Odious audio: Would you vote for this politician’s Schumann

Odious audio: Would you vote for this politician’s Schumann


norman lebrecht

December 16, 2013

Ed Balls, the British shadow chancellor, has been trying to make political capital of his new hobby, learning to play the piano. Here’s his statement on Kinderszenen.

He has either got a cloth ear, or a skin thicker than old boots. Judge for yourselves. Click here.

ed balls getty


  • Tim Benjamin says:

    I don’t think you (and many others such as George Osborne) should sneer at him like that. I really don’t like the man’s bullying behaviour, his party, and his politics at all – BUT here is a busy working man who has started something new, taken up a classical instrument no less, and who is speaking quite sensibly about Schumann on the nation’s most popular radio station. The playing is not at all bad for grade 3 standard either and contrary to your somewhat patronising “cloth ear” accusation, I detect some musicality there amid the usual beginner’s hesitation. Only someone who is listening to how they are playing would do that. Yeah there was a mistake in the middle but so what? If only politicians would admit such mistakes in politics!

    Unlikeable and incompetent as Ed Balls is, I think he really should be praised by us for doing this and perhaps inspiring the millions who listen to that programme to take up classical music (playing or even just listening)! – this is quite possibly of far greater benefit for classical music in the UK than anything the last five culture secretaries (or indeed [shadow] chancellors) put together have done. In my humble opinion of course!

  • V.Lind says:

    I agree with Mr. Benjamin. He does not even have Grade Three yet — he is preparing for those exams (and, yes, may have to work a little harder)but I see nothing but good in all of this — his interest, his effort, his willingness to get out there, mistakes and all. I don’t think this endeavour warrants anything but encouragement and applause.

  • Isn’t this sort of like shooting fish in a barrel? Come on, Norman — cut the guy some slack! 🙂

    Some well-known artists have really bitten their teeth off on pieces such as this — deceptively easy, yet so difficult in the end!

    Having a thick skin is certainly an advantage in either profession (performing or politics). As to his ear, well — it’s not as bad as I was led to believe! Kudos for getting most of the rhythms right! Better than many students achieve, and they usually have much more time to practise than a busy politician.

    But his teacher (does he study with anyone?) should teach him how to use the pedal properly… at least he pedals cleanly, even if he doesn’t connect the chords as they should be. Actually, this is a sign of a good ear … how many students would merely hold down the pedal through some of the harmony changes?

    Here’s Cortot’s take on the matter:


  • Warren Cohen says:

    ok. I will be the first to go there. You must say, the guy has balls.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with most of those opinions and judgements but it really does beg the question why politicians of his ilk do something like this so openly and publicly. Why was it necessary to involve the media in such a clodhopping fashion? One can’t quite discount the suspicion that here is a politician on which the public have mixed views trying to increase his likeability factor.

  • Hasbeen says:

    I agree with Mr Benjamin. The mean spirited comment by NB is cheap and small minded !

    • Steve says:

      this was at the invitation of Alan Rusbriger whose book ‘Play it Again’ (about learning Chopin’s first ballade.) was a huge success.

      the exquisite first piece of Album for the Young might have been a more wise choice, but i applaud the spirit of this,

  • Well said, Tim! It sounds as though Ed hasn’t fingered it properly and/or is confused by how to co-ordinate his fingers with the feet (the pedalling is dire), and when you factor in nervousness it’s not surprising that what we hear is so stumbling. But I’m glad to see a busy politician making the effort to learn to play.

    I think the last major UK politician we had with an interest in performing classical music was Ted Heath, who was no mean conductor. Ed’s got a long way to go, but everyone has to start somewhere. Give him time!

    • Ted Heath was the organ scholar at Balliol; so not exactly shabby at a keyboard, either…

      • timwalton3 says:

        But also a useless conductor – I saw him conduct twice & it was dreadful. He also – far worse – betrayed his country by lying about the EU to get us to vote yes.

        • Stereo says:

          I can confirm Heath was a useless conductor. Played a few times under him,just had to ignore what he was doing like conducting the last part of Leonora 3 in 3!

          • Yes, I also heard from a cellist in the Munich Philharmonic who once played under Heath’s baton (not with that orchestra) that Heath wasn’t much of a conductor. But his EMI LP of Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture (performed live with the LSO in the RFH) was very fine and that piece does not play itself – it needs firm direction from the podium, so this could not have been an instance of the LSO pulling Heath through it. Previn himself was impressed by Heath’s performance.

  • He is doing an admirable thing in learning an instrument in his middle age, and is to be applauded for making it a public process. I look forward to your upcoming performance of the Emperor on Radio 3, Norman!

  • If he carries on working he might make it to Editor of The Guardian.

  • Beaumont says:

    The only thing interesting is the fact that after years of telling people that ‘culture’ is elitist and other verbal claptrap designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator (remember Tony Blair’s Desert Island Discs?), we are suddenly faced with Mr Balls discovering Schumann.

    The word to reach for here is “pathetic”.

  • noochinator says:

    How was Ted Heath’s playing?

  • Francis Wood says:

    Oh, for goodness’ sake – what’s wrong with this? Seems to me an honest self-assessment from someone who is willing to have a go at a very unfamiliar skill.

    “If I’m honest out of 30 the it’s only one that I can play because the others are technically far too difficult”

    Good on him, I say!

  • PA in Kingston, Ontario says:

    I agree with Tim Benjamin too. Not much poetry there to be sure [redacted:abuse] Well done, Ed Balls!

  • Brian says:

    Derision’s a bit out of place, isn’t it? I confess to neither knowing nor caring about the man’s politics, this side of the pond, but I assure you no American politician would be caught dead, from Obama on down, harboring even the suspicion of a regard for classical music. I’d say Mr. Balls has a set, and he’s setting a good example for the young. And the old. He should be encouraged, not mocked.

  • Patrick Gundry-White says:

    I agree with Tim Benjamin and also with Warren Cohen.

    What about the comment of Jeremy Vines; “it sounds like an unusual piece to play, actually” – if this is an unusual piece to play, how often has he listened to classical music? A total philistine if ever there was one!

    How about Norman Lebrecht putting his fingers where his mouth is and playing live on Radio 2 – see what he comes up with.

  • Jellyrollbrahms says:

    The philistines are the ones who jeer at Ed Balls. Maybe, just maybe, he really loves playing the piano.