Is nepotism innate to classical music?

Another article from Jeffrey Arlo Brown in Van, the magazine which goes where other classical outlets fear to tread.

This to start:

Recognition is a basic neural pleasure. The first five notes of “Parsifal” are thrilling if we expect the sixth, an agonized A-flat. Something similar is at work with names like Bejun Mehta, Ken-David Masur, Kristjan Järvi, Michael Barenboim. On albums and concert posters, the names sound like transcendent concerts. They radiate prestige, competence, familiarity, proximity to greatness. “And he’s happy to talk about his father,” a publicist once wrote in an email offering me an interview with Michael Barenboim….

And this to follow:

… many people at the center of classical music life grew up immersed in the culture. To name just a few: the composer John Corigliano’s father, John Sr., was the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic and a friend of Samuel Barber. Andreas Ottensamer, principal clarinet of the Berlin Philharmonic, is the son of the late principal clarinet of the Vienna Philharmonic (a post Ottensamer’s brother now holds). The parents of the cellist Alisa Weilerstein and the conductor Joshua Weilerstein perform together in the Weilerstein Trio, an ensemble in residence at the New England Conservatory of Music. Nadia Sirota, the violist and host of Meet the Composer, is the daughter of Robert Sirota, a composer and conductor. Matthias Schulz, the artistic director of Berlin’s Staatsoper, recently told a local newspaper that, for his five children, playing an instrument “was as natural a part of their daily routine as brushing their teeth.”

Every classical musician who is not from a musical background has a different story…

Read on here.


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  • The most important line in this article seems to me:

    “In order to survive, classical music needs first-generation musicians. They are the ones who bring the art form forward by questioning the assumptions it holds most dear.”

    Obviously, a petrified culture which is merely a museum, is doomed. However, when ‘questioning’ means dropping fundamentals, as the article seems to imply, the art form is doomed as well. ‘Forward’ is the revealing word here: it is not progress but improvement which keeps an art form alive, and that does NOT mean keeping new ideas at bay.

    As music history since 1945 clearly demonstrates, ‘moving forward’ opened the doors to untalented people claiming space for things that best be practiced in another context than the one of classical music.

    • Not entirely true.
      The outstanding Peter Serkin championed a lot of great music of his time, and did not seek to replicate the celebrated career of his legendary father.

      • If you think that Peter Serkin’s example contradicts John Borstlap’s points here, then my suspicion is that you misunderstood JB’s comment.

    • I totally agree with you. As long as we keep producing professional musicians who can play just about anything, there is no real need for any more composing. With the exception of Holtz, Shearing, Gershwin and a few others, I can’t recall much progress being made within the last century, well nothing that appeals to my ear anyway.

  • A dear friend of mine owns a newsagents shop, because his parents owned one and he grew up in that environment. Is that nepotism?

  • Musician parents who engender children who become musicians is nothing to do with “nepotism”, as the header suggests. Nor is that the argument of the article in question. It’s staggeringly obvious that being born into the Bach family was genetically advantageous re being possessed of musical talent, but that is not ‘nepotism’. Nepotism is using one’s position in order to favour anyone, relatives and friends most obviously, when it comes to getting a job or an engagement. The idea of that being “innate to classical music” is a trifle peculiar, but happily that is not at all what the author is arguing.

  • Sometimes children are given faculty positions at Manhattan School of Music when their father is President of the school, or a show on the radio without any broadcast experience. Just part of the biz I guess.

  • Fascinating article. Certainly rings true, and I have seen it time and again, not just in musical families, but medical families, legal families, architects, politics, scientific families, just as much as Farmers, sportsmen and women, train spotters, gardeners, the list is endless. The understanding, knowledge, love, enthusiasm, and language of the field are learned from the cradle.
    But the article isn’t about nepotism: “the practice among those with power or influence of favouring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs.”
    That also happens in music and many many other areas.
    The first is innate. The second is merely endemic.

    • Correct.

      Also, there are as many musicians without musical ancestry as musicians genetically endowed. And we know about geniusses suddenly born in families without musical interests: Mahler, Debussy.

  • Nepotism is hiring family members, often in spite of a lack of qualifications. Children of musicians who also enter the profession may benefit from nepotism, but more importantly from exposure. If you’re Daniel Barenboim’s son and his dinner guests include Boulez, Itzhak, Pinky, and Yo-Yo, well, some of that might rub off.

    But it’s true in many fields; ever heard of Gwyneth Paltrow, Charlie Sheen/Emilio Estevez, Colin Hanks, Drew Barrymore and other second/third-generation actors? In sports: Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Prince Fielder (that’s just baseball)

    But all that gets you is a chance; you still have to prove yourself.

    And don’t go dissing Andreas Ottensammer; the guy picked up a clarinet at age 12 and ten years later was Principal in Berlin. And he never ceases to amaze.

  • All of the Weilersteins’ careers are a great mystery to me. Very mediocre musicians. Donald plays the violin like a rank amateur. At least over in Europe, musical legacies mean something – more than just a name.

  • For someone to continue in a family trade or profession is not nepotism, unless someone is completely unsuitable for the role. Nepotism as a term comes from the habit of Renaissance popes to promote their nephews, who were sometimes their children.

  • “Proximity to greatness”?
    Do Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim and Kurt Masur qualify as great?
    I think not.
    I can only think of one recent genuine example of successive generations of true greatness: Erich and Carlos Kleiber.
    There is no doubt that being able to sit in on his father’s or Furtwängler’s rehearsals would have provided Carlos with an advantage that would be impossible to overestimate.

    • Not “impossible” really – you may have just done it!
      As for the first three names in your comment: it all depends on your definition of greatness.

    • Tarak writes: “I can only think of one recent genuine example of successive generations of true greatness”

      Except rumour has it that Erich and Carlos may not have been related…

  • Ah now we can see why a certain J S Bach became a composer. His parents were musicians. No talent – sheer nepotism!

    • JSB himself said, later in life when complimented with his achievements, that it all merely came down to hard work and that anybody could achieve what he had done if he were as industrious as he was. But I know of people working even harder than JSB and achieving a crumble in comparison.

  • “The parents of Alisa and Josh”? Yikes. Don is one of the greatest violin teachers since Gingold and Galamian, as well as the founding 1st violin of the Cleveland Quartet. Alisa and Josh would surely be upset at such writing for not being “the children of Don”.

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