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The bells toll for orchestras

The Covid-19 crisis shows the world of classical music needs a dose of radicalism if it is to survive, says BEN LUNN

IN MY last article in the Morning Star, I highlighted how biased and misshapen the classical-music infrastructure in Britain was, pointing out how the tentative steps from starting to learn an instrument all the way through to a stable professional career are fractious at best. 

This instability has been knocked off-kilter and risks complete collapse. 

On June 10, the Guardian published a stark warning after receiving an open letter from Sir Simon Rattle and Sir Mark Elder. 

These two giants of classical music internationally highlighted how the Covid-19 pandemic has sent terrifying shockwaves across the classical-music industry in Britain.

The lateness of our lockdown, the pitiful support, and tardiness in leaving quarantine puts many orchestras, festivals, opera companies and ensembles at risk. 

At present many organisations have announced cancellations all the way through to January 2021, leaving the companies without income and musicians of all disciplines without much-needed money. 

Even staples of our cultural landscape, the Southbank Centre and Royal Opera House, have given stark warnings of the risk of collapse.

How did it come to this? Why should the labour movement concern itself with an industry almost solely enjoyed by the upper classes? How can the predicament be remedied?

To answer the first question we need a bit of historical underlay. If one observes classical music and the ebbs and flows of the free market we see adventurousness in spades during economic highs followed by more austere music following economic lows. 

As an example, one needs simply to observe the late Igor Stravinsky whose seminal Rite of Spring (1913) was composed for a giant orchestra with as many as quintuple winds and numerous brass, whereas his later Histoire du Soldat (1918), written while seeking refuge in Switzerland, is for a modest chamber ensemble. 

With the economic collapse following the first world war, and numerous lives lost, orchestras could not afford to be as extravagant as they were previously, so even orchestral works written after the war were significantly more modest. 

We can see a similar trend in composers’ reliance on “chamber opera” following the second world war, as opera houses could not afford to risk a flop, composers such as Benjamin Britten wrote operas including The Rape of Lucretia (1946) for a sinfonietta (mini-orchestra) set-up. 

Following the second world war, much like the rejuvenation of other fields, the Attlee government set up the Arts Council, a body which was made to channel government support directly to the arts so the field did not have to rely on the generosity of benefactors. 

Despite the noble efforts, we have yet to see the Arts Council, Arts Council England, Arts Council Wales or Creative Scotland ever receive enough funding to allow arts to exist solely from this. 

Despite having a history of thoroughly radical figures, like Rutland Boughton, Alan Bush, Alan Rawsthorne, Ethel Smyth, Elisabeth Machoncy or Cornelius Cardew, classical music has never managed to become a hub of truly radical politics or at least has often struggled to keep up with the pace of the times. 

One simply needs to look at the MET opera house in New York which, while proudly advertising its production of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin in 2017, neglected to say that this was only the second time in its history that it has performed the opera of a female composer. 

A century after women’s suffrage and one composer, Nico Muhly, had received more commissions than women they had ever performed!

So, with this understanding, one can easily see why during the time of neoliberal attacks during the late ’80s and early ’90s classical music was almost unresponsive. 

This over several decades has seen support and popularity for classical music dwindle further. 

It is also interesting to see that during times of austerity, unlike nations like Germany which proudly defended supporting classical music because it is “their” culture, Britain went in the opposite direction, complaining about what a burden this old and elitist art form is, even using it as a way for politicians to prove they were closer to the plebs — screw Mozart, give me Wu-Tang Clan instead.

Because of this double-edged sword, arts organisations have shifted from being businesses with steady capital to often being organisations dependent on steady streams of support to fill gaps in the funds. 

Arts Council England, Creative Scotland and Arts Council Wales have what is referred to as “portfolio organisations.” 

These groups receive dedicated funding for a period, often three years or so. 

This funding is decided on promise of programming of future years and can take organisations a year to fully complete. 

This organisation of funds is one giant pot for all disciplines, meaning a high-quality classical ensemble may lose out on funding to an art company, or a museum may get funding where a dance company loses out. 

If an organisation fails to get into the esteemed portfolio funding, organisations are left to survive on funding they can muster from project to project or from their own internal capital or rich benefactors, which means that, particularly smaller, organisations have to put almost as much effort into finding funds as they do to actually produce concerts, content, projects and so forth. 

With this understanding, it is no surprise that the Covid-19 pandemic has created such a disastrous situation for those in the arts. 

As physical concerts have blocked that form of income stream, funds have been diverted to plug the holes that have appeared, meaning future funding could be at risk of being lessened and with little support to cover the meantime and little indication of how long the situation will last, organisations struggle to muster the organisational power to navigate this particular storm. 

In some ways, Britain being behind on the Covid-19 response has meant we can learn from the examples of Germany and other nations as they have eased lockdown. However this is little consolation as arts in Germany are consistently better funded, meaning they are nowhere near this form of crisis.

If classical music in Britain maintains this current model, with performers often living precariously and having to juggle multiple jobs, and large bodies being localised to certain large cities, classical music will collapse — it may not be as a result of Covid-19, but it cannot maintain itself permanently. 

What needs to be fought for is a model similar to the Soviet or current German model, where each region — be it on a municipality/federalised manner or county basis — has specific regularised funds to allow at least an orchestra and opera house, and infrastructure from learner to professional can be stable in such a manner that chorus singers can dedicate themselves fully to their job and not have to juggle extra auditions in the hope of making enough to pay rent. 

If this is done on a county-to-county basis, Kent, Cornwall, Devon, Monmouthshire, Durham, Pembrokeshire, Lanarkshire, the Isle of Man and every other county in Britain would have their own orchestra and opera house. 

Simply think of the thousands of musicians who would have stable employment because of this model. 

Beyond that, if every county has their own opera house and orchestra, these institutions, formerly seen as bastions of bourgeois culture, could actually shift and connect to their community completely. 

Our current situation forces national companies like the Scottish Chamber Orchestra or Welsh National Opera to attempt to make outreach or education address huge areas of children and youth — things this big cannot hit every local concern, or risks repeating one model to all regions. 

Whereas if we have bodies that can serve a smaller region the communal ownership of the orchestra or opera house is only increased. 

Gaining popular support for this is hard, because all workers are facing massive battles currently, but also because classical music has continued to drift further and further from common relevance, so mustering numbers is harder because of classical music’s current lack of reach. 

Beyond that our sector is not renowned for radical politics, so it is not well versed in such mobilisation. 

So what I would personally love to see is more people fighting for something like this, because if classical music is some of the greatest art that humanity has produced, all of humanity should have ways to access it. 

That can only be achieved if the institutions that make classical music happen are more well spread and more deeply rooted in their communities, instead of just the specific markets they aim at. 

And even if this broader reach of classical music does not bring about a much more egalitarian society, wouldn’t it just be nice to nip round the corner to see some of the greatest art humanity has made, instead of trekking from Inverness to Glasgow, spending multiple hours on public transport for a concert that is only 90 minutes? 

Imagine trekking that far to see the most recent blockbuster film? If cinemas were that sparsely spread, the film industry would be faced with similar accusations of elitism. 

So isn’t it about time, for the good of all, that we fight to make classical music as readily available and present as cinemas are in this country?

Ben Lunn is a member of the Musician’s Union.


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