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.
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.