‘Tories are to blame for the survival of classical music’

‘Tories are to blame for the survival of classical music’


norman lebrecht

April 11, 2018

From a new Scottish book review by the composer Sir James MacMillan:

… And ‘classical’ music? The editors are quite clear – they write of the ‘mythologisation of dead, male, white composers in the art tradition,’ and that ‘it is safe to say that the “pale and male” lineages of composers of classical music still hold great signification in the public square.’

For this, they blame ‘those Tory politicians who have repeatedly sought to reinstate and aggrandise “dead, white Germans” within the English GCSE and A-Level music curricula.’ … There we have it – it’s the Tories’ fault. And the Anglo-Americans. And maybe even the Germans too this time….

Read on here.



  • Derek says:

    I take my share of the blame.

    When I was a young schoolboy, a teacher played Mendelssohn and Beethoven for the class and I loved what I heard. I was won over right there and have enjoyed so much classical music ever since.

  • Maria says:

    So it attracts “blame” now?

    I thought the accepted view was that the Tories didn’t care? I didn’t realise that they were obsessed with those wretched white Germans, who are so overrated.

    He should shut up and stick to his knitting, but perhaps that’s a bit Eurocentric as well.

    • John Rook says:

      Another stunner by Brendan O’Neill. Devoid of any kind of compass, moral or otherwise, the Left staggers around like a toothless old pro, trying to insinuate herself into any cause célèbre which might pay either her rent or her next fix. As for the dead white geniuses, I’ll take my share of the blame, too.

  • Stephen Whitaker says:

    It’s misleading to present the views of the book’s editors as being endorsed by Sir James , rather than criticised by him. He’s not noted for supporting the views on music and culture of either the Scottish Nationalists or Tory politicians.

  • Adam says:

    Whether you are Scottish or not, whether you are Tory or not, I hope civilized people would all support the concept of strong opposition and political balance.

    The tragedy for the Scottish people is that their culture and anger has lead them to a place where the executive choice for government is between a strongly left wing Scottish Labour party, and a strongly left wing Nationalist party. Having lived there for several years, my heart bleeds for the noble Scots, who are being lead over a cliff edge by ignorant and craven cynics.

    The Scottish education statistics are ALARMING. Really, really, really bad. The worst in the Union…by far. Musical education is a terrifically important part of that ….IMHO!

  • Rob says:

    James MacMillan has written some astonishingly well crafted music, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie is a stonking masterpiece. I would say he’s a more successful craftsman than most other contemporaries.

  • BertieRussell says:

    Harold Bloom’s School of Resentments’ latest sally.

  • Rich C. says:

    Don’t forget to blame Trump too. The Tories are the “R” party of the UK, and Trump is half Scotch, err sorry, I mean Scottish.

  • pooroperaman says:

    Such a shame white men have always been so good at things.

  • Ryder says:

    They certainly can’t compose classical music now it’s dire

  • Iain Scott says:

    This is classic Slipped Disc. Take a really interesting review by a thoughtful and wonderful composer- though I don’t always agree with his thoughts- and add a distorted headline . In true Slipped Disc fashion some will read the article but most will comment on the distorted headline.
    Fake News as Trump would say

    • James MacMillan says:

      There does seem to be a wee bit of confusion. Some think I said these things, when what I was doing was commenting on them, and criticising them. In a book review. It’s what happens in book reviews…

    • Alex Davies says:

      Classic example: https://slippedisc.com/2018/04/czechs-are-at-war-over-national-anthem/

      1. The Czechs are not “at war” over it. Somebody made a suggestion. That’s about it.

      2. Nobody is suggesting that the national anthem should be “changed”. The idea is possibly to use both verses (only the first verse officially forms part of the national anthem) and possibly to use a somewhat overblown choral/orchestral arrangement of the existing music. This is a moot point, as my understanding is that the host nation (Japan in this case) makes its own recordings of all the national anthems (the LPO provided recording of the national anthems for London 2012).

  • John Borstlap says:

    I always thought it were the Germans behind the classical composers! They very cleverly made sure they wrote music that everybody wanted to hear, and again and again, so that they could prevent other musics from developing.


    • Player says:

      Sally, are you John? Or do you merely dictate to him?

      Including his music?

      Or is Sally-John (John-Sally) in transition to tonalism?

      Or do you just need to escape captivity and find yourself an identity and an email address?

      • John Borstlap says:

        I have a key and occasionally slip into the library here and use my boss’ connection, just to see till how far I can go. Life and the work load requires some entertainment now and then, and I’m invaluable! Also, he’s much too serious to my taste and I disagree with many things here, but as a PA it’s better than my former jobs. And yes I love music but not the boring stuff.


  • Edgar says:

    “They must have missed that my ‘Confession of Isobel Gowdie’ is on the English A-Level music curricula too – a piece about a Scottish witch by a living Scottish composer, admittedly as pale and male as the book’s two editors.” I just love this sentence!

    The sorry thing about academic conferences and papers like the ones published in the book reviewed by Sir James is, in my impression, that they do not appear to be really in touch with what ordinary folks’ musical tastes and preferences are, let alone what is actually happening “on the ground”.

    Though I am Dutch, with German and no Scottish ancestry at all, I am proud of the people of Scotland to have Sir James as a terrific composer in their midst, alive and well, whose music is indeed much enjoyed and esteemed not only by the writer of these lines, but by many music lovers well beyond Scotland.


  • Lunchtime O'Boulez says:

    Classical music effectively died out around 1900. 20th and 21st century music is just boring rubbish. All the good music was composed centuries earlier as they had real talent.

    • Alex Davies says:

      I’m not sure how serious you’re being. 20th-/21st-century classical music isn’t all Boulez, Stockhausen, and Xenakis. Don’t overlook the fact that composers such as Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Widor, Ravel, Bruch, Janáček, Elgar, Puccini, and Strauss were still composing until well into the twentieth century. Even among composers working mainly or wholly in the twentieth century, there are a good many whose music is in fact relatively conservative, for example Poulenc, Duruflé, Langlais, Vierne, Barber, Bernstein, Gershwin, Copland, Vaughan Williams, Britten, many other more minor British composers such as Walton, Delius, Holst, Bridge, Butterworth, Bliss, Bax, Finzi, Coates, and innumerable composers of Anglican choral music, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Stravinsky, Orff, Korngold, Lehár, and Sibelius. Also, of course, the earlier works of Schoenberg and Berg. More recently, composers such as Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, and Henryk Górecki (if only for his 3rd symphony) have won widespread popular appeal.

      • buxtehude says:

        Good list, though you omitted Martinu, he of all people. (Though this happens all the time for some reason.)

        Also how strongly do you feel that Bernstein belongs on a list of major or even semi-major 20th c composers?

        • Alex Davies says:

          Martinů, of course! Thank you for reminding me. Still composing up until about a month before his death in 1959. One could mention lesser Czech composers: Jan Kubelík, František Drdla, Oskar Nedbal. Josef Suk I tend to consider a fairly major composer, if not quite in the same class as Dvořák, Smetana, Martinů, and Janáček.

          As for Bernstein, of course I wouldn’t argue that he was as major a figure in 20th-century classical music as, say, Britten or Shostakovich, but he’s nonetheless a not inconsiderable talent. I suppose I’d consider him to be somewhat similar to Gershwin and Kurt Weill (and to a lesser extent one could mention Stravinsky and Shostakovich), in his bringing together a foundation in classical music with influences from jazz, popular culture, musical theatre, and ethnic musics. I suspect that there’s a bit of a snobbery around the fact that Bernstein was absorbing the influences of American vernacular idioms. I can’t help feeling that composers like Bartók and Kodály are taken more seriously simply because they are Hungarian. We called British composers cow-pat music, but I don’t think we were ever as dismissive of more exotic composers such as Smetana, who presumably was to some extent composing Czech cow-pat music.

          Over the weekend I saw and heard in London a fantastic performance of his Mass under the baton of Marin Alsop. One could not say that this was the work of a minor composer. I suppose it all depends what you use as your benchmark. Strauss considered himself a first-class second-rate composer, which I suppose he was if compared with Bach or Beethoven.

          • buxtehude says:

            And Martinu composed some of his most beautiful works in the final 18 months or as his cancer took hold. seldom has a composer been in so intense a race with the coffin lid; Bartok was another.

            As to your lumping Bernstein together with Gershwin — there I could not possibly disagree with you more. It may be that B has some qualities I’m deaf to, but he sure doesn’t grab and pull like Gershwin does, or haunt. The same snooty-type objections you list as maybe holding back B’s reputation were made against Gershwin in his day, and hurt him. The classical music critics in New York were more than anything else responsible for wrecking the first production of Porgy and Bess, soon after which G died and the opera in its true form and state lay buried for 40 years.

            But his music remained very popular and his star has now risen. Bernstein has nothing that remotely compares, either as chef d’oeuve or distinctive personal sound.

            That grippyness is why Martinu loved Gershwin and was inspired by him his entire mature career (from 1925). M’s word for the charisma of a composer’s sound-world and any given work was “form” and for him it was by far the most important attribute.

            I do go on, sorry.

          • Dr Robert Davidson says:

            I wouldn’t hesitate in naming Bernstein as a major 20th century composer

      • John Borstlap says:


        As mentioned somewhere else on this site, the Canadian musicologist Herbert Pauls wrote a thorough study of music composed in the 20th century which was still tonal, was performed, was part of the central performance culture, but shelved by academia as ‘less relevant’ after WW II. The study shows the reality of what was written and performed, not what was filtered-out through modernist ideology and academic falsification:


        Of course not everything is artistically top level, but that is an altogether different point, not everything of post-1945 music which became modernist ‘establisement music’ was top notch either (I think most of it was quite bad from a musical point of view, far below the average tonal music of the time), but it should be clear that the mentioned filter was by no means defined by artistic quality assessment or functioning in performance or becoming a regular part of the repertoire (like Shostakovich), but by pure ideology, based upon nonsense ideas about progress and musical language.

        Academics like Arnold Whittall with his silly ideas about 20C music, including a whole BOOK about serialism, have done much damage to the art form.

        (Example: ‘… the common conclusion is that the modern age, with its unprecedented social and national conflicts and its remarkable technological and intellectual advances, is simply not an age in which worthwhile art can be expected to flourish: it is too unstable, too diffused, and art reflects this without being able to transcend it’. In: Music Since the First World War, 1988, p.1-2. Think of composers like Ravel, Bartok, Stravinsky, Szymanowsky, Shostakovich, Britten, Prokofiev – all not worthwhile in W’s ears which are blocked by modernism’s ideological narrative. Obviously the 20C ‘intellectual advances’ have not reached everybody at the universities.)

        • buxtehude says:

          Once again Martinu misses the cut. Do you not like him much John?

          • John Borstlap says:

            I respect him, but I am always irrated by the incoherence of his music. You keep listening, but his playing around with patterns and expectations I don’t find very convincing. You get the feeling that he throws-in anything that comes into his mind without really being able to make it fit into the musical narrative, if there is one. I find his music has a random quality which diminishes his ideas. But of course I recognize the craft and stature.

            You also find incongruence in Stravinsky, or Poulenc, but to my feeling these two play things out against each other in a more convincing way.

        • buxtehude says:

          @john — thanks for your reply. Isn’t it an irony of loving music, that the more you know the harder to please one becomes?

          For me, in this case, ignorance is bliss. Martinu feels like Welcome Home, though I don’t know why.

          I’m liking Nielsen more and more btw.

  • Pablo C says:

    Two thoughts…
    1 – it’s an academic publication backed up by research. You don’t need to agree with it, but you need to read it to decide. Not read a review of it by a non-academic (however good a composer).
    2 – at least one of the authors has a lot of respect for dead, white English composers. Investigate Concerto Caledonia’s Purcell’s Revenge disc….

  • Alex Davies says:

    Is anybody able to offer more specific evidence for the claim that Tory politicians have influenced the curriculum to promote German music? It stands to reason that the syllabus would have to lay heavy emphasis on certain German (in the sense of German-speaking central Europe) composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Handel, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Mahler, Strauss, Schoenberg, and Berg, who make up much of the core repertoire and many of the most important influences on the history of music.

    From what I remember of music at school, most of the composers we were taught were indeed Austro-German, Italian, Russian, and French, plus of course Chopin, Liszt, Bartók, and Sibelius. I don’t remember much Czech music, but we must have studied some Dvořák and probably Smetana’s Má vlast. British music was, I think, represented by some Walton and Britten. Arguably there would be a case for trying to promote some composers who are less well known, perhaps not among readers of this blog, but no doubt among school students, e.g. the many great Polish composers beyond Chopin, such as Szymanowski, Paderewski, Moniuszko, Lutosławski, Penderecki, Górecki, and Panufnik.

    What does surprise me is that some Tory politician such as Michael Gove (whom one forgets is actually Scottish) does not appear to have been at work promoting the study of more British (or perhaps specifically English) music, e.g. Byrd, Tallis, Gibbons, Purcell, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Delius, the Savoy operas, the Anglican choral tradition, and English folk music.

    • Alex Davies says:

      who, not whom, of course.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Indeed. The point is, that the music which was written by those dead white German/Austrian males: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, laid the foundation of European musical culture, not because they wanted it so, but because the qualities of their work set standards for both composing and performance: the orchestral culture is based upon the correct (or: as correct as possible) performance of their scores, which train musicians in terms of tone quality, ensemble playing, balance, etc. etc. Upon this basis, later music developed. If orchestras or chamber music players drop the basis, their performance standards will erode, since much music of much later times has a more diversified and irregular textural character. (The Ballets Russes of Diaghilev, in the early 20C the non plus ultra of modern ballet, began their daily training every morning with the classical repertoire of exercises, which thus kept the dancers in shape.) The musical performance culture developed in terms of layers, in a ‘geological’ sense. The formation of a ‘canonical’ core repertoire is at the heart of musical culture.

      Crucial to this formation was, of course, Beethoven, although he could not possibly have known the influence his music would have after his death. In fact, it is quite strange and not at all obvious that it should have happened in that way: