Donal Henahan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic who wrote, often provocatively, for The New York Times for nearly a quarter of a century, died on Sunday at his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Michaela Williams.
Mr. Henahan, an accomplished pianist and classical guitarist, reviewed operas, concerts and recitals for the daily newspaper and wrote longer-form essays on a wide range of cultural subjects for The Times on Sundays from 1967 to 1991, when he retired after 11 years as chief music critic. He won the Pulitzer for distinguished criticism in 1986.
Mr. Henahan, who also wrote for The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Saturday Review, Holiday, High Fidelity, Harper’s Bazaar and other magazines, was the music critic of The Chicago Daily News early in his career. He wrote authoritative evaluations of singers, orchestras, operas and chamber groups, usually placing them in the context of comparable performances and the perspective of music history.
Vladimir Horowitz “should not be missed in the course of any richly lived lifetime,” Mr. Henahan wrote in reviewing a 1985 Carnegie Hall concert by the pianist. “Mr. Horowitz, who is 82 years old, no longer produces the Niagara of sound that once characterized his performances, but the famously fluent stream can still be turned on when the mood of the man and the music coincide.”
Mr. Henahan’s first review in The Times, on Sept. 14, 1967, captured the spirit of an era. It began: “The American subculture of buttons and beards, poster art and pot, sandals and oddly shaped spectacles met the rather more ancient culture of India last evening at Philharmonic Hall. The occasion was the first of six concerts there this season by Ravi Shankar, the sitar virtuoso, whose instrument traces back about 700 years and whose chosen art form, the raga, is said to be 2,000 years old.”
Mr. Henahan’s essays for the Sunday Arts and Leisure section often drew barrages of letters from readers hailing or huffing over his commentaries — on the flawed acoustics of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, or Schubert’s sexuality, or Tchaikovsky’s purported suicide or the introduction of English-language supertitles in opera productions, which he called “help for the befuddled.”
And he often challenged the world of music and art with pointed questions about the shortcomings of government, business and private philanthropy in providing support; about the underrepresentation of black musicians in symphony orchestras; or about what he called a poisonous “cultural apartheid” that was “not being discussed candidly and openly by those who lead our major cultural institutions.”
In a lighter vein, he wrote a 1982 Sunday piece about the misuse of words from his own reviews in advertisements. Once, for example, he called a high-budget production “a staggering disappointment,” only to find an ad attributing a gush of adulation to him: “Staggering!” He concluded, “The reviewer’s gorge must rise ever so slightly at that moment, unless he is beyond caring.”
Mr. Henahan was a World War II fighter pilot who served with the Eighth Air Force in Britain. He returned in 1983 to Duxford, the East Anglia airfield where he had taken off in a P-51 Mustang for dogfights with Luftwaffe Messerschmitts in defense of American B-17 Flying Fortresses heading into daylight bombing raids over Germany. The field had been turned into a museum, with vintage planes and a souvenir shop.
“Schoolchildren swarmed over the place, laughing irreverently at what I in my nostalgic reverie regarded as holy places,” Mr. Henahan, who earned several combat medals as a first lieutenant, wrote in The Times. “I bought two Duxford T-shirts and some postcards and drove back to London in the slow lane.”
Donal Joseph Henahan was born in Cleveland on Feb. 28, 1921, the son of William and Mildred Doyle Henahan. His father was a lawyer. Donal studied at Kent State University and Ohio University before enlisting in the Army Air Corps in 1942.
After the war, he earned a bachelor’s degree at Northwestern University and did graduate work at the University of Chicago and the Chicago School of Music. In 1947, while still at Northwestern, he joined The Chicago Daily News. He became the newspaper’s chief music critic in 1957.
Days after arriving at The Times in 1967, he broke the news that the Metropolitan Opera’s 60-foot stage turntable, on which sets revolved between scenes, had been broken down for a year. It was built to carry 10,000 pounds, but 250 Egyptian soldiers and a Sphinx proved to be too much in a rehearsal for “Antony and Cleopatra.”
In 1980, he succeeded Harold C. Schonberg as The Times’s chief music critic.
Mr. Henahan is survived by Ms. Williams, a former director of editorial contracts at The Times, whom he married in 1990. He received an honorary doctor of music degree from Providence College that year.
After retiring, Mr. Henahan contributed articles and book reviews to The Times. He wrote about skiing, flying, tomato gardening and music.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: August 20, 2012
An earlier version referred incorrectly to the introduction of English-language supertitles at operas. It did not occur in 1984 and it was not at the Metropolitan Opera. It also misquoted Mr. Henahanâs comment about the supertitles. He called them âhelp for the befuddled,â’ not âhope for the befuddled.â