‘A long-term fight for existence’
We were all stopped in our tracks by the proposed vandalism by the BBC…’: Simon Rattle. Photograph: Mark Allan.
A long-term fight for existence’ – full text of Simon Rattle speech on the crisis facing UK classical music, The Guardian, 24 April 2023
This is the text of a speech given by Sir Simon Rattle at the London Symphony Orchestra concert on Sunday 23 April 2023.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I have a lot to say about what is happening in classical music in this country – as does anyone in our profession right now.
But please don’t look so alarmed! I’m not going to bludgeon you with it. I hope that our most eloquent communication can be through music, but just allow me five minutes.
More than 40 years ago, I had an unforgettable conversation with the wonderful and much-missed stage and opera director, Sir Peter Hall when we were working together in Glyndebourne. He was, in this time in the Thatcher years, running the National Theatre, and was very much someone who was defending the whole cultural sector.
We sat and had lunch and I said, “Peter, it’s a cheeky question, but it seems like every month the Prime Minister is attacking you from the Commons. So how does that feel?” He says, “Well, to be honest, Simon, it doesn’t feel wonderful, but someone has to do it.” And then Peter looked and did his most charming smile with the most mischievous, twinkle in his eyes, and said, “Guess what, it will be your turn next.”
And so, thank you, Peter, you probably say this much better than I do. But there we are.
The last few months have been devastating for our sector. After the Arts Council’s swingeing cuts in November, which have affected all of us and left some extraordinary groups fighting for their lives, we were all stopped in our tracks by the proposed vandalism by the BBC, of which the closure of the BBC singers was only the tip of the iceberg.
When the two largest supporters of classical music in this country cut away at the flesh of our culture in this way, it means that the direction of travel has become deeply alarming. It’s clear we are facing a long-term fight for existence and we cannot just quietly acquiesce to the dismantling or dismembering of so many important companies.
There is nobody here tonight, even musicians, who do not recognise the enormous challenges faced by the world at present and in this country in particular, where people are struggling even to feed and heat themselves. But none of this is a force majeure. It is rooted in political choices. And we do have to ask ourselves, when we are hopefully on the other side of this, what kind of country we want to live in?
I, for one, am hoping that classical music will still be able to flourish – of course, the musicians here have had no choice but to become past masters of doing more with less. But the closeness to the edge means that as support is constantly cut, there is no more room to manoeuvre, and inevitably organisations will start to fail. And as other political decisions affect music in schools and then music colleges, the vital organic pipeline that feeds our music will start to run dry.
We understand that this is a time of belt-tightening and that change is inevitable. We could help, if we were ever asked or consulted: classical music is still a very fragile, interconnected ecosystem, and we know about adapting it without damaging any of the vital functions along the way. This is frankly not true of many of the people who are currently making decisions without any coherent plan. Of course, they are also in a difficult situation, as the government has slashed their financial possibilities, political choice.
But there’s a kind of dishonesty at the heart of many of the decisions. George Orwell will recognise the language: “Refresh the administration” and “reimagine the art form”. They are two bits of “newsspeak” which mean the opposite of the actual words, but you can all choose your own personal idiocies.
Anyone with knowledge of how an orchestra actually functions will know you can’t reduce the membership by 20% by natural wastage or in any other means – it is then no longer an orchestra and also all the years of building up a team expertise have gone out of the window. This should not need explaining.
If you actually want opera to be experienced in more parts of the country, it is ludicrous to cut the grants of the companies who do exactly that. This should not need explaining. And by the way, without an orchestra or chorus you no longer have an opera company – these are not things that can just be reassembled later, or bought in from Ikea. Or not yet at least. This should not need explaining.
So many of the problems are rooted in a political ignorance of what this art form entails, and more worryingly, there seems to be a stubborn pride in the ignorance.
Up and down the country, the situation is similar. What we hope is that over the next weeks and months, many more of these stories will be told.
We are in a fight, and we need to ensure that classical music remains part of the beating heart of our country, of our country and of our culture.