May letters

We are in grave danger of losing our musical marbles


This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

A musical Walmart

Your leader (A DISCORDANT SONG, APRIL) on the dismal condition of British music is timely. The late John McCabe and I were recently singled out by Private Eye’s columnist, the great Lunchtime O’Booze, as examples of composers who have been dropped by Radio 3 as being too difficult and uncompromising — and perhaps also too white & male — for today’s listeners.

Melvyn Bragg’s recent remarks in the House of Lords are urgently relevant: the arts are not the cherry on the cake but the cake itself. It looks as if this country may soon be left with a few stale crumbs of its musical riches. “Bums on seats” (a.k.a. “Lowest common denominator”) is no basis for a musical culture; nor is a moronic terror of “élitism” — a word that has taken on the malevolence of “racism” (for which it is frequently a euphemism).

Government after government has sold music down the river in education and arts funding. Radio 3 broadcasts hours of trashy Hollywood film music by fat copycats to lull listeners into oblivion; then, on self-declared heroic principle, introduces occasional works by unjustly (and sometimes justly) neglected female and black composers.

This latter initiative is laudable; but the implementation, selection and presentation are often patronising and crass and therefore counterproductive.

My grandmother’s cousin Elizabeth Maconchy was unquestionably a woman; her daughters Anna and Nicola LeFanu (the latter a very fine composer) are living proof. Yet she went to the Royal College of Music in 1923 at the age of 16 to study with Vaughan Williams, won scholarships to study in Prague and in 1930 had her orchestral cantata The Land performed at the Proms. The same could not be said of many male composers of my generation.

She was an important and highly creative artist who built a reputation which survived her death in 1994.

It’s also worth mentioning that Beethoven’s violin soloist for the premiere of his Kreutzer sonata, George Bridgetower, was a man of mixed African and European descent who would today be called Black.

Whilst attempting to avoid repeating historical injustices, let us not exaggerate them: it does nobody any favours.

We are in grave danger of losing our musical marbles and turning this country into a musical Walmart.

Giles Swayne
Preston-on-Wye, Herefordshire

Opera is not the only art

I saw the strange editorial you ran recently (A DISCORDANT SONG, APRIL), which appears to blame opinion pieces I co-wrote 40 years ago for the current challenges of classical music. As someone who goes to classical music concerts at least once a week, and to many festivals, I found the argument odd, to say the least.

Our case in the 1980s was that public attention and funding shouldn’t focus on fields such as opera whilst ignoring many other creative industries. Your piece admits that when Labour took power (I worked in government from 1997-2004) it greatly increased subsidies for all forms of music, theatre and visual art, whilst also helping to grow film, TV, design and other fields, confirming how wrong it is to create false dichotomies.

I agree with much of the piece, despite its rambling vitriol. Perhaps I am pedantic, but I think it’s reasonable to hope that opinion columns might aim for a bit more rigour and precision.

Sir Geoff Mulgan

Radio ga ga

Your editorial and Alexandra Wilson (THE LOVE THAT DARE NOT SPEAK ITS NAME, APRIL) deplore the alienation of classical music from contemporary culture. It has been a long-drawn-out, gradual development across the West, but I think a date can be fixed for the cut-off point in Britain.

It was sealed by the BBC in 1967 when Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4 were invented. Until then, classical music was heard in varying contexts on the Home Service, the Light Programme and the Third Programme.

When classical music was swept away into a box of its own, casual listeners never stood a chance of having their experience expanded by accidentally hearing interesting music from elsewhere. It was but a step from there to branding such music “elitist” — a barbaric (and of course Marxist) word.

Andrew Wilton
Chislehurst, Greater London

Harsh judgment

Mr Justice Darling was a nasty piece of work (LAW: LAUGH? YOU HAD TO BE THERE, MARCH). He fined the editor of the Birmingham Daily Argus £100 for contempt in 1900 after being described as “a microcosm of conceit and empty-headedness”.

Prof Dominic Regan

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