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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The new disorder

By Norman Lebrecht / March 12, 2003

I turned down two opportunities last week to join the music establishment. The first appointed me, unasked, to the panel of "distinguished" judges who choose the Classical Brit awards.

The second, more portentously, informed me that "the Council of the Royal Philharmonic Society has nominated you for membership of the Society". Both letters were unceremoniously binned.

The Classical Brits are a device invented by a brain-dead record industry to cover its classical nakedness with a fig leaf of sexy prancers who can neither sing nor play without electronic assistance. The awards are supported by Carlton Television and Classic FM magazine, which currently displays on its cover a nubile Eurasian fiddler who has repeatedly pronounced her contempt for classical music and her intent to forsake it.

Vanessa-Mae Nicolson will doubtless be awarded, with or without my assent, another Classical Brit; and music will continue to suffer by her ascension. Every disc she makes, every slot she takes in a high-street record shop, is another nail in the coffin of a culture that used to prize ability above presentation, expressiveness over attitude.

The Classical Brits - in contrast to English National Opera's Operatunity, which was aspirational to a high degree - encourage would-be performers to skimp on technique, cheapen their act and open another shirt button. They actively pervert the art.

That said, the awards are not without resonance. A couple of million insomniacs will witness the edited TV relay and believe, in dumb delusion, that this is the acme of Western civilisation. Teachers entombed under towers of paperwork that leave them no time or will to think for themselves will play the video - improvingly, they imagine - to their class while they nip out for a staffroom fag. A future generation is being taught to equate a piece of V-necked Lancastrian beefcake with Gigli or Caruso.

Worse: the record industry has the ear of government as never before. Its views carry weight on such public issues as copyright reform and media control. Its moguls play tennis with Tony Blair and pork-barrel politics in Washington. It is the nerve centre of the modern music establishment. And here was I, a humble columnist, being summoned by the chairman of its British chapter to determine one of its key rituals. How could I refuse?

Shunning the old music establishment was a sadder task. The Royal Philharmonic Society has, since 1813, been chief pathfinder and public oracle for the musical community. It commissioned the ninth symphony of Beethoven, the seventh of Dvorak and much besides.

In recent years it has withered to a talking shop with a prize-giving dinner, selling off historic manuscripts to bolster the fees of an overwhelmingly elderly and provincial membership. Nevertheless, the Society still has its uses. When the Queen requires a new Master for her Musick, as she will do now that Malcolm Williamson is no longer, it is to the RPS that she will turn for advice as to which living, or near-dead, composer is least likely to frighten the royal horses.

Never mind that the existence of this archaic musical office is noticed only when the Master fails to produce an ode to order, or dies. In a backward-looking nation where men and women commit epic acts of selflessness or malice with the aim of being made Member of a defunct British Empire, the maintenance of this royal musical outpost allows an encrusted monarchy to engage with living creativity - or, more precisely, with the establishments that misrepresent it. The result is a perpetual anomaly.

No man has ever been appointed Master on active merit. Elgar, the first incumbent of modern consequence, assumed office in 1924 when he was 76 and all dried out, more pomp than circumstance, having cravenly begged for the honour. His successors Arnold Bax and Arthur Bliss were equally ill-chosen; neither was a composer of first rank and both were at their wits' end. Poor Malcolm Williamson was a fertile Australian who, in an era of arid modernism, could write a merry tune. He, too, fell silent.

Their collective inadequacy was to be expected for, like the camel designed by committee, Masters were made on the advice of the music establishment. That establishment could, until recently, be readily identified. It amounted to two controllers of musical taste at the BBC; the men who ran Covent Garden, the RPS, the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Festival Hall; a couple of music publishers with good table manners; and a courtier-like Jacob Rothschild who shimmered between arts and royalty.

But when the Queen seeks advice on her next Master, she will find the music establishment broken beyond repair. The BBC no longer reflects the arts to the nation; the musical institutions are mostly run by itinerant Australians on short-term contracts; the publishing and recording industries are on their last legs.

Put simply, the establishment is no longer worth joining, or asking. Society has changed. We have become multicultural and polyskilled. There is no defendable reason for a royal musician in the 21st century to adhere to the Western-classical tradition. He could be a jazzman, a qawwali singer - or Joseph Shabalala of South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo, impeccably Commonwealth.

He could even be a she: someone like Evelyn Glennie, the deaf percussionist and composer who works across the gamut, from symphony orchestras to Afro-beat.

This is not the kind of counsel the Queen will hear from the fragments of the music establishment. Her Royal Philharmonic Society can be trusted to nominate a trusty professional like the 10-scores-a-year Sir Peter Maxwell Davies or the accomplished Michael Berkeley, an excellent committee man and festival director whose compositions are, like custard, a peculiarly indigenous indulgence.

There will also be input from Prince Charles, who favours insipid cinematic music by the likes of Patrick Doyle. And there will be representations from the record industry, pressing the case for a Classical Brit.

None of these tendencies will revive the office of Master or renew confidence in an establishment that has advised badly in the past and is now in fast decline. Upon its sinking ship, a new member can do no more than rearrange the deck chairs; I politely declined.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001