Thursday, February 27, 2020

Classical musicians hunt in tribes


Composer Ruth Gipps wrote "I have been told that Britten was personally responsible for having the careers of possible rivals ruined if he could", and named Willian Alwyn, William Walton, Gerald Finzi, Herbert Howells, and Lennox Berkeley as the alleged victims of Aldeburgh tribal warfare. Other examples from the past of classical musicians hunting in packs are the celebrated Glock/Boulez pack which hunted down other fine composers including Robert Simpson, Malcolm Arnold and Edmund Rubbra, and the less celebrated bigots in the BBC who sabotaged the black conductor Rudolph Dunbar's career in the 1940s.

Today classical musicians and those close to them continue to hunt in tribal packs. In fact the hegemony of social media has amplified the role of the tribe: because social networks are agglomerations of communities of common interest - aka as tribes. So in classical music we now have social media hunting packs that are anti-Brexit, pro-CBSO, anti-Domingo, pro-new London concert hall, anti-BBC rationalisation, pro-#metoo vigilantism, etc etc.

Some of these causes obviously need advocating. But the problem is that the inequalities classical music is fighting against derive from a legacy tribal culture. Nowhere is this more evident than in two important causes - the fight for gender and ethnic equality. As a longtime advocate of these causes it grieves me to see proponents of musicians of colour and women musicians forming tribal packs. The classical establishment, the biggest and most vicious hunting pack of all, loves tribes. Because tribes are markets, and tribal causes are easily reinvented as marketing propositions. Forming a hunting pack to reclaim rightful territory is not the solution, it is part of the problem.

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2 comments:

Graeme said...

I echo this. I mostly go to song recitals. So many singers think they redress a gender balance by programming Alma, Fanny and Ethel without wondering what the result is. Or programming Robert, Clara and Johannes. None of those programmes fit together... They just highlight the wrong problems. It needs to be done more sympathetically

mathias broucek said...

Amen to that

I'm all for finding good music of the past that was/is repressed for bad reasons (i.e. "wrong" politics, "wrong" skin colour, "wrong" gender, "wrong" (non-second Viennese) school etc.).

But it needs to be *good* music. Did the status of women in earlier years lead to potential world-class composers not having the encouragement they needed? Almost certainly. Was Clara as good a composer as Robert? Not on the evidence of the works I've heard.

I weep when I hear Bach, Beethoven and Brahms written-off as "dead white men". We need to encourage TODAY's female composers and if someone can find a world-beating female composer from the past (Hildegard aside) then I'd love to hear her music. But digging out the second rate to tick a box is unlikely to inspire anyone.