Richard Chenoweth is professor of music at the University of Dayton Ohio, and the
pioneer and developer of RRW, the university based movement for the development and involvement of the arts in contemporary social issues.
Greetings from Edinburgh!
Our Scottish days are getting shorter now, and the sharp evening breeze carries a few dry leaves and the whisperings of autumn.
Long hot summers disable me somewhat but I slowly find my feet and some appetite for work as the leaves start to fall. This summer has been exceptional, not only for its unusual warmth and dryness, but also for the variety of events that have occurred.
The month of June contained the date of our 40th wedding anniversary, which we celebrated with a visit to the Bolshoi Ballet at Covent Garden, and we went on the next day to Amsterdam for cool canal cruising, art and Indonesian food. A few days after our return to Edinburgh, Kay’s mother was taken ill suddenly and died a few hours later, in the hospital that is just a mile from her house. She was a grand old Edinburgh lady of 94 who had enjoyed a full and healthy life in business and the community and the very large attendance at her funeral certainly reflected that. Shortly after that sad day our daughter Sally announced that she is expecting another baby early next year so the mixture of feelings, emotions and exhaustion was a strange experience indeed.
“For each is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth”
Thank you for your kind invitation!
The RRW (Rite, Right, Write) project excites me a great deal. I have visited your marvellous website and my head is already racing with thoughts and ideas. The connection between music and social issues being something, which has been a subject of interior debate for me, for most of my professional life.
I think you know that I learned to play in the brass band at Tower Colliery in South Wales, that practiced in an old engine shed, and that was supported, both by our own contributions and those of the miners, who each donated a penny a week from their wages. I can remember two old colliers in that band who could only read and write English with difficulty, but who could play their instruments with ease, and read the thousands of notes found in brass band transcriptions of Rossini and Verdi. So making music and social struggle were already synonymous to me, and when I finished my musical education at the Royal Academy, which was paid for by a scholarship sponsored by the county of Glamorgan, I found myself, as a very young man, embroiled in the famous battle for the survival of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1965, when I joined the orchestra, it was besieged by its many detractors and malefactors in the Arts Council and the musical establishment, and had been so since the death of its founder Sir Thomas Beecham in 1961. The Royal Philharmonic Society and its allies had decided that the orchestral players should hold no rights to Beecham’s musical legacy and that the orchestra must not continue to perform without its founder at the helm. The players having rejected that proposition and in order to ensure the orchestra’s future, formed themselves into a company of which we were all shareholders, and we were obliged to play, sometimes for months without wages in order to pay the fees of international conductors, which in many cases were extortionate. Very few of them showed the slightest interest in our predicament, and their agents who worked as a sort of European cartel, displayed a similar indifference, while collecting their percentages and expecting prompt payment and first class hotel accommodation for their clients.
These were the difficult circumstances that formed the backdrop to my early life in music.
During the following decade, my father as a member of the National Union of Mineworkers was locked in a bitter struggle with the British Tory government, which was to result in the almost total destruction of the British mining industry, and surrounded by hostile, mainly conservative opinion I played in the London Symphony Orchestra under the guest conductorship of Edward Heath who was a patron of that orchestra and the prime minister of the day. There were bitter social and political divisions in Britain at that time, and my background and experience helped me to accept ideological isolation with resolve.
When I was twelve or so, my music master had given me a recording of “The Rite of Spring” that shattered the fragile preconceptions of music that I had formed up to that time and prompted me to read Robert Craft’s book on Stravinsky.
I learned that in 1913 when “Le Sacre” was first performed, it had shocked European music to its foundations, punctuating world history as the incidental music for a Europe that was careering towards war: the dance of death, the barbaric sacrifice of feminine beauty and innocence that prefigured three decades of the worst violence and inhumanity the world has ever seen, and saw the birth of the chimera that is modern mechanized warfare.
My Grammar School education and the wonderful teachers I had, several of whom had survived the European conflict, gave me the belief I have held ever since, that after the fields of Flanders, the human disgrace of Auschwitz and the nuclear horror of Hiroshima, our new generation had a right to expect better things from the politicians and world leaders.
When I joined the Royal Philharmonic many of the men I met and played with had served in the forces in the European and the North African wars. There were many Jews also in all the London orchestras, who had suffered unspeakable persecution and deprivation, and I met some who had survived the Nazi death camps.
All these men had survived the conflict, only to enter yet another fight against their own benefactors, for their livelihood and the life of their orchestra.
In our modern war torn and anxiety ridden world, and beset with the worst economic crisis so far, it should be evident that the politicians and economists are still failing us all with depressing and familiar regularity, and it is only politicians or those of such persuasions, that would argue with that fact.
Preoccupied as they are with media management and presentation, as individuals they invariably and conveniently deny responsibility for our economic woes whilst many of them preside over the various ministries of science, technology transport and energy in most cases without holding the slightest qualification to do so. This shameful deception and posturing to the world gallery mirrors the antics of our conductors and critics, many of them millionaires that have never composed a note, nor are able to play an instrument to any accepted standard: posture and commentary being their own all but worthless currency.
Advancing years have brought me a freedom to speak the truth and a greater desire for it. A long life in an orchestra, spent as it is in providing conductors with their “raisons d’etre” inflated fees and adoration from concert- goers, can leave us with the dangerous illusion that listening to ourselves is in some way unwise, or, in the midst of the worst of our neuroses, even unthinkable. This is a similar psychic paralysis to the one that develops in the minds of the general public, enslaved by the economic system, and beset as they are by the continuous stream of unanswered questions, broken promises and half-truths from politicians, that actually persuade people that voting is futile, stifles sensible debate and inhibits sane and balanced thinking.
Can we provide hope to the young musicians in our care by advocating proper conditions of employment as some basis for optimism, not only for the security of their own future, but also for the future of the profession, and its duty to its audience. Their remuneration must be at least sufficient to sustain a new generation of players and commensurate with their value to the community. But how are we to do this when nurses and ancillary staff in our hospitals and other public services are being made to accept cuts in their wages by a government that is privatizing public services in order to provide tax cuts for the rich, whilst aided and abetted by a press owned by billionaires that conspires to confuse the printing of lies and the tapping of people’s telephones with “ press freedom”.
There is much to be done!
The “Great War,” far from being the “war to end all wars,” marked the beginning of a new age of conflict that has continued to the present day, and warmongering and the threatening of invasion are still familiar weapons in the armory of our “leaders” seeking to plunder the resources of other countries or to shore up their counterfeit political reputations as they stand pleading and posturing in their Armani suits amidst the wreckage of the economic system. Are we to be left with a similar cadre of critics and conductors, crying for their past “glories” and denying their responsibilities among the ruins of a profession who can no longer afford to devote their lives to music or to play on a decent instrument. The Royal Philharmonic has survived to this day as an example of what is possible when we return to the inestimable gift that was entrusted to us from childhood. Then music and the human spirit become once more synonymous. In the face of this, the whims and wilful miscalculations of the representatives of bankrupt companies become at once irrelevant.
Financiers and politicians have all but destroyed great orchestras in America in the recent past, while trying to shift the blame on to orchestral players and their “excessive” salaries which are held up to constant public scrutiny, while the huge fees and bonuses of conductors and CEOs are made to represent some certification of their artistic excellence and nobility of purpose. – Like the politicians, most of them are simply the commentators that witness and feed on our decline with the language of market forces, while WE, as performers, teachers and custodians, must FACE the threat of the two contemporary chimera — The great lie that is the media and the awful truth that is the crippled, fraudulent and outdated economic system.
Pontius Pilate, despite his politically typical efforts to avoid responsibility, eventually took one of the most momentous decisions in history, but at least he admitted when confronted with the word “truth” out of the mouth of Christ Himself, to not knowing the meaning of the word. If only our present day politicians could summon such honesty we could perhaps start afresh!
Please don’t confuse my feelings and observations with pessimism.
Nothing is wasted – “Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
And grow for ever and for ever.”
I wish you and your colleagues the best possible fortune in your efforts.