NEWMAN, Ernest   [born William ROBERTS ]     [1868 - 1959]

William Roberts was born in Liverpool on 30th November 1868, the son of Seth Roberts, a Welsh tailor, and his wife Harriet, née Spark. Under his pen-name, Ernest Newman, he was to become the most celebrated British music critic in the first half of the 20th century." [Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians].

The family home at the time of his birth was at 58 Hamilton Road L5 in Everton and they remained there until the 1890’s. By the time of the 1901 census William had married Kate Eleanor Woollett and was living at 54 Grove Street L7. (Both addresses now demolished). He was educated at St Saviour’s School, Liverpool College and University College, Liverpool, graduating in 1886. Whilst having no formal musical education he taught himself to play the piano and could read music as easily as books. He studied vocal music, composition, harmony and counterpoint, and introduced himself to a wide range of music through reading scores. He had intended to pursue a career in the Indian Civil Service but his health was poor and travel to the east was ruled out as too perilous. He worked from 1889 to 1903 in the Bank of Liverpool using his spare time to write for various jouranls on a wide range of topics and publishing two books, Gluck and the Opera [1895] and A Study of Wagner [1899]. He first used the pen-name Ernest Newman when publishing the book on Gluck, wanting to express his outlook as a “new man in earnest” later adopting the name in private as well as public life, although not effecting a legal change.

In 1903 the composer Granville Bantock invited him to teach singing and musical theory at his Birmingham and Midland Institute of Music. In 1905 he moved to Manchester to become the music critic of the Manchester Guardian. In this role he was highly critical of the Hallé orchestra, its audiences and its principal conductor, Hans Richter. His vitriolic approach meant that within a year he was out of a job and he returned to Birmingham as music critic of The Birmingham Post. During his Birmingham years he wrote studies of Richard Strauss (1908), Edward Elgar (1906), Hugo Wolf (1907) and Richard Wagner (1914). His wife died in 1918 and after marrying Vera Hands in 1919 he moved to London as music critic of The Observer, only to move on after less than a year to join the Sunday Times, where he remained until his death nearly forty years later.

His largest work was the four volume The Life of Richard Wagner. Written between 1933 and 1947 it remains one of the definitive works on the composer.

Still writing into his late eighties, he died, aged 90, on 7th July 1959 at Tadworth, Surrey.


There is an extensive biography of Enest Newman  at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the Wikipedia entry is quite detailed. In 2017 Paul Watt published a biography of Newman -  ernest Newman - A Critical Biography  [Boydell Press]. A lecture by Newman on Wagner's Tristan und Isolde was recorded on 78 rpm discs and can be accessed on YouTube.