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Jessica Duchen
Tuesday 23rd June 2009
There's Nothing Like a Piano-playing Dame
Here is Mitsuko Uchida - now Dame Mitsuko Uchida - playing Chopin's Etude Op.10 No.2 at the Chopin Competition, Warsaw, in 1970. Incredible what pops up on YouTube these days.


I am all for Mitsuko's Damehood, which was announced earlier this month in the Birthday Honours list. She's one of the world's greatest musicians, not just the greatest pianists, and her concerts have been among my most cherished moments in the Royal Festival Hall - the last three Beethoven sonatas, Schubert's ethereal G major Sonata, the Schumann C major Fantasie... Born in Japan, trained in Vienna, she's lived for many years behind Portobello Road and is the epitome of all that a cultured cosmopolitan London artist can be. And she makes a dead good cup of tea. I don't think there has been a pianist Dame for quite a while. The most recent I can find is Dame Moura Lympany, who received the honour in 1992.

I've mixed feelings about the honours list, though. It is terrifically valuable for singing out the undersung heroes - the conductors of amateur orchestras or the tireless animateurs of music education who work desperately hard generally for little recognition out of sheer passion and belief in what they do. But as public figures go, along with the sure-fire winners there've been some very big holes.

Remember the 'Nod for Tod'? A few years back, Gramophone Magazine launched a petition to suggest that Vernon 'Tod' Handley should receive a knighthood. Handley did more for British music than probably any other conductor of his generation, championing repertoire that few others could be bothered to touch, and doing it proud. But while other senior Brit conductors, many far less interesting than him, were virtually queuing up outside Buckingham Palace, Tod was left out in the cold and died last year without anyone having bade him to arise.

Why? Could it be because he was a difficult character by many accounts, unpredictable, temperamental, perhaps a bit unstable? Was that any reason to deny him due recognition? He was no less a great man for it. His colleagues loved him, his judgment of and support for younger musicians was sterling and the music world is a sadder place without him.

Unless I am very much mistaken, this country's two favourite home-grown violinists, Nigel Kennedy and Tasmin Little, haven't been anywhere near Buck House either - again while less fashionable, glamorous, controversial, communicative, outgoing, imaginative [delete as applicable] musicians have trotted along for Os, Cs and Ms. It all makes one wonder whether the Establishment is just plain scared of anyone who dares to be a little bit different, to think freely and for themselves, creating their own path rather than following the flock?

On the other hand, I know of one fellow of considerable artistic and musical clout who, when he received the Piece of Paper offering him some letters finishing with BE, wrote straight back saying: "Which empire?" And that was that. 

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June 26th, 2009
2:06 PM
Difficult to answer that, Rambi, unless you define 'Oriental'. The controversial issue of 'Orientalism' refers to the Middle East. 'The Orient' otherwise now encompasses Eastern Asia and most of Southeastern Asia, China notably excluded. Non-white ethnic groups comprise 7.9% of Britain's population, 7.7% of this latest Honours List, and you will accordingly find Indian, African and Middle Eastern names thereon, and I suspect in proportion. While there is no box for 'Japanese' on the census form, it is estimated there are around 38000 Japanese in Britain, but that includes students and others not born or naturalized citizens, so I shouldn't expect many to turn up on the list. Bearing the striking figures in mind, while I am overjoyed that Dame Mitsuko has received this honour, I am not at all sure that the powers-that-be, bearing in mind also she is just the fourth pianist to get a D or a K since this game began, had her superlative pianism and musicality in mind when they made the offer.

June 26th, 2009
12:06 PM
Well, I must apologize to Tim for getting the timing of Lympany's D wrong -- no K for me, I'm thinking. Even worse, I forgot Galway's K, which brings the number of instrumentalists to five and completely transforms the picture. But on Handley refusing an honour, that's a bit different. To refuse an honour and be offered another at a later time is not unknown or even uncommon in any field. Hugh Cudlipp refused a K in 1966 and accepted one in 1973. Isaiah Berlin accepted a K, refused a barony, then accepted the OM. Vaughan Williams, Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing, Paul Scofield...lots of examples to be found here and there.

June 25th, 2009
9:06 PM
When did we last have a person with an oriental-sounding name recognised in Her Maj's dispatches?

June 25th, 2009
4:06 PM
Time to nail the 'nod for Tod' myth. He rejected an OBE in 1988: So, although he was later appointed CBE, he blew his chances of a K... no campaign would ever change that. It was a futile exercise by Gramophone magazine, As for Moura Lympany, she was appointed Dame in 1992, long after Ted Heath lost both office and influence.

June 23rd, 2009
3:06 PM
I much agree with Michael's comment. I think that Dame Mitsuko -- and I loved reading of that -- is one of only three pianist dames, the others being Hess and Lympany. The latter got the honour because Ted Heath was in office, and also did the only pianist Sir -- Clifford Curzon. And Hess didn't get it for playing the piano. As has always been the case, singers and conductors get Ks and Ds in abundance. Add Menuhin, and I think Ks and Ds for instrumentalists come to a grand total of four, unless someone has slipped my mind. I'm still angry re Tod Handley. I've never heard of him being that difficult, but Michael nailed that one anyway. Elsewhere, honours are chucked around like confetti these days -- you only have to win a race at the Olympics and a D or K may be on its way for services to getting a multi-million pound endorsement deal. Driving a bank into near-bankruptcy is also good. I'd quite like to see an end to the whole silly business.

June 23rd, 2009
2:06 PM
If "difficult...unpredictable, temperamental, perhaps a bit unstable" people were denied gongs, no musicians would ever feature on the honours list! It would probably cut down the number of writers and artists too. I think classical music is seen as a somewhat rarified taste these days, and there's little political mileage in honouring folk from that neck of the cultural woods unless, like Sir Simon Rattle, they're truly household names.

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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