A composer asks: What is the Guardian for?

A composer asks: What is the Guardian for?


norman lebrecht

July 12, 2019

James MacMillan has a blast at the leftwing newspaper that last week questioned the point of classical music:


I would expect to read in the Guardian – a Left-wing journal – constant probings of our ubiquitous pop industry and its umbilical link with the rich and powerful. But probings I find none. What I do find (which reminds me also of the BBC) is breathless, adoring praise for events such as the Glastonbury Festival and the elevation of the decidedly mediocre and banal to iconic genius status….

The fact is that the pop-dominated, mass-produced culture industry and big business are inherently bound together to make a large-scale system of control and exploitation. In comparison to this behemoth, the experience of classical music for most of us is of a struggling, hard-pressed cottage industry. Those of us involved in it spend a lot of time fighting the political class (something the Guardian used to do) which is presiding over a state education system that marginalises music and the other arts.

Read on here.


  • Guest says:

    The point of classical music? “If you gotta ask, you ain”t never gonna know”.

  • Anon says:

    “My own dog, gone commercial. I can’t stand it!”
    — Charlie Brown on Lang Lang’s new piano book

  • John Sorel says:

    The Grauniad has not been a ‘left-wing’ newspaper for over 5 years.

    It threw former editor Alan Rusbridger under the bus, and narrowly avoided impending bankruptcy by eagerly taking funds from numerous ‘neoliberal’ rightwing organisations – allegedly The Atlantic Council, a wholly-owned subsidiary of NATO. The Atlantic Council grabbed the chance to control a ‘mouthpiece’ which now broadcasts the NATO message to people who wouldn’t accept it from any other source.

    Just consider the editorial features written by eager pro-NATO pundits Rafael Behr, Nathalie Nougayrede (who? yes, exactly, who?), Luke Harding, and the ‘grey cardinal’ Simon Tisdall. Tisdall has penned a weekly Russophobic editorial in the Graun (usually on Tuesdays) for over ten years now. How it sticks in Tisdall’s craw that Russia overcame the ISIS headchoppers in Syria!!

    The excellent value-for-money the Atlantic Council got for their cash can be seen in the headline here – where the fake news to be read in the Grauniad is still being labelled ‘leftwing’, despite cheerleading for American wars and invasions with every successive issue.

    The Rockefeller Insitute. The Bill & Melinda Gates Trust. [Insert the name of a conservative American thinktank here]. All gleefully ‘sponsoring’ fake news in every edition of the Grauniad.

    You will look in vain for details of how the Royal Marines illegally boarded and took control of an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar. GB has no embargo on Iranian oil – nor does the EU. This was simple piracy on the high seas. Yet today Tisdall is in full sail about the ‘threat of Iranian tankers’.

    • Nik says:

      Norman, I admire your non-censorious attitude to comments, but surely the line must be drawn somewhere? Are you really ok with people spreading this kind of propaganda on your site when it has nothing at all to do with music and is only tangentially related to the topic of the article?

      • norman lebrecht says:

        Nik, I’m not sure. It’s borderline. Let’s see what other readers say.

        • Symphony musician says:

          Perhaps ‘John Sorel’ is one of those Russian-sponsored propaganda/fake news bots or stooges we keep hearing about. I can’t imagine why a genuine commenter would quote his own spelling errors and make fun of somebody else for them. Also, James Macmillan has certainly been a Catholic for longer than he’s been famous.

          • Nik says:

            I had the same thought.
            For a start, the reference to the oil tanker is blatant misinformation. It was not detained because it is Iranian, but because it was carrying oil to Syria which is indeed subject to EU sanctions. This was correctly reported all over the news media.

        • Saxon Broken says:


          It is certainly bizarre. The writer has an extraordinary imagination.

  • John Sorel says:

    James Macmillan. The former left-wing atheist turncoat, who now embraces Catholicisim and NATO. What a disgraceful hypocrite this man is. But when your music is umwanted by anyone, there are no limits to the self-abnsement a second-rate composer will go to, to flog his unlovely music to the Faithful.

  • Rodger Dodger says:

    I thought the original Guardian editorial raised some valid points about the elitism that surrounds classical music. Granted, the argument could have been made more pointedly (I would have gone after snooty institutions like Glyndebourne, not the Proms). But the basic point was valid and should be taken seriously by the industry.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Er…the snobbery at Glastonbury is much higher than at any classical concert I have been to. And pop music is full of public school educated musicians.

  • John Rook says:

    Excellent article. The Guardian is an absolute disgrace and has been for years, completely and utterly out of step and out of touch with any values aspiring higher than industry mediocrity, bleating its own self-satisfied ideology in its custom-built echo chamber. We should all, like James Macmillan, continue to communicate the truth about the worth of classical music and never let this irrelevant and redundant left-wing ‘philosophy’ gain any stable foothold. For all our sakes.

  • Brettermeier says:

    I tend to stop reading articles (or opinions, in this case), as soon as Adorno is quoted.

    “But classical music has now developed two grim social functions.

    For some businesses, it is the aural equivalent of homeless spikes, deployed to shift or subdue targeted undesirables; for the rich, events like the Proms provide status experiences that will convey bragging rights with fellow have-yachts.”

    Whoever wrote this seems not to have or chose to ignore basic facts of music history.

    “The unwillingness of many audiences to expose themselves to the shock of the musically new is more acute today because most of the output of Britain’s three classical music radio stations is devised to be unchallenging.”

    Let’s have them play Younghi Pagh-Paan 24/7. He seems to be in dire need of a shock of the musically new. I’m sure this is worth the loss of all their listeners.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The man is absolutely right on all points.

    The most important lines, I think:

    “Why would the political class, with their media allies, conspire to create a situation which allows children, especially poorer ones, to miss out on such a vital ingredient of their education? It’s as if their sanctimonious mantras about inclusion, access and diversity get thrown straight out the window as soon as they are asked to do something about it.”

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    We have all wanted to know the answer to that for years. Ergo, they have a begging bowl. The rag of the extreme Green Left.

  • fflambeau says:

    Brilliant counterattack. The Guardian has really gone downhill.

  • Jonathan says:

    Haha, yes!!

  • almaviva says:

    Kudos to James MacMillan for standing up to the Guardian bullies!

  • christopher storey says:

    I read the Guardian online simply because it is free . However, it is full of insufferable left wing pomposity and self importance from the likes of Polly Toynbee, and long incoherent rants from some youngish woman called Marina Hyde, and I spend more time laughing at it rather than being informed by it.It is also fairly precipitately descending from being a serious if completely humourless newspaper, into a populist rag, as shown by its changed coverage of the arts in general and music in particular

    • John Sorel says:

      From Wikipedia:

      [[ Marina Hyde (born Marina Elizabeth Catherine Dudley-Williams; 13 May 1974) is an English journalist who is a columnist for The Guardian newspaper.

      Completely with you on Polly Parrott. It was Polly who hired neocon numpty Nick Cohen – mistakenly believing that she was signing the very readable rock-music journo, Nik Cohn. She only found out when it was too late.

    • Paul Brownsey says:

      Marina Hyde seems to think that making up b*tchy insults is political journalism.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Isn’t Marina Hyde a spoof column…you are supposed to laugh.

  • Good Scottish common sense (which seems less common than ever today); loud cheers to him! The Guardian ought to be ashamed of itself; what kind of “guardianship” – and of what – does the piece that prompted Sir James’ response purport to represent? One might indeed well ask “what is The Guardian for?”…

  • “…(The Proms) has long been one of the world’s most popular, accessible and affordable music festivals, allowing listeners to explore a wide range of music for the price of a sandwich and coffee. But classical music has now developed two grim social functions.

    For some businesses, it is the aural equivalent of homeless spikes, deployed to shift or subdue targeted undesirables; for the rich, events like the Proms provide status experiences that will convey bragging rights with fellow have-yachts.”

    On the one hand “accessible and affordable / the price of a sandwich and coffee” and, on the other, “for the rich…fellow have-yachts”; was the author of this reprehensible piece too busy captaining his own yacht to notice the contradiction within his first two paragraphs?

  • Gregor Tassie says:

    When was the Guardian a left-wing journal? It certainly is not today, it shares the same neo-liberal, neo-conservative agenda of all the UK mass media.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      In the 19th century and most of the 20th century it was “liberal” in the British/European sense of the word. In the 19th century it supported free-trade; the enfranchisement of the new industrial cities; the extension of the vote to working class men and to women; Irish Home Rule; disestablishing the Church of England (abolishing Church rates)…and a whole host of other liberal reforms.

      It supported “New Liberalism” at the beginning of the 20th century and later during the 20th century it usually adopted a fairly liberal agenda. It has never really been a “left-wing” paper.

  • Adrian Clark says:

    I could not agree more with these observations; it was about time they were made public. One of this country’s main exports is its culture, especially the performing arts (ballet, music and theatre). In the past, a Socialist administration would ensure adequate funding for the institutions involved; now it seems that no politician of any party wishes to consider giving them financial and public support .

  • MSC says:

    MacMillan is mostly right. The obsession with equality that has come to dominate so much of our political discourse extends everywhere. To suggest that what has been called western concert music, for want of a better term, might be one of the better products of world culture, and that it is better than popular music, particularly genres such as rap that can be seen as being driven by a sense of outrage and anger against perceived social injustices, is, in the eyes of many, to make an intolerable value judgment. This is not so far from the Leninist valuing of genuine “folk” music over “formalist” classical music. The expression of some sort of aesthetic hierarchy is itself perceived as an act of violence. Arguments based on the obvious values and benefits of culture such as “classical” music are nothing against the injustice these people see it perpetuating. Like all intellectual fads this will pass, but the music we love will endure.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    James McMillan has clearly articulated what I’ve been feeling for years now. I’ve not been able to express it quite so sharply. Thank you James McMillan. There must be many of us who feel this way, but also feel that we have no leverage against the big behemoth of the pop industry.

  • Symphony musician says:

    Well said, Jimmy! Politicians (and journalists) of all shades should be reeling from the moral and intellectual power of your case. If only they had the intelligence and vision to comprehend what you’re on about.

  • Michael Endres says:

    The left and its propaganda outlets have been at war with classical music for a long time.
    Anything that doesn’t fit their increasingly totalitarian outlook and interpretation if history is labeled in a predictable way ( racist, misogynist etc ) and then commended for either annihilation or – under certain conditions – rehabilitation ( like censoring or rewriting librettos, books in the right way ).
    Meanwhile the dealings of the pop industry – an excellent point by MacMillan -go unchecked.

    Hypocrisy and – ultimately – idiocy at it’s best.

  • Sixtus Beckmesser says:

    I find Mr. McMillan’s critique of the Guardian quite persuasive. Coverage of classical music in the New York Times, too, has been pushed to the sidelines and when it is discussed there it is usually viewed through some sort of identity-politics lens. Years ago Alex Ross referred to classical music as a “modest subculture” and the ensuing years have only seen a further diminishment, except perhaps in East Asian countries. Rather than “probing… our ubiquitous pop industry and its umbilical link with the rich and powerful,” the Left’s real agenda would appear to be to disparage anything that smacks of “elite” culture or anything written by dead white males.

  • Psychiatrist says:

    Bravo Sir Jimmy. The Guardian presents little original thought these days but the well informed lampooning of our dismal political figures is at least amusing. The trouble is, while we all chortle while drinking our bean to cup coffees feeling justified in our own liberal views, nothing useful in the actual world happens at all. Typically British, let’s have a laugh and then forget about the s***e that passes for the intelligent, informed discourse that might lead us to make improvement. And as for classical music which has been disappearing up it’s own arse for decades, Hindemith had the right idea. House music. As a consumer product classical music is stuffed and so it should be. Music is something to do and should never have been sold.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    Sir James strikes all the right notes in his commentary. I thought that people should want to aspire to acquire an appreciation for the civilizing things of life such as art, music, literature, philosophy, etc. Speaking of diversity and equality, such things are open to all who wish to embrace them.