31 December 2021

Theatre: Scenes from the Medieval Mystery Plays (The York Cycle) by the Players of St Peter (St Saviour’s, Chalk Farm)

CHURCH TIMES, 31 DECEMBER 2021

Garry Humphreys sees a production by The Players of St Peter in a parish church




IT IS a pleasure to report that the Mystery play is alive and well — and not only in Ambridge. The Players of St Peter, who began life 75 years ago at St Peter’s, Cornhill, in the City of London, have had various locations over the years, but are now based at St Saviour’s, Chalk Farm, in north-west London, where they presented four performances of this year’s offering, a “director’s cut” featuring four of the 48 plays in the York Cycle, which, complete, depicts biblical events from creation to the last judgement.

These plays — originally sponsored by craft guilds whose names live on in the titles — were The Spicers’ Play (The Annunciation and Visitation), The Pewterers’ and Founders’ Play (Joseph’s Trouble about Mary), The Tile Thatchers’ Play (The Nativity), and The Masons’ and Goldsmiths’ Play (The Magi).

The group’s long tradition clearly shows in the ease with which roles were dispatched: serene Mary, benign Gabriel, Joseph not easily convinced that his wife’s baby had come from God (“Nay, some man in angel’s likeness with some game has her beguiled”), the Magi, one of whom was a woman; and minor characters, no doubt thanks to Gill Taylor’s expert direction, fully engaged with the action — the expressive ox and ass, the kings’ servant shaking his arm back to life after carrying the heavy box of gifts; the star held high on a pole, all this often reminiscent of Shakespeare’s rustics in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The music — with solo soprano, recorders, violin, cittern and percussion — was immaculately played by The Mystery Band, with the singer Helen Garrison, and at a small pipe organ was Paul Nicholson, former associate director of the London Handel and Tilford Bach Festivals, whom St Saviour’s is so fortunate now to have as its Vicar. But the actors sang, too (rather well), in impressive costumes, and we all stood to join in The Sussex Carol at the end.

It seems to me that Mystery plays — in the 15th and 16th centuries the most popular and enduring form of public entertainment in Britain, before theatres as we now know them came to be built — could at Christmas come to rival the traditional pantomime for good family entertainment, accentuating the true meaning of Christmas in a now largely secular (and, in the case of the pantomime, celebrity-obsessed) world. Perhaps The Archers, doing this very thing, will draw wider attention to this wonderful, often funny, frequently moving genre, and to groups such as The Players of St Peter, who do it so splendidly.

theplayersofstpeter.org.uk


24 December 2021

15 December 2021

Stephen Hough

In The Observer, 21 November 2021

‘It was a reminder of how important a cog music is in life. Don’t take it for granted. Tell our political leaders it’s not just entertainment. Not just icing on the cake. It’s the cake itself. It’s human life.’

 

From The Conversation, 15 December 2021:

Conservative MP rebellion: ‘human rights’ opposition to new COVID measures doesn’t add up

Alan Greene

Reader in Constitutional Law and Human Rights, University of Birmingham

The UK government’s introduction of new restrictions to deal with the ‘omicron emergency’ has prompted backlash from some politicians. When the changes were put to the House of Commons, 99 Tory MPs voted against the plans. Several expressed concern over the impact measures such as having to show proof of vaccination to enter certain venues would have on people’s ‘civil liberties’. They have essentially been invoking human rights arguments to oppose pandemic emergency powers. However, their opposition is based on a misguided and libertarian understanding of the nature of human rights.

Such libertarian opposition to the new restrictions can be seen from some MPs’ recent commentary. Conservative MP Steve Baker, who is in the Covid Recovery Group and a vocal backbencher, accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of creating a ‘miserable dystopia’ by bringing back rules on face masks and testing and introducing vaccine passes.

Libertarians essentially argue that human rights prevent the state from acting or interfering with your freedom. Any interference to which you do not consent is an act of aggression and is therefore illegitimate. In my book Emergency Powers in a Time of Pandemic, I argue that libertarian understandings of rights as only restricting the power of the state are inappropriate for dealing with a pandemic.

On the face of it, human rights such as those in the European Convention on Human Rights and incorporated into British law by the Human Rights Act 1998 appear to require non-intervention by the state. Everyone has the right to life, everybody has the right to liberty, everybody has the right to privacy, everybody has the right to freedom of expression. Essentially, the state should just leave people alone.

A pandemic, however, actually requires states to be more active, taking positive steps to protect human rights.

For example, the right to life enshrined in Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights does not simply require states to refrain from taking people’s lives, it also requires states to protect people from ‘real and immediate risks’. Likewise, the state must spend resources and implement measures to ensure that conditions in state-run institutions (like hospitals and prisons) do not deteriorate to the level that they infringe on people’s rights to humane treatment.

If MPs truly want to protect people’s rights, they should be in favour of a robust pandemic response. A person cannot exercise their other rights if their right to life is not protected. A human rights law limiting the state’s ability to protect people from a deadly threat would not be of much value. Rather than conceiving of human rights law as simply stipulating non-intervention by a state, the key to the success of the human rights movement is its ability empower or ‘emancipate’ people. This places strong obligations on states to protect and vindicate people’s rights.

Whose rights matter?

At the time of the vote, over 800 people had died within the past seven days from COVID-19. While these numbers appear relatively low when compared with the height of the pandemic, they are significantly higher than the deaths caused by other threats that have prompted the British state to enact draconian powers. From April 2003 to March 2020, for example, 95 people were killed in terrorist-related incidents in England and Wales.

It is striking that, while they are opposing new COVID-19 restrictions on a civil liberties basis, MPs are reluctant to voice concerns over other legislation that clearly infringes on human rights. On the very same day as the vote, the government proposed striking changes to the 1998 Human Rights Act, including restricting the right to family life to make it easier to deport people.

Conservative MPs also recently voted through legislation allowing the home secretary to strip people of their British citizenship without notice, and substantially curtailing the right of people to protest — a fundamental right in any democracy.

At best, this is inconsistency. At worst, it is rank hypocrisy.

The reason for this can be boiled down to an ‘us v. them’ mindset. Ultimately, it is the idea that most of ‘us’ – ‘ordinary’, law-abiding people – will feel that counterterrorist powers do not affect us, or that we ourselves are not at risk of being deported. Instead, we view these kinds of human rights restrictions as only impacting the rights of the ‘other’ — the terrorist, the undeserving. In contrast, the effects of COVID emergency powers apply to everyone.

While this distinction explains opposition to some rights restrictions but not others, it cannot justify this inconsistency. This idea of those deserving versus those undeserving of civil liberties has no place in human rights. We have rights by virtue of the fact that we are human, not simply because we are good citizens.

https://theconversation.com/

07 October 2021

A Little Light (Relief) Music

(from the St David’s Hall website)

I can’t wait to hear the choral version of Schumann’s ‘Rhenish’ Symphony!

 

BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales

 Ryan Bancroft 

 conductor

 Paula Murrihy

 mezzo

 David Butt Philip 

 tenor 

 Cody Quattlebaum 

 bass-baritone

 BBC National Chorus of Wales

 

 RWCMD College Chorus

 

 

 

 Brahms

 Tragische Overture Op.81 (Tragic Overture) 

 Mozart

 Piano Concerto K.467 No.21 C Major (soloist: Jonathan Biss) 

 Schumann

 Symphony No. 3 Op.97 E-flat major (Rhenish)

 Join your very own BBC National Orchestra of Wales, our principal conductor and a stellar cast of soloists for a classical night of Brahms, Mozart and Schumann.

(Explanation: the performance was originally to have been of The Dream of Gerontius, but ‘someone in the office’ clearly doesn’t realize that this replacement programme no longer involves three vocal soloists and a chorus!)

From The Spectator, 9 October 2021:

Ian Pace

How the culture wars are killing Western classical music

People are increasingly made to feel guilt or shame for loving or teaching Bach, Beethoven or Wagner

Striking the wrong note: musicologist Philip Ewell claimed that Beethoven was little more than an ‘above average composer’

Musicology may appear an esoteric profession. But several events in the past few years have pushed musicological debates into the columns of national newspapers, from the American academic who claimed that music theory was a ‘racial ideology’ and should be dismantled, to the Oxford professor who allegedly suggested that studying ‘white European music’ caused ‘students of colour great distress’, to the high-profile resignation of a professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, reportedly in response to academic ‘cancel culture’.

These disputes have not emerged from nowhere. They are the result of longer processes that have forced serious questions about the very place of music, and above all the Western classical tradition, in Anglophone education.

Music theory has existed in Western universities since the Middle Ages, but the term ‘musicology’ dates from the late 19th century. It refers broadly to the academic study of music, which can encompass areas such as music history, theory, analysis, the study of global musics, acoustics, and more. This type of study, practised in universities, is distinct from that traditionally offered by conservatoires, which focus on high-level professional training on an instrument or voice.

Western classical music long held a central place in university music departments, though from the beginning of the discipline musicologists also investigated folk and vernacular traditions and their social and cultural contexts. But three historical developments underpin the current situation. One of these was the growth of British ‘cultural studies’ from the 1970s onwards, and work from this field mostly on popular musics. Often undertaken by those without specialised musical skills, this study concentrated on the social position of music, associated imagery, fashion, etc., while the sounds it made were frequently a secondary or minimum concern.

Another came from the rise in importance of ethnomusicology, a discipline that developed in the 1950s out of vergleichende Musikwissenschaft, the comparative study of global musics, which had added immensely to the knowledge of these in the West. While still undertaking some of this type of research, ethnomusicologists’ emphasis was as much upon the role that music played in societies as about the sounding music. The latter could become neglected, leading one to sardonically quip the term ‘Eth-no-musicology’.

Many Anglophone ethnomusicologists were also frequently hostile to aesthetic value judgments, recoiling from the hierarchical nature of this, despite evidence of musical hierarchies and value judgments existing in most societies and cultures. For this reason, the existence of a Western ‘canon’ of major works came in for particular censure.

I fear for those in education who are made to feel guilt or shame for loving Western classical music

From the 1980s a number of ethnomusicologists turned their disciplinary approaches to practices within Western classical music itself. Their findings were often roundly negative; selective and unverifiable sources (because they were anonymised), or simply broad generalisations, were used to indict the Western concert, conservatoire, or classical music culture in general, often from a ‘post-colonial’ perspective. (In Christopher Small’s studies of concert rituals, for example, concerts were ‘a celebration of the “sacred history” of the Western middle classes’.)

These attitudes were also found in the third major development, the ‘New Musicology’ that emerged in the US in the mid to late 1980s, many of whose protagonists argued that social readings of music, which reveal its ideological content, should be the musicologist’s principal concern. While this approach was much less ‘new’ than its proponents often claimed, the emphasis shifted towards questions of gender, sexuality, race and elitism. Notoriously, the feminist musicologist Susan McClary likened a passage in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to the frustrated, murderous rage of a rapist. The New Musicologists also took a harsh view of much avant-garde music, claiming popular music as a more worthy object of study.

The result of all this often led to what I have described as a ‘musicology without ears’: in other words, a further de-emphasis upon listening or studying the sound of music. This was especially the case as a result of a new emphasis on ethnographic methods based on participant observation, and focused on the verbal rather than the aural, which could be undertaken by those with few specifically musical skills.

A shift from aesthetic to moral judgment accompanied this. McClary, for example, censured Charles Rosen for critiquing certain operas on the grounds of ‘old-fashioned hierarchies of tastes’ rather than for ‘something ideologically pernicious, such as anti-Semitism, orientalism, or misogyny’. A work could only be judged bad if it fell foul morally.

All of this has led to a situation in which it is common to read quite stentorian denunciations primarily of Western classical music and its standard repertoire and long-established scholarly methods for investigating it. Thus, in 2016, the one-time pianist turned video-game musicologist William Cheng published his book Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good. Cheng wrote dismissively of such concepts as ‘art for art’s sake’, ‘aesthetic autonomy’, or ‘academic freedom’ and even ‘the belief that academics have a right to pursue their work free from political pressures and without fear of termination’. In place of these, which he associates with a ‘paranoid’ approach, Cheng advocates ‘a care-oriented musicology — namely, for a musicology that upholds interpersonal care as a core feature’. Whether musicology is to be judged to have achieved this was presumably to be determined by him or other ideological fellow-travellers.

Cheng’s passive-aggressive arguments — employing the tropes of victimhood to propound a highly censorious agenda — and some of the extensive praise they have received, are among the most disturbing developments in recent musicology. It is not hyperbolic to compare them to those common under Soviet-style communism, in which academic freedom and integrity were sacrificed in favour of ideological conformity.

Many others have called for the ‘decolonisation’ of the musical curriculum, the ‘colonial’ aspect usually serving as a cipher for the whole Western classical tradition, while others have directly associated Western musical notation or theory with ‘white supremacy’. Then, in 2019, the musicologist Philip Ewell, previously noted for his work on Russian music, shifted direction with a series of publications claiming that music theory embodied a ‘white racial frame’, and that Beethoven was little more than an ‘above average composer’. He focused in particular on a range of nationalistic and racist sentiments found in the work of the Austrian-Jewish musician and theorist Heinrich Schenker (1868–1935). These were already well-known and published, but Ewell went further than others in the equations he made between, for example, Schenker’s beliefs in hierarchies between pitches, and in racial hierarchies in society.

This led to a series of responses, some very critical of Ewell’s arguments, in the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, and in turn to an unhappy series of highly publicised denunciations of the journal, its editors and some of the authors, leading to suspensions and legal actions. To defend anything about Schenker’s work became in some people’s eyes little more acceptable a position than to defend the killing of George Floyd.

Most recently, the musicologist J.P.E. Harper-Scott, author of a range of monographs and articles on Elgar, Walton, Britten and others from a radical left-wing perspective, resigned from a chair at Royal Holloway, University of London, and from academia in general, at the age of 43. Harper-Scott published a statement about this on his blog. In this, he claimed that universities had become dogmatic rather than critical places, and that musicologists were ‘frankly insane’ for believing that cutting Beethoven, Wagner and others from the curriculum would ‘somehow materially improve current living conditions for the economically, socially, sexually, religiously, or racially underprivileged’. He also objected to the ways in which the term ‘decolonisation’ was used to shut down debate and shame dissenters.

Harper-Scott’s resignation statement deserves to be read in the context of his wider writing, expressed most strongly in his books The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism and The Event of Music History, which disprove any suggestions that his is a conservative critique. He had produced scathing critiques of aspects of popular music studies, ethnomusicology, ‘sound studies’ and other developments which he described as ‘crypto-capitalist’, for their denial of the value of a music that does not simply reflect an existing capitalist world but has the ability to reflect back on it or point to other worlds or forms of experience. With the decline in the aesthetic, the only value left for music is its exchange value, and he viewed these movements as openly embracing music as commodity. In contrast, he celebrated radical musical traditions that he felt resisted such a thing, and had personally found some self-liberation in first discovering them while growing up in the north-east of England where such culture was commonly marginalised.

While I believe Harper-Scott’s characterisation can be too all-encompassing, I certainly recognise the situation he describes in some contexts. It is exacerbated by a marked decline in the provision of state music education, especially that involving induction in musical notation and theory. Someone like Harper-Scott would today be much less likely to find a route into becoming a classical musician or a musicologist, and this option may soon become limited to the privately educated.

As one from a similar background to Harper-Scott (though privately educated at music school), who came to classical music simply through natural curiosity and accessibility of materials in a provincial local library, and was transfixed by first encounters with Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner, Ravel or Stockhausen, I find this immensely saddening. These composers will continue to be taught, but to an increasingly restricted social demographic, turning claims of ‘elitism’ into self-fulfilling prophecies. Furthermore, I fear for those in education who are made to feel guilt or shame for loving Western classical music, or those who one American educator asked to undertake an especially demeaning ritual in which students had to step forward to check their privilege if they were taught music theory, cared about notated music, or could read more than one clef.

Moreover, if the teaching of specifically musical skills is allowed to decline further, academic music may struggle to survive at all and could at best be relegated to an adjunct of other disciplines — sociology, anthropology, cultural studies — and might then dwindle through lack of a specific raison d’ĂȘtre.

These various controversies are far from simple disputes between ‘conservatives’ and ‘progressives’ but emblematic of a discipline in which some protagonists lack a sense of its purpose and identity, or any real belief that music has value in and of itself.

It is time to reassert the value of the study of music in its own right, as something one loves or finds fascinating, regardless of whether it has achieved mass-market commercial success. Listening to the music of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven alongside some of their now all-but-forgotten contemporaries is the surest way to appreciate just why such canonical figures are so extraordinary. Attempting to understand why this is the case, which inevitably involves a deeper analysis of the music in question, can be immensely enriching for the ears and the mind, sharpening one’s focus and perception. The relationship of this music to its social and ideological contexts is a vital area of study, but this should be the subject of continuous critical inquiry, not dogmatic platitudes.

There is no need to assert any superiority of a Western classical tradition (I certainly would not do so) over others from Africa, the Arab world, China, India, Indonesia and elsewhere to recognise the important role this Western tradition — like other Western high culture — has played in over a millennium of history, and thus how utterly natural it should be to teach it in Western societies, alongside other popular and vernacular traditions. Invoking Dante, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Virginia Woolf or Pierre Boulez primarily in order to indict them for a range of ideological crimes reveals more about those making the indictments than about these artists.

Ian Pace.

Ian Pace is a pianist, musicologist and head of the Department of Music at City, University of London, but is writing here in a personal capacity. He is co-convenor of a forthcoming 2022 conference on ‘Music and the University’, to take place at City.

04 October 2021

 

From Lorna Salzman in today’s SlippedDisc

‘We are living in an intellectual Dark Age, where merit, achievement, intelligence and artistic talent count for nothing. The obsession with race is in essence a confession that the individual has nothing else that warrants attention or praise. Wokesters tear down monuments to achievement and substitute mediocrities and unworthy idols to poke intellectuals in the eye. Anti-intellectualism is now considered de rigeur, au courant; it is the failed and unaccomplished whose mental void gets put on the pedestal. The collapse of the Roman Empire has nothing on the collapse of Western Civilization brought on by foaming at the mouth minorities who contribute nothing but social conflict to society.’

03 October 2021

 Jill Anderson


So sorry to hear this morning that Jill Anderson – BBC Radio Three announcer – has died from cancer. I first met her when she was a student at the Royal College of Music in the 1970s and we both sang for Denys Darlow in the Tilford Bach Festival Choir.  I last saw her at Martha Knight’s funeral – which I’m surprised to realize was in 2008, thirteen years ago! – where she contributed a reading, but we kept in touch with occasional e-mails. However, as is so often the case, despite living quite close to each other in north London, we never got round to accepting her open invitation to tea, and now it’s too late (and we no longer live in London).

She was an excellent announcer – always preferring the old-fashioned term to the currently-fashionable ‘presenter’ – and unlike so many over-excitable, personality-conscious broadcasters on the air today – displayed a calm, authoritative, but friendly approach, which I’m sure had many grateful admirers. She was also an excellent player and teacher of the clarinet, and a thoroughly nice person.

May she rest in peace and rise in glory.

20 September 2021

Wise Words on a Current Topic

by the composer Max Raimi, violist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra:

My wife and I recently spent a long weekend in Virginia, staying in Charlottesville and visiting the nearby homes of three early Presidents—Jefferson, Monroe, and Madison. We were enormously impressed with the staff at each of these sites, and loved listening to what they had to say.

It seems to me that the real challenge of presenting the story of the so-called ‘Founding Fathers’ is not so much getting the story right, but recognizing that it is of no use to think of them in terms of ‘the story’. There are innumerable stories, which often collide with and seem to contradict each other, and I was astonished by the skill with which the scholars we met there were able to give all the narratives their due.

I was brought up on the heroic narrative about these men; they were freedom-loving visionaries who bravely stood in the face of tyranny and forged a nation with their ideas that is a model for the world. Increasingly a very different narrative has come to challenge it, that these men were misogynist racists who enslaved and raped their fellow human beings. Their paeans to liberty were rank hypocrisy in the face of their monstrous actions, their purported belief in equality mere lip service, a cover for their efforts to maintain the supremacy of White males.

To some extent, the recent battles over the ‘1619’ and ‘1776’ manifestos that are being played out across our political divide are an argument as to which of these stories is the true one. I would argue that this misses the point to some extent. Is it not possible that both narratives, notwithstanding the cognitive dissonance required to believe them both, are essentially true, that these men were both monsters and also brilliant idealists who accomplished something extraordinary?

The presentations we saw at the homes of these Presidents certainly did not sugarcoat their culpability, striving with great success to depict the enslaved people at these sites as three-dimensional characters. We were able to see them as fellow human beings who suffered inexcusably. All three of these Presidents treated those they enslaved appallingly.

But still. What they achieved was miraculous. They created the first government founded on Enlightenment principles, with a mechanism that allowed for increasing democratic participation, utterly free of religious dogma. And they essentially created it out of whole cloth, with no particularly relevant precedents to guide them.

I am not one to fetishize the Constitution, and I think the ‘Original Intent’ people are basically creating an idolatry around these men as a means to consolidate and maintain economic and political privilege. I find it impossible to read the Constitution (which I make a point of doing each July 4) without being struck by its miscalculations, notwithstanding my great admiration for it. It was the result of a lot of hard-fought compromises, bringing to mind Ambrose Bierce’s definition of ‘compromise’ in The Devil’s Dictionary: ‘Such an adjustment of conflicting interests as gives each adversary the satisfaction of thinking he has got what he ought not to have, and is deprived of nothing except what was justly his due.’

And yet, the fact remains that there has now been well over two centuries of more or less democratic elections and peaceful transfers of power in our nation, time after time. No other political system, as far as I know, has ever achieved this. Indeed, the attempt to break this string last January was to a great extent defeated by the safeguards envisioned by these long-dead White guys. I recognize that this story is all but impossible to reconcile with the appalling inhumanity with which they conducted so much of their lives, but that does not make it invalid.

Which brings us to the issues that precipitated Mr Harper-Scott’s change of careers. There has been a long overdue movement to make classical music more diverse and inclusive in recent years. One unfortunate side effect of this, however, has been the growing chorus of voices he cites denigrating the composers in our canon, and the culture that spawned them. In a notorious manifesto covered on this site, the musicologist Philip Ewell wrote ‘Beethoven was an above average composer—let’s leave it at that.’ He argued that our veneration for Beethoven comes out of a racist and misogynist need to elevate White men, and is completely out of proportion to the quality of his music.

After James Levine died, somebody posted on a friend’s Facebook page, ‘The so-called “greatness” of musicians like Levine and Wagner is a direct result of the free passes they got on being rapists, or anti-Semites, and that “greatness” came at the direct expense of the demographics they harmed. They were not born with such ‘greatness’ inside that they succeeded despite their abhorrent characters; they succeeded for the same reason that they got those free passes in the first place – namely, that they were white men with status quo appeal, in the right place, at the right time, and with the right connections. In other words, their despicable behaviours AND their successes are actually just two different symptoms of a much bigger, systemic sickness in the classical music world, that doles out resources, reputation and opportunity on the basis of a whole lot of things other than merit.’

The poster went on to argue that we can be certain that there were innumerable other composers just as good as those we now revere in Europe at the time. They have remained unknown to us, the poster argued, because a racist and misogynist power structure requires the concept of genius (which the poster derided as ‘idiocy’) to maintain its hegemony.

In a later discussion, this poster wrote that ‘greatness is a construct’, that the esteem in which we hold the canonical composers is essentially a structure erected to keep current women and people of color down in the world of classical music.

My friend on whose Facebook page these arguments unfolded made a characteristically wise observation: ‘I like Robert Pirsig’s idea about Quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Quality is not in the music, it’s not in the listener; quality in the interaction between the two. Quality not a characteristic of a work; it is an experience.

‘As I see it, a quality experience happens partly because the music is created to foster high-quality interaction, and partly because listeners are able to co-create quality with that music. A listener’s ability to co-create quality comes partly through inborn ability to hear and respond, and partly through acculturation—learning to respond to the musical signals of a particular culture, and learning the culture’s priorities.’

As with Jefferson and his contemporaries, there are a number of conflicting stories simultaneously at play in classical music. Our core repertoire emerged out of a world that did not regard women as anything like equals, and didn’t often acknowledge the humanity of people of color. It came out of the Age of Empire, when the European powers assiduously went about the task of enslaving and plundering the rest of the world. There was a stultifying overlay of class and privilege that severely restricted who could take part as performers, composers, and even listeners.

But there is another story too, I would argue. Out of that rather problematic world emerged a body of work that ranks among the greatest beauty ever created by humankind. Believe me, I wish Beethoven’s music wasn’t so much better than mine. Lord knows I try. I struggle to touch the heart of my listeners in anything like the way that Schubert does, to conjure out of the orchestra vivid sound worlds as brilliantly executed as Berlioz, to come up with my own harmonic and structural schemes that are in remotely the same league as those of Bela Bartok. And so on.

The extraordinary music that came out of Europe over the course of a couple of centuries was a freak occurrence, comparable perhaps to what happened in art in Renaissance Italy, in the tragedies of Ancient Greece, and no doubt in a number of other places lost in the sands of time.

If you only accept the validity of the first story, that the classical music of the past is a story of racism, misogyny, and class privilege, then your interaction with it will no doubt lack the ‘quality’ that my friend so perceptively referred to. The listener who only accepts that story cannot forge a ‘high quality interaction’ with the old masterworks. Wagner still cannot seem to get any traction in Israel. Too many of the listeners see his story as wholly one of proto-Nazism, and are in no state to perceive what is going on in the music itself; that is a story they prefer not to be told. And I would argue that this is the case with so many who deride the great classical music of the past. The story they tell themselves makes them unable to truly hear it. They can’t accept that there are other stories as well, very much in conflict with the entirely valid story they accept, but nonetheless just as true.

17 May 2021

 

Further comments on the arts education cuts

 

From The Stage, 4 May:


Actor Samuel West, who is chair of the National Campaign for the Arts, branded the cuts "horrific" on social media.

  He told The Stage: "The arts are now shouting from so many barricades: Covid, education, Brexit, funding, local government.

  ‘We are spread thinly and getting hoarse. But even among the government’s recent proposals, this one is particularly ill-thought-out and must be opposed.

  ‘Art is not a hobby and talent can come from anywhere. Affordable music, drama and design courses fund a profitable world-class industry that keeps us sane and civilised.’

  West said the cuts would ‘narrow and eventually choke’ the talent pipeline in the industry.

  ‘How can you think that [our] industry is not “a priority”, unless through some twisted world view that believes turning out empathetic people who work collectively and are skilled in critical thinking is inimical to your vision? That punitive, philistine agenda is now the only explanation I can think of,’ he added.

  The Musicians’ Union warned that the cuts would be ‘catastrophic’ for music provision at HE level and said they would affect its members’ work, the financial viability of music courses as well as training for the next generation of musicians and music professionals.

  According to the MU, the notice given of the cut is ‘far too short to enable HE institutions to plan for September’ and could result in the UK losing its ‘world-leading status’ for music provision.

  Meanwhile, BECTU head Philippa Childs said it was ‘extremely disappointing to see the arts devalued in this way’.

  She added: ‘The arts make a vital contribution to the economy and the social fabric of the country, and it’s high time this was recognised by the government.’

  Equity general secretary Paul W Fleming said the union also strongly opposed the cuts.

‘This is yet another government attack on arts education, following years of deprioritising drama and other creative subjects in our schools,’ he told The Stage.

  ‘What is most troubling about the proposal to cut 50% of funding for these HE courses is that it blocks a route into the creative industries for working-class and other marginalised groups.’

  National Drama, the professional association for drama teachers, said it was ‘appalled by and extremely critical’ of the government’s proposal.

  Writing on behalf of campaign group MusicHE, Graeme Du Fresne, who is head of music and singing at Italia Conti, said opportunities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds would be reduced by the funding cuts.

  Du Fresne said: ‘There’s a strong whiff of the government knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing in their thinking, which appears to be driven by the notion that graduate career income in performing arts subjects fares poorly with some other professions.

  ‘This analysis fails to consider a number of benefits arts performance delivers to communities and the country as a whole. For example, during the pandemic we have witnessed the arts’ ability to foster well- being, helping to heal and nourish the nation in lockdown.’

  Others who have spoken in opposition of the cuts include director Gemma Bodinetz and set and costume designer Vicki Mortimer.

  Mortimer argued that the funding cut would ‘threaten the financial viability of training courses in creative and performing arts, and reduce the opportunities for the next generation of creative-sector professionals’.

  A spokesman for the Office for Statistics said: ‘We are currently consulting on proposals and we will take account of responses from universities, students, and others before making any final decisions on our funding method.’

  The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.

 

16 May 2021

 A devastating blow to the arts.


The philistinism of politicians knows no bounds. Gavin Williamson, M.P. (he of the GCSE algorithms fiasco) has proposed cuts of fifty per cent to arts education budgets - for subjects not counted as ‘strategic priorities’ – with potential  ‘further reductions’ to central funding for such courses in future years, once again reflecting the lack of respect our government holds for culture.

    I thought the Secretary of State for Education was supposed to be on the side of education, not determined to decimate it? A ridiculously short deadline was offered for responses to a public consultation.

    Life is not simply making money. We need spiritual nourishment, such as the creative and performing arts provide; and to continue to provide this essential service, new blood needs to be trained and encouraged through education. The hunger for culture has been particularly pronounced during the pandemic. Who are Gavin Williamson, and the government, to say what subjects are 'important' (important to whom?) or not?

    If money is the primary consideration, which of course it is, look at what the arts earn for Great Britain every year, in addition to the worldwide reputation the arts bring to this country, and the reason why many tourists come here. The Society of London Theatres reports that more people go to the theatre each year than attend all annual UK League football matches

    Many educational establishments will close: the London College of Fashion has already said it will have to close if these proposals come to fruition. The fashion industry is surely a major earner of income for this country? £26 billion and 800,000 jobs according to the British Council - the country's largest creative industry, apparently. Under the new plans this will simply fade away because the supply of trained expertise will dry up. The arts and culture industry in general, according to the Arts Council, contributes £10.8 billion to the U.K. economy - more than agriculture - and generates £5 in taxes for every £1 of funding! Clearly not for much longer.

    And why has archaeology been included? I can only think that a future shortage (owing to the closure of archaeology courses) may mean not enough archaeologists to investigate historic building sites, to the advantage of greedy developers more interested in lining their own pockets as quickly as possible, rather than respecting our culture and heritage.

    If the government is short of money, save the estimated £100 billion for HS2 - a scandalous waste considering that the result is to get businessmen to Birmingham a mere 20 minutes faster!

    As Richard Jordan writes in The Stage (13 May): ‘It will take time to comprehend the emotional and economic impact of the pandemic, but the arts will clearly play a vital role in this recovery and the rebuilding of communities and lives, which is why I am gravely concerned about Williamson’s announcement.’

23 April 2021

Duke of Edinburgh's funeral music

I wrote a review for the Church Times of the music at the Duke of Edinburgh's funeral, but made the mistake of drawing the editor's attention to John Rutter's blog on the same subject (see previous post), with the result that today's Church Times printed only a part of my piece, but appended extracts from Rutter's blog as if they were part of it! Therefore, in order not to waste what I actually wrote, I'm publishing my original submission here, and hope you will enjoy it:

SERVICE MUSIC AT THE FUNERAL OF HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS THE PRINCE PHILIP, DUKE OF EDINBURGH: St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle; Saturday 17 April 2021, 3.00 p.m.

Any fear that the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral would be diminished by the imposition of Covid restrictions was quickly dispelled as the day began to unfold and it now seems generally to be agreed that these restrictions gave an added poignancy and emotional power to the proceedings.

The service music was no exception and was performed, not by the full St George’s Chapel choir of men and boys, but by just three of the lay clerks (alto Tom Lilburn, tenor Nicholas Madden and bass Simon Whiteley) with the soprano Miriam Allan taking the treble line. (Ms Allen is married to another lay clerk at Windsor, so all the singers live within the Castle walls.)

This proved to be highly successful, not least in several familiar hymns which – in this guise, and because no congregational singing was allowed – were sung very beautifully and musically. The four singers, organist Luke Bond and director of music James Vivian will not fail to have impressed and moved many millions of viewers and listeners who may not have thought themselves susceptible to Anglican church music.

So many aspects of the day were said to have been planned by the Duke himself, including the music, and it is good to remember that two of the pieces, Benjamin Britten’s Jubilate and the guitarist and composer William Lovelady’s setting of Psalm 104, were actually commissioned by him: the Britten in 1961, written for St George’s Chapel, and the Lovelady, originally a three-movement cantata in honour of the Duke’s 75th birthday in 1996, adapted for the funeral by James Vivian.

The singers perhaps relished the acoustics of the empty chapel and there was particularly fine singing from the soprano and tenor, for whom the music provided many opportunities.

In addition to the major pieces by Britten and Lovelady there was familiar music on a more intimate scale: William Croft’s setting of the Funeral Sentences, William Smith’s Lesser Litany and Robert Stone’s setting of The Lord’s Prayer. As well as James Vivian, former organists of St George’s Chapel were recalled: Roger Judd (assistant organist, 1985-2008 and acting organist, 2002-04) adapted the Smith Litany, the service ended with the Russian Kontakion of the Departed, arranged by Sir Walter Parratt (organist, 1882-1924), and the organ music before and after the service, in addition to pieces by Bach, Vierne, Whitlock and Vaughan Williams, included the Adagio espressivo movement from the Sonata in A minor by Sir William Harris (organist, 1933-61).

The intimacy of this otherwise very public occasion was enhanced, in the BBC Television transmission, by the complete absence of commentary during and immediately before the ceremony, thus allowing viewers to focus completely and without distraction on the liturgy and, especially, the music. A very special experience indeed.

GARRY HUMPHREYS