Slipped Disc editorial: To speak ill of the dead?

Slipped Disc editorial: To speak ill of the dead?


norman lebrecht

December 14, 2014

The Economist, a sober-sided weekly newspaper, writes the following in its obituary of Jeremy Thorpe, a fallen Liberal Party leader:

What could not be mentioned was his vigorous homosexual life: picking up rent boys in Piccadilly and the King’s Road, or using the established, clandestine, gay network at the National Liberal Club. Ever the exhibitionist and risk-taker, confident of social success even as a child, he did not much care to conceal what he was doing. In Devon he and Henry Upton, the blond and sporty heir to Viscount Templeton, would race about the lanes together in Upton’s Aston Martin. One-night lovers were told he was an MP, and some were sent letters on House of Commons stationery.

Thorpe’s gay life was well-known in political circles. It ‘could not be mentioned’ while he was alive because of Britain’s stringent libel laws, but now that Thorpe is dead there is no harm – there may even be a public duty – to describe the man as he really was. Thorpe, for a brief moment in 1974, held the balance of power in Parliament. He got there by being a bully and a cheat, living a double life, bludgeoning his lovers into silence.

Friends of Thorpe – who was often seen at classical events with his pianist wife, Marion – will probably take offence at these revelations. Those who care for probity and transparency in public life will applaud them.

What does this have to do with the lives of musicians?

jeremy thorpe

Twice in the past week we have been criticised for noting, on the death of a once-celebrated artist, the decline of their careers and the reasons for it. Should we have suppressed or gilded that sad reality?

Art is nothing if it is not about truth. Performers are men and women who put themselves on the public stage. Their careers are, by their own choice, a matter of public interest. While we do not believe it is appropriate to breach an artist’s privacy or the conventions of common decency, neither is it right to distort the facts of artists’ lives or the manner of their deaths. To do so would subvert the art they served.






  • Paul Mann says:

    Except that the hypocrisies of elected representatives, involving establishment cover-ups and murder conspiracies, are matters of legitimate comment. I think the apparent suicide of an artist is deserving of a more sensitive approach.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    If this blog states that “it is not appropriate to breach an artist’s privacy” why does it keep posting updates on the love affairs of famous singers such as Anna Netrebko or Jonas Kaufmann?

  • Hilary says:

    The life of Jeremy Thorpe is worthy of a hollywood movie. David Steel remarked that people would have viewed the scandal more kindly had it occurred in more recent times but I beg to differ. He cut a sorry figure when he was pointed out to me at Aldeburgh festival awhile back.

  • Greg Hlatky says:

    I’m a member of the Dog Lovers’ Party, myself.

  • Hilary says:

    Thorpe enjoyed cross party support.

  • Heldentenor says "No to the current corrupt and undemocratic Malta!" says:

    This article was written after Dom Mintoff – Malta’s notorious 70s and 80s dictator’s death. Father Lucie-Smith painted this most despicable man ‘as he was’ putting the nation before the man’s honour.

    Mintoff’s legacy is still alive within his Labour Party whom after 25 years in opposition are now in office. In two years, they have done away with democracy and managed to cause mayhem. 25 years of bliss gone down the drain.

    So, should we be “speaking ill of the dead” if they’re public figures and have acted inappropriately ? You bet!

  • Nick says:

    The extent of Thorpe’s homosexual life could perhaps not be written about during his lifetime, but his sexual liaison with Norman Scott was indeed widely publicised by most news media when Scott had admitted it in a court of law in 1979. The affair had lasted 2 years at a time before the laws against homosexuality were passed by parliament. Although Thorpe denied the relationship, written documents between the two were made public that made it perfectly clear.

    Since this has all been in the public record for decades, I totally fail to see what the Economist stood to gain from additional disclosures of a rather lurid kind. Britain’s laws against homosexuality were harsh and affected many public figures – notably Alan Turing whose brilliant career was cut short by threat of exposure, sacking, chemical castration and soon thereafter suicide at the age of just 41. Would the west have lost World War II if he had been exposed earlier is one of history’s more fascinating unanswered questions?

    Thorpe was in a different league and seems not to have been a particularly pleasant personality. But I see no reason to plunge more daggers into his already tattered reputation. It’s also perhaps not surprising that Hilary noted Thorpe “cut a sorry figure at Aldeburgh”. After all he had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease since the mid-1980s and it had been in an advanced stage for many years.

    • Alexander Hall says:

      Except that Tom Mangold’s brilliant BBC Radio 4 documentary feature on the secret life of Jeremy Thorpe made it abundantly clear how all the agents of the British establishment conspired and colluded to destroy evidence which would have made his guilt clear to all. This included the completely biased summing-up of the judge at his trial. The Establishment has always protected its own. If anybody is in any doubt about how these channels work, let them look at all the obfuscation going on to prevent the truth becoming known about judges, MPs and other pillars of society who frequented the famous young boys brothel in SW London several decades ago.

      • Nick says:

        Not living in the UK, I was unable to hear that documentary – and wish I had. However it is surely more than well known that the British establishment always tried hard to look after its own in cases involving sex and prostitution. It tried hard with Profumo and ultimately failed. WIth Stephen Ward, however, who was not one of their own but knew the peccadillos of too many above his class, it succeeded, with papers destroyed, biased witnesses, biased judges, biased almost everything and another suicide of the victim/

        Lord Macauley was surely correct with his admonition –

        “We know of no spectacle more ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality . . . Once in six or seven years virtue becomes outrageous. We cannot suffer the laws of religion and decency to be violated. We must make a stand against vice . . . Accordingly, some unfortunate man, in no respect more depraved than hundreds whose offences have been treated with lenity, is singled out as an expiatory sacrifice . . . If he has a profession, he is to be driven from it. He is, in truth, a sort of whipping boy, by whose vicarious agonies all the other transgressors of the same class are, it is supposed, sufficiently chastised. We reflect very complacently on our own severity, and compare with great pride the high standard of morals established in England with the Parisian laxity. At length our anger is satiated. our victim is ruined and heart-broken. And our virtue goes quietly to sleep for seven more years.”

        Macauley made that statement in 1831.

  • Heldentenor says "No to the current corrupt and undemocratic Malta!" says:

    A very assertive answer to above question.

  • MusicHappens says:

    Nothing wrong with announcing Feghali’s death, and quoting credible reports that it was most likely a suicide. However, such empty speculation that his suicide was a direct result of his career status (or lack there of) is reprehensible, as is the presumption that Feghali was nothing more than a pianist and a Cliburn winner. For God’s sake, HE WAS A HUMAN BEING, with medical and psychological issues that can affect any of us at any time. Certainly, the untimely deaths of Feghali’s father and brother didn’t help matters, but apparently he was being treated for clinical depression well before those events — so the origin of his depression had nothing whatever to do with the piano, or his career, or the Cliburn competition. And who gives a damn about the bedrooms of our politicians? Other than their hypocrisy for passing laws that they themselves don’t follow, obsessing over anyone’s private behavior is a needless and unproductive pursuit for mindless gossips, but certainly not appropriate for responsible journalists.

  • Herrera says:

    What is relevant is his sexual life, what is irrelevant is his gay sexual life.

    If he had been straight, one would never have written “his heterosexual life” or his “straight network”, one would have simply written “his sexual life” and his “network’.


  • Mark says:

    How on earth did Britten and Pears sustain their relationship, very much in the public eye, during the dark 50s and 60s

  • Tony Halstead says:

    Because, week in , week out, we saw on TV Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise sleeping in the same bed and ‘thought nothing of it’!

    • Prewartreasure says:

      Tony – quite brilliant, but your wit will be missed by the majority.

      (Should we bother to explain it to the Americans?)

  • Anonymous says:

    Peter Cook’s wonderful take on the judge’s summing up at the Jeremy Thorpe trial.

  • esfir ross says:

    Jose Feghali’s father and brother commited suicide. It’s hereditary. Paul Wittginshtein 2 brothers ended their own life.

  • Gerhard says:

    Do I understand this correctly that one’s own gossipping can be justified by gossipping about other’s gossip?

  • Laura Claycomb says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I think the Dallas Morning News article was tacky, tacky, tacky, and inappropriate. How do we know the it was not his own choice to teach more, be home more and have a more stable life than an itinerant soloist in a big career? Perhaps his depression caused him to not go for the big career, etc… rather than the other way around. Sometimes it’s just chemical and you have to deal with it in whatever way possible, including a less stressful lifestyle.

    • Laura Claycomb says:

      …and, by the way, teaching at a great university and performing and doing what you love can be considered a “big career” for most!

  • Richard says:

    The dismantling of Jeremy Thorpe may have been related to his controversial opposition to apartheid. He explains his side of the story in this interview:

  • Pamela Brown says:

    Unfortunately, this so-called ‘world of music’ is in fact an ‘underworld of music.’ Anything that is said to remove the mystique and define the reality can only be of help to those grappling with the issues involved in it…

  • Rita de Almeida says:

    A manchete da matéria publicada por Scott Cantrell, no The Dallas Morning News, sobre a morte do nosso José Feghali, pergunta: “O que deu errado?” Nada de excepcional, apenas, por um instante, a doença o venceu. Seria a mesma resposta, caso fosse portador de câncer, ebola, AIDS e, ainda, diabetes, pressão alta ou renal crônica que o fizessem morrer de um mal súbito. A depressão endógena é uma doença que mata e pouco se fala dela. Acaba-se imputando ao seu fim – a morte – conjecturas, circunstâncias outras e menores, que nada têm a ver com a realidade do fato.
    Nada deu de errado na vida desse concertista virtuoso, que tinha a música por paixão e, ensiná-la, era sua missão. Desejava ir muito além de se apresentar em palcos famosos, voltar para casa, executar mais uma jornada de exercícios e cumprir novas agendas de concertos. Desejava contato e continuidade. Sonhava ampliar horizontes de jovens que não tinham tanto acesso à música erudita. Almejava compartilhar mais e mais o saber e sua sensibilidade.
    A contribuição deixada por ele foi muito além de tocar em grandes recitais. Sua capacidade e inquietação intelectual permitiram melhorar as condições de trabalho de músicos renomados e facilitar a vida dos seus alunos com gravações de alto desempenho e pequeno orçamento. Conseguiu melhorar custos e reduzir o tempo de trânsito para gravações e ensaios, através de banda de internet específica, que possibilita o encontro virtual dessas pessoas com áudio de pureza absoluta. Esta façanha lhe rendeu um premio concedido pela Microsoft. Portanto, podemos concluir que nem sempre grandes artistas seguem as trilhas que lhes são traçadas por outras pessoas ou os mesmos caminhos que outros tantos tomaram. José Feghali tinha suas próprias metas e desafios e os cumpria com excelência, como tudo o que se propôs realizar ao longo da sua vida.
    Cabe aqui considerar que todo vigor do fomento que ele possibilitou à música clássica e sua disseminação, estava acompanhado da doença – a depressão endógena. Ele disse: “Esta doença é terrível. Eu luto todos os dias contra ela. Ela me exige cuidados permanentes”.
    De caráter inquestionável e senso de humanidade admirável, ele resistiu, há pelo menos 15 anos, com absoluta consciência de sua dor. Sabia, também, dos possíveis resultados que o descontrole da doença poderia trazer. Há alguns meses, o quadro piorou, mas em nenhum momento ele deixou de, primeiramente, pensar e preservar sua família. Mesmo nesses momentos de luta travada, nunca privou seu público, alunos e amigos de seu sorriso largo e contagiante; jamais deixou de respeitar o instante de criação dos compositores ao interpretá-los, dedicando-se à arte com alma livre e técnica ímpar. Jamais deixou de ter esperança e, principalmente, jamais deixou de amar.
    Bravo José! Você foi um grande homem. Com qualidades artísticas inquestionáveis, foi lutador incansável por se cuidar com esmero para postergar sua vida até este momento. Creiam, nada deu errado, apenas, por minutos, a doença maligna, persistente e sorrateira o invadiu de forma fulminante.
    Fique em paz! E, quanto a nós, viveremos do seu exemplo de superação e do legado deixado por você, que, de igual forma, só outros privilegiados o fariam.

    Rita de Almeida
    Prima e admiradora.