A REPLY TO NORMAN LEBRECHT AND ARTHUR BUTTERWORTH
For the past 300-plus years British music lovers have faced a most
unfortunate predicament. They have looked across the channel to the
"Continent Club" with terrible envy. The ancient and ever
evolving musical traditions of countries like Germany, France and Italy
have consistently produced composers of universal and immortal acclaim
while almost every British composer between Purcell and Arthur Sullivan
has been relegated to the dustbin of history, give or take the occasional
Boyce, Arne or Parry revival. Even in their strongest recent century,
the 20th, Britain did not produce a composer accepted the world over
as truly great. They have produced candidates with champions across
the world: Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, while more recently Walton
and Britten. But while each of these composers have had staunch champions,
they have also had detractors across the world who criticize their music
with equal zeal.
With a literary tradition second to none, British writers have argued
unceasingly and often (though certainly not always) persuasively for
the merits of their composers. But due to whatever reason, be it continental
snobbery or impartial rejection, their efforts have to some extent fallen
upon deaf international ears, though they are certainly not complete
failures. One could argue, in most cases correctly, that reading about
music is an experience inferior to listening to it, and consequently
no amount of championing of these composers in writing will sway an
audience unreceptive to the music. However, I cannot help but think
that British music writers would be more successful in their efforts
if they changed their tactics.
For those of us who have been reading British music polemics in the
past few months, it would seem that even the British themselves cannot
agree on whom in their numbers ranks among the great composers; let
alone present their cases convincingly to an international public. Reading
the ever-provocative Norman Lebrecht’s article about the "death"
of William Walton’s talent, I was struck by how much Lebrecht presents
his own opinions and perceptions as indisputable fact (not that it surprised
me, given his track record).
As Adrian Smith pointed out quite correctly in his rebuttal to Mr.
Lebrecht’s remarks, "Belshazzar's Feast is better to sing than
to hear" is certainly not an opinion shared by all listeners or
singers. Furthermore, Lebrecht’s assertions that "The Viola and
Cello Concertos are thematically meagre;" or that "the Variations
on a Theme by Hindemith are a weak reprise of Hindemith's symphonic
metamorphoses on a theme by Weber." would be disputed by any number
of musicians and music lovers inside and outside the Isles. Of course,
Norman Lebrecht is a human being too (something we often tend to forget)
and consequently he is entitled to his own opinions. I only wish he
would present his opinions as if they weren’t shared by myself and the
entire rest of the world.
One can look through virtually any article by Mr. Lebrecht at all and
find an excerpt of writing that is at once so beautifully written and
at the same time so ridiculous in its content that one cannot help but
laugh at the possibility that both the form and the content came from
the same writer. In this particular article, the conflict of intelligent
writing and unbelievable ignorance occurs when he attempts to assess
Walton’s personal life and decides that Walton‘s mediocrity stems from
his preference for personal comfort over artistic vision.
"One can almost detect a Faustian pact being made with his inner
self, a swap of vision for venison, fiery art for fireside celebrity."
This is only the last sentence in a two paragraph tour-de-force of brilliant
writing coupled with insubstantial content. In addition to the fact
that most writers would kill to be able to turn a phrase in the way
he does, Mr. Lebrecht makes a pronouncement that flies in the face of
most every historical fact about composers who are both rich and talented.
History abounds with examples of composers who lived in comfort and
prosperity and still made work that was of no less quality. Certainly
Richard Strauss lived in ever-growing personal comfort as his work was
performed more and more; the output of neither Stravinsky nor Schoenberg
diminished as their quality of life increased; Debussy was said to enjoy
life’s delights as much as any composer; Wagner certainly never had
wont for comfort during the second, post-Rienzi, half of his life; Gluck
and Handel were paid astronomical fees for their compositions and nobody
ever complained about the quality of their work; etc. If Walton truly
killed his own talent, there are far more complex reasons than Mr. Lebrecht
is willing to provide for us in a truly inadequate analysis of the situation.
Consequently, as usual with him, all that is left is an unsubstantiated
and provocative claim most likely designed for maximum effect and maximum
As icing on the cake, in order to ensure that British music writers
take up arms against Lebrecht, he provides further ammunition in his
final, two-sentence paragraph. "His weakness could have been calamitous,
setting British music back by a generation. Happily, Britten was there
to resist complacency and redeem the future of art." Thus he ensures
a division in the press between those who love Walton and those who
love Britten, keeping his own name in print and the cause of British
music further still from the international concert halls.
But as of this week Mr. Lebrecht will become an editor and his particular
brand of musical Gonzo Journalism will vanish from the papers. I, for
one, will miss him sorely. Music journalism is a much more boring profession
Shocked as I was by the arrogance of Lebrecht’s pronouncements, I was
still more shocked to read a response by Arthur Butterworth that if
anything transcended arrogance and moved into the realm of the offensive.
Mr. Butterworth’s article leaves no doubt as to his sympathies, but
I was deeply shaken by the manner in which he expresses them. I only
care to comment on one paragraph of Mr. Butterworth’s article. Had he
not included this particular paragraph the article would not be worth
mentioning. Without this particular paragraph the article would be a
rather charming appraisal of his own feelings about the two composers.
However, in the aforementioned paragraph Mr. Butterworth provides an
aside about Britten’s homosexuality and homosexuality in general that
is truly inappropriate and offensive.
Granted, one would have to be a complete fool not to see the homosexual
subtext that pervades a good deal of Britten’s work. However, to refer
to "that morbid obsession Britten had with other men," or
to "this ‘male victim’ gush that seems to go like an ineradicable
thread through his music," is an appraisal excessive to the point
of being offensive. But to add to this appraisal that homosexuality
in general is "un-natural" or that "they seem to be warped
in some way" is an assertion I find absolutely appalling. I was
particularly appalled because I did not read this in a magazine published
by the Religious Right or a hate-group, I read this in a Music Journal!
If the subtext of Britten’s work impedes on Mr. Butterworth’s enjoyment
of the music, he can merely say so instead of launching into a paragraph-long
diatribe against homosexuality in a general sense. I am not homosexual,
but I do consider myself sensitive to their issues and my personal sense
of morality was offended by Mr. Butterworth’s statements.
I was particularly shocked that such comments came from a man like
Mr. Butterworth. From everything I have read by and about this man,
these comments seem entirely out of character and unworthy of him. By
all accounts I have read he is a distinguished elder statesman of British
music. He would also appear to be a composer of distinction, though
I have not heard any of his music. He is an entertaining writer and
if he is half as charming in person as he generally is in his articles
I would very much like to meet him. He appears to me to be a sort of
"Anti-Lebrecht" because he does not seem to have a sensationalist
bone in his body. It would seem very much against his character to make
broad, sweeping, "Lebrechtian" generalizations. I would expect
such a person to at least have the tact, and perhaps even the moral
fibre, to avoid making such hurtful statements about such a contentious
In both of these articles, the dominant theme is negative. Both Mr.
Lebrecht and Mr. Butterworth seem to feel it necessary to try to hurt
the reputations of a particular composer. If British music lovers want
one or both of these composers to represent them, without any overseas
objection, in the Canon of Classical Music, then their writers must
discuss the positive merits of these composers and never resort to slinging
mud at the reputations of their composers through oversimplified generalizations
(a la Lebrecht), or subjective slander (a la Butterworth).