Andrew Porter was best known in the United States for his long association with The New Yorker, where he was music critic from 1972 to 1992. He also directed operas, including one at the Seattle Opera in 1984.
Andrew Porter, a music critic celebrated for his stylistic elegance, immense erudition and polymathic command of the work under review and of everything else in creation conceivably connected with it, died either Thursday night or early Friday in London. He was 86.
His death overnight, from complications of pneumonia, was confirmed by Sheila Porter, his sister and only immediate survivor.
Considered one of the foremost music critics in the world, the Oxford-educated Mr. Porter was widely read on both sides of the Atlantic. He was best known in the United States for his long association with The New Yorker, where he was music critic from 1972 to 1992. There, his purview took in the city’s profuse musical riches as well as those of wherever in the world — and there were many such places — someone he admired was performing something he wanted to hear.
After leaving the magazine, Mr. Porter forsook his New York apartment, where visitors were sometimes obliged to sit on the floor because every horizontal surface was heaped with books, scores and records. He returned to London, where he lived to the end of his life, writing for The Observer, The Times Literary Supplement and other publications.
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To the work of criticism, Mr. Porter brought a formidable training in music performance (he was an accomplished organist); a deft linguistic ability (he translated the librettos of dozens of operas from the original French, German and Italian into highly regarded English versions); a deep knowledge of music theory, music history and composers’ biographies; a keen attention to the historical context in which a work was composed or performed, and to the prevailing political winds, both musical and non-, during those times.
He also brought a ready command of the entire production history of an opera or the publication history of a score (he was an occasional opera stage director); the abilities of an intellectual gumshoe (he made a major discovery involving Verdi’s “Don Carlos” that altered the way the opera is understood); an acute sensitivity to the architectural and acoustic qualities of concert halls; a robust cultural understanding of the city in which that hall was located; an appreciation of the ways in which music dovetailed with allied arts (he wrote a good deal of dance criticism early in his career); a phonetician’s familiarity with the vowel sounds of a given language, and how they rendered the words of that language more or less singable; a passion for fealty to a composer’s historical intent that was matched by a commitment to the work of 20th-century composers; and much else.
His prose itself was often described as musical, and he had a lexicographer’s command of the language on which to draw. Reviewing “A Musical Season,” one of several anthologies of Mr. Porter’s work, in The New York Times Book Review in 1974, the music critic John Yohalem wrote approvingly: “In a field that tends to strain verbal resources — there are just so many ways to describe a beautiful sound — Porter uses a vocabulary so wide it would do credit to a pornographer.”
Mr. Porter’s critical enthusiasms centered demonstrably on vocal music, and more demonstrably still on opera. This stance caused his critics to charge that for him, all music was vocal music — an accusation he parried in characteristic style in the opening paragraph of a New Yorker review from 1975:
“Anonymous letters I throw into the wastepaper basket without a second glance,” he wrote. “But a phrase of complaint from one of them recurs to me now: ‘Singers, singers, singers!’ It came from a correspondent unwilling to accept that most music is vocal music, and that most writing about music reflects the fact. There was a time, earlier this century, when youth was taught to regard sung music as somehow inferior to the ‘real thing,’ the ‘pure’ music of orchestra or string quartet. That was before Bach’s cantatas, Haydn’s and Handel’s and Monteverdi’s operas, and in general the music of the 17th, 16th, 15th and earlier centuries, became part of the living repertory.”
Andrew Brian Porter was born in Cape Town, South Africa, on Aug. 26, 1928; his father was a dentist, his mother a homemaker. He studied music at Diocesan College in Cape Town before taking a degree from University College, Oxford, where he studied music and English.
Mr. Porter wrote criticism for The Manchester Guardian and later for The Financial Times, from which he was plucked by William Shawn, then The New Yorker’s editor, for a year’s trial at the magazine. He remained for nearly 20.
As a translator, Mr. Porter was renowned for his complete English version of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, which was recorded by the English National Opera. He also translated many other works, including Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice”; Mozart’s “Idomeneo,” “Abduction from the Seraglio,” “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni”; Saint-Saëns’s “Henry VIII”; Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” and “Parsifal”; Verdi’s “Nabucco,” “Macbeth,” “Rigoletto,” “La Forza del Destino” “Otello” and “Falstaff”; and Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire.”
As a musicological detective, he was responsible for bringing to light a restored version of “Don Carlos,” which he meticulously pieced together from traces Verdi had left behind. It had long been known that the opera as traditionally performed was incomplete: Large sections of the score had been cut just before its premiere at the Paris Opera on March 11, 1867, and were believed lost.
In the 1970s, while doing research in the Paris Opera’s library, Mr. Porter came upon long-forgotten archival sources, including orchestral parts with the cut material still visible, that would let nearly an hour’s worth of deleted music be reconstructed a note at a time.
“It was absolutely extraordinary to open the first violin part and find those pages,” he told Opera News in 2011. “I rushed out, bought a lot of music paper, and copied from the first violin part, then the second violin part, et cetera. And the vocal parts were there too, all the roles.”
As a director, Mr. Porter presented an array of operas, including a production of “La Forza del Destino” at the Seattle Opera in 1984.
Mr. Porter, who also contributed articles on music to The New York Times starting in the early 1950s and continuing for decades, was a three-time winner of the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for music writing. His other books include the anthologies “Music of Three Seasons” (1978), “Music of Three More Seasons” (1981) and “Musical Events: A Chronicle” (1987).
If a music critic’s passions run high, the passions of his readers can run higher still, as Mr. Porter learned — vicariously — after an incident in Milan. The scene was La Scala, and the time was not long after he had written a review criticizing the Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer, whom opera fans around the world revered with a proprietary zeal.
In La Scala’s lobby that night was a man who had the spectacular misfortune to resemble Mr. Porter. As the real Mr. Porter recounted in the Opera News interview, a crowd of operagoers seized the man, threw him to the floor and, shouting, “How could you say what you said about our Leyla Gencer!,” commenced kicking him.
“I’m not Andrew Porter!” the man cried in self-defense. “I’m not Andrew Porter!”