Why does music breed such miseries?

Why does music breed such miseries?


norman lebrecht

September 30, 2014

In the new issue of Standpoint magazine, out now on newstands, I examine the phenomenon of musical negativity. Why is it that musicians and music lovers are so disparaging of success, why so envious, so mean-spirited?

Painters, writers, even actors, make some show of generosity to colleagues. Musicians do not. Dancers are the most considerate of artists, ever concerned to protect each other from injury. Musicians, at the merest hint of false intonation, turn a freezing glare on the hapless offender in the ensemble, reducing him or her to a nervous wreck.

Ardent listeners take their cue from the professionals. Eavesdrop on the crowd leaving the opera house after a magnificent performance and you’ll hear less talk of the vocal glories than of the fluffed second-act entry in the woodwinds. BBC Radio 3 put up an online message board at the dawn of the internet. It was shut down after a daily deluge of abuse aimed at practically every presenter and performer on the network. The silenced carpers promptly started an independent forum, Friends of Radio 3 (FoR3) — a less friendly bunch of people you will struggle to find this side of the Islamic Caliphate.

There is a reason, there are several. If you want to read more, you’ll need to click here.



  • Sergei says:

    Every musician and music lover has his/hers own criterion about perfection. And no work nor interpretation fits exactly on this ideal, so that and those are strongly criticized, because nothing for them is valid, at least it’s perfect.

    • Julian Rowlands says:

      In my experience some musicians are bitchy, some are positive and supportive; and the same goes for all the other professions mentioned above.

      • steve says:

        I’d agree with that and to a slightly lesser extent infamous Radio 3 messageboards reflected that diversity. Among the named contributors, I enjoyed following the informed comments of such distinguished people as Peter Katin,Richard Barrett and Ian Pace.
        The arguments were at times quite fierce…most notably on Norrington’s recording of Mahler 9.

  • Tatiana says:

    Yes and no. In a professional setting, it would be extremely unprofessional to glare at a colleague who has made a mistake. In a rehearsal it would be rude and in a performance it would draw attention to the error. Julian is right. Some colleagues are supportive, and some are not. Just like every other career. Some people have a chip on their shoulder and love Schadenfreude.

  • Martin Tomlin says:

    This is a very interesting article and a subject about which I have thought a lot about. I am a musician and I also have many visual artists in my circle of friends, painters, sculptors and graphic artists. They are by far a much nicer group, both towards their colleagues and towards others in general. The classical music world is a dreadful collection, for the most part, of arrogant and pretentious snobs, who actually want to create a closed elitist society and are mean spirited and hostile to everyone who attempts to enter their universe. Most behave as gatekeepers, often behaving more like bouncers in front of a club, and take pleasure in humiliating, disparaging and degrading their colleagues and the general public.

    Why? I think that it all stems from the origins of classical music, which in the past was closely connected to the church or aristocracy and nobility. What we see today are the reminders of that period, especially in Europe and especially in countries like France, Germany and Austria, the three countries where classical music once was closely associated with royalty, nobility and aristocracy. One sees less of this appalling arrogant attitude in the Nordic countries, the U.S., Canada, Australia, Japan, China or Korea.

    Nothing is more ridiculous than walking into a concert or opera performance in Paris or Vienna, and to a lesser extent Berlin or London and feeling the condescending attitude of the ushers, concert patrons, backstage personnel, just about anybody in a professional role at the hall or theatre. No wonder classical music is such a big turn off for so many young and not so young people. It makes me sick as well and I avoid going to concerts in places like I mentioned above, as I often leave disgusted by the narrowness and arrogance of the whole experience, even if the concert was excellent.

  • The Incredible Flutist says:

    A sentiment immortalized by Anthony Hopkin’s contempt for 1st flute in Red Dragon:

    Miss a few notes in Mendelssohn? Who’d dare after this scenario!

  • Halldor says:

    I do think that classical music is used by certain kinds of people to bolster their own sense of self-worth: they perceive the music as being on a higher level of sophistication than other genres, and therefore consider themselves more sophisticated/intelligent and entitled to hand out judgments on others (or react aggressively when challenged or disappointed).

    Couple this with the rise of the record collector: the notion of a “definitive” performance, and the absurd idea that music is ideally enjoyed in silence, alone, on specialist equipment. Present that mentality with the imperfections and compromises of live performance, and vicious, arrogant judgements are rarely far behind. Throw in the “trainspotter” mentality (“I heard this piece under Jochum, so while you may have enjoyed this performance, I can assure you that it’s only a sad shadow of true greatness”), with its overtones of possessiveness, and it’s a recipe for some pretty unedifying behaviour. All of these people need to get out more.

    However, these are all listener / audience member behaviours. Everyone on the performing side has their own tales of tyrants, bullies, sex-pests, snobs, uber-bores and incompetents but these tend to be retold precisely because they’re relatively unusual. But what is far more common, I find, amongst performers and those who work with them, is (if anything) the opposite of what you describe: a kind of “omerta” whereby substandard performers are covered for and excused, everyone’s performance was always marvellous, and everyone but everyone is an absolute darling.

    At its best, that’s a truly good thing: born of professional supportiveness and compassion. Musicians will, out of common decency and a sense of “but for the grace of God”, defend to the hilt a once-skilled player whose playing has deteriorated. But it can shade over into a stultifying complacency – and even push legitimate concerns underground to bubble back up as malicious whispering campaigns or bullying.

  • Glenn Murray says:

    There is no field which has the same amount of nauseating, panegyric word diarrh*a as classical music. Worldclass this and worldclass that. Poseurs who are more interested in themselves than the music they’re playing. Uninspired, boring orchestral playing with conductors who have conducted the same work for 25 years and still have nothing to add.

    Classical music can be the most fantastic thing on earth – if you close the
    curtains, turn down the lights, make yourself something warm to drink and start playing the opening choir of Bach’s cantata BWV 48, you will see what this world is about.

    Most classical concerts are absolutely not like that. And therefore musicians deserve heavy criticism.

  • Sergei says:

    There’s another serious problem with public concerts, and it’s the repertory. I have not go to a theatre to listen to music on the last 40 years at least. Because I’m sick and tired of the same works doing again, and again, and again. I’ve a Cd collection of several thousand rarities you’ll almost never heard on radio, and never live. Take violin concerti, one of my manias. What are usually played live? Those who have been recorded 300 times, and played live the same. The day when some violinist play live in Buenos Aires Otar Taktakishvili’s or Nicolai Rakov’s N°1, that day I’ll be there.

  • “…Dancers are the most considerate of artists, ever concerned to protect each other from injury.”

    We’ve forgotten about Sergei Filin already.

    All arts have a meanness problem because they are in desperate competition for the few dollars available. Musicians may get more angry because they have to work in ensemble in a way no other artists do.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Music is much more emotional, that is all. Munch’s ‘Scream’ is by far not as loud as Beethoven’s Schreckensfanfare in the ninth.

  • Will Duffay says:

    I’m not sure this is correct. The literary world is just as bad, if not worse. And the poetry world is particularly nasty.

  • William Safford says:

    I remember a conversation I once had with a nice lady while on line for a Philadelphia Orchestra concert. When she found out that I’m a musician, she observed that I must be able to hear every mistake the orchestra makes. I replied that I probably could identify and keep track of many of them if I liked, but I much prefer to devote most of my attention to the great playing that I was about to hear. Someone else may give a different answer.

    So, why do so many musicians have such negativity? On top of what has already been said, I feel that the very nature of who we are and how we learn classical music sets the stage for this situation.

    What sort of personality is most likely to become a classical musician? The introverted, inwardly focused, not gregarious, sensitive, diligent child.

    What is done with such a child? He or she is locked in a practice room by himself for hours per day, every day. Often they are trained for solo careers.

    Then we expect him or her to be collegial in a working group of 100 people?

    Then we wonder why he or she isn’t well socialized?

    Combine this with various other factors, including what has been said about certain abusive teachers, and one wonders how orchestra and chamber music members end up being able to get along with each other as well as we do!

    N.B. I am grateful to play an instrument whose practitioners tend to be quite collegial.