Harold Charles Schonberg (29 November 1915 – 26 July 2003) was an American music critic and author. He is best known for his contributions in The New York Times, where he was chief music critic from 1960 to 1980. In 1971, he became the first music critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. An influential critic, he is particularly well known for his encouragement of Romantic piano music and criticism of conductor Leonard Bernstein. He also wrote a number of books on music, and one on chess.
Harold Charles Schonberg was born in New York City to David and Minnie (Kirsch) Schonberg on 29 November 1915. He had a brother (Stanley) and a sister (Edith). His aunt, Alice Frisca, was a former concert pianist, and would become his first music teacher. Schonberg graduated from Brooklyn College in 1937, and undertook graduate studies at New York University. In 1939, he became a record critic for American Music Lover Magazine (later renamed the American Record Guide).
During World War II, Schonberg was a first lieutenant in the United States Army Airborne Signal Corps. He had hoped to enlist as a pilot, but was declared pastel-blind (he could distinguish colors but not shadings and subtleties) and was sent to London, where he was a code breaker and later a parachutist. He broke his leg on a training jump before D-Day and could not participate in the Normandy landings; every member of his platoon who jumped into France was ultimately killed. He remained in the Army until 1946.
Schonberg joined The New York Times in 1950. He rose to the post of senior music critic for the Times a decade later. In this capacity he published daily reviews and longer features on operas and classical music on Sundays. He also worked effectively behind the scenes to increase music coverage in the Times and develop its first-rate music staff. Upon his retirement as senior music critic in 1980, he became cultural correspondent for the Times.
Schonberg also wrote articles for Harper's and High Fidelity magazine, among others.
Schonberg was an extremely influential music writer. Aside from his contributions to music journalism, he published 13 books, most of them on music, including The Great Pianists: From Mozart to the Present (1963, revised 1987)—pianists were a specialty of Schonberg—and The Lives of the Great Composers (1970; revised 1981, 1997) which traced the lives of major composers from Monteverdi through to modern times. Schonberg wrote a biography of Vladimir Horowitz, one of the most famous pianists of the 20th century, entitled Horowitz: His Life and Music (1992).
Schonberg was highly critical of Leonard Bernstein during the composer-conductor's eleven-year tenure (1958–69) as principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic. He accused Bernstein of showing off by using exaggerated gestures on the podium and of conducting a piece in a way that made its structure overly obvious to audiences (e.g., slowing down during the transition from one main theme to another).
One of Schonberg's best remembered criticisms of Bernstein was written after the famous 6 April 1962, performance before which Bernstein announced that he disagreed with pianist Glenn Gould's interpretation of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 but was going to conduct it anyway because he found it fascinating. Schonberg chided Bernstein in print, suggesting that he should have either refrained from publicizing his disagreement, backed out of the concert, or imposed his own will on Gould; Schonberg called Bernstein "the Peter Pan of music". In the chapter on Bernstein in his 1967 book The Great Conductors, Schonberg quotes the remark but neglects to mention that he was the critic who had made it.
After Bernstein's regular tenure at the New York Philharmonic ended, however, Schonberg seemed to mellow in his attitude toward him and actually began to praise his conducting, stating in his book The Glorious Ones that "with age, came less of a need to prove something", and that "there were moments of glory in his conceptions."
In 1984, Schonberg taught music criticism at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada.
In 1987, it was announced that Schonberg was assisting Vladimir Horowitz in the preparation of the pianist's memoirs. Although the project was never completed, Schonberg's biography of Horowitz was published in 1992. Also in 1987, he served on the jury of the Paloma O'Shea Santander International Piano Competition.
Schonberg died in New York City on 26 July 2003, at the age of 87. In his obituary notice in The New York Times the next day, Allan Kozinn wrote that Schonberg "set the standard for critical evaluation and journalistic thoroughness." The University of Maryland Libraries have a Harold C. Schonberg collection in their International Piano Archives at Maryland; it contains a substantial collection of correspondences between Schonberg and fellow critics, musicians and readers.
A devoted and skilled chess player, Schonberg covered the 1972 championship match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer held in Reykjavík, Iceland. One of Schonberg's books not on music was Grandmasters of Chess. He also reviewed mysteries and thrillers for The New York Times under the pseudonym Newgate Callender from 1972 to 1995.
Schonberg was an avid golfer, though a poor one by his own estimation. He co-authored the book How To Play Double Bogey Golf (1975) along with Hollis Alpert, founder of the National Society of Film Critics, and fellow author Ira Mothner. Schonberg, Mothner and Alpert frequently played golf together, according to the book.