This morning there was a discussion on Radio 4 about the response of the arts in the UK to the Brexit vote. Contributors rightly said that there is much we can and must do to understand who we are, what are the social issues facing us, how can we forge a constructive identity in the future? We must listen (they said) to what people are saying and reflect it, bring it alive through metaphor and portrayal, suggest paths through the maze we appear to be in.
Many of the contributors were from the world of writing and theatre, where these topics can be – and are already being – addressed head-on by the UK’s talented writers and actors. It’s easier to discuss and diagnose social ills if you can use satire and poetry, role-play and humour. In that respect, poets and playwrights at least have an obvious means of pondering our troubled situation.
As I listened I wondered where that leaves UK classical musicians. Abstract music cannot directly address the political issues of the day in the same way that words can. It is transcendent – which is its unique quality, but also one that in an unsympathetic climate can make it appear ‘out of touch’. Our position is somewhat specialised: our core repertoire, and the core of every conservatoire syllabus, is the historical music of central European composers. (Yes, there are many fine British composers past and present, but their music is not the backbone of our repertoire.)
We’re immersed in the inexhaustible music of Bach and Beethoven and Schumann and Brahms, Mozart and Haydn and Schubert, Vivaldi and Verdi and Puccini, Dvorak and Janacek, Debussy and Ravel and Fauré (to take just some obvious examples). They were German, Austrian, Italian, Czech, French. Our lives have been harnessed to European music since we started our training as children. Most classical musicians have studied, lived or worked (and indeed loved, married and had children) in other European countries, taking it for granted (for the past 40 years) that the whole of Europe was ‘our patch’.
So we all desperately want to keep open the bridges to Europe and its music. This isn’t going to be easy as the UK struggles to cut its ties to the EU. Of course we remain geographically close to mainland Europe. We’ll still be able to travel – with some added administrative and financial hurdles – but it isn’t going to feel quite the same. It already doesn’t. We’re hearing that the Erasmus study scheme, which for 30 years has allowed UK musicians to study at European universities, cannot be guaranteed beyond 2017 for UK applicants. ‘Access to Europe’ will be a step further away.
Classical musicians don’t want to feel a step further away. Nor do we want European classics to feel a little bit more distant from anyone. Our mission now must surely be to make sure that in the movement away from the EU we do not lose our ties to European music. We must fight for it and make sure that it’s made available to people in all walks of life, particularly young people. Such schemes already exist and many musicians are involved in them. But they have been based on the underlying assumption that we are part of the EU. Now they must acquire an urgent sense of keeping those European bridges open and using music to help young people cross them.