he writes.[1] It attracts over one million readers per month.[9] He also writes a monthly column for the culture magazine Standpoint.[9] Gilbert Kaplan described him in 2007 as "surely the most controversial and arguably the most influential journalist covering classical music."[2]

In 2014, Lebrecht received the Cremona Music Award from Mondomusica and Cremona Pianoforte in the Communication category, recognizing his "commitment ... to the diffusion of the music culture at a global level."[9]


Lebrecht has written 12 books about music, which have been translated into 17 languages.[9]

His book The Maestro Myth: Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power (Citadel Press; 1991) charts the history of conducting, from its rise as an independent profession in the 1870s to its subsequent preoccupations with power, wealth, and celebrity. When the Music Stops: Managers, Maestros and the Corporate Murder of Classical Music (Pocket Books; US title: Who Killed Classical Music?: Maestros, Managers, and Corporate Politics, Carol Publishing Group, 1997) is a history of the classical music business, presenting an exposé of its backstage workings and predicting the collapse of the record industry. Herman Trotter of The Buffalo News wrote that Lebrecht's "widely discussed 1992 book "The Maestro Myth" seems to have been a warm-up for his current magnum opus."[10] Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness: The Secret Life and Shameful Death of the Classical Record Industry (US title: The Life and Death of Classical Music, Penguin, 2007) is billed as an inside account of the rise and fall of recording, combined with a critical selection and analysis of 100 albums and 20 recording disasters.

Lebrecht has written extensively about the composer Gustav Mahler, including in his books Mahler Remembered (Faber & Faber, 1987) and Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World (Anchor Books, 2010). His interest in contemporary music is reflected in The Complete Companion to 20th Century Music (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and in the Phaidon Press series of 20th-century composer biographies, of which he was founder and editor. Other books on music he has written include Discord: Conflict and the Making of Music (A. Deutsch, 1982), The Book of Musical Anecdotes (Simon and Schuster, 1985), Music in London (Aurum Press, 1992), and Covent Garden: The Untold Story: Dispatches from the English Culture War, 1945–2000 (UPNE, 2000).

His latest book is a broader work of social history titled Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947. It was published by Oneworld (UK) in October 2019 and by Simon & Schuster (USA) in December 2019. David Crane in The Spectator called it 'Norman Lebrecht's urgent and moving history'. The Financial Times described the book as 'impressively wide-ranging in scope and unflaggingly fascinating in detail.' Tanjil Rashid wrote in The Times: 'Claims to have “changed the world” tend to be exaggerations, but Lebrecht’s subtitle, How Jews Changed the World 1847-1947, seems understated. The world wasn’t changed, it was remade.'[11]


His career as a novelist began with The Song of Names (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group), a tale of two boys growing up in wartime London and the impact of the Holocaust.[12] It was published in 2001, and went on to win the 2002 Whitbread Award for First Novel. Lebrecht won the award at the age of 54.[13] His second novel, The Game of Opposites: A Novel (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group), was published in 2009 in the US.


The Song of Names is to be released in 2019 as a feature film. Directed by François Girard, it stars Tim Roth and Clive Owen.[14]

Slipped Disc

In the early blogosphere, Lebrecht was critical of some online trends, arguing in his Evening Standard column that "Until bloggers deliver hard facts ... paid-for newspapers will continue to set the standard as the only show in town".[15] One blogger used this statement to charge Lebrecht with hypocrisy in light of the Naxos lawsuit.[16][17]

Despite this criticism of classical music blogs, Lebrecht launched his own, Slipped Disc, in March 2007, as part of In 2014, his blog became a standalone commercial website, supported by advertising and promotions.[1]


Lebrecht's polemical writings have drawn strong responses. Robert Craft praised The Maestro Myth as an "exposé of the business practices of orchestral conducting [that] is likely to be the most widely read classical music book of the year".[18] The American composer Gunther Schuller, in his 1998 book The Compleat Conductor, described The Maestro Myth in these terms: "A remarkably knowledgeable and courageous, no-holds-barred exposé of the serious degradation and venality in the conducting business, the wheeling and dealing of the power-broking managements that control most of the music business."[19] Schuller went on to say: "It is sobering reading, to say the least, and is highly recommended to anyone concerned about the integrity of the art and profession of music." On the other hand, the opera critic Michael Tanner wrote in The Times Literary Supplement that "this may be the most disgusting book I have ever read". Lebrecht was described by musicologist Richard Taruskin as "a sloppy but entertaining British muckraker".[20] Several journalists have noted multiple misstatements of fact by Lebrecht:

John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune:

Lebrecht writes entertainingly and has a wicked ear for backstage gossip. When he is on – as in his portraits of Karajan and Ronald Wilford, the Machiavellian power broker of Columbia Artists Management – his lance can be deadly. And his contention that our desperate need for cultural icons has made us pump up even limited talents into mythical figures gives sobering pause.

But he fails to tell the whole story and cannot back up his odd melange of history, gossip, fact and bitchy iconoclasm with anything that might give his book lasting value. Nearly every page contains some careless blunder or spelling mistake. Too much of The Maestro Myth in fact betrays the sensibility of a tabloid columnist who cannot distinguish between tattle and truth – and worse, doesn`t seem to care.

A generally skeptical sketch of Daniel Barenboim and his career ends with the unlikely image of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor standing alone "between the shoreline and the stinking slaughterhouses" – razed more than 30 years ago.[21]

Roger Dettmer, The Baltimore Sun:

The book [The Maestro Myth] is a syntactic miasma of received gossip, recycled anecdotes, rickety extrapolations and cultural penis-envy, with a gaffe-account in the hundreds. The sheer size and weight of careless mistakes, carelessly written, make the reader wary about anything in the book that hasn't been experienced firsthand.

Factually, for example, we find Cincinnati "the state capital" of Ohio. Philadelphia is a "dreary industrial city" whose orchestra was "founded" by Stokowski on Page 3, but (correctly) by Fritz Scheel on Page 133. In the same breath, though, Scheel is misidentified as the founder of the San Francisco Symphony.

In Chicago (where Claudio Abbado was not "Solti's candidate" to succeed him), Daniel Barenboim (who was) "stands alone between the shoreline and the stinking slaughterhouses," razed more than 30 years ago. The author doesn't bring Toscanini or Sir Thomas Beecham to the New York Philharmonic until 1930 (try 1926 and '28, respectively), and wrongly assigns Tom Wolfe's "Radical Chic" sendup of Leonard Bernstein to the New York Times (it was New York magazine).

There are even mistakes about Mahler, even though Mr. Lebrecht's last book was Mahler Remembered, an anthology. About his native heath, he writes that "Georg Solti never wanted the job" of music director of London's Covent Garden Opera. But Solti did want it; his dilemma in 1959 was whether to take the Deutsche Oper in Berlin plus the Hamburg Philharmonic, or Covent Garden plus the Los Angeles Phil.[22]

Martin Bernheimer, Los Angeles Times:

One may want to forgive Lebrecht's passing errors, along with his hyperbole. Still, the little slips make one all the more leery of big gaffes.

Contrary to what one reads, Kreisler and Joachim were not the only composers who wrote cadenzas for the Beethoven violin concerto. Otto Klemperer did not enjoy much of a U.S. career after World War II. Antonia Brico did not conduct at the Met. Rudolf Bing did not ban Elisabeth Schwarzkopf from that house. James Levine's favored artists at the Met are not "little-leaguers". Klaus Tennstedt never was "the most sought-after conductor on earth". When Zubin Mehta came to Los Angeles, he did not inherit a "world-class, well-run Philharmonic". Leonard Bernstein could not claim the longest tenure of any music director of the New York Philharmonic – that was Mehta. Irmgard Seefried, Sena Jurinac and Hilde Guden did not "trill secondary roles" in Vienna – they didn't really trill anything, but they did sing primary roles.[23]

An anonymous informant identified as "one of the world's leading conductors" told The Independent that Lebrecht had for years been getting away with "pompous, preposterous judgment" and "inept research".[24]

Lebrecht received the Cremona Music Award 2014. Pianist Grigory Sokolov, upon learning of his being awarded the Cremona Music Award 2015, refused to accept the honour, making this statement on his website:

According to my ideas about elementary decency, it is shame to be in the same award-winners list with Lebrecht.[25]

Naxos lawsuit

In 2007 the founder of Naxos Records, Klaus Heymann, sued Lebrecht's publisher, Penguin Books, for defamation in London's High Court of Justice.[24] Heymann claimed that Lebrecht had wrongly accused him of "serious business malpractices" in his book Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness, and identified at least 15 statements he claimed were inaccurate.[26] The case was settled out of court. As a result of the settlement, Penguin issued a statement apologising for "the hurt and damage which [Heymann] has suffered". The publisher also agreed to pay an undisclosed sum in legal fees to Heymann, to make a donation to charity, to refrain from repeating the disputed allegations and to seek the return of all unsold copies of Lebrecht's book.[26] Commenting on the affair, Heymann said:

For me it's beyond belief how any journalist in five pages can make so many factual mistakes. It's shocking. Also, he [Lebrecht] really doesn't understand the record business.[26]

The settlement did not extend to the US edition of Lebrecht's book, but Heymann vowed to seek its withdrawal in the United States.[24]

Books and articles


  • Lebrecht, Norman (1982). Discord: conflict and the making of music. London: A. Deutsch. ISBN 0-233-97442-3.
  • (1985). The Book of Musical Anecdotes. London: A. Deutsch. ISBN 0-233-97730-9.
       Also published as Hush! Handel's in a Passion: tales of Bach, Handel, and their contemporaries.
  • (1987). Mahler Remembered. London: Faber. ISBN 0-571-15009-8.
  • (1987). A Musical Book of Days. London: Collins. ISBN 0-00-217715-3.
  • (1991). The Maestro Myth: great conductors in pursuit of power. London: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-71018-4.
       Updated editions published 1997, 2001
  • (1992). Music in London: a history and handbook. London: Aurum. ISBN 1-85410-223-0.
  • (1992). The Companion to 20th-Century Music. London: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-71019-2.
       Revised edition published 2000 as The Complete Companion to 20th-Century Music.
  • (1996). When the Music Stops: managers, maestros and the corporate murder of classical music. London: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-81681-4.
       Also published as Who Killed Classical Music?: maestros, managers, and corporate politics.
  • (2000). Covent Garden: the Untold Story: dispatches from the English culture war, 1945–2000. London: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-85143-1.
  • (2002). The Song of Names: a novel. London: Review. ISBN 0755300947.
  • (2007). Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness: the secret life and shameful death of the classical record industry. London: Allen Lane. ISBN 978-0-7139-9957-0.
       Also published as The Life and Death of Classical Music: featuring the 100 best and 20 worst recordings ever made.
  • (2010). Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World. Faber and Faber. ISBN 978-0-571-26078-2.[27][28][29]



  1. Slipped Disc | The inside track on classical music and related cultures, by Norman Lebrecht
  2. Gilbert Kaplan (September 2, 2007). "Norman Lebrecht – Mad About Music," WQXR.
  3. "Lebrecht, Norman 1948–; Dictionary definition,"
  4. International Who's who in Classical Music, Europa Publications Limited, 2006.
  5. International Who's who in Music and Musicians' Directory, Melrose Press, 1998.
  6. "Norman Lebrecht quits Evening Standard" – Rhinegold
  7. at the BBC
  8. BBC Radio 3 – The Lebrecht Interview
  9. "Cremona Music Award, “Communication” category – Prize winner: Norman Lebrecht" – Cremona Musica
  10. Herman Trotter (June 8, 1997). "How Managers and Marketing Created a Symphony of Greed," The Buffalo News.
  12. Daniel Walden and Evelyn Gross Avery (2006). Studies in American Jewish Literature, State University of New York Press.
  13. Emma Brockes (8 January 2003). "Late starter; Norman Lebrecht has just won the Whitbread first book award - at the age of 54. He tells Emma Brockes why it took him so long," The Guardian.
  14. "Clive Owen WWII film The Song of Names getting TIFF Gala Presentation". The Loop, July 23, 2019.
  15. Lebrecht, Norman (8 November 2006). "Music writing on the internet is getting better, but online blogs won't be required reading until they start focusing on the facts". London Evening Standard.
  16. "Norman Lebrecht and Unchecked Trivia". Retrieved 28 October 2007.
  17. "Maestros, Masterpieces and Unchecked Facts". Retrieved 20 October 2007.
  18. Robert Craft (26 April 1992). "Masters of the Pit and the Podium". The Washington Post. Retrieved 11 July 2017.
  19. Schuller, Gunther (1998). "1. A Philosophy of Conducting". The Compleat Conductor. Oxford University Press. p. 4. ISBN 9780199840588.
  20. Taruskin, Richard (22 October 2007). "Books: The Musical Mystique". The New Republic.
  21. John von Rhein (14 August 1992). "Maestro Myth Seldom Lets Facts Spoil Its Story". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 11 July 2017.
  22. Roger Dettmer (23 August 1992). "Author's account of conductors is 'Maestro Myth'". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 11 July 2017.
  23. Martin Bernheimer (12 April 1992). "Conduct Unbecoming". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 11 July 2017.
  24. Johnson, Andrew (28 October 2007). "Music critic's book is pulped as Penguin loses defamation case". The Independent.
  25. Martin Bernheimer (28 September 2015). "Grigory Sokolov refuses award because it has previously been won by Norman Lebrecht". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 13 September 2017.
  26. Wakin, Daniel J. (20 October 2007). "British Critic's Book Is Withdrawn". The New York Times.
  27. "Fate, death and Alma", review of Why Mahler? by Philip Hensher, The Spectator (23 June 2010)
  28. The Economist (8 July 2010). "Gustav Mahler: The agony and the ecstasy". Retrieved 8 October 2014.
  29. Botstein, Leon (9 October 2010). "Bookshelf: A Fierce Enthusiasm". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 8 October 2014.
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