(b Hoxton, 10 Nov 1799; d London, 28 Aug 1859). English music critic. He was the second son of Thomas Holmes, a tradesman, and his wife Susanna Bishop Holmes of Marston, Somerset; the couple had at least four other children, all of them musical. While still a young child Edward was sent to John Clarke's school at Enfield, where he benefited from solid teaching and stimulating friends, among them John Keats. The headmaster's son, Charles Cowden Clarke, first taught Holmes the rudiments of music and maintained close contact with him over many years; it was Cowden Clarke who introduced Holmes into the Vincent Novello-Leigh Hunt circle about 1816. On leaving school Holmes was apprenticed (probably as clerk) to the elder L.B. Seeley, a Fleet Street bookseller, but he was unhappy there and meanwhile began taking organ lessons from Novello. He attended musical evenings at Novello's house in Oxford Street, meeting Shelley (whom he specially admired), Hazlitt and the Lambs, and gained encouragement from Novello's professional colleagues, including Samuel Wesley. Before completing his term at the bookshop, Holmes turned decisively to music: in 1823 he joined the Novello household as Vincent's apprentice, studying counterpoint, assisting with editorial projects and teaching the young Clara Novello. In August he was appointed organist at All Saints, Poplar (a post he retained until 1839).
More important to his literary development was the job Holmes secured three years later, again with Cowden Clarke's help, as music critic on The Atlas, a new Sunday paper aimed at educated readers. Here he wrote the column ‘Music and Musicians’ more or less regularly from November 1826 to March 1838. It contained some of the most articulate music comment ever to appear in the London press, and, though never signed, soon became known as his work, helping to spread his reputation as both a knowledgeable musician and an elegant writer. He left the paper over a managerial dispute, but subsequently returned for two further stints – late 1846 to August 1848, and 1851 to 1855 or later – thus maintaining a connection with the journal that had launched his critical career. It was James Whiting, chief Atlas proprietor, who commissioned his first book, A Ramble among the Musicians of Germany (1828), written after a three-month continental tour in summer 1827 and published pseudonymously (‘By a Musical Professor’). It was also on The Atlas that he met Robert Bell, the Irish journalist who became a close friend and supporter.
In 1828 some kind of ‘family misfortune’ made Holmes the main breadwinner for his parental family. He gained an additional literary outlet, as music book reviewer for the Foreign Quarterly Review (January 1829 to October 1831), and developed a sideline in piano and organ teaching. When in March 1838 he left The Atlas, another position was waiting on the Monthly Chronicle, to which he contributed intermittently for 18 months; meanwhile he became co-editor of the weekly Musical World (October 1838 to April 1839), working closely with Egerton Webbe. By this time the piecemeal nature of journalism, and some disenchantment with journalistic circles, must have combined with Holmes's urge to examine the life and work of Mozart in an extended, independent piece of writing. He embarked on a period of travel, research and study in the early 1840s, and produced his Life of Mozart for Chapman & Hall in 1845. The first documentary biography of the composer in English, it was praised by Otto Jahn and secured Holmes's reputation into the 20th century.
His journalistic skills were soon redeployed. During the latter part of his career Holmes worked for the Spectator (August 1843 to October 1846), Fraser's Magazine (1848–58) and the Musical Times (1850–59), as well as The Atlas, taking care to address the interests of each readership. He also continued to work as a private teacher and church organist, at the Chapel of Ease, Holloway (c1843–8), largely for financial reasons. Since 1836 he had taken responsibility for his sister Jane and her children; her husband Robert Seymour, who was also Edward and Jane's first cousin and the illustrator of Dickens's Pickwick Papers, had committed suicide in April that year. Holmes supported most of his family for over 20 years, even receiving a distress grant from the Royal Literary Fund in 1848; his referees included Mary Shelley and Robert Bell. At some time in 1849 he appears to have visited the USA, perhaps on a mission for the Novello firm or with the intent of writing another ‘travels’ book; but nothing concrete ever came of this. He turned instead to historical topics for the Musical Times and to Berlioz, a new interest since 1848. In July 1857 he married Louisa Sarah Webbe, younger sister of his friend Egerton and granddaughter of the glee composer Samuel Webbe. They lived near Regent's Park for just over two years before Holmes died of a malignant tumour.
In the mid-19th century Holmes's periodical writings were recognized in inner circles as the best of their kind in English. Bell noted their depth, feeling and judgment, admitting that ‘had they not been published anonymously, the fame [Holmes] must have acquired would render any reference to their merits unnecessary’. Hunt called Holmes, simply, ‘the best musical critic … this nation has produced’. These are not empty compliments: Holmes's range and perceptiveness are impressive by any standard. The foundation of his strength undoubtedly lay in Novello's influence – Holmes had perhaps the best music education of any critic in Britain before 1900 – as well as in his own sympathies. He was at home with opera, church and instrumental music, historical or contemporary, and believed passionately that music's value resided in its intellectual and sensory pleasures: every piece yielded to analysis and every performance was a fresh listening experience. Non-musical factors, such as a composer's nationality, performer's bank account, or technical adherence to a fixed set of rules, so often used as measures by others, held little interest for him. Indeed a tenet of his writing was that the English, as a nation, lacked a love of music for itself, without envy and sordid interest; only through national music education and a more widespread practice of music among amateurs – as in Germany – would the best music be understood and valued in Britain. It follows that Holmes had little to say about the ‘native composer’ question raging in some quarters, and felt distaste for what he saw as the increasing arrogance and self-promotion of English music professors.
His alertness to musical content meant that Holmes delighted in spotting connections between composers and across periods. At the start of his career he held up the operas of Gluck and Mozart, the organ music of J.S. Bach, the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and the madrigals and church music of earlier Italian and English composers. As he matured – hearing, studying and playing more music – his reference points grew richer. In Purcell he found anticipations of Handel and Mozart; Bellini's integration of music and drama reminded him of Gluck, as did Verdi's treatment of the chorus; he came to see Berlioz as the heir of Beethoven. Few of his conclusions were reached automatically, however; in fact Holmes equivocated about much new music and found it difficult to write on demand. For this reason, and owing to his integrity, his published opinions appear to change over time. His conversion to programme music through Berlioz is the most striking case, but he was also belatedly awakened to the power of Italian Romantic opera, largely through Giulia Grisi, whose Norma he found revelatory.
With his enquiring approach to music's technical side, and scholarly tendencies in its history, Holmes was well equipped to raise the level of public musical discussion. He studied Locke, edited Boyce, wrote a biography of Purcell, analysed the masses of Haydn and Mozart, and was alone in recognizing the importance of Idomeneo – though it is also true that he tended to idolize Mozart (refusing to believe, for example, that the Requiem was not written entirely by him). Ultimately Holmes's surpassing gift was his literary sensibility. Whether explaining the charms of Prague or the transcendence of Bach, he always sought a meaningful analogy, blending serious criticism and self-reflection with genuine wit and feeling. His performance descriptions have an uncanny ability to evoke vanished moments of music-making. It is finally in this virtue, and in his thoughtful perceptions of his own time, that his writings retain real and lasting value.
A Ramble among the Musicians of Germany, giving some account of the operas of Munich, Dresden, Berlin, &c. with remarks upon the church music, singers, performers and composers; and a sample of the pleasures and inconveniences that await the lover of art on a similar excursion (London, 1828/R)
The Life of Mozart, including his Correspondence (London, 1845; rev. 2/1878/R by E. Prout, rev. 3/1912 by E. Newman; rev. 4/1991 by C. Hogwood)
‘The Life of Purcell’, The Cathedral Services, Anthems, Hymns, and other Sacred Pieces, composed by Henry Purcell, ed. V. Novello (London, 1846), pp.i–xii; repr. in MT, ii (1846–8), 57–60, 69 only, 73–4, 81–2, 89–90
‘Analytical and Thematic Index of Mozart's Piano Works’, MT, iv (1850–52), 209–24; pubd separately (London, 1852)
Numerous essays and reviews in The Atlas, Foreign Quarterly Review, Monthly Chronicle, Musical World, Spectator, Fraser's Magazine and Musical Times
Archives of the Royal Literary Fund, File no.1213 (1848)
Obituary, MT, ix (1859–61), 125–6
L. Hunt: The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt (London, 1850/R, rev. 2/1860 by L. and T.L. Hunt, 3/1903), 419
M. Cowden Clarke: The Life and Labours of Vincent Novello, by his Daughter (London, 1864)
C. and M. Cowden Clarke: Recollections of Writers (London, 1878/R)
F.G. Kitton: Dickens and his Illustrators (London, 1889)
R.D. Altick: The Cowden Clarkes (London, New York and Toronto, 1948)
E.D. Mackerness: ‘Edward Holmes (1797–1859)’, ML, xlv (1964), 213–27
L. Langley: The English Musical Journal in the Early Nineteenth Century (diss., U. of North Carolina, 1983)
C. Hogwood: Introduction to E. Holmes: The Life of Mozart (London, 1991), pp. ix–xxxi