The politics of classical music

All flag waving and patriotism? Think again argues Michael Barnes

This month marks the beginning of the annual Proms season, which carries on throughout the summer until the patriotic flag-waving last night on 8th September. Henry Wood, who founded the Proms in 1895, saw his task as educating a middle class public. Beginning with a mix of light and classical music, over time the Proms became almost exclusively classical: “I am going to run nightly concerts and train the public by easy stages. Popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music.”

Wood certainly increased access to classical music, promoting cheaper tickets and premiering many new works. At the same time the classical concert developed a series of rituals – a dress code, the elaborate bowing, the calibrated applause for conductor, soloist and leader of the orchestra, permission to cough politely but not to applaud between movements, etc. Composers, conductors and orchestras were overwhelmingly male. If “raising the standard” was about including more middle class consumers, it was also about excluding the working class.

Critics developed the theory that there were two types of culture: high culture for the educated minority, and light entertainment for the masses. At the apex of high culture lay classical music, with its ability to convey profound levels of feeling and meaning, its virtuoso musicians and stellar conductors, and the Third Programme as its dedicated radio service.

This compartmentalised world only began to break down in the 1960s, by which time it was apparent that there were jazz and rock musicians who were not only as gifted as their classical counterparts, but who could improvise too. Broadsheet newspapers began appointing jazz and popular music critics.

In the last 20 years there have been efforts to widen the repertoire, and women conductors are no longer a rare species, even if audiences remain overwhelmingly white and middle class.

At the time the Proms were launched, Britain was labouring under a deep sense of cultural inferiority. Where France was pre-eminent in art, Germany led in music. Britain was, the German critic Oscar Schmitz wrote sniffily in 1904, “a country without music”. In fact, this had already begun to change with the premier of Elgar’s Enigma Variations in 1899. The gifted generation that followed included Frederick Delius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Frank Bridge and Arnold Bax. Parallel to developments in European classical music, many sought inspiration in folk themes. Pastoralism was the dominant trend, with the countryside rather than Britain’s rapidly expanding cities providing the backdrop.

Vaughan Williams is best known for works such as In the Fen Country, The Lark Ascending and the Pastoral Symphony; George Butterworth for The Banks of Green Willow; Delius for Brigg Fair. Ivor Gurney wrote A Gloucestershire Rhapsody and Holst A Somerset Rhapsody. Despite writing a tone poem called Tintagel, Bax was more sceptical and made the immortal remark in his autobiography that “You should make a point of trying every experience once, excepting incest and folk-dancing.”

From this you might assume that British classical music was dominated by a group of late Romantic, backward-looking nationalists. In fact, the opposite was true, and the cohort of British composers born between 1870 and 1914 held all sorts of unorthodox opinions.

Both Holst and his friend Vaughan Williams were influenced by William Morris and attended meetings of the Hammersmith Socialist Society at Morris’s home. Holst was an ardent socialist, who also trained the Society’s choir. He hated the patriotic hymn I Vow to Thee my Country, which used the tune of “Jupiter” from his Planets suite. From 1917-25, he lived in Thaxted in Essex, and was friends with its turbulent priest Conrad Noel. Noel flew the red flag and the Irish tricolour from his church’s steeple, and once attached a notice to the church door announcing “prayers at noon for the victims of imperial aggression”. Two of Noel’s followers became members of the Balham Group – Britain’s first Trotskyist group.

Aged 41, Vaughan Williams volunteered as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving as an ambulance driver and stretcher bearer in northern France and Salonika. The exposure to constant gunfire affected his hearing, leaving him almost deaf in old age. War left a deep imprint on him and his music, notably in the Pastoral Symphony, where a lone trumpet passage recalls a mournful bugle. In his eighties, he wrote that “ever since I had a vote I have voted Radical or Labour except once”.

Meanwhile, Arnold Bax, who had lived in Dublin in the years before the First World War and moved in Republican circles, was appalled by the execution of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, and indirectly referenced them in two of his works.

War cut a swathe through young British musicians and profoundly affected those who survived. Its artistic scars can be traced in works as different as Holst’s Planets and Elgar’s Cello Concerto. George Butterworth died at the Somme; Ivor Gurney was wounded and suffered from severe PTSD for the rest of his life; other promising young composers died in action.

Frank Bridge, who taught Benjamin Britten, had deeply held pacifist convictions that Britten inherited. Britten registered as a conscientious objector in the Second World War, and gave concerts for concentration camp survivors shortly afterwards. He was gay and lived with his partner Peter Pears for nearly four decades. He maintained a friendship with Shostakovich at the height of the Cold War and was a lifelong anti-Tory.

The son of a suffragette, Michael Tippett joined the Communist Party in 1935 with the novel idea – in the midst of the purges! – of converting it to Trotskyism. He left shortly afterwards and for the next three years was active in the Bolshevik-Leninist Group in the Labour Party. The inspiration for his best known work, A Child of Our Time, was the case of Herschel Grynszpan – a young Jewish refugee who assassinated a German diplomat in Paris in November 1938. The Nazis used the incident as the pretext for the Kristallnacht pogroms. It is likely that Tippett’s source was an article by Trotsky. Like Britten, Tippett was gay, and a pacifist during the Second World War.

Malcolm Arnold also registered as a conscientious objector during the Second World War, and among his large output was a Peterloo Overture, commissioned by the TUC.