Courtesy of Tony Cencicola

Anthony Tommasini ’70 MUS ’72, a writer, pianist, Yale alumnus and former chief classical music critic for the New York Times, retired over two months ago, but still responds promptly to emails. He wrote in his initial digital response, “It’s very good to hear from you. I’m glad your note reached me.” 

Tommasini, who wrote his first byline for The New York Times in 1988, has served as one of the best and brightest driving forces for music criticism in a city with arguably the most vibrant music scene in the world. He has written about everything from composer Jonathan Larson’s untimely death before the first showing of his hit show “Rent” to the topic of orchestras’ blind auditions process to increase diversity in New York symphony orchestras. Tommasini served as the chief classical music critic for The New York Times for 21 years, up until his retirement in 2021.

Tim Page, a longtime friend of Tommasini and winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for his work in music criticism, described him as “a sweetheart.”

“He’s one of the nicest people I know,” Page said.

Before falling into music criticism, Tommasini graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music theory from Yale College in 1970, then went on to receive a master’s degree in Piano from the Yale School of Music in 1972. He also received a doctorate in musical arts from Boston University. After teaching for a period, he began as a freelancer for the Boston Globe before ending up at The New York Times.

Adam Sexton, an English lecturer and critic at the Yale School of Art, noted that Tommasini’s strong background in playing and studying music is one of the factors that has contributed to his writing skill. 

“One thing that made him special was that he knew his music,” Sexton said. “It is not uncommon for music critics to have not studied music or [to not] know how to play a musical instrument. He’s writing from a place of great knowledge and authority because of his background.”

Page said that Tommasini, first and foremost, “knew his music … That’s essential to his writing.”  

Tommasini agreed. 

“I know a lot about music, but I also understand that people have subjective reactions and that they may not agree with me,” he said.

But for critics like Tommasini, Page and Sexton, drawing from one’s expertise must also be accompanied by good writing. As important as knowledge and an extensive education is, Tommasini said that the quality of prose takes even higher precedence.

“Your expertise matters. But even more than that, you have to be able to translate it into really good, vivid writing,” he said.

Tommasini’s attitude is reflected in his long dedication not only to music, but also to the literary history of music criticism and most importantly, music outreach and education. Though many of his articles tackle the buzzworthy, front-page music events across the globe, such as the Metropolitan Opera’s first opera by a Black composer or a showing of Thomas Adés’ opera adaptation titled “The Tempest,” he used his writing as a way to encourage people from all communities and all musical backgrounds to enjoy classical music. He attended student concerts with the same enthusiasm as going to the Metropolitan Opera and said that music institutions — like the Yale School of Music — should be a resource to their local communities. 

“The community will come,” Tommasini said of the stereotype that classical music audiences are skewed toward a white and rich demographic. “The outreach must simply be better.”

Tommasini taught music at Emerson College before he became a staff reporter for The New York Times. This background informed his criticism; he said that in his writing career he “always felt like a teacher, trying to explain not only if I liked [the music] but what it was.”

He noted that while musicologists write for each other, reporters like him wrote for the general public. He found himself trying to translate the experience of listening to music into the written word, acting as an educator more than anything else.

Tommasini’s work brings classical music into the intersection between analog and cutting edge, old and new, antiquated and fresh. While much of his work focused on repertoire, programs and overwhelmingly, the beauty of pure music, Tommasini also made sure to include the susurrations of the restless audience, the warbling final echo of a lone operetta, the feeling of you, too, being in the hushed crowd of the Shubert, watching the music unfold. 

“His writing was so refreshing because he wasn’t one of those critics that goes out to gore everybody in the books,” Page said. “He was thoughtful and always had the sense that criticism was in some sense, teaching.”

Tommasini was also described by Page as a towering, superhero-esque figure in the music criticism world. 

“I believe Tony is the best chief critic the Times has ever had,” Page said. “A newspaper like the Times has a certain power. And Tony always used his power wisely.”

Tommasini recently published an article commemorating his first New York Times byline, which paid homage to his late friend Bob Walden, a former Marine and avid Mozart fan, who died of AIDS. 

Upon his first publication, he said that he was struck with the thought that,“well, I guess I’m a writer.” 

Although music criticism was not part of Tommasini’s original career plan, he remained wholly and indubitably committed to spreading his love for classical music to the everyday person. 

But what is most important about Tommasini’s writing is just that — writing. In the age of journalistic factualities, figures and particulars, seeking truths and unbiased reporting, he asked, “What is a newspaper selling, finally?”

Answering, he said, “Writing.”