Richard Bratby and Gerard McBurney

We have lost an unforgettable teacher and one of Britain’s great critics

Remembering the life-force that was Michael Tanner – the Cambridge don and Spectator critic extraordinaire

Michael Tanner, photographed by Judith Aronson in the early 1980s in his Corpus Christi College rooms, which it is believed had once belonged to Christopher Marlowe. Credit: Judith Aronson

Tanner, the critic


Richard Bratby has narrated this article for you to listen to.

Michael Tanner (1935-2024), who died earlier this month, had such a vital mind and stood so far above the common run of music critics that it’s hard to believe he’s gone. For a philosopher to concern themself with the inner game of opera is not unknown (think of Friedrich Nietzsche and Roger Scruton). To do it as perceptively and as readably as Tanner is rarer. For two decades, starting in  1996, his weekly Spectator opera column offered as thorough and as stimulating an education in musical aesthetics as one could hope to receive; intellectual red meat served with forensic clarity and a mischievous, subversive smile.

His weekly Spectator columns offered as stimulating an aesthetic education as you could hope for

I don’t know what I expected when, after 15 years as a reader, I invited him to speak to a pre-concert crowd in Birmingham about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Michael arrived wearing jeans and a leather jacket, walked straight on without notes and delivered a 30-minute précis of Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, which gradually evolved into a panorama of the Ninth’s precise significance not just in music, but across two centuries of European history and culture. You could almost hear the audience’s brains buzzing as they left.

An hour later we were still standing in New Street, locked in what – for him, I’m sure – was just a casual conversation about Wagner, but which for me was worth three years of Oxford tutorials. When I, too, started writing opera reviews for The Spectator, it was as a stopgap while Michael explored his many other interests. He must have been nearly 80 at that point (I would have placed him in his mid-sixties) but until recently it always felt as if I was simply minding his column until he was ready to come blazing back. It was understood that he had first pick of the operas; and they were gladly conceded because Michael’s thoughts, whether on Parsifal or The Merry Widow, were more worth having than those of anyone else alive.

I knew very little of Michael’s personal life, his remarkable academic career – he was a Cambridge fellow for more than 60 years – or the legendary Wagner evenings that he hosted in his rooms at Corpus Christi, but I can, perhaps, try to describe what made him our greatest living opera critic. First: his clarity. Academic musicology has evolved a mandarin style so formulaic that there’s even an online bot spewing the stuff out on Twitter (‘In contrast to mensuration canon, the all-interval tetrachord is not, despite conventional wisdom, humorously irrelevant’).

But Tanner was not a musicologist (some of them seem to have resented that), and he expressed complex ideas in humane, droll, jargon-free English. Here he is, opening the door straight into his 1996 book Wagner: ‘What is it about Richard Wagner that makes him, 112 years after his death, still so violently controversial? The easy answer would be “everything” but it would not be quite right.’

If you believe that good writing emerges from clear thinking, Tanner’s columns and his books (two on Wagner, as well as equally lucid introductions to Nietzsche and Schopenhauer) are the QED. With clarity goes economy: the 1996 Wagner deals with the master’s complete works, and conducts profound and searching interrogations of their meaning, in just 225 pages. You can slip it in your back pocket when you go to the opera. I regularly do, and if after a Wagner opera you find yourself alone and desperate for a discussion, Tanner is waiting in its pages, anticipating exactly what you wanted to ask and ready to agree, dispute and elucidate. It’s a gem, a classic; the one truly indispensable book on Wagner for the intelligent general reader.

He wasn’t a professional musician – he knew opera was far too important to be left to professionals

That’s the next thing: Tanner was not a professional musician, and he knew that opera was far too important to be left to the professionals. ‘There are no musical technicalities in this book, which means that it is not an explanation of how Wagner gets his effects, but rather an explanation of what they are,’ he explains at the start of the book. And bang! Like Donner at the end of Das Rheingold, he’s dispelled the fog that stands between the art and its meaning.

No need, with Tanner, to memorise catalogues of leitmotifs and their supposed functions (there isn’t a scrap of music notation in the book). There’s no laboured technical analysis, no biographical obfuscation. He could do all that in his sleep, of course; but he was more interested in what art says to us. Each week he discussed opera as (his own words) a ‘mixed art form’: a dramatic experience in which music is fundamental but never, in itself, sufficient. True, no one cherished great singing more (he’d once proposed marriage to the soprano Martha Mödl). He was wholly uninterested in opera as a glorified concert. He sought drama as Wagner and the ancient Greeks understood it; a union of art forms that transcended the sum of its parts. He was as likely to find it in a Gloucestershire chicken-shed – Longborough Festival Opera – as at Covent Garden or even (maybe especially) at Bayreuth.

That irritated some fellow critics, and certainly the opinions of a writer who took art as seriously as most people (and many artists) merely claim to could feel brutal. ‘Unrelieved musical inflammation, with frequent burstings of the boil and deluges of musical pus before the next one starts accumulating’ was his unforgettable description of an opera by Korngold that I happened to like (we differed over Turandot, too).

Later, I came to appreciate that even Michael’s most enjoyably savage slatings originated in a belief that opera genuinely mattered: that good and bad art could, and must, be distinguished; that cynicism, groupthink or even well-meaning mediocrity should be identified and exposed.

Classical music journalism is a timid, genteel profession, and much of what gets printed is little more than PR. Tanner never let his admiration for artists divert him from the honesty that he owed to his readers and to the art. That seemed shocking to some but many more, I suspect, found it intensely stimulating. One obituary described him as ‘waspish’, but my experience was of a generosity and a professional respect which – compared to Michael’s achievements – I had done very little to earn.

He grilled me once over something foolish that I’d written about Gilbert and Sullivan: a facile, throwaway bit of phrase-making. I shrank inwardly: he’d found me out. But no. As he listened to my excuses and continued to ask questions, I realised that he was taking my flippant remark entirely seriously. More than that; he was sincerely curious to hear a perspective that he had not previously considered. I didn’t have one, and I’ve rarely felt more humbled, but then, I’d never argued with an actual philosopher. This must have been how Socrates’s contemporaries felt when he stopped them in the streets of Athens.

Michael Tanner was a life-force. His work – all that profundity, all that wit, all that glorious invective – was driven by a zest for ideas; a hunger to learn about his fellow humans (even a flat-footed rookie journo) and to explore the full richness of what art and thought can offer us. He argued and wrote with all his might, but always honestly and always in good faith. As he leaves us, that, perhaps, is what we need – and will miss – the most.

Tanner, the teacher


My parents watched me tearing open the envelope.

 ‘Who will be doing your interview?’

 ‘Er… Dr Michael Tanner.’ I didn’t know who he was.

 ‘Goodness!’ said my mother, who did know. ‘I hope he doesn’t make you like Wagner.’

When the day came, I pushed open the heavy door. There, on one side was the tutor for admissions, nervous and upright like Mrs Pringle with a clipboard; and on the other, sprawled in a low-slung armchair, MT, his legs spread far too wide in tan-coloured shiny leather flared trousers, his satiny orange shirt open two buttons too low, curly ginger sideburns and, of course, he was bathed in a vast cloud of Aramis. Well, it was the early 1970s.

Something about the way he retold the plots of these dramas he loved so much entered my soul

We talked of Lionel Johnson (‘Yes, he is good’) and my already burning interest in Fauré.

‘Do you know his opera Pénélope?’

I said I’d only read about it and assumed it was ‘very Wagnerian’.

‘Well, it’s not very Wagnerian’, he retorted a little sharply. ‘Why don’t you drop by my rooms one day and borrow a recording?’

And that’s what led to my first visit to the legendary den, his set in Corpus Old Court. Piles and piles of books on every surface, impossibly crammed shelves with more LPs on them than I had ever seen, and, in a sanctuary arch around the statutory Cambridge gas fire, an enormous photographic iconostasis: Furtwängler, Wittgenstein and Nijinsky.

As undergraduates, what fascinated us first and foremost was Michael’s flamboyantly coruscating contumely. We gleefully collected his not-so-bons mots. ‘It is necessary to be more sophisticated than that!’ was my personal favourite, best heard in Michael’s distinctively insistent drawl.

Which makes it important to stress that his greatest gifts as a teacher, at least as they appeared to me, were the opposite of this.

Having collected so many thousands of books and records, Michael was astonishingly generous in lending them freely to undergraduates. One evening a week, we would appear at his open double-door and ask to borrow whatever we were curious about. The waiting queue started right down the creaky old staircase, and at the top was Michael, fetching recordings from all around his Fafner’s cave, offering pungent advice as to what best to listen to and scribbling the name of the borrower and the borrowed into a notebook in his infamously illegible hand. So many of us discovered so much music in that way.

Even more important were his glorious evening-long gatherings to listen to opera. You couldn’t call them classes. They were open to all, and so many came, that we would sit on the floor and in the windows and the doorway. I can see him now, moving piles of books and records into tottering towers to make space for yet another person.

And the way he opened his beloved artform up for us was really so very simple, almost child-like. Head thrown back and, rather to our amusement, melodramatically clutching in his left hand an enormous glass goblet of lime juice (he was open about his alcoholic crisis), somewhat like Tristan gazing out over the sea – ‘Nun lass uns Sühne trinken!’ (‘Let us now drink reconciliation!’) – he would tell us the story of what we were about to listen to.

Yes, he would give us an idea of the cultural context, the historical time, the musical and dramatic scaffolding. And that was memorable and interesting, opening new and unexpected paths through the tangled undergrowth. But most of all, he simply told the story.

A theme would be announced for the term… or was it for the year? There was ‘An Introduction to the History of Opera’, which began with The Coronation of Poppea (late in the evening we reeled downstairs and out into Old Court, uproariously chanting ‘No! No! Seneca, non morir!’), found its way past a ferocious dismissal of Handel’s supposedly reprehensible dependency on the da capo aria, through Gluck and Mozart to Beethoven and I cannot now remember where beyond. The Mozart and Fidelio are still vivid to me – Julius Patzak as Florestan – as are a swathe of older-generation conductors who reflected Michael’s entrenched allegiances.

Even more impressive was, as my mother had rightly feared, his revelation to us of Wagner. Something about the way Michael retold the plots of these dramas that he loved so much entered into my soul, and has never left. I want to stress: it was the simplicity of the way he retold those stories in his own words that made those gatherings so impressive. I cannot now listen to Tristan (with Furtwängler and Flagstad, of course) without connecting it to how Michael explained it for us, 50 years ago. Parsifal was, if anything, even more astonishing. But it was The Ring that made the greatest impression. That was where simple story-telling really mattered. In Michael’s words, what might have been ludicrous and confusing became luminous and essential.

The deep E-flat at the beginning of Rheingold; the thrilling sounds of spring in the first act of Die Walküre; the Forging Song from Siegfried (Michael, the audio-nerd, managing in some weird way to splice Hans Hotter’s voice onto a Furtwängler recording – ‘Don’t try and work out how I did it, because you won’t be able to!’); and, at the last, the Immolation Scene and its astonishing polyphonic tapestry of recollections from the hours and hours of music that came before it.

How Michael led us into that world and gave us the confidence to listen – to really listen – to the vast waves of sound thundering from his enormous speakers: that to me was real teaching.

Richard Bratby’s article was first published by Engelsberg Ideas ( A celebration of the life of Michael Tanner will be held on 26 April, 2 p.m., at Leckhampton, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. All are welcome.