Purcell’s King Arthur at the Barbican

Brexity Brexity Brexity Brexit. This might as well have been the revised title of this opera. That, or A Brexit Fantasia with Purcellian Interruptions. Or more prosaically, King Arthur and the Knights of the Exiting the European Union Select Committee.

King Arthur is an English semi-opera — that is, a combination of theatre and opera where the protagonists are actors and do not sing. As a result, little of the music makes explicit reference to the Arthurian legend, enabling director Daisy Evans to discard the story and in its place create a ‘debate piece’, as she called it, on contemporary British politics.

Her reasoning is thus: King Arthur is a symbol of Britishness; the nationalist sentiments in the opera cannot be convincingly sung by a modern singer in light of modern developments; therefore we need a production that probes and questions. Evans does this through an incoherent miscellany of poetry spoken in between the songs and music (which needless to say she has radically reordered). From the programme:

This production isn’t about King Arthur the legend, it’s about the idea of King Arthur and the values that he embodies. The full title of the original piece is King Arthur or The British Worthy, and what we’re exploring here is whether that really is the model of British worthiness we still want to stand up for.

These kinds of questions are invariably posed by people who already have a very firm answer, but wish to be sly about it. They can always pull a face and feign innocence, saying ‘what, I was only asking a question?!’

The opera began with the singers, dressed causally, descending into the hall like a flock of latecomers. Each singer wore a plastic rectangle hanging from their neck, either in red or blue. A sign to the left of the stage read ‘Leave & Remain’ (later signs included ‘men and women’, and the inevitable ‘us and them’). Narrator Ray Fearon took centre stage and began reciting a poem from Ali Smith’s post-Brexit book Autumn:

All across the country, people felt unsafe.
All across the country, people were laughing their heads off.
All across the country, people felt legitimised.

And so on. This was set up as call and response. Fearon would shout ‘All across the country’ and the singers would shout back ‘people felt legitimised’. The scene ended with Fearon reciting The Bloody Sire by Robinson Jeffers while the singers filmed him with their smartphones.

Later ‘highlights’ included the singers ripping up newspapers — fake news! — and a group of drunken (loutish?) men rowdily singing ‘Old England, Old England, And heigh for the honour of old England.’ One suspects this was meant to ridicule, or at least portray suspiciously, working class patriotism.

Then there was a passage from Shakespeare’s Henry V and the triumphant song ‘Come if you dare’, neither of which one can object to in and of themselves, and the latter of which is one of my favourite songs to sing in the shower (‘Triumphant with spoils of our vanquished invaders!’) The interval came and I left. Fifty minutes of politicised and ‘modernised’ Purcell was already too much. So this is a sort of semi-review of a semi-opera, I guess.

The most annoying thing is that there was no reason for it to be so bad. Superb orchestra, superb cast, superb music, and superb story. But a spanner had to be thrown in the works because the director wanted the production to be relevant. Yet the Arthurian legend is one of the few remaining historic cultural bonds. Everyone knows about Excalibur or the Lady of the Lake. It’s not exactly an out-of-date of irrelevant story that needs to be overhauled in light of contemporary events. But obviously Ms Evans disagrees. She would rather substitute the rarity and wonder of an opera for the banality of politics.


Adorno the Right-Winger?

Theodor Adorno, despite his Marxist credentials, seems to get mistaken for a conservative rather often. I recall being in a politics seminar in which we discussed his idea of a ‘culture industry’ — that popular culture is a capitalist industry pacifying the working classes. Admittedly, I doubt anyone read the chapter in any depth. But the general impression was something like, ‘man, this guy’s conservative’. If you don’t like Hollywood, jazz or popular culture, you must be a conservative, so the logic goes. And indeed, were he to come out with these ideas today, he would surely be vilified. It is a delicious irony, then, that Adorno and the Frankfurt School have since been used to validate popular culture. You have to love the way history sweeps men and their ideas from any intended course.

I write this because I just started reading Philosophy of New Music. One should know one’s enemies and all that. Actually, that’s somewhat unfair. I kind of like Adorno, once past the ideological guff. He’s definitely not a conservative, but he might just be a reactionary underneath it all. I’ll leave you with an extract from his Minima Moralia, which is a collection of brief but interesting reflections in this vein. Compared to this, I’m a liberal:

Melange. – The usual argument of tolerance, that all human beings, all races are equal, is a boomerang. It opens itself up to easy rebuttal by the senses, and even the most compelling anthropological evidence for the fact that Jews are not a race at all, will in the case of a pogrom hardly change anything at all, since the totalitarians know very well who they want to kill and who not. If one wished to proclaim the equality of all those who bear human features as an ideal, instead of establishing it as a fact, this would be of little help. The abstract utopia would be all too easily reconcilable with the most devious tendencies of society. That all human beings would resemble each other, is exactly what suits this latter. It regards factual or imagined differences as marks of shame, which reveal, that one has not brought things far enough; that something somewhere has been left free of the machine, is not totally determined by the totality. The technics of the concentration camps was designed to turn prisoners into guards, the murdered into murderers. Racial difference was absolutely sublated, so that one could abolish it absolutely, if only in the sense that nothing different survived anymore. An emancipated society however would be no unitary state, but the realization of the generality in the reconciliation of differences. A politics which took this seriously should therefore not propagate even the idea of the abstract equality of human beings. They should rather point to the bad equality of today, the identity of film interests with weapons interests, and think of the better condition as the one in which one could be different without fear. If one attested to blacks [Neger], that they are exactly like whites, while they are nevertheless not so, then one would secretly wrong them all over again. This humiliates them in a benevolent manner by a standard which, under the pressure of the system, they cannot attain, and moreover whose attainment would be a dubious achievement. The spokespersons of unitary tolerance are always prepared to turn intolerantly against any group which does not fit in: the obstinate enthusiasm for blacks meshes seamlessly with the outrage over obnoxious Jews. The “melting pot” [in English in original] was an institution of free-wheeling industrial capitalism. The thought of landing in it conjures up martyrdom, not democracy.

Politics at the Proms

Imagine that a conductor ends a concert with an ardently pro-British speech. Imagine that he speaks of the enduring constitution of this country, how it has provided such liberty and stability and such a rich common culture. He continues by telling the audience how we must educate people to better appreciate this. He remarks on the greatness of the nation-state and the long-established principle of national sovereignty. The audience is told that an impersonal international system that cannot animate the people of the nation will be ruinous. The conductor explains that it robs people of a sense of home and blurs the diversity that nation-states foster.

Of course such a speech would never happen. Instead, Daniel Barenboim made a speech at last night’s Proms concert against emerging ‘isolation tendencies’. He said that ‘if you look at the difficulties that the European continent is going through now, you can see that, why that it is, because of the lack of common education. Because in one country they do not know why they should belong to something that the other countries do.’ The audience laughed approvingly.

When someone says, in effect, educate people so that they agree with me, they are patronising their opponents and veering dangerously towards ideological certainty. You would think musicians would be humbler about doing this. After all, they have an awful track record. For the last century, and perhaps longer, they have been among the most vulnerable to utopias and idealism.

The Proms aspires to be a national festival, one that’s diverse, welcoming and open to all. It would do well, then, not to alienate the 52% of the electorate who voted leave, and those who don’t care much either way. The Proms will invariably be a hospitable place for those liberals and leftists — Barenboim’s speech was really more a sermon. Yet it’s plausible that most classical music listeners are Leavers. And Barenboim has the arrogance to accuse them of jeopardising European culture and to tell them that they are ill-educated.

Indeed, Baronboim makes the common mistake of equating the trend away from European political union with the disintegration of European culture. This is sheer short-sightedness. Just as a nation continues to exist through revolution, invasion, and so on, so will Europe survive, as it has for millennia. Moreover, there is a great cultural danger in pursuing European political union. It promotes homogeneity and discourages diversity and local autonomy. Some would say that this bland internationalism is an unfortunate feature of post-war musical culture.

People often say music and politics shouldn’t mix. I disagree, and think that they will inevitably mix. Beethoven and Napoleon, Verdi and Italian nationalism, Shostakovitch and the Soviet Union, Peter Maxwell Davies’ anti-Iraq War string quartet, etc. But there is a substantial difference between political inspiration and political speeches. One is suitable for the concert hall, the other isn’t. A speech at a concert claims the music for one’s ideological side. It is surely wrong to be a ventriloquist for a dead composer, and arrogant to decide that music itself conforms to one’s own ideological beliefs (in Barenboim’s case, humanism and internationalism).

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.

Desert Island Discs and Political Decline

Professed music taste is a pretty good rectal thermometer for judging politicians.* I’m sure everyone in Britain is still reeling, a decade later, from the moment when Gordon Brown claimed to be an Arctic Monkeys fan. He was subsequently unable to name any of their songs, and left us with only one coherent comment: ‘they are very loud’. Everyone called bullshit.

Thanks to the Desert Island Discs archive we have a long-running record of political figures from all sides acting similarly. Politicians tend to be the more intelligent, the more learned. Most of them have been educated in our country’s greatest universities. Yet increasingly they are lowering their standards — and we’re encouraging them.

david-cameronDavid Cameron, our Eton- and Oxford-education Prime Minister, claims to love the following: REM, The Killers, The Smiths, Radiohead, Benny Hill, Pink Floyd, and Bob Dylan (plus one lonely Mendelssohn track). ‘Dave’, as he insisted on being called, made his appearance on Desert Island Discs around the same time he went on The Johnathan Ross Show and was asked if he ever masturbated over Margaret Thatcher. It was a time at which, fresh from winning the Tory leadership, Dave was eagerly degrading himself with a kind of pandering populism. Composer Peter Maxwell Davies was enraged by his choices:

In any other European country, a politician who chose that sort of garbage would be laughed out of court. The anti-artistic stance of our leaders gets up my nose. Their main aim is to turn us all into unquestioning passive consumers who put money into the bosses’ pockets. That is now the purpose of education.

ed-miliband-sass-faceJeremy Corbyn has yet to make an appearance, but David Ed Miliband has. His choices are all popular music of one sort or another, with one ostensibly anti-apartheid-related track. We need not call forth suppressed memories about Ed’s various media embarrassments, but it’s safe to say that his music choices are nearly as cringe-worthy: Robbie Williams, A-ha –even Neil Diamond. The Edith Piaf and Paul Robeson are not awful choices, but nowhere in the list is there any indication of good taste and judgement.

Let’s go back to the beginning. The first two politicians to appear on Desert Island Discs were Labour’s Tom Driberg, an odd and once-popular leftie who was, incidentally, quite possibly a spy, and the Conservative Party’s Beverly Baxter, a man I know nothing about but from some cursory googling seemed to be quite all right. Both were interviewed during the war, in 1943, only a year after the programme’s creation.

Among Driberg’s choices were Palestrina, Mozart, and an unusual choice of James Joyce reading from his book Finnegan’s Wake, as well as a couple of popular songs. Baxter’s choices were indeed a touch more conservative — Wagner, Elgar, Strauss, etc. — but he also throws in a Louis Armstrong song. The choices seem believable for both politicians. They show good cultural taste while retaining a healthy attachment to some elements of popular culture. They are the kind of choices you would rightly expect well-educated politicians to make.

The cynic might say that they were simply adapting their choices to a different time, one that expected a certain gentility from its leaders. But so what? All this would mean is that the public expected its law-makers to be cultured and experienced. If only this were true today, then we wouldn’t have the likes of Donald Trump.

The modern politician defers to populist tastes. They are scared of any accusation of elitism. Conductor Antonio Pappano has said that politicians are even scared to show their faces at the opera. Instead, they withdraw what personalities they have, and unconvincingly opt for the most mass-market approved music their advisers can find.

It has created a curious situation where politicians attempts to seem normal have only resulted in greater hole-digging. They are scorned for being out of touch, but instead of trying to rectify this by mingling with the commoners, they engage in an embarrassing game of pretence, and everyone plays along.

Yet if anything the classes have only become more rigid. These well-educated politicians have climbed to the top rungs, only to kick down the ladder, all while pretending ever more so to be on the people’s side. But it’s not all their fault — we’re the ones who keep electing the buggers.

mayor_of_london_bo_1564736aWhich brings us onto Alexander ‘Boris’ de Pfeffel Johnson, a man with his finger irretrievably lodged in the wind. He tempered his choices in 2005 to cover all bases: a couple of poncy tracks, the Brahms and the Beethoven, to solidify his lovable toff image, but otherwise choosing mostly popular tracks, raging from his punkish side (The Clash) to his loose side (Booker T. and the MG’s). With his increasing television personality, most notably on Have I Got News For You, Boris had become adept even then at celebrity culture. I often wish their were a sign erected outside Westminster, similar to those in seaside towns warning of seagulls: Don’t Feed The Boris.

This is because we — and I use ‘we’ very loosely — encourage bad behaviour in politicians, with the perplexing mindset that they should be more like us. This denigration of elitism has created an obvious lowering of standards, as seen by the new predominance of unremarkable pop music over the artistic brilliance of Western civilisation. If we now think that, when stranded on a desert island, it is better to be stuck with a three-minute repetitive Smiths song than a Wagner opera, our culture has most certainly sunk. (And I say this even as a seasoned miserabilist rather partial to The Smiths’ Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.)

This surely proves my point: one of David Davis pick’s was Pink’s Get the Party Started. Really. I quite like David Davis, and I must say I was embarrassed for him when I read his choices. But worse was poor old Nick Clegg. No doubt still euphoric after the brief spurt of popularity he received in the 2010 election campaign (including, I’m so very ashamed to say, from me), he threw in Prince, Bowie and — listen to this — Shakira’s ‘Waka Waka’ theme for the world cup (video below). Clegg also chose Radiohead, always a top choice among educated people who want a ‘sophisticated’ brand of rock. His advisers seemed, however, to permit him a bit of Schubert and Chopin.

Look at Michael Foot’s choices — the far-left chap so well respected for his political fights for the working classes — and it’s all ‘elitist’ classical music. Margaret Thatcher’s choices showed similarly good taste. Even into the 1980s we could expect our politicians to maintain high cultural standards. If I had to put a date on when things changed, it would be in 1997, with the election of ‘Tony’ Blair — as much a pretence as ‘Dave’ or ‘Boris’.

But never fear, I have a solution of sorts: a permanent vacation to a remote desert island for all guilty offenders. Any Etonian minister who claims his favourite artist is Kenya West must go. Any hip young thing in parliament who claims to adore Meghan Trainer must go. A purge is needed. These politicians must face the consequences of their words. If they claim to love Eminem, we should do a Mussolini — that is, exile them on some unremarkable island, but with the ‘luxury’ of their apparent favourite Eminem track as company. Let them suffer.

*The phrase is adapted from one by the late Christopher Hitchens, suggesting that he should carry ‘some sort of rectal thermometer, with which to test the rate at which I am becoming an old fart’