What’s wrong with an older audience?

We’re all familiar by now with the problem of ageing audiences in classical music, and the endless calls to modernise and bring in the young, which generally means dismantling concert conventions. We must go to young people because they’ll never come to us, we’re told. And we’re to do this by indulging their attention deficit, their penchant for noise, their love for the casual and their suspicion of the formal and the reverent. Okay, but if you do that, this young person will never go to any of your concerts.

All that said, I can understand the alarmists’ concerns. Who doesn’t wince at statistics like this:


Longer term statistics are much, much worse. One report has the average age of French classical music audiences slipping from 36 to 61 over thirty years. In Australia, the largest proportion of classical music concert-goers are those aged 65-74. Greg Sandow lists studies showing a median age of 30 in 1937, then an average of 35 in 1955, moving on to 38 in the 1960s, at which point some alarms were already being sounded. Sandow has also collated longer term NEA data to show that, yes, this trend is obvious, historically unique, and shows no sign of stopping.

But why is this thought to be self-evidently bad? Today’s copy of The Times reports that violinist Nicola Benedetti ‘has expressed outrage at suggestions that organisers of symphony concerts should focus on attracting younger crowds, at the expense of older devotees.’ She suggested that older audiences are better at focusing and concentrating on the music, as well as noting that symphony performances are ‘suited to an atmosphere of formality and respectful attentiveness’.

It is somewhat outrageous that this even gets to be phrased in terms of a pernicious generation gap. The old are simply custodians of what they love, certainly not to the exclusion of the young. They really aren’t the problem — quite the contrary. Classical music has been made less welcome in modern society, whether by market forces or radical cultural change — or both. If we could simply improve, or in many cases (re)introduce, serious classical music education in state schools, and give classical music some much needed social capital, the sense of crisis would quickly fade.

There’s another, more sensitive topic. Younger generations are less white, and those of other ethnicities are even less likely to listen to classical music (with the obvious exception of East Asians, who make one less pessimistic about the future of classical music). Many people celebrate this. Desert Island Discs is, for those outside Britain, a radio programme where guests, from celebrities to politicians to academics, choose the pieces they would take with them to a desert island. When the programme begun in the early 1940s, 58% of the playlist was classical. Now it’s 21%. The Guardian had an article celebrating that the show now ‘features more diverse range of cultures and musical choices’. Of course, there are many of minority ethnicity who do choose classical music, but the historical constituency for classical music is in relative decline. And regardless of ethnicity, intelligent, fairly well-off people — those most likely to have an interest in classical music — are not exactly having the numbers of children they once would have. Which makes me think classical music is just a victim of general cultural decline.

I can think of few better musical accompaniments to this post than William Byrd’s Ye Sacred Music, written as an elegy for his friend and mentor, Thomas Tallis. ‘Tallis is dead, and Music dies.’

Boulez: Listening for the First Time

First impressions matter, and when I first heard the name Boulez, it was soon followed by L’enfant terrible. This was last year, at the time of his death, and in his obituaries I remember rolling my eyes at examples of his unnecessary iconoclasm. He was attacking those composers I was increasingly fond of: Dutilleux, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Mozart(!)… Then, when hearing clips of his music for the first time, I couldn’t find anything musical in them. The only time since that I’ve listened to Boulez at any length was on recordings for which he conducted. And in those two instances — Rite of Spring and Szymanowski’s Symphony No. 3 — I was struck only by their coldness.

So I thought I’d try again today, giving Boulez’s music my full attention for the first time. I decided upon his piece for piano (later expanded for orchestra), Notations. Written in 1955, Boulez was doubtless at his most formidable, a young man with a manifest destiny to push music beyond its established frontiers. The piece consists of twelve movements, each twelve bar longs, with a twelve note row connecting each movement. Is it not slightly odd that he still bothered with bar lines, especially given that each movement is so short? If you’ve already thrown the baby out, why not the bathwater? Anyway, here it is:

On first listen, it’s pretty exciting. Could I make out the tone row? Nope. What I do hear is the basic architecture of the music: changes in mood and dynamics, rhythmic motion, albeit very interrupted, as well as motifs and phrases.

I opened up the score and managed to find the tone row. The first eleven notes were obvious, and the twelfth could easily be found by process of elimination.

IMG_20170627_153954951 (1).jpg
The tone row for Notations

For the sake of this post, I’ll just look at the first three movements, each less than a minute long. The first movement:Notationspage1The tone row is established in the first three bars, then suddenly (literally, subito) the music hits you with some kind of chord. Perhaps the one thing I find most incomprehensible about this piece (and believe me, there’s stiff competition) is the chords. Mostly, I cannot discern how they relate to the tone row. Perhaps they don’t. The chords are noticeably held, left to shimmer as the right-hand decorates the air. It’s all very interesting, but I can’t see any way the chords relate to one another either, except as colourful evocations of something or other. From the third beat of bar ten until the end of the movement, the tone row is again stated, but from C♮ back round to A♮, and vertically as well as horizontally. However, while this is quite clear on the page, it’s useless trying to notice it when listening.

Movement two:

Notationspage2The second movement goes by in a flash. Two crash-wallops sandwich a strongly rhythmic section. The right-hand plays staccato minor second intervals, with the accents changing irregularly. It reminds me of the ‘Dance of the Young Girls’ from Rite of Spring, but significantly faster. The left hand starts out by playing the full tone row, then seems to play fragments from it, but without any logic obvious to me, followed by the tone row again, but in retrograde. The clusters at the end, as with the beginning, are made up of all twelve notes — Boulez’s ‘twelve’ theme strikes again.

And lastly, movement three:


The third movement is much more delicate, suggesting a more Romantic style. I mean, the expression is there, the structure is there, the deliberate organisation of notes is there. But still, it’s only dimly musical. To paraphrase a great entertainer, it sounds like all the right notes — but not necessarily in the right order.

Boulez later arranged and expanded Notations for orchestra. I can’t find a score for it, but already in the first movement it’s been significantly expanded, and is more interesting than the original piano version. The piano has a quite limited timbre, and Boulez seems to excel most with many different timbres under his command. Still, the music is about as comprehensible to the listener as bacteria is to the naked eye. There’s no getting round it: you have to crack open the score to genuinely get anything out of it. No, I’m still not convinced this is good music.

Mendelssohn: On the Wrong Side of History

In the history of the spirit all that is decisive is newness, originality; everything else is of subordinate importance … Those composers who unconditionally ally themselves with the old masters do not work for progress, for a further development of the art.

–Franz Brendel’s 1852 book Geschichte der Musik in Italien, Deutschland und Frankreich

Franz Brendel was a prominent German music critic and and an early proponent of what we now call musical historicism. He advocated for an idea of musical progress, that universal truths could be inferred from history and that these would determine the future of music. As a consequence, he had some quite mad ideas, such as insisting that music before the Palestrina was ‘prehistory’, for it didn’t express the ideas and feelings of individuals. Theories like this make it easy for ideologues to place people and ideas on the wrong the side of history, and among the many victims was Felix Mendelssohn.

Mendelssohn died at a rather bad time. 1847 was one year before revolution would sweep across Europe, and so Mendelssohn, who saw himself as an inheritor and custodian of the past, would have his posthumous legacy formed in a post-revolutionary context. Moreover, Mendelssohn was an ethnic jew. And with German nationalism on the rise, this made his legacy vulnerable, despite the fact Mendelssohn seemed to be something of a German nationalist himself. And despite the fact that his family had since abandoned religious judaism, and that he, the reviver of Bach’s Matthew Passion, was a devout Lutheran. (‘Every kind of music ought, in its peculiar way, to tend to the glory of God,’ he said.) Wagner singled him out in his infamous Das Judenthum in der Musik (‘Jewishness in Music’), which was in fact first published by Brendel in 1850, though with Wagner hiding behind a pseudonym. Wagner wrote that

[Mendelssohn] has shown us that a jew can possess the richest measure of specific talents the most refined and varied culture, the loftiest, most tender sense of honor, without even once through all these advantages being able to bring forth in us that profound, heart-and-soul searching effect we expect from music…

This critique of Mendelssohn as sentimental, unoriginal and superficial would live on, albeit without the rancid antisemitism. One such way was in the backlash against perceived Victorian values — shallowness, prudishness etc. — with which Mendelssohn, who had an exceptionally close relationship with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, could easily be associated.

So, how large an impact did antisemitism have on Mendelssohn’s legacy? Certainly the worse it ever got was under Nazi Germany, where they literally wrote him out of history and removed his statue from its honoured place outside St. Thomas Church, Leipzig (more famously, the church where Bach was director). Yet again, Mendelssohn didn’t fit the right narrative. But the regime apparently struggled to eliminate his music from public life completely, with his A Midsummer Night’s Dream overture and incidental music still proving too popular to get rid of.

However, I think by far the more significant reason for Mendelssohn’s problems was that he didn’t fit the new obsession with originality. (This subject, I must admit, is also a small obsession of mine.) Berlioz, who was incredibly admiring, professionally and personally, of Mendelssohn — ‘enormously, extraordinary, superbly, prodigiously talented’  — nevertheless remarked disapprovingly that ‘he is still rather too keen on composers who are dead’. According to Berlioz, Mendelssohn even found Berlioz’s music incomprehensible. And while Mendelssohn did, in his work as conductor, help promote new music, in many people’s eyes he did not do enough. He was a much better promoter of the music of the past, and was instrumental in forming the canon.

His own music showed him to be a master of his craft, as did his much-praised piano skill and his pioneering conducting (conducting was a relatively new thing in the early nineteenth century). Indeed, he excelled at many other things too, from chess to gymnastics to theology to painting. And while he had his own personal troubles, he seemed generally less mopey than many, which may have been helped by the fact he and his family were pretty well off. He was exceedingly competent, therefore, but without any of the mythical traits of a genius composer. The musicologist Alfred Einstein complained about this exact point: ‘he had no inner forces to curb, for real conflict was lacking in his life as in his art’. Certainly, Mendelssohn didn’t feel compelled to be innovative and to seek musical conflict. Responding to a friend who was disheartened by that fact that he couldn’t compose anything original, Mendelssohn said

But your reason for not wanting to write any more, because you do not hope to break any new ground, is — if you will pardon me — not reasonable. What does this phrase mean, actually? To clear a path that no one has walked before you? But first this new path would have to lead to much more beautiful, more charming territory. For just clearing a new path can be done by anyone who knows how to wield and shovel and move his legs. In every nobler sense, however, I deny forthwith that there are new paths to be cleared, for there are no more new artistic territories. All of them have long since been discovered. New ground! Vexatious demon for every artist who submits to it! Never, in fact, did an artist break new ground. In the best case he did things imperceptibly better than his immediate predecessors. Who should break the new ground? Surely no one but the most sublime geniuses? Well, did Beethoven open up new ground completely different from Mozart? Do Beethoven’s symphonies proceed down completely new paths? No, I say. Between the first symphony of Beethoven and the last of Mozart I find no extraordinary [leap in] artistic value, and no more than ordinary effect. The one pleases me and the other pleases me.

Forgive the length, but I hope you agree it’s a marvellous little rant. And it highlights so clearly why Brendel et al. found the Mendelssohnian view of music anathema.

When Mendelssohn died in 1847, the English journal The Musical World described it as ‘the eclipse of music’. He was extraordinary well-received while alive, especially in England. Yet his death was really his own eclipse. It wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century that his reputation began to climb back to where it was when he was alive.

Now, I don’t if he’s one of the Great Composers. I must confess, I’ve probably spent more time doing somewhat cursory research on him than actually listening to his music. So I defer judgement on whether he was great, or, to borrow from H.L. Mencken, whether he missed greatness ‘by a hair’. But of the three symphonies I’ve heard, I keep coming back to his Symphony No.4, the ‘Italian Symphony’. A perplexing thing about the Mendelssohn symphonies is that all but one of them are wrongly numbered. The 5th is actually the 2nd, the 2nd is actually the 4th, the 4th is actually the third, and the 3rd is actually the 5th. At least I think I got that right! Anyway, the Italian Symphony, with the Gewandhaus Orchestra themselves performing it:

The Best (and Worst) Settings of the Stabat Mater

These are ranked in vague accordance with what my idea of what a perfect Stabat Mater is: introspective, painful, but ultimately beautiful. Of course, many are absent (Dvorak, Poulenc, A. Scarlatti, etc.) as I’m too unfamiliar with them. From horrendous to sublime:

Karl Jenkins (2008)

Hollywood does Baroque in Arabia. By far the worst Stabat Mater ever. Neither reverent nor introspective, with plain harmonies and child-like melodies, held together by Middle Eastern drumming. This is the kebab-pizza-burger kind of multiculturalism, where everything that is good about the separate cultural components is made cheap and sickly. Yet Jenkins is quite popular, which just might prove that collective madness is a genuine condition. Why are audiences so easily taken in? Are they so starved of contemporary melodious music that they’re happy to give in to this lacklustre kitsch?

Marco Rosano (2004)

Rosano is an obscure chap who has, in terms of classical music, seemingly spent much of his time programming Bach and Vivaldi onto an electric synthesiser. Otherwise, he has apparently been involved in ‘film composition, advertising jingles, children’s lullabies and popmusic’. Yet somehow he got the great countertenor Andreas Scholl to sing his setting of the Stabat Mater. Had it not alright been invented for another style, I would use the term Baroque Pop to describe this Stabat Mater. Song-length movements with accessible tunes but Baroque orchestration and, for the most part, loosely Baroque-like harmony and style, but with 21st century pop sensibilities. The movements vary greatly in quality, and the most complimentary thing I can say about any of them is, ‘huh, that’s a pretty nice tune’. This one is probably the nicest, and the orchestra in the video sounds much better than in the studio recording, which is incredibly boxy. Of course, Scholl sounds heavenly as always:

Rossini (1841)

This would be a really good piece if it weren’t a Stabat Mater. Bombastic and completely the wrong mood. Sounds way too much like one of his operas.

Vivaldi (1712)

From here on out the quality dramatically improves. This is a very lyrical, and very likeable Stabat Mater. It won’t knock your socks off, but you’ll find it impossible to not to be charmed. It’s also quite short, as Vivaldi only made use of the first half of the poem. Philippe Jaroussky’s understated version is my favourite. Here he is singing the Eia Mater:

Pergolesi (1726)

It might be over-exposure, but I’ve become a bit numb to this one. It has parts that still sound amazing, but I can’t listen to the whole thing without getting bored.

Domenico Scarlatti (1715)

Written a decade before Pergolesi’s, this is definitely my preferred Baroque Stabat Mater. Scored for ten voices, It’s more polyphonic and complex (in fact it can sound much older than it is) and utterly sumptuous. (Also, it’s much better than his father’s setting, I’d say.)

Haydn (1767)

A terrifically underrated work. It is unusually sombre and heavy for Haydn, and startlingly beautiful for it. But perhaps what holds it back is that it isn’t especially empathetic — one never really feels Mary’s suffering in it. However, he does the more more brilliant aspects of the poem, especially the end, very well.

Arvo Part (1985)

This is, not atypically for Part it must be said, a sparse work. It is haunting, especially when the vocals first enter on high and descend angelically (heard in the video extract below). It might be the most sorrowful Stabat Mater on the list. There’s a version for orchestra but I much prefer the intimacy of the double trio version, which is also the original version. Here’s the Goeyvaerts String Trio playing a section from it, and, interestingly, in just intonation.

Szymanowski (1926)

An underrated composer. In his late period he wrote perhaps some of the best works of the time: his fourth ‘piano’ symphony, the opera King Roger and this, his Stabat Mater. Syzmanowski wrote his Stabat Mater as much for Poland as for the sacred, incorporating into it Polish folk, as it was in this period that his music took a distinctively nationalist turn. It is a mesmerising, colourful work, and has the most radiant ending of any Stabat Mater I’ve heard, exactly what Paradise should sound like.

James MacMillan (2016)

MacMillan’s stands out for its anger. It is often quiet, and always reflective, but it is also tormented and furious, grinding its way towards glory. I love some of the vocal effects in it, the way the voices at one point blend and imitate such that they sound like a wash of tears — almost uncontrollably emotional — or an argumentative section which seems to see sections of voices pitted against one another. And the aggression of the music is often remarkable considering this just uses a string orchestra. Yet it’s no less beautiful for it, with the first movement ending on the most wonderful violin melody — which returns twice more in the piece, and each time more beautiful than the last. It’s worth noting that this piece begins where MacMillan’s Seven Words ended, with G and F# playing simultaneously at almost a whisper. So I’d strongly recommend giving that a listen too, if not first. Here’s the Spotify embed as it’s not available on YouTube:

Palestrina (ca. 1589)

I don’t want to at all spoil this one, in case you haven’t already heard it. It’s one of those pieces that when you first hear it, it’s obvious within the first five seconds that it’s going to be sublime. I don’t know what perfection sounds like, but this would be my best guess. The Sixteen again:

Why You Should Compose

Musical ideas sound so spectacular in my head. I can vividly hear this perfect constellation of notes — but whenever I try to score it, the brilliance fades. Recently I came across a comforting bit of insight from Mendelssohn, who said to a composer friend that ‘if we only wanted to accept the ideas that agreed perfectly with our desires, then we accomplish nothing at all or at most very little … If it [a composition] does not become a work of art in the highest sense, at least it is an exercise in forming and portraying ideas.’ I agree with this wholeheartedly. Composing isn’t necessarily something you work towards, but also something you use to become a better musician. We should compose music for the same reason we write: to collect our thoughts and form them into something permanent, to see what you know and what you believe.

I have composed from the first time I held an instrument in my hands; once I’d memorised a few chord charts, I was off. And the stuff I composed, aged about 8 or 9, was undeniably absurd. I would simply pick chords at random — say, D7 to G to E minor to A to F#7 — and didn’t particular like to repeat anything, because that would be boring, I thought. It was almost like tone rows: I wouldn’t repeat a chord until I had exhausted all the others.

When I learnt to read notation, which wasn’t until the somewhat late age of 14 or 15, I had all these ideas but no clue what to do with all of them. I gather this is a common problem. I’d just write these ideas in linear, unrepeating succession and call it a piece. I had pieces that went on for 20 minutes like this. Of course, I also got rhythms and notes wrong because scores were still very unfamiliar territory, and I couldn’t do even the most basic sight-reading. Only recently, by which I mean in the last several months, have I begun to learn how to manipulate musical themes, how to understand harmony, how to properly read a score, and so on.

Below is one such piece I wrote. According to my computer it was last modified in 2012, and I suspect I wrote it a year before, at which point I would have been 15, maybe 16. That’s three years before I listened to any classical music and back when my musical diet was exclusively rock and metal. At this stage, I was a bit less of a haphazard composer. But this piece still sounds to me like unrelated ideas slapped together in an inartful way. (I do still like that 13/8 outro though.) Here’s the midi recording:

The very last thing I composed, before a near total hiatus from music for a year or so, was an extreme metal EP that I recorded and a year later actually released. I made a whopping $2 from it (before tax…), and got two — not one, but two! — reviews. Extreme metal reviews are amusingly ridiculous. My little EP was given this flattering (I think) description: ‘The force of the pounding beats is enough to convert skyscrapers into craters and the discordant guitar excretions, grinding bass tones, and surrounding shroud of distortion are eerie enough to suggest an alien presence behind the decimation.’

By that point I was composing as a means of discovery. I didn’t really find any of the music I was listening to satisfying, and was trying to write the music I wanted to hear. When this failed, I resigned myself to the fact that music was a dead end. The discovery of classical music thankfully saved me from this horrible conclusion.

Therefore, until a couple of weeks ago I had barely composed anything since 2014. Having stupidly broken my ring finger nail, my ability to practise guitar has been limited, so I started writing music instead of playing it. The first thing I attempted was to try and squeeze as much as I could out of the simplest motif. I used to always opt for the most complex idea possible, which is sheer folly. You generally end up with a piece that never coheres. This exercise was an attempt to overcome that impulse. Apologies about Sibelius’s poor midi impersonation of a guitar:

As you can see, I didn’t quite succeed… And the music isn’t particularly inspired — in fact, it’s pretty insipid. But I think it’s a more logical piece than those I’ve written before. So, that’s some progress at least.

For comparison, here’s one of the few pieces I’ve written in the last few years, probably early 2016. It’s a short piece for two pianos, and essentially consists of three sections piled on top of each other. It doesn’t cohere at all. However, the ideas in it are way better than in the guitar study above. Saying that, I’ve no idea how playable the first idea actually is:

This week I started working on setting the Stabat Mater. Ambitious, I know, but I don’t expect it to be particularly good. I chose it because I know I’ll stick to it. Among the pieces I most love, several settings of the Stabat Mater make the cut. From Szymanowski’s colourful and sumptuous Polish version to Haydn’s underrated masterpiece; from Palestrina’s gorgeous, perfect setting to James MacMillan’s aggressively sublime work that premiered last year; and from Vivaldi’s lyrical Stabat Mater to Arvo Part’s plainly beautiful one. I may not yet believe, but when I’m listening to these works, I am certain, at least, of the transcendent.

My modest little Stabat Mater is for lute and soprano. (The score is currently written with a guitar in mind, but I plan to move it up a minor third, which is roughly the pitch of a lute, if I ever finish it.) I thought it would be interesting to break up the Stabat Mater into two sections and put a toccata between them. The idea being that there is a period of reflection after the poem describes Mary witnessing Jesus’ death. Now, I’m still not exactly sure what a toccata is, but I’ve interpreted it to mean a half-improvised, typically virtuosic piece. The Sibelius recording/score below lasts from the toccata until the ‘Sancta Mater’ stanza, which is as far as I’ve got, with most of it fully scored. (There’s also some sketches for the section before that, but they’re not included in the recording.) The one glaring problem this attempted composition has brought up is that I have no idea how to write for voice. But that’s why one should compose, to help build a bridge between your imagination and your actual ability. Anyway, here it is (with Sibelius’s equally poor impersonation of a lute):

I’ve noticed that I really struggle to compose without a guitar to hand. I can just about manage it by humming each line, but my ability to imagine music accurately is severely under-trained. There is, I understand, a prejudice in favour of composing without any instrument to hand. I would love to get to a point where I could read an orchestral score, say, and realise it fully in my imagination, but at the moment that seems impossible. I mean, just imagine being able to hear an entire orchestra in your head, over which you have full control? It would surely feel like a superpower. And I suspect the only way to acquire it is by practising composition.

‘Our descent into utter barbarism’

You’ve got to love the comment section over at Slipped Disc. One of today’s posts is titled, ‘To the jerk who shushed me in mid-concert’. Lebrecht tells of an audience member who shushed him for quietly opening the programme mid-performance, only for said audience member to later yawn carelessly, in an act of bold hypocrisy. Lebrecht asks, ‘What perplexes me is why jerks like this go to concerts, or half-concerts. Is it only for the dubious satisfaction of shushing others who are actually enjoying themselves?’

Following from this, one commenter suggests for fellow readers to seek out Julian Barnes’ short-story Vigilance. Well, I found the collection of short stories — The Lemon Table — in the library and started reading it. And what delightful, sinister fun it is.

An ageing man is increasingly disgruntled by audience behaviour. His chief complaint is, of course, unstifled coughing. At first the irritation is mild. He is grateful, at least, that people don’t fart raucously during Mozart. ‘So I suppose,’ he remarks, ‘a few vestiges of the thin crust of civilisation which prevents our descent into utter barbarism are just about holding’.

But one can obviously tell that his anger is already at an agitated simmer. He starts devising methods to improve or dissuade bad audience behaviour. He tries handing out cough sweets, but either the wrappers would make a noise or no one would take unwrapped ones. Then he pretended to be an usher so he could confront audience members, telling them that coughing during Mozart is like gobbing on the Rokeby Venus, or else falling back on coarse name-calling. His revenge just gets meaner and meaner. At one point he fantasises about electric shocks in each seat that would correspond to the decibel level of the cough. (My personal fantasy has always been snipers in the balconies — non-lethal, of course.) His partner is right, however, to note that audience members in pain might mean even louder audience members. You just can’t win.

Sadly, the disgruntled audience member ends up being the more evil party. Lebrecht in his post comes dangerously close to this himself when he writes, ‘I could have made a call this morning and found out the offender’s name, but why bother?’

I’m not claiming to be a perfect audience member. Yes, I never cough, and I’ve never sneezed, and I don’t wear those scratchy puffy raincoats that magnify the volume of every twitch a hundredfold. But I’m not always perfectly still, usually suffering from neck ache that forces me to sharply jerk my head side to side, like a pigeon, which results in a small clicking sound from my bones (though perhaps only audible to me). I also was once horribly ashamed of myself for slouching over the railing to get a better view, taking far too long to realise I was obscuring the view of the old chap next to me.

However, the lesson from the story is that one must try one’s utmost to be a good audience member. Or else you’ll end up with some mad sexagenarian hovering over you, pretending to be an usher, who whispers into your ear, ‘what’s it like, being an utterly selfish berk?

Musical Politicians

The BBC Music Magazine must be one of the last of its kind in existence. The only other is Gramophone. When I was in America I looked out for any equivalents, and all they had were these two British magazines.

In the latest issue of the BBC mag, Richard Morrison wrote an article titled ‘Do talented musicians really make cultured and benign politicians?’ This is the BBC, so we don’t actually get an answer. (Mine would be an emphatic No!) His article is nonetheless a fun diversion, looking at the sometimes surprising musicality of our political leaders.

Nixon visiting the Trumans

The article was prompted by the election of Emmanuel Macron, who it would seem is an accomplished pianist, and whose few comments on the subject show genuine musical sensitivity. This isn’t that rare in a world leader. Both Nixon and Truman were capable pianists too. Nixon was even kind enough to call Truman ‘certainly the most distinguished and accomplished pianist ever to be president’. (There’s also a rather charming video on YouTube of Nixon playing his own little composition alongside ’15 Democratic violinists’.)

But do these politicians’ talents for music make them better politicians? Goodness, no. These three are perhaps the most world-changing political leaders from twentieth century: Lenin, Hitler and Sayyid Qutb. And what do they all have in common? Yep, you guessed it: they were all classical music fans — and I use ‘fan’ in the proper sense of ‘fanatic’.

Musicians and composers themselves often show appalling political judgement. So many flirted with communism and, yes, fascism. However, a delightful exception is Verdi. He may have supported nationalist revolution, but he was on the whole somewhat conservative. The Italian politician he effectively worshipped was Cavour, easily the least radical of Italy’s ‘founding fathers’. Following the Italian Unification, Verdi was actually elected to parliament and later appointed to the Senate. But he rarely attended, and made essentially no political contribution. Dare I say, that’s my favourite kind of politician!

I am scratching my head trying to think of contemporary musician-politicians besides President Macron. The only name that comes to mind is Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State under George W. Bush. She is a very capable pianist. There’s an excellent interview with Rice about her playing. The instrument obviously means a lot to her, and she’s something of a Brahmsian, it would seem. I am not overly fond of her politics, I must say, but one is struck here by her elegance and culture, so unlike most modern elites. Peter Robinson, as usual, does an excellent job interviewing her.

Of course there is always Anthony ‘Tony’ Blair who relished the opportunity to be photographed with a guitar in hand. It was none other than the mischievous Roger Scruton who once remarked that ‘the electric guitar owes much of its immense appeal to the obvious fact that it is strapped on and brandished like a dildo’. Here’s ‘Tony’ with his, erm, guitar:


You know, I owned — in fact I still own — that exact guitar. The Fender Stratocaster HSS, identifiable by the humbucker (the two pickups joined together). I was, I’m ashamed to say, something of a Blair admirer in my younger years. Did I unconsciously mimic him? I shudder to think.

One of the most interesting recent uses of classical music as a political statement was by Russia. After Russia helped the Syrian army retake the historic city of Palmyra, Gergiev conducted the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra in city’s Roman Theatre. The first piece, starting at 11:55, is Bach’s majestic Chaconne in D Minor.