- Victor Fell Yellin
Aldrich, Richard (31 July 1863–02 June 1937), music critic, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of Elisha Smith Aldrich, a merchant, and Anna Elizabeth Gladding. His father, who sang in the Arion Choral Society under Jules Jordan, presumably encouraged the young Aldrich to pursue his interest in music. After graduating from public high school in 1881, Aldrich was admitted to Harvard College, where, besides taking regular humanities courses, he studied music with John Knowles Paine and honed his critical and writing skills as a member of the Harvard Crimson. His college years were coincident with the golden musical decade in Boston that included the founding of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1881 and the introduction, the same year, of musical and dramatic criticism by William Foster Apthorp at the Boston Evening Transcript. Aldrich proved himself to be an exceptional scholar, graduating A.B., magna cum laude, in 1885.
Aldrich’s initial career as a journalist began on the Providence Journal in 1885 and lasted, except for a year of musical study in Germany, until 1889. He then took a position as private secretary to the junior senator from Rhode Island, Nathan F. Dixon, an appointment helped by the Aldrich name and the family’s distant relationship to the illustrious senior senator Nelson Aldrich. While in the nation’s capital Aldrich wrote music criticism for the Washington Star, an activity that attracted the attention of the New York Tribune, where he was appointed assistant music, art, and literary critic in 1891 as a colleague of Henry E. Krehbiel, the noted music authority. When William J. Henderson left the New York Times to go to the New York Sun in 1902, he recommended Aldrich as his successor.
Aldrich married Margaret Livingston Chanler in 1906; the couple had two children. The family owned two houses, one in Manhattan and “Rokeby,” a weekend and summer retreat on the Hudson River not far from Tarrytown. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and was a member of the fashionable social clubs in New York City—University, Century, and Harvard—as well as the St. Botolph club in Boston.
Not counting military duty during World War I as an intelligence officer on the General Staff from 1918 to 1919, Aldrich served as music editor and chief music critic of the New York Times until his retirement in 1923. After that long service, Aldrich spent a year in London as guest critic for the Times, and as critic emeritus for the New York Times he contributed occasional editorials and book reviews. By far the greatest part of his retirement activity was spent in the building and cataloging of his music library, considered one of the finest private collections in the United States. Aldrich died in Rome while on a visit to his younger brother.
Of the two distinct groups of music critics produced by the Gilded Age, one flamboyant and opinionated, the other reserved and modest, Aldrich clearly belonged to the latter. His Yankee motto, “Praise to the face is disgrace,” summed up an unshakable feeling he never abandoned. Consequently, when Aldrich lauded a performance or a composition, his readers knew that he was indeed sincere. It was said of him that he always tried to shed light, not heat, in his criticism. His opinions were backed by meticulous musical scholarship and research, and he presented his thoughts in clear and careful prose that was remembered for its “aristocratic simplicity.” Aldrich’s Musical Discourse (1928), a collection of his writing on music, is valuable for both its content and its style. Insight into his broad, exploring musical tastes may be gathered from the fact that he was, simultaneously, a champion of Brahms and a proponent of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Otto Kinkeldey, one of America’s first musicologists, called Aldrich a critical scholar who made musical journalism a literary fine art.
Aldrich’s personal library of music and books on music was given to Harvard University; his own guide to the collection was published as A Catalogue of Books Relating to Music in the Library of Richard Aldrich (1931). Besides Aldrich’s reviews, feuilletons, and articles in periodicals and musical dictionaries, see the posthumously published selection of his criticism, Concert Life in New York, 1902–1923 (1941). He also wrote A Guide to Parsifal (1904) and A Guide to the Ring of the Nibelungen (1905), and he translated Lilli Lehmann’s Meine Gesangskunst under the title How to Sing (1902). A discussion of Aldrich and his contemporaries is in M. Sherwin, “The Classical Age of New York Musical Criticism, 1880–1920” (M.A. thesis, City College, CUNY, 1972). See also Oscar Thompson, “An American School of Criticism,” Musical Quarterly 23 (1937): 428. Edward Downes, “Richard Aldrich,” in Dictionary of American Biography, supp. 2 (1940), is valuable because it was written by the son of Olin Downes, Aldrich’s successor on the New York Times, and contains information gleaned from Olin Downes and from Aldrich family sources. Obituaries are in the New York Times, 3 and 6 June 1937.