Category Archives: Classical music

Purity and the Vienna Philharmonic

The Vienna Philharmonic in all its white male glory

The Internet has been abuzz this week with debate about gay marriage in the United States.  The Supreme Court is hearing arguments on the constitutionality or otherwise of California’s ban on same sex marriage, Proposition 8.  Meanwhile, the similarly-themed Defence of Marriage Act, which denies married gay couples federal benefits, will be undergoing similar scrutiny. For what it’s worth, we at Lelio hope the Supreme Court sees sense and rules against discrimination and in favour of equality.

In Britain, much the same debate has taken place in recent months, with MPs finally voting overwhelmingly in favour of gay marriage in February.  But what has fascinated me about the debate on both sides of the pond is how few of those opposed to gay marriage have been willing to come out (as it were) as actively anti-gay.  This is understandable, perhaps, as actual bigotry is not a quality easily tolerated in today’s more enlightened society.

Instead, the conversation has been turned on its head in both countries.  It is not a question of discriminating against gay people, you see, but one of “protecting a sacred tradition” – a tradition which happens to only be open to straight people.  Those who hold this particular tradition dear see themselves as the ones under attack, by forces who wish to disrupt and transmute their centuries-old certainties.  Thus the law under discussion in the US is not called the Ban on Giving Equal Rights to Homosexuals Act, but rather the more caring and concerned-sounding Defence of Marriage Act.

The Economist has a good article on why this sort of logic is loopy.  It is an indefensible (and ultimately untenable) position to argue that discrimination should be enshrined in law in order to protect the rights of those for whom discrimination is a way of life.  And this brings me to the real subject of this post.

The Vienna Philharmonic – one of the world’s great orchestras – has for years maintained a shoddy record on equality.  Attending one of their concerts reveals an orchestra that is not only very, very male but also one which is very, very white.  Only seven of its 129 members are women (5%), and the only non-white musicians are two half-Japanese violinists.

Natürlich, the orchestra no longer has any official policy preventing women or non-white players from joining, but it has instead relied on its white male gene pool to self-select other white men and eliminate outsiders.  Like most top orchestras, the VPO has a ‘blind auditioning’ process, during which an applicant plays behind a screen so as to focus the judges’ attention solely on the quality of playing.  Unlike other orchestras, however, the screen is lifted for the third and final audition.  It is at this stage that the white men doing the judging decide whether the player will be a good ‘fit’ for the group, and naturally – perhaps even understandably – find themselves favouring other white men.

For the VPO, this process is crucial to maintaining the orchestra’s secret ingredient: its “soul”.  In 1996, a year before the ban on women was lifted, principal flautist Dieter Flury expressed his concerns that women would upset the “emotional coherence” of the group.  During the same radio interview, violinist Helmut Zehetner said:

“The way we make music here is not only a technical ability, but also something that has a lot to do with the soul. The soul does not let itself be separated from the cultural roots that we have here in central Europe.  And it also doesn’t allow itself to be separated from gender.”

In other words, it’s not that the VPO’s members are against women or non-white players.  They are merely the humble defenders of a great institution which, they fear, will be ruined if too many non-white, non-male members are allowed in.

Of course, that was back in 1996.  But this kind of thinking is still pervasive in 2013.  Although the orchestra now numbers a woman amongst its four concertmasters – a big step in the right direction – chairman Clemens Hellsberg remains adamant that “you cannot put quotas on art.”  In a recent radio interview he brushed aside the orchestra’s woeful record on equality by saying that “what matters is the performance, and we would be crazy if we did not take the best [players] we can get.”  Given the approximate 15-to-1 hiring ratio of men versus women since 1997, it can only be assumed that the best players are mostly male.  And given the unshakeable racial uniformity, mostly white too.

The reason this exceptionalism is so troubling is that the VPO is an organisation desperately trying to close the book on another, much darker chapter of its history.  Earlier this month, historians revealed that almost half the orchestra’s members had been Nazi Party members during World War II.  Thirteen Jews were cast out during the War, five of whom perished in Nazi death camps.  Most astonishingly, Helmut Wobisch, the orchestra’s managing director from 1954 all the way through to 1968, was revealed to have been a member of the Waffen SS, a Gestapo agent, and a “convinced hardcore Nazi”.  This was a man who, in 1966, saw fit to present a replica of the orchestra’s ring of honour to the former head of the Hitler Youth, Baldur von Schirach.  These National Socialist tendencies are not, one imagines, the sorts of traditions the VPO wants to uphold.  Yet the orchestras’s ongoing attempts to maintain “purity” sound extremely worrying when placed in this context, particularly given the clear racial bias amongst its members.

If this orchestra truly wants to put its past behind it, then it must fully embrace the notion that one group of people is not inferior to another on account of ethnicity or gender.  If Dr Hellsberg is serious that the only thing that truly matters “is the performance”, then it is time to start holding completely blind auditions and selecting musicians purely on the basis of their playing.  Until that day, the charge of bigotry will continue to haunt this superb group of musicians, and detract from its otherwise well deserved reputation.

Maria João Pires realises she’s turned up with the wrong concerto

I had the great good fortune to hear Maria João Pires in concert last night, performing Beethoven’s 2nd Piano Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra under Bernard Haitink.  Pires is one of a handful of pianists working today whose performances are always worth seeking out, even if she is performing something you really didn’t think you liked.  I’ve always felt fairly ambivalent about Beethoven’s 2nd Piano Concerto, for instance, having previously written it off as ‘the boring one’ – despite the number, it is the earliest of Beethoven’s concertos, the least revolutionary, the least packed with good tunes or Beethovenian touches.  But Pires played as though it was the greatest concerto ever written, and for the length of her performance, that’s exactly what it felt like.

As if further proof of her consummate artistry were needed, a friend has just forwarded me this remarkable video, in which you can see the horror on her face as she realises the orchestra has begun playing a different Mozart concerto to the one she was expecting.  This isn’t during a rehearsal either – this is during the concert itself.  Conductor Riccardo Chailly assures her it will all be all right and, with some considerable effort, she manages to gather herself together during the orchestral introduction, before beginning what sounds like a typically beautiful account of K.466.


What an incredible artist.  And what luck she wasn’t supposed to be playing Beethoven’s Fourth.

Musical appreciation is a function of conditioning

Turn it off!

Here’s something that will tickle those of us whose taste in music runs the gamut from “noisy” to “for heaven’s sake, can you turn that bloody racket off, it’s making my ears bleed”.  Ever heard the argument that certain types of music are just objectively nicer to listen to than others?  That certain harmonic patterns are superior to other ones?  That your love of the spicy stuff goes against some kind of musical “natural order”?

Well, now Australian researchers have shown that your ability to enjoy certain types of music is a product of nurture rather than nature.  It seems that the brain’s ability to comprehend and appreciate certain types of harmonies is not, as was previously suspected, a characteristic of the harmonies themselves, but in fact a function of conditioning.  In other words, if you were brought up in a house filled with free jazz, you are much more likely to find free jazz pleasant to listen to.  The same, I imagine, goes for Schoenberg.

According to Associate Professor Neil McLachlan, who led the study at the University of Melbourne, subjects found it easier to distinguish individual notes within compositions if they were familiar with the harmonies.  If the harmonies were new to their ears, they found it hard to hear individual notes and therefore found the music “unpleasant”.

The good news is that with only ten short sessions of “conditioning”, subjects were more able to find notes within unusual chords, and thus began to find such music more appealing.  So it turns out all that Xenakis and Stockhausen they made us listen to at University did open our ears.

More on this story here.

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What’s in a name?

Aerith from Final Fantasy VII. On a classical music blog. Yep.

“Classical music” is an awful, awful term.  It’s meaningless at best, and downright confusing at worst.  Have you ever tried to explain to someone what classical music is?  Or what specifically defines a piece of music as “classical”?  It’s an impossible task.

I find myself caught up in this quandary whenever I feel the need to establish that something isn’t classical music.  Usually it’s Classic FM who inspire me with this this foolish need to define and distinguish.  I’ve just found out that at the end of last year, Classic FM listeners did their annual purist-baiting trick of voting something not-really-all-that-classical into their Hall of Fame.  This time, following a committed campaign by a video games journalist, the 16th best-loved classic was unveiled as. . .  “Aerith’s Theme from Final Fantasy VII“.

Now, I don’t know about you, but my knee-jerk response to this is to recoil in horror.  Without really stopping to think about it, I transform into Outraged of Tunbridge Wells and saddle my high horse*.  Video game music?  Fifty-one places higher than the Eroica Symphony?  Are you having the proverbial laugh?

Next thing you know, I’ve managed to get myself sucked into one of those arguments that begins, “So smarty pants: if this isn’t classical music, what is?”

And thus one starts trotting** out definitions.  Useless ones.  Classical music is art music.  (So, uh, what exactly is art?)  Classical music is serious.  (As opposed to the irrepressible frippery of all other forms of music?)  Classical music is instrumental.  (Except for when it’s not.)  Classical music is notated and through-composed.  (Most of the time.)  Classical music is, as Paul Morley recently put it, “music of permanent interest”.  (Tell that to the guys at Marco Polo.)

In the end your attempts to define such a nebulous genre go around in circles.  At one point, I thought I’d nailed it with this: “it’s music where a composer is acknowledged as the principal author, rather than the performer”.  But doesn’t that include all singer-songwriters?  Are Noël Coward or Burt Bacharach classical composers?  Are ballet scores denied a place the classical table because a ballet tends to be billed as the work of a choreographer?

It’s a fruitless exercise.  And I hereby officially give up.

But perhaps the more interesting question in all of this is not “what is classical music?” – but rather, “why do we feel the need to ringfence it?”  Where does this protectionist mentality come from?  Why do we feel so irritated by the incursion of a Final Fantasy soundtrack onto our turf?  Why do we so fully reject the Official Classical Charts (full of popular artists like Richard Clayderman, Ludovico Einaudi and André Rieu) that we feel the need to establish a parallel Specialist Classical Chart?

Is it just snobbery, plain and simple?  Or are we genuinely concerned that, by throwing film and video game soundtracks, “alt.classical” tracks, and bikini-clad amateur pianists into the mix, record labels and retailers are sending out the wrong message about what classical music is about?   Is that even so very wrong?  After all, it could well be argued that it is the very likes of the Titanic soundtrack that keep classical labels afloat in the first place (oh the irony!).

Perhaps it’s best not to worry about such things, and just get on with listening to the music we really care about.  In the end, it doesn’t really matter what other people want to listen to, or indeed what they want to call it.  The most important thing is that you know what you like, and you know where to find it.  At Lelio, we’re not planning to stock soundtracks, Katherine Jenkins albums, or André Rieu DVDs (an atrocious business decision, I can tell you), but we will stock the music we love, and hope that you love it too.

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* I assume it’s a horse.  It may be a cow for all I know.
** Another horse reference.  Horses are in everything these days, don’t you know.

The BBC would like to apologise. . .

Still from BBC Four’s “The Sound and the Fury”

Last night, BBC Four aired the first episode in a new three-part series on modern classical music, entitled The Sound and The Fury.  For me, as a great fan of the screechy, discordant, hell-raising music of the 20th Century, it was a programme I was greatly looking forward to.  But I have to confess I found it a little disappointing.  Obviously, modern classical being the niche interest that it is, the show was aimed more at expanding the audience than in engaging the current one.   Fair enough, but in trying to explain and justify such ‘difficult’ music to a presumed audience of unbelievers, it made a cardinal mistake: it ended up apologising instead.

Schoenberg, we were told, was responsible “for the great rot that happened in classical music”.  The popular American composer John Adams pitched in to tell us that he liked Webern, “but I also find it extraordinarily emotionally stingy.”  His was music “that gave particular kinds of anal retentives a frisson of pleasure.”

Of course, there were a number of other talking heads, such as George Benjamin, Tom Service or the Southbank Centre’s Gillian Moore, who were genuinely enthusiastic about the music.  But I suspect the average viewer at home would have been scratching their head during the justifications of the bizarre and unsettling music on screen, and instead found themselves nodding along vigorously with the dissenting views of Adams and co.  After all, everyone enjoys hearing their own prejudices confirmed.  “I find most of [Schoenberg’s] music amazingly aurally ugly,” said Adams.  I imagine many agreed.  “I’ve never ever been able to find a way into loving it.  I find it sensually very punishing to my ear.”  Hardly inspires you to dig deeper into Schoenberg’s fascinating and enormously inventive oeuvre, does it?

Make no mistake: this was television as apologia.  The BBC seemed to be saying, “Look, we know this music is horrendous to listen to.  We’re sorry.  We hate it too.  But it’s culture, so, you know.”

To me, this constant desire to make excuses for classical music is part of a wider problem, which is that it is almost impossible to read or hear about classical music in Britain as something that should simply be celebrated.  Instead, it is presented as something difficult that must be explained, or something unpleasant that must be made more palatable, or something broken that must be fixed.

This last charge is especially virulent.  The COO of Universal Music, Max Hole, recently gave a speech to the Association of British Orchestras in which he enumerated the many problems facing classical music today.  Orchestral musicians dress too formally.  Concert halls are overly forbidding to outsiders.  Audiences are constrained by a plethora of unspoken rules.  The words “elitism”, “etiquette” and “tradition” were deployed in a pejorative manner.

I believe such proclamations are counter-productive.  In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the only serious problem facing classical music today is that people keep saying there is a problem with classical music.  There just isn’t.  It’s a myth.  This is music that has survived for hundreds of years, through countless upheavals in popular taste, and which has found its audience – a niche audience, to be fair – for generation after generation after generation.  Its audience is not young, nor trendy, nor especially interested in the “shared experience” of a rock concert.  In short, it is an audience that loves classical music for what it is, not for what it’s not.

And this is where I think we can all make a difference, even in a small way.  Let us stop being shy about our love for classical music.  Let’s stop flagellating ourselves for the fact that it is inaccessible to the masses.  Let’s stop worrying about whether it is as popular as Jay-Z, because it really doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that it is great, great music – and worthy of our unapologetic enthusiasm.

So, celebrate it.  Enthuse to your non-classical-loving friends about your taste in music.  Tell them why you love it.  Explain to them why Beethoven stirs your senses like no other, or why Webern is so very far from “emotionally stingy”.  Share your passion.  Above all, sit your friends down and play them the music you love.  Play it loud.  Let them hear it with their ears wide open, rather than through a soggy blanket of apology.

And if they tell you that they don’t like it, enthuse some more.  Enthusiasm is infectious – even more so than dissent.

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