A Calling: Music and His Vocation

Photograph of a young Jacob Siskind taken in mirror

Jacob Siskind’s journalism career centered on classical music criticism and took two primary forms: writing critiques for newspapers and hosting radio shows.

His written criticism was generally in response to performances he had attended, whereas the radio shows he wrote and hosted were often based on his interests. That being said, Siskind made a concerted effort to use both mediums to relay his knowledge, opinion, and experience to his audience with a voice that was candid, poignant, and incisive.

Siskind’s subjective reporting style was based in his vast knowledge of classical music gained over the course of his personal and professional studies. This writing style, an extension of Siskind’s unique relationship with classical music, garnered him his reputation. His approach both won him fans and estranged his readership. 

Critic in Print

Photograph of Jacob Siskind in office with fellow journalists circa 1970

Over the years, Siskind was primarily a writer, contributing to many publications over his lifetime. He began as a critic with the McGill Daily in 1945, at the age of seventeen, and was a reviewer for theMontreal Standard from 1949 until 1951. When the Montreal Standardfolded in 1951, Siskind freelanced for the Montreal Star until joining its staff as Theatre Editor. In 1965, Siskind became the Entertainment Editor for the Montreal Gazette and 1966, co-hosted CTV's weekly show Arts Calendar and Review with actor Uriel Luft. Siskind also wrote numerous reviews for the Montreal World Expo '67.

Reproduction of reviews of films from Expo 67 written by Jacob Siskind

In the early 1970’s Siskind was appointed Critic of music, drama, and ballet for the Montreal Gazette and after 1974 he wrote exclusively on music and ballet for the weekly. Nearing the end of his career, Siskind was Entertainment Editor and Senior Critic for the short-lived Ottawa Today (1977-78). When its run ended, he moved to the Ottawa Journal where he was the music, drama and dance critic until 1980. In 1980, Siskind joined the Ottawa Citizen as music and dance critic, remaining there until his retirement in June 1993.

His critiques of performances were for audiences and potential attendees, but they were also for the performers themselves. As Siskind himself puts it in his personal correspondence, “I tried to hold up a mirror to [help] them to assess whether or not they were actually projecting what it was they wanted to say.” 

Radio Host

Acting as a radio show host was Jacob Siskind’s second milieu for interacting with music, music listeners, and performers. Over the course of his career, Siskind worked with the CBC regularly. Between 1973 and 1980 Siskind was a writer and commentator with CBC producer Frances Wainwright for several music series including "Musically Speaking" and "The Art of the Interpreter." One of Siskind’s most revered radio shows, “Great Keyboard Performances of the 20th Century”, received glowing reviews from its listeners, many of them writing to Siskind personally to thank him for the program. This show gave listeners the opportunity to hear various recorded versions of the same song played by different performers and an opportunity to discuss their diverse characteristics.

Photographs of Jacob Siskind speaking into broadcast microphone

In 1982, he prepared and hosted a radio series on the piano concertos of Mozart with Menahem Pressler of the Beaux Arts Trio as his guest. Siskind was often heard as a commentator on CBC’s local Montreal program "Sights and Sounds" and CBC national network's "New Records" and "Arts National." In 1988, Siskind was musical and script advisor for the two-hour independently produced documentary, "Ida Haendel: A Voyage of Music" on the life and career of Polish-born violinist Ida Haendel. The special aired on CBC TV's "Adrienne Clarkson's Summer Festival". 

Siskind's devotion to music extended into his retirement. He served on the String Performer’s Foundation’s advisory board, whose aim is to develop the abilities of promising string performers in the National Capital Region. In 2011, the Ottawa Chamber Music Society dedicated Chamberfest, its annual festival, to his memory.

Here is a selection of letters written to Jacob Siskind showing support and protest:

Letter from fan of Siskind's radio show
Letter to Jacob Siskind in support of his radio show, Musically Speaking
Letter to Jacob Siskind from Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra protesting how they were characterized in his critique
Letter to Jacob Siskind from Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, showing signatures