Written by: Michael Berkeley
“Dear Mr. Berkeley”, the letter began, “I feel I must write to you and your fellow trustees at the Koestler Trust to thank you for making available to me my guitar. It has absolutely transformed my life, giving me an outlet for my emotions and frustrations that I have never experienced before. I cannot help but wonder whether if I had had this means of expression when I was young and, I am afraid, full of pent up anger, I would not now be serving a life sentence for murder.”
Well the Koestler Trust was set up under the terms of Arthur Koestler’s will with the specific aim of encouraging, and making available, the arts in prison. Thus there are small prizes, judged by professional Koestler appointees, for all manner of creative work – art, writing and of course music.
The point of my recalling that letter is not simply to illustrate the efficacy of Koestler’s work amongst prisoners, important though that is, but more fundamentally to take a single but graphic account of a missed opportunity that seems to me symptomatic of a cultural malaise that undermines and disenfranchises great swathes of our society. Is it too fanciful to argue that a society’s philistinism could in fact be linked in any way to its behaviour and in particular its anti social behaviour? Are we in Great Britain philistine and if so by what definition? If the answer to that question is yes, then how is it that we have produced and, indeed still do produce, so many world class artists, that London is still considered a, if not the, cultural capital of the world? How do we compare to the rest of Europe in our attitudes to the arts?Is it true that we are living in an age where we seem in need of ever more immediate gratification; that to have to spend time and effort on understanding and penetrating difficult but great works of art is somehow deemed to be elitist and to offend at the great altar of accessibility?And what does accessibility really mean
I hope you will take away from this lecture a double thought – that we have in this country a nucleus of hard art, as opposed to entertainment, that is very special, something to celebrate but that we are in danger of extinguishing it.
A couple of years ago I was in Sydney working with the Australian writer and poet, David Malouf, a passionate lover of music and a board member of the Sydney Opera House. We had long discussions, late into the night, about Art and Society. David was for many years a teacher and he has an extraordinary ability to contextualise the importance of culture from both a historic and contemporary perspective. Following my visit he sent me an introduction he had contributed to an Australian Government paper on Support for the Performing Arts. I realised that he had, better than I ever could, distilled his and indeed my conclusions.
Societies, he wrote, like the one we live in are complex phenomena, their parts deeply intricate, affecting one another in ways that are sometimes hard to assess; to isolate any one of them maybe to misread the dynamics of the whole. This is certainly true of the arts. To see them as something “added” that might be taken away is to miss the extent to which they may be the source, as well as the product, of what we are.
The role they play in the economy is clear enough.
What is it, other than entertainment and diversion, that we take up from a theatre or dance performance, or from a night at the opera or an orchestral or chamber concert?
Such occasions are high energy events that raise our energy level, and we take this energy back into our lives.
By bringing us into contact with high achievement they make us eager for achievements of our own. We come away from them with a quickened interest in things, a deeper awareness of our own possibility and power. And all this we carry back into daily living and into the work we do as doctors, teachers, shopkeepers, architects, nurses, scientists, students, social workers, public servants. This sort of energy exchange, which is characteristic of all advanced societies, is another form of economy, what we might call the economy of energy, diffused in a thousand places where we feel its effects but do not always recognise the source. It changes our sense of ourselves and of the world. It changes the quality of our lives and the quality of what we do and make.It is one of the clearest forms of our local identity.
In articulating the invisible dividend of a civilised and cultured society, Malouf has eloquently argued that we need to look beyond the obvious but what he then went on to tell his audience in Canberra tells us exactly why we should be proud but also wary, even fearsome.
When we think of other places, he said, France or Britain or Italy or the US, what comes first to our mind as characterising their contribution to the world, their identity or style, is the arts they have produced, books, paintings, films, their orchestras and opera companies, their galleries, their music. Either consciously or not it is this that guarantees for us that the goods we buy from them, everything from high tech to clothes and perfumes and domestic appliances, will be of the highest quality, both of performance and design. Shouldn’t we assume that others will make the same assessment of us?
It is precisely this danger of ignoring our gifts that worries me, that, as Malouf points out, the uniqueness of a people can be invisible to those who know it only as an everyday thing; that we do not always see from within how what we make is a reflection of us and our values. That these values represent a unique and fresh energy.It is, I believe, our very uniqueness that is under threat.That we are being pulled down into the land of the bland. Just look at the top 20 to see the effects of marketing on creativity, the excluding of the innovative and interesting! Or, as Rick Stein pointed out the other evening, at what we eat as opposed to what we could eat! The recent list of Great Britons nominated in Radio Times had not a single painter – no Turner, Constable, no Blake, John Donne, no Henry Purcell, Edward Elgar or Benjamin Britten but Boy George and various other pop stars, yes! Need one say more?
Despite our world prowess in many areas of the arts, there is no question that they are more highly prized, loved and supported in, for instance France, Germany and Holland. Budgets in those countries are feeling the squeeze but they are on average at least two or three times bigger than what we have here and there is a real interest in new work. An example: At the Berlin Festival a year ago a group of Festival directors got together to see how they could share projects of real interest and thus maximise effort while reducing cost. Lots of enthusiasm until we were told the amount each festival would need to contribute. With one voice the director from Budapest and I (from Cheltenham) said “but that one event would be our entire budget!!”
Indeed at Cheltenham I am constantly wrestling with the fact that I have to persuade artists to perform for at least twenty five per cent less than they would be paid abroad. Those European Festival Directors were simply stunned that we managed to produce our programme, some 74 concerts, including four orchestras for a little over £200,000.But the effort takes its toll.
Every large town in Germany has an opera house and yet we can barely sustain half a dozen in the whole of Great Britain!In France literary discussion is passionate, huge audiences watch television programmes devoted to contemporary writers; here we are presiding over their gradual demise.In Amsterdam the Concertgebouw, along with the Van Gogh museum and the Reyks Museum are at the hub of a busy cultural life that is over, rather than under, subscribed.Art and music, you feel, are indispensable, central to a happy life.It is what I have felt intuitively since childhood.
Since I was about six years old I have always known that composition would be the central plank of my life; it was the way I felt best able to express myself. Indeed I had no real choice because not to compose would have been to deny an overriding impulse and inner need. It was what I felt I was here to do, even though, like my father, I turned out to be a pretty late developer. When students sometimes say to me that they are not sure whether or not they want to be composers, I inevitably reply: Don’t.If that compulsion is not overwhelming then you might as well stop now. Of course there are exceptions to this rule but essentially you must not be able to imagine life without composition. And there is a sound practical reason for this as well as the altruistic one. The problem of earning a living at the same time.
Once determined on a composing career, how to make ends meet?
Composers approach the financial support of their music in a multitude of ways. The only certainty is that a huge amount of hard work will constantly be fragmented by income earning activities.The problem is compounded by the fact that in this country we are highly suspicious of anyone who attempts to do more than one thing despite the fact that in the past many composers ran opera houses, orchestras, church choirs and music schools. That most original of composers, Charles Ives was a business man. Virtually every composer is going to have to subsidise his or her composition somehow or other. There is a small group who have the knack of writing commercial music but it is not the prerogative of every composer and, anyway, it has become more and more a specialist area that does not sit easily with serious composition.When writing for film and TV, music is always the last ingredient, so time is of the essence – a fortnight, if you are lucky, to write, score and record the music – so you really have to go with your first impulses. This can sometimes be a happy way to work but it is dangerous if that facility becomes infectious, begins to overtake the more rigorous and searching process of serious composition.
So, many composers teach, some play in orchestras and those who need to work very slowly and painstakingly without any interruption of thought are either on the dole or very close to it – if it were not invidious and invasive I would mention a couple of famous names (so famous that it would really shock you) who come into this bracket.Artists who, if they had a comparable level of acknowledgement as, say writers or painters would probably be well off by now but the commerce of supply and demand is absolute and it does not allow for the nurture of the precious and the original unless it is instantly financially rewarding. This is also true in pop music and literature. In the Guardian a few weeks ago Jonathan Frantzen expressed deep gloom over the demise of serious writing in America, so it would seem that the quick fix is contagious. Because of the “star” obsessed nature of our society – most clearly manifested by the instant celebrity on offer on Pop Idol, Big Brother and now Fame Academy (a shameful BBC attempt to copy ITV – do they not know that in art and business success is bred by leading not following)… (because of this star obsession) … we do in fact allow ourselves one or two high flying composers every decade and we then do our best to destroy them with hyperbole – in contemporary music that usually means that hoary old crown of thorns: The Next Benjamin Britten. So useful when the burden of following up a promising first or second piece is onerous enough without that pointless kind of comparison.
As for lesser mortals, well one of the really worrying traits in contemporary classical music at the moment is that with the recent reduction in PRS royalties and the virtual drying up of money for commissions, young composers are finding it harder to make ends meet or to get a publisher, because publishers too have had their income eroded and therefore the element of gamble that they have to take when deciding to back a young composer becomes ever greater. Even if the composer finds a publisher he or she will, unlike writers, be required to sign away their copyright for life – an act that flies in the face of European law which declares that the copyright in works of art should always be vested in the creator. Publishers miraculously drop this demand when trying to entice a composer of pop or film music or the posthumous publication of a big hitter like Britten!
So we have a position where, despite boasting one of the most gifted groups of composers of any country in the world, we have steadily eroded their support. Since I took over the Artistic Direction of the Cheltenham Festival, Arts Council support for commissions has dwindled to less than a third of what it was. In 1996 we were given £11750 towards commissions.Now, eight years later, with devolution and despite huge moral support from South West Arts we have received £5000 per annum for three years running and I have been told that it is only that much because they have made us a special case! At Cheltenham I have also made a particular point of giving second performances which are especially valuable to composers but there can not be a second performance without a first.So this means that I am less and less able to fulfil my role with integrity and it is why I am considering leaving that post. I do not wish to preside over a contraction of what we have achieved.We have just about exhausted the good will of our more enlightened patrons who, like those of the admirable Birmingham Contemporary Music Group have provided their own new music fund.
I am not alone; The Nash Ensemble and the London Sinfonietta, who have done so much for musical life in this country, can no longer attract public funds for commissioning. Indeed the Sinfonietta, as our premier New Music Group, have for 10 out of the last 13 years had their core grant at standstill and for the last two years have received no public money whatsoever for commissions. When you examine the reasons for this you are told that the emphasis has been moved to other underfunded areas in the community.Now that is a manifestly sustainable argument but what I am saying is that it is too absolute, has gone too far and that if no blood whatsoever is flowing through the commissioning veins then music of integrity, composition at the sharp end will become anaemic and wither. There is no equivalent of the commercial book publisher or the gallery owner.
The BBC is in fact now the major commissioner of new music and that is something the Arts Council should be deeply ashamed of. I feel shame and humiliation when I have to ask a well known composer, as I have just done, to spend five or six months writing a new work for two thousand pounds. Younger composers will have to work for a few hundred pounds and two are writing pieces for nothing. Not all composers have the particular gift or methodology that allows them to write in their spare time.For some the nature of the talent means a total but slow everyday immersion over a long period. Sadly composition is not an area where it is easy to attract sponsorship which is another reason why it needs public investment.
Innovation involves risk but so much music today is easy-going, reassuring, rehearsing rather than reinventing patterns from the past.Instead of taking risks we contentedly pop the sugar coated equivalent of Mother’s Little Helpers but, unlike Sir Mick we are asleep.What I want from art is to be woken up, to be disturbed, challenged, to be made to think and question the very nature of our existence as did the creators we now revere. As Wozzeck is doing at the moment over at Covent Garden. To achieve that, most artists will need some sort of mastery over their material, to know the rules. And surely to break the rules you must know them first. A point hammered home by David Hockney when discussing draughtsmanship and the visionary painting of Turner. But it is also dangerous to jump to assumptions, to assume that what we may not like or understand is therefore not informed by technical prowess.Do we actually know?
For instance I do, as it happens, know that some of the controversial artists in the New Sensations exhibition are fine draughtsmen and that indeed some of the composers of block-harmony minimalism have actually mastered the craft of counterpoint. At that Royal Academy show Norman Rosenthal pointed out an analogy between a dissected and preserved farm animal and the anatomical art of Stubbs. And if you have studied musculature and blood supply there is a terrible beauty in the work of scientists like Hunter and the German anatomists. You may not be convinced by this, but it is a provocative rather than the more typically reactive thesis.Art born out of knowledge and curiosity. But our hunger for celebrity means that only one form of art is deemed worthy of news: The breaking of taboos rather than of rules. Thus gifted artists working in more conventional areas are having a tough time of it.
Knowing and breaking rules has never been more wonderfully illustrated than by that corresponding pair of geniuses, Picasso and Stravinsky – the two twentieth century artists whose staggering individuality of voice meant that they WERE able to re-invent the past with originality. Primitive apart, there is no short cut to the acquisition of a technique, the means by which one might acquire an individual language and that applies as equally to Burundi Drumming as it does to Gamelan. My father’s career overlapped those of Stravinsky and Picasso and his apprenticeship required real dedication.
Lennox was born one hundred years ago next May.If it had not been for what Anthony Sampson, in his Anatomy of Britain, rather quaintly describes as “irregular behaviour amongst his forebears” – how as a schoolboy I delighted in that phrase; my imagination leaping to the most wonderful scenarios – had it not been for this irregularity, Lennox would have been the Earl of Berkeley, Master of the castle and, still more incongruously to all who remember his gentle, slightly confused, shy and reserved manner, Master of the Berkeley Hunt.
The thought of Lennox riding to hounds is a truly wonderful image. How lucky we were to be disenfranchised.Far more suitable custodians now inhabit Berkeley and its meadows running down to the Severn Estuary and Lennox, rather than study estate management went to Oxford with the likes of Auden and Day Lewis. While there he studied French; he was already something of a Francophile but all the while was composing.So when Maurice Ravel came to Oxford in 1926 to receive an honorary doctorate, Lennox must have seemed a natural choice to look after him and show him round. In a rare moment of immodesty he showed some of his manuscripts to the great French composer. Ah, Ravel said, you clearly have talent but you need a technique. You must go to Paris where I will give you an introduction to Mademoiselle Nadia Boulanger.
Thus it was that Lennox submitted himself to one of the most rigorous musical disciplines imaginable – he was not allowed to write a note of his own music for two years but instead was required to master counterpoint and polyphony. In lighter moments Nadia would gather round her piano her many students (and at different times these included Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein) and require the entire group to sight read Bach Cantatas and Monteverdi Madrigals. Indeed she was very much involved in generating a revival of interest in the extraordinarily visionary music of Claudio Monteverdi.Some have said that this rigour stifled originality but on the contrary I suspect it gave young composers the means to express themselves more precisely and I don’t think that anyone in their right mind could say that Leonard Bernstein or, a later pupil passed on by my father, Nicholas Maw, were crippled by an over riding sense of economy or academic counterpoint! But it did mean that Bernstein was able to write on of the very few great pieces of fusion: Prelude Fugue and Riffs.
The other massive influence on my father was Benjamin Britten.They were close friends and musical collaborators.The mantra I most often had recited to me by Boulanger and Britten was Be True To Yourself and do it through the acquisition of a solid technique.
There is nothing more wonderful than hearing a score well played and knowing that yes, that is what I wanted to say, that is what I heard in my head. It is simply a bonus if audiences and critics agree that what you heard is what they want to hear.
More and more our desire for instant gratification; our need to be kept entertained without contributing any real effort is starting to marginalize art of vision, art that does question and may require concentration in order to yield its rewards. Yet it is precisely this art that informs us most about ourselves as human beings. In an ever-changing society we need ever evolving art to allow us to see our true selves. Condemned as mere cacophony in his time Beethoven, like Mozart and Shakespeare, is now considered to open a window onto some profound human truth, to mirror the turbulence of the human condition.
Consider just some of the great milestones of music over the last century and a bit and you will come up with a list of works that, like Fidelio, Cosi or The Tempest, rather than massage our senses, challenges them, disturbs them: The Rite of Spring, Pelleas et Melisande, Pierrot Lunaire, Wozzeck, Lulu, Peter Grimes, Le Marteau sans Maitre, the operas of Janacek, Bluebeard’s Castle, The Miraculous Mandarin, Un Re in Ascolto, The Mask of Orpheus and Le Grand Macabre. Interesting how there is a theatrical element to all of those pieces.
Why does so much of the music of today reject notions of argument, conflict of line for something non-confrontational?Music that comforts us and panders to the cognitive parts of our brain that rejoices in the repetition of the safe and sure, music that confines itself to a tiny harmonic landscape and relies on repetition to further bolster our sense of well being. Rather like a rat being offered food as a reward for recognising certain stimuli, I once submitted myself to experiments at Keele University to show just how the cognitive part of the brain responds glowingly to the major key, enjoys, by association, a melancholy wallow in the minor and is stimulated by a fast tempo.
Have you noticed how television and film has more and more rapid edits because of a fear that if the same image is left for too long on the screen, and if it is not sexy enough, we will all get bored? In music that easy access has manifested itself by the success of a language that has returned to a simple tonality rendered still more acceptable by insistent and repetitive rhythms – in other words it has become a sort of pop music. That, as a hybrid is fine and there are, of course, some original pieces in this genre but there is as well a huge amount of regurgitation. It happened with pop art and now, both in the cul-de-sacs of so-called minimalism and, for want of a better term, sacred-drone, more of the same seems the order of the day.But what is most definitely not fine is that it is such an easy way for programmers to cop out. Yes, we do contemporary work, they say, as they offer a piece of filmic music eschewing the truly original and risky for the safe and comforting. Our concert halls are fast becoming the equivalent of airport book-shops – cheap thrills, easy entertainment, very little substance.
I do not deny that in the ’50s and ’60s audiences were alienated by an unyielding dogma which resulted in some dreadful “new for the sake of being new” pieces and some excruciatingly cerebral scores where emotion was relegated from sleeve to shoelace.
But I believe the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Are we really to continue as if Debussy, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Bartok, Ligeti and Boulez never existed? Can we really ignore the great revolutions of music as though we were swatting to the side some irritating fly? It takes great genius to plausibly reinvent the past, slightly less to absorb and transmogrify it.
But then, I am so often told, new music is inaccessible, difficult. Is it? Is it really?I am excited by what we have in this country and, in my experience, most audiences enjoy it once they overcome the “New Music” hurdle.But this imaginary barrier is so out of date! If you think of six or seven names of composers of around my own generation, do you come up with an unbreachable wall of fearsome sound? Let’s try George Benjamin’s beautifully heard aural landscapes, Judith Weir’s idiosyncratic absorption of folk and popular melody, Oliver Knussen’s exhilaratingly imaginative orchestration in works like Where the Wild Things Are (sadly one of this year’s proms smallest audiences), Simon Holt’s jewel-like quartet for the Belceas, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s jazzy and street-wise commentaries on, and reactions to, life today, the hugely brilliant and often original marriage of tonality and fracture of Tom Ades’ music, the passionate sacred conviction of James Macmillan – Oh dear, several new Brittens there already! I could go on … Simon Bainbridge’s moving settings of Primo Levi, Colin Matthews’ magical Night Music, and then amongst the younger generation Deirdre Gribben, Stuart MacRae, Tansy Davies or Julian Anderson to name but the first few that come into my head…
None of this music is really that difficult to get into and ALL of it builds on the music of the past.
Clearly the Rattle/Berlin honeymoon is partially a result of the financial tribulations and frustrations of aiming high in artistic life in this country.Ades and Turnage have, at Rattle’s hands, received ecstatic ovations in Berlin and were, I gathered, stunned by a commitment which was unlike anything they had ever experienced.
It is true of course that I, and many of you in this room, have a reasonably adjusted ear – so I am, and doubtless you are, still knocked out by the sheer inventiveness and gritty integrity of Birtwistle in particular but also much Maxwell Davies, and where I did not understand, effort and time have been rewarded. Audiences and players used to find Tippett impenetrable but familiarity with the somewhat quirky, maverick workings of his rather zany mind have finally engendered deep affection.
With art and especially contemporary music, familiarity breeds the opposite of contempt!
I remember some ten or so years ago attending a pretty hard-hitting London Sinfonietta concert at the QEH and was intrigued and pleasantly surprised to see a somewhat Sloaney group of girls.They seemed to be enjoying all the music enormously and after a while I asked one of them how they came to be at that particular concert. Well, she said, when they had been much younger Harrison Birtwistle had taught them how to make music with the building blocks of everyday sounds. He, and Peter Maxwell Davies at another school, had, it would seem, caught these young ears while they were still innocent, still uncorrupted by the confines of western tonality. These girls had improvised from a very young age and had come to realise that beauty also lay beyond the fiefdom of D major. Many composers have continued this crucial work, notably Judith Weir; have, if you like, set free young imaginations, instilled the worm of that priceless gift – curiosity. Perhaps that is the most important word in this lecture, not money, but curiosity.If the curiosity is there, the demand and therefore the money will follow.
I am frequently faced with the owners of brilliant minds on my radio programme, Private Passions. Men and women who have scaled the heights of intellectual affairs and who love music and yet seem stuck at Benjamin Britten. But they will have read Roth, Amis, Ford, McEwan et al.Will know contemporary film-makers and artists, even poets. Indeed most artists who come on the programme aspire to the condition of music and yet many are apologetic and embarrassed by their ignorance of what is happening today. Why, especially amongst the British, this fear, this ignorance?
Europeans, on the other hand, like Daniel Libskind (who immediately chose not Britten but Luigi Nono) or Gyorgy Ligeti himself, seem abreast of all the latest trends and talk about them with feeling. It all goes back, I am sure, to what you are exposed to when young, to the templates you assume as against the ability to retain open ears as well as mind.
After all, we know that music, of whatever sort, is both a common and yet profoundly mysterious, abstract language; one that frequently binds millions of people together. It can reach severely disabled and damaged minds where nothing else connects. It can, and this was my great baptism as a performer of rock music in my youth, transform a thousand silent wallflowers into a great gyrating mass. It can be used, and abused, to gird the loins of marching armies, sportsmen, politicians and as a most persuasive form of propaganda. Whether in England with Land of Hope and Glory (a terrific melody, but Elgar had real misgivings over its use) or Shostakovich in Russia; the potential of music has been seized on by both dictator and democrat as a means of unified motivation. You can speed up or slow down productivity in factories by choosing quick or slow music. You can drive musicians and music lovers stark staring mad by surrounding them with mood muzak. But if you listen to a huge crowd singing its anthem in Cardiff, Wembley, Paris or Edinburgh, whether accompanied by bagpipes or brass, the musical communion defies you to remain indifferent to its power as does Wagner’s Ring on a much more complex level. Both are harnessing our need for myth, ritual and fantasy.
You will see that I am reluctant and unwilling to differentiate between a notion of high and low art; I prefer to think in terms of good and bad and even here, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.Labels and classifications tend to lead to pre-conceptions and anyway, a huge amount of art defies category. But I do differentiate between entertainment and what I call Hard Art, between Big Brother and Wozzeck, if you like. Strangely those of us who have considerable knowledge have to guard against another form of prejudice. I am guilty of this; we all are. We see or hear a composer’s name and mentally attach a positive or indifferent note to it. But have we heard that composer’s recent work, could they have developed, what would I think if I chanced upon this music “blind” on the radio? As Robert Simpson’s brilliant Innocent Ear programmes embarrassingly revealed, we all make assumptions – good and bad. As with musical criticism it is so much easier to be negative; so much harder to be constructive.
As my list of masterpieces earlier indicated, one of the most natural and easy ways into contemporary composition is opera, because when music is allied to narrative and image, a door is opened to its purpose. I have often pointed out how sounds that we might find difficult in the concert hall become thrilling in a dramatic context – think of the famous shower scene in Psycho and those jabbing string sounds. Yet if opera is a wonderful entry point to music it is also hugely contentious and expensive – that is the nature of the beast.
When I was on the music panel of the Arts Council I was appalled at how huge a slice of the budget went to the ROH. When I went onto the board of ROH I was appalled at how small that amount was! Of course the reason that the ROH slice of the cake seems so big is not because that amount is unjustifiable but because the overall cake is ludicrously small. I went onto a board that was vilified for actions taken by its predecessors and has certainly not been applauded for the actions it took, the benefits of which are now upon us. But that’s OK – you don’t give hours of your time to these institutions for plaudits but for the quiet satisfaction of seeing dancers working, for the first time, in their own wonderful space at the house itself and to see the gelling of orchestra, singers and stagecraft that we all knew would be possible with the right personnel and conditions. My time on the board was … instructive and, if I am honest, frequently ghastly; indeed at one point it just about ruined everyday life. I could hardly believe that I had volunteered for this particular firing line. Yet I felt I was there as the representative of the artists (at that time the only one) and that someone on the board had to be putting their point of view. My colleagues respected this role, though I often felt very torn. After all there really were some ridiculous practices – how can you run an opera house and ballet centre when you have to pay a significant section of the staff overtime beyond 10 or 10.30pm? Half the repertoire is going to land you in extra costs before you start.
My time on the board of the ROH coincided with the donning of a new political mantle. Most of us in the arts are humanists, so we looked forward to a socialist government embracing at least those ideals as did Jenny Lee so productively a few decades ago. We, in my particular field, were to be largely disappointed. It is true that very recently more money has gone into selected areas of the arts, the orchestras for example and, most notably, theatre with some £25 million.
I am delighted, for instance, that the Battersea Arts Centre has been so handsomely and deservedly funded but I have to say that the view from my neck of the woods is very different.
Despite the good intentions of a Chris Smith or a Tessa Blackstone we seem locked into a mantra that repeats ad nauseam what we all believe in anyway – education, access, buildings – but fails to keep alive the product itself, the art and the artists. This is the language of the Dome.Bricks and mortar but nothing to put in them.
Elitism became a primary charge, rehearsed in the press to such an extent that it drowned out reality.It is almost as though the philistinism of our society is such that it is more excited by threats of demise than pure artistic achievement. I wonder whether the class system in Great Britain contributes to a fear and dislike of the intellectual. Compared to Europe we have had little enlightened patronage and as a struggling work force was moved off the land and into industry, culture became a privilege far removed from most of the population. This, I believe, is why there has been such a barrier between the fortunate and the disenfranchised.But our perception of this very real hurdle is often tainted by what we are led to believe as opposed to the reality.
Even when audiences were arriving at the ROH in jumpers and jeans I still read about the Black Tie Brigade. I witnessed the famous Smelly Trainers utterance and the minute it passed Colin Southgate’s lips I was imagining the next days headlines. But even there, there was a worrying degree of prurient delight at another opportunity to kick a wounded arts animal, indeed the arts animal. Colin and I might have had our differences on some issues but on this point I must put the record straight. From my own notes, here’s what actually happened:
Journalist: How do you feel about what people should wear at the ROH?
Colin Southgate: Well as you can see, I’m a fairly relaxed kind of guy, I’m not even wearing a tie or jacket now, I don’t care what they wear really.
Journalist: Is there nothing you would object to?
CS: Well I don’t suppose anyone enjoys sitting next to someone in smelly trainers!
Yes he walked into it, but with the full context, judge his intentions for yourself as against what you actually read at the time and for months and years afterwards. I only mention this because it does indicate what we were, and to a certain extent, what the ENO now is up against in a society that is Against The Arts as opposed to Fighting For Them.
The Opera House is now in pretty good shape but there still remains a fundamental hypocrisy in the stance of a government that says it wants open access, does, rightly, not want the Opera House to be the preserve of the Private Sector and the rich, but nevertheless requires it to raise such a huge proportion of funds from them…Effectively it forces them into a marriage it loathes because it won’t pay the price of true equality. That’s to say, as abroad, an allocation of money that would bring seat prices really down and open opera houses to everyone. There is too a basic lie in the much stated desire to see opera taken around the country when an excellent small scale touring company like Music Theatre Wales has to exist on £84,000 a year and, like me at Cheltenham or the Nash, can no longer obtain funds to commission new works. So even when a company fulfils the stated desire of government it is left in the wilderness.
When I took over the artistic direction of the Cheltenham Festival I was told that excellence and innovation would be rewarded. With over a hundred new works under our belt since then (and allied to outreach into schools, prisons and homes for the disabled), our reward has been the castrating of commissions, which lies at the heart of our ethos and a barely adequate core grant. And we have not only been into schools, but brought them to us. To add insult to injury every time we apply for additional help we are told that we must find some new or fresh social approach regardless of the value of our current work. This emphasis on social work rather than art itself is out of control and unbalanced if it is, as now, too absolute.
Similarly, and by extension, boards are tending to enlist not people with particular expertise or passion but representatives of society, regardless of their knowledge or interest. You have to tick the PC boxes: race, sexual orientation, disability, education and so on. Up to a point a healthy mix reflecting all aspects of society is clearly desirable but, as with articulate composers, a small group of people end up becoming part of a self-perpetuating oligarchy by default. Thus one power base is simply replaced by another.
So, what is the solution?
As with Literacy, Numeracy and Sport, I should like to see us better sowing seeds amongst the young, seeds that will germinate into a more curious society and thus as their representatives a more enlightened government. We desperately need a more cohesive strategy to place arts and music back at the centre of education in this country and we need to harness the gifts of our creative artists to help us do it.
Here are four simple ideas. Given that so many young composers and artists need time for creative work but also an income, why not instigate a scheme whereby they are attached to a local school to work as a composer or artist in semi-residence.If every school had artists working alongside them just imagine the exchange of ideas that might take place, the kindling of something that might really catch fire as it did with Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies. Not so long ago many children had some opportunity to try an instrument and if interested benefit from peripatetic teaching. Despite some small efforts to improve the situation we have actually gone backwards. Very few state schools have comprehensive instrumental teaching and those that do have none or very few instruments. We need more instruments, and more teachers, to work their spell and light the fuse of curiosity.
Secondly, make mandatory the practice of introducing a new piece of music, work of art or piece of literature at every morning assembly. These can and should come from a wide cultural trawl and reflect the ethnic mix of the local community.
Thirdly use young artists to draw in teachers; we must excite them if we are to inspire their charges.
Fourth, provide funds to take children to exhibitions, theatre, concerts and opera.
In other words the approach needs to be broad.Many of us move from one kind of music to another as we grow older and as our needs and curiosity change; and that is an absolutely natural and even welcome transition. So in one sense, it is meaningless to go on and on about how many young people go, or don’t go to classical concerts. But the choice and the timing must be theirs.
Indeed this progression from popular music, song in other words, to through-composed music is manifested by the most interesting rock musicians themselves. Having created the sounds of their day, artists like Mark Knopfler, Brian Eno, The Pet Shop Boys, U2 and David Gilmour expand their horizons. Indeed musicians of that calibre and, for example, Elvis Costello, Bjork and Kate Bush have brought that curiosity into their work from early on.
When you are eighteen you want to revolt, you want to outrage, you want to be part of a large group.I certainly did.After ten years of choir school and Academy and a milieu that I could hardly, at that point, equal, I actually wanted to, as it were, get up and scream. So I played in a pretty OK pop group called … wait for it … Seeds of Discord. Somehow The Seeds does not quite have the ring of The Stones. But I did discover that fantastic power, I did transform the wallflowers and it taught me a great deal about basic communication for which I have always been grateful.
In the Netherlands, in France and Germany, there does seem to be a younger and enthusiastic audience for a much wider scope of music making – and correspondingly, a more progressive attitude and greater state support for music education. Surely this only underlines the imperative of making the rewards of art and music everyone’s right. Perhaps we should look to the Baccalaureate of the continent and its thorough grounding in humanities, and particularly, philosophy, and take from it that which has been proved effective and enlightening.Perhaps we should not allow the lure of science and technology (with its admittedly better job prospects) to cast the arts into some kind of also-ran third place. We have to overtake our philosophical tendency to insularity and embrace the radical.
Start at the bottom and the top will follow.I am not saying to our government: You are philistines, I am saying that we corporately as a community are philistine and that to remedy this we have to go right back to the roots and the politicians of tomorrow.
As Harry Potter has proved, those little minds are in embryo so fertile, so hungry, so eager to be released. This is the way to ensure an enlightened society and government.
Investment at this level has huge potential for the future. And as with the support of the arts across the board both financially and socially we are talking about investment rather than subsidy. Did you know that the creative industries, by the government’s own reckoning, have recently constituted 5-6% of GDP and with a staggering growth rate in one year of 16%? How many tourists would there be without the TATES, National Gallery, Stratford and the RSC, the National Theatre, LSO, ENO, ROH – it’s a fine list but more and more the artistic directors of these organisations spend their whole time thinking not about art but about money. It’s interesting too how the most successful of the above have been those that embrace new and challenging work, have taken risks – the LSO is a prime example.In other words have embraced precisely the art which is most financially challenged. But, I reiterate, there’s so much more than money at stake – there’s that invisible dividend of creative energy that the arts produce.
So, why do we continue to produce wonderful artists despite what I have said? Not because it is good for them to have to fight (as is sometimes infuriatingly suggested), to be starving but because as I have illustrated you cannot keep the creative impulse down and it’s an impulse that has grown out of a culture where, for instance, the BBC has, in the past, been a lifeline.To return to Private Passions, many of my guests who come from isolated, impoverished families attribute their success, their openness to the world of the imagination to Radio 3 or later BBC2. These stations provided them with a glimpse of music, theatre, books and thought that they would otherwise have been denied.We do not realise what we have and what we may well lose. The danger of complacency is that we become a progressively blander culture, frightened of risk, a society where ratings rule and quality takes second place. Why should all the channels of a public service broadcaster worry about ratings? As with younger people and classical music, culture should be there for when we need it and are ready for it. Over a million people watched me join the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and dissect Debussy’s La Mer and three other 20th century masterpieces last year. I find that a staggering and hugely rewarding achievement for the BBC. But I gather programmes like this are unlikely to grace the two main channels any longer.
The BBC’s new fourth channel, as a conduit for the tax payer to have access to more concerts, operas, plays and dance, is a splendid idea but not at the cost of the main networks feeling they need no longer worry, that they can ghettoise the arts. Then there is the so far largely unmentioned fact that it is art on, if not the cheap, then the cheaper, because the budgets for programme makers on the fourth channel are significantly (almost half) lower than for BBC 1 or 2. The entire budget for an evening on BBC4 is, I gather £80,000, which would provide less than one hour on the main networks.
We cannot afford to sit back, we must be vocal and fight for that precious but invisible dividend, that energy that informs our work and our products; convert Private Passions into Public Culture and talent and potential talent. Politically correct areas of the arts have received financial blessing, but those of us who refuse, in music at any rate, to compromise on vision and originality – no matter how complex or initially forbidding, are struggling to keep our financial heads above the water. What will there be in years to come if we renege on this responsibility? If we cannot add to that list of works that show us what we are and what we are capable of. Secretly people in the BBC admit that the fourth channel is being used to get the arts off their back; secretly people in government admit that there has been too much emphasis on buildings and access and that the product itself has been allowed to languish. We must translate these secrets into public action. Two weeks ago I was at the Swansea Festival for a performance and a lecture.Both venues were…shall we say, acoustically challenged for one reason or another but the audience was committed. Apparently the Council require over a thousand pounds for the hire of one of the ideal chamber rooms in the Brangwyn Hall.
At the end of my lecture, which touched on some of the points I have made today, a man asked what could they do to change things?Shame the councillors, I said, the Brangwyn Hall belongs to all of you – it’s outrageous that these rooms should remain empty; talk to your local papers, local radio, make a fuss, stand up and be counted; politicians want to be loved. Make them feel uncomfortable. Confront their philistinism!You can achieve so much if you are determined, and I really believe they will. And that’s exactly what we have to do on a national scale.
I began with a letter and I will end with one.This is from a 12 year old girl called Maria and it follows the original Amnesty On Instruments that I devised to help Hallfield School near Paddington acquire unused musical instruments:
“Dear Mr. Berkeley, I want to tell you how much I love my violin. Until I got my violin I used to get into bad rages and stamp and scream. But now my violin helps me to get these feeling out in a musical way and I seem to be much calmer and don’t have these rages. My mother thinks I am easier to live with. I love my violin and I love music. Thank you.”
permission from the Royal Philharmonic Society