Another season of the BBC Proms – “the world’s greatest festival of classical music” – has ended, and yet again I didn’t make it to a single concert. The unventilated Albert Hall isn’t a great concert venue: you sweat while trying to listen through the muffled boom of the acoustic and as you get older it’s just too much hassle.
But this year there was an extra reason to lose patience with the Proms. The soloist on the first night, the 30-year-old German-Russian pianist Igor Levit, forced the audience to listen to his own anti-Brexit protest – an arrangement of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from his Ninth Symphony.
The EU hijacking of this mighty tune as its anthem always got up my nose, even in the days when I supported the Common Market. We can’t know that the notoriously contrarian Beethoven would have approved, any more than he would have supported its appropriation by Ian Smith’s Rhodesia. As for his views on Brexit, is Levit unaware that the composer became an obsessive Anglophile in disgust at Napoleon’s attempt to build a European empire?
The surprising thing is that so many classical musicians, from whom you might expect a thoughtful disposition, are more querulous and bitter than your typical luvvie.
Igor Levit really is a sad case. A few years ago he recorded performances of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas and Diabelli Variations; you have to go back nearly 60 years, to the first Beethoven cycle of Alfred Brendel, to hear a pianist in his 20s play this repertoire with such a balance of virtuosity and intellectual insight.
You would expect a young musician with such a refined understanding of the slow movement of the Hammerklavier to express equally subtle political opinions – even if they tilt in a predictably liberal direction.
Instead, we’re offered this: “Hey, Nigel Farage, you can talk BS anywhere you like but the difference is: your poison won’t affect us anymore. Not the majority. Fuck off.” And to Senator Jeff Sessions: “Fuck you, you fascist coward. Same to you, Donald Trump.”
These are tweets, obviously. Perhaps Levit’s outbursts wouldn’t be so comically splenetic if Twitter didn’t encourage him. But I also suspect that social media platforms are simply making public something that has been obvious to insiders for many years – that classical musicians are addicted to Left-wing posturing.
Here’s another example. Mahan Esfahani, an Iranian-American in his 30s, is that rare thing: a harpsichordist with popular appeal. That appeal may not last, however, if he keeps ear-bashing his audiences with slogans in support of Black Lives Matter and insisting that “anyone who voted for Trump is by definition an anti-Semite”. Yet in his own circles such views are uncontroversial.
It goes without saying that the political consensus in the arts world is Left-liberal. The surprising thing is that so many classical musicians, from whom you might expect a thoughtful disposition, are more querulous and bitter than your typical luvvie.
One factor is that they are more dependent than any other artists on state funding: they are as dependent on grant-making bodies (especially European ones) as their predecessors were on noble households.
That’s because classical music, compared to other art forms, has a tiny popular following relative to its cultural significance. And that following, outside of East Asia, is monolithically white and middle-class. There are very few black faces at the Proms, despite the desperately earnest “outreach” of concert halls and orchestras to ethnic minorities.
Classical music, compared to other art forms, has a tiny popular following relative to its cultural significance.
Igor Levit belongs to one of the world’s most inward-looking elites. This seems to trouble him, and so he takes it out on Brexiteers and Trump voters who are actually far more diverse than his audiences. Most of them haven’t heard of him, though Nigel Farage has. “He’s an apparently civilised man who behaves like a Stalinist lout,” he told me.
That’s a bit strong, you might think, but then consider the carelessness with which Levit flings around the word “Nazi”. Also, there really is something slightly Stalinist about his party line. I know of one major figure in the classical music world who supports Brexit. He has a family to support; can you blame him for keeping his views to himself?