Cate Blanchett: Classical music is so insular and hierarchical

Cate Blanchett: Classical music is so insular and hierarchical


norman lebrecht

November 20, 2022

The Australian actor, promoting her film Tar, has given a fascinating interview to Erica Worth, editor of Pianist magazine (pictured)

In it Cate says: ‘The music world is so insular and hierarchical. I knew I had to get to a point where you didn’t need to be from, or live inside, the classical music world in order to know what the character was talking about.’

The scriptwriter Todd Field acknowledges many hours of help from conductors John Mauceri and Marin Alsop. So, not totally insular.

UPDATE: Marin Alsop says she had no contact with Todd Field or the film-makers.

Blanchett goes on to express gratitude to Emese Virag of Budapest’s Liszt Academy, who taught her to play Bach. ‘Emese would play, and then I’d ask, “How would you play it like this person or that person?” She was amazing.’

Not totally hierarchical, then.

The magazine is on sale now.


  • william osborne says:

    Anyone who has played in an orchestra with strong personalities and an authoritarian conductor will understand what she means by hierarchical. And as for insularity, the classical community is living to itself and in more isolation than ever, though not always our own fault.

  • James Weiss says:

    There’s a reason actors need a script. Most of them are dumb as rocks.

    • Tom Phillips says:

      She’s clearly not one of them and everything she says here is absolutely valid.

      • Brian Fieldhouse says:

        You could say pretty much the same about medics or professional footballers, or in fact about any high-skill profession which requires constant study and training.

    • Brian Fieldhouse says:

      And why musicians need a score…..?

      • Philip newton says:

        Why did you write the question, why do actors memorise a script, why do authors write a book , why do artists use a canvas paint and brush, why do composers write a tune down in tonic sol fah,why do politciams use prompts?

  • Armchair Bard says:

    Lovely to see Erica, my fab former colleague from days at the deadest record company in the world . . . ever! But Erica, you look startled. What is Martha saying?

    Speech-bubble competition, folks. Off yer go!

    • EW says:

      She’s saying precisely this: ‘You don’t know where my espresso is, do you?’ I’m dead serious! Erica

    • Armchair Bard says:

      “Erica. I know that cameraman is a hunk. But I saw him first and he’s *my* hunk. So enough with the come-hither/vulnerable look. Or I *shall* break your fingers . . .”

  • Helen Kamioner says:

    just paid 20 dollars to see this film which i do not recommend as I found it very unsatisfying

    • Alejandra Arzeno Kerr says:

      That’s because you DID NOT understand it. That movie is about power, not music, developed within a classical music environment. But, because it’s a work of art (it’s an excellent movie) it’s throughout AMBIGUO: it desmythifies and glorifies classical music equally. Other brilliant movies that desmythifies classical music: “Five Easy Pieces” (directed by Bob Rafelson); The Beat that my Heart Skipped (directed by Jacqued Audiard); A Heart in Winter (dirct. Claude Sautet); The Piano Teacher (direct. Michael Haneke and others…

  • 12345 says:

    There is nothing wrong with classical music being insular and hierarchical. Any field that requires a high level of skill/knowledge ceiling, is like that.

    You can just change classical music to for example:
    “I had to get to a point to where I didn’t need to be from, or live inside nuclear physics”. We all had to. You just expected to waltz in and know what to do?

    • Kenneth says:

      Precisely. I’m glad to see at least one person got it.

    • Angela Giblin says:

      Spot on.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Blanchett’s point is made in the part of the sentence you omitted: “…to know what the character was talking about.” The issue is not merely the acquisition of technical knowledge or skill, but the understanding of the sociology of the community engaged — deeply, and at a high level — in the activity or art form in question. Classical music is the vehicle of the narrative, but the subject is abuse of authority, cancel culture, and other social aspects of professional life.

  • Ich bin Ereignis says:

    She’s right. It is both of those. There’s a pervasive form of mental illness going on in classical music. I believe it comes both from a cycle of abuse perpetuated by teachers from their own teachers and passed on to their students, and from the fact of having spent the better part of one’s childhood in a practice room, thereby becoming socially stunted. It also comes from the fact of one’s identity becoming defined by one’s level of playing and by the self-criticism performing on a such high level entails, which subsequently becomes ubiquitous and often interferes with a sense of well-being and self-acceptance. Add to that a considerable dose of bitterness from the fact that this profession is often quite unfair and far from being a meritocracy, and from the fact that the market simply cannot give each one their fitting place given its oversupply of talent. I don’t believe classical music is alone in that regard; I would imagine becoming a professional actor is probably just as destructive and cutthroat. Nevertheless, there’s still something uniquely unhealthy and pernicious about the world of classical music. The itinerary of an aspiring student is and always has been filled with poseurs, charlatans, and people who simply don’t know what they’re talking about, but who have fully mastered the art of intimidation and pontification.

    • Angela Giblin says:

      Very interesting. All of the phenomena cited by Ereignis do occur. But of course not all classical teachers are abusive. Some are briiliantly skilfull, warmhearted and ethical. As to the dangers of the practice room, the consequences are varied; parental attitudes can have a lot to do with this. Re one’s identity, this can be connected to the service of music; thus the self is not the central focus. And can one reasonably expect to always enjoy a perfect sense of well-being and self-acceptance in life? As for bitterness, I’m with Tom Stoppard, who thinks that artists are in the extraordinarily lucky top 1 or 2% of society. Not to forget, there is an awful lot of unfairness in the world in general. Above all, the classical musician – or any musician – always has the *wonderful* music!

    • Hadenough says:

      From my view and experience….(60yrs of active playing and teaching in addition to 30 yrs in an unrelated career), you are partially right, but largely wrong. There are many caring, nurturant teachers in the field. Also time spent alone pursuing any art is not conducive to mental illness, but often rather promotes creativity, self-reliance, self- development and often privides spiritual conduit. Delususional teachers that promote irredponsible career aspirations are the basic cause of illness in serious, classical instrumentalists. The rampant rise of armchair, self appointed critics is also a form of illness that has its roots in one striving for meaningless relevance. Anyone that enters into the field should have a reliable career backup plan.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Everything else is satisfactory, though?

    • Jim C. says:

      So I guess none of the work is fun, or worth doing for its own sake. It’s all business and ambition?

    • TishaDoll says:

      Not to mention ‘stage mothers’, there are far fewer stage fathers

    • Herr Forkenspoon says:

      One day I said to my teacher; Richard, no matter how much you yell at me, I’m not going to learn it any faster than I’m able to learn it. He replied, Oh, was I yelling, I’m sorry. He never yelled again. I found it strange that he didn’t realize he was yelling. He was an excellent teacher and my playing improved immensely.

    • Dave says:

      As a classical pianist with knowledge of top world class talent, I must say, spot on! Absolutely agreed.

  • IP says:

    She got in and she immediately grasped everything that was wrong with it.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    “The music world is so insular and hierarchical.”
    She’s right, you know.

  • bare truth says:

    No reasonable person would challenge this point of view.

    Take the relationship between powerful maestros and the press and compare it to other fields. CEOs, Hollywood stars, politicians, scientists, religious leaders are all challenged by the press and asked tough questions. The President of the United States is regularly asked tough questions and challenged by the press. Instead, classical music journalists are servile and deferential, and kiss the maestros’ axx in any interview that the public is exposed to. They NEVER ask maestros tough questions. Hierarchical is too diplomatic of a description. It is nauseating.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      They all kiss the progressive ring; and not just the Wagnerian one. So, yes, insular.

    • Adrian Hart says:

      Apparently Mahler was a megalomaniacal conductor. He also wasn’t the best of husbands and Alma not the best of wives. Perhaps it’s time to have a Hollywood expose of this? But wait, it’s already been done – by Ken Russell.

  • MMcGrath says:

    The dialogue with Virag about Bach. Surreal of hilarious. Not sure which. Blanchett learned in days what others require years to perfect: The playing of Bach.

    Another example of an artist better off keeping the old trap shut and sticking to her craft. She’s just ignorant. And doesn’t know it.
    Unfortunately, she’ll influence people who think even less than she does.
    Pity, that. She should have been at a magnificent concert of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in London last night. A wonderful mixture of audience members and an unhierarchical group of musicians gathered in a revered church for Mozart’s glorious Requiem.

  • lamed says:

    “… know what the character was talking about.”

    That’s because the script is bad, really bad. It’s filled with insider jokes, references, and jargon that only diehard classical music fans or those in the industry would chuckle over among themselves.

    While watching the movie, I kept asking myself, do they even care about appealing to a general audience if only to get enough ticket sales to maybe break even?

    It doesn’t have to be that way. I am willing to bet anything that the script to Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro” is accessible and not in obscure insular speak, yet both films deal with identical subject matters: a bigger than life conductor (and Bernstein is real!)

    Only an insecure script hides behind jargon and insider references: there is nothing else to showcase.

  • Colin Major says:

    Given what Marin Alsop has said about the film publicly, I would be very surprised if she were involved in its creation?

  • Peter Feltham says:

    What a sad and insular remark to make.

  • Barry says:


    Says the winner of numerous awards and the person who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

    Just like anyone else, really.

    Perhaps I’ll drop in on the next non-hierarchical Oscar party and have a chat. I wonder how far I’d get?

  • Madeleine Richardson says:

    So what if it is? They will still be playing the likes of Mozart and Beethoven in cenuries to come which is more than can be said for some mediocre films.

  • Adrian says:

    The pop music industry could be described in the same way.

  • Wannaplayguitar says:

    Commercial films and documentaries about the lives of composers (or this case a fictional conductor of orchestras) and even biopics of the lives of great ‘popstars’ of past and present, will always need to be taken with a hefty dose of salt. Some grains of truth, plenty of nuggets of ‘here say’ off the record anonymous opinions, spadefuls of fictional scenarios. Sheesh….That’s Entertainment for you