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Olin Downes

Olin Downes (Edwin) (January 27, 1886August 22, 1955) was a significant American music critic.

He studied piano, music theory, and music criticism in New York and Boston, and it was in those two cities that he made his career as a music critic—first with the Boston Post (1906–1924) and then with the New York Times (1924–1955). He was also famous in radio broadcasting for his contributions to an intermission feature during the Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts, "The Metropolitan Opera Quiz." Occasionally, he appeared as a guest lecturer at universities and music conservatories.

While conservative in many regards, he was a champion of some new music in the first half of the 20th century. In particular, he often promoted the works of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and Hovhaness before they achieved worldwide fame.

By far his favorite living composer was Jean Sibelius, whom he championed throughout his career. Downes exchanged letters with the composer, and wrote a biography. Late in Sibelius's life, Finland awarded Downes honors and invited him to Finland to speak in honor of Sibelius's 75th birthday. According to some sources, the music of Sibelius became part of the standard orchestral repertory in the United States largely because of the championship of Downes. He is the father of music educator and radio host Edward Downes (quizmaster).

He died in New York. He was an honorary member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the national fraternity for men in music.


Occasionally his reviews could be blistering, especially regarding the music of the Second Viennese School and avant-garde music, as these examples demonstrate:

  • "Varèse's Hyperprism reminded us of election night, a menagerie or two and a catastrophe in a boiler factory." (The New York Times, 1924)
  • "Symphony for Chamber Orchestra of ... Anton Webern is one of those whispering, clucking, picking little pieces which Webern composes when he whittles away at small and futile ideas, until he has achieved the perfect fruition of futility and written precisely nothing." (The New York Times, 1929)
  • (On Berg's Lulu): "Rapine, suicide, murder, the prevailing flower of a highly diseased eroticism are, perhaps, just so much promising material for a musical Freud or Krafft-Ebing to work upon." (The New York Times, 1935)


  • Slonimsky, Nicolas (1965). The Lexicon of Musical Invective. Seattle: University of Washington Press. ISBN 0-295-78579-9.
  • "Olin (Edwin) Downes." In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1-56159-174-2.
  • Glenda Dawn Goss. Jean Sibelius and Olin Downes: Music, Friendship, Criticism. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press, 1995.

ISBN 1-5553-200-4

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