The Malice of Musicians

Classical music is full of savage backbiters, always ready to pour vitriol on more successful artists 

Norman Lebrecht

The morning after Kate Bush made her comeback — her first live concert in 35 years — the massed ranks of media, social and parchment, were awash with extravagant praise for a high-pitched soprano who, with rare discretion and integrity, has come to personify British prog rock. Music critics in the daily papers blessed Kate with a full hand of five stars and strangers joined on London buses in snatches from her long, mystic and uncommonly literate songs. It was a late-August moment of musical awakening, a joining of past and present around the enigma of a unique artist.

Amid the warm glow, there was one note of dissent. On the Guardian letters page, Bill Hawkes wrote: “I played viola on Kate Bush’s last LP, and laughed myself silly at her nonsensical lyrics about snowmen. The obsequious, unquestioning critical acclaim heaped upon this manifestly overrated singer is rather depressing.”

What’s Bill’s problem? He’s a musician.

Every morning, I open my screen to a torrent of human misery. I run a cultural news site,, which attracts 1.2 million monthly readers. Our news is often upbeat. The responses are mostly not. No sooner do we break a conductor’s new job or the record debut of a young singer than musicians and music lovers all over the world dump dollops of fresh dung on their blameless heads.

No field of human activity is so envious of success, or so quick to find fault, as the pursuit of classical music. It was said of Wilhelm Furtwängler, possibly the most gifted conductor that ever lived, that his day would be ruined if he read a good review for a ballerina in Bochum. Furtwängler’s diaries are stuffed with tormented deprecations of his nearest rival, Arturo Toscanini, who reciprocated the venom. It’s hard to understand why the two maestros could not cultivate a modicum of respect.

Painters, writers, even actors, make some show of generosity to colleagues. Musicians do not. Dancers are the most considerate of artists, ever concerned to protect each other from injury. Musicians, at the merest hint of false intonation, turn a freezing glare on the hapless offender in the ensemble, reducing him or her to a nervous wreck.

Ardent listeners take their cue from the professionals. Eavesdrop on the crowd leaving the opera house after a magnificent performance and you’ll hear less talk of the vocal glories than of the fluffed second-act entry in the woodwinds. BBC Radio 3 put up an online message board at the dawn of the internet. It was shut down after a daily deluge of abuse aimed at practically every presenter and performer on the network. The silenced carpers promptly started an independent forum, Friends of Radio 3 (FoR3) — a less friendly bunch of people you will struggle to find this side of the Islamic State. A classical writer commented the other day that when he posts something on a trainspotters’ site everyone is grateful and supportive. When he posts on a classical forum he receives nothing but contradiction, complaints and malice. Leonard Bernstein wrote an early song-cycle I Hate Music with the words, “That’s not music, not what I call music.” We know whom he meant — pretty much everyone in the music world.

Why such negativity prevails in an art that aspires to truth and beauty is a mystery to outsiders, though not to those of us who grew up in strictly religious homes, where most things a child wanted to do were forbidden, and declared wrong. Look around any church, mosque or synagogue and you’ll catch the withering eye of someone who is more devout, more meticulous, a better person than you could ever hope to be.

That’s how it is in music. Not for nothing is the art referred to as a “discipline”. The chastisement starts with your first lesson. In my day, it was a rap on the knuckles with the edge of a ruler if your fingers were not correctly aligned on the keyboard. Hitting is no longer permitted — except in Russia, where recent videos show old-school piano teachers still beating grown students about the head. But Western music teachers have more sophisticated methods of making you hate music. 

Keep telling a student they are no good and they will start to believe it. Almost every successful musician has a story of a teacher who tried to kill their unformed talent. A conductor who works with Europe’s top orchestras told me how, after he formed an orchestra at the age of 14, the head of music at his specialist music school told him he would never be a conductor. That former educator is now in jail for sexual offences against a girl pupil, a distressingly common occurrence in music schools. He got his sadistic kicks as much from teaching as from sexual assault.

In music, as in organised religion, the teacher (priest, mullah, rabbi) is the custodian of hallowed tradition. In music, as in religion, novices are taught that the past was always better than the present, and the future is a fiery Hell. Young musicians are filled from first scales with the message that they can never be as good as . . . No wonder many of them grow up frustrated and embittered.

Teachers are musicians who couldn’t make it on stage. Orchestras are populated with failed soloists. The music industry is peopled with former music students who exploit their artists’ feelings of inadequacy to hide their own incompetence. Music is a merry-go-round of dashed ambitions, a vicious cycle of lost worth.

Groomed from infancy to idealise the past, classical musicians are unable to break moulds or reject orthodox teachings. A classical guitarist would not dare play a pop tune as an encore, let alone sing, for fear of excommunication from the ever-shrinking pool of classical guitar fans. No point reminding the poor plucker that, in the instrument’s Iberian heyday, all music was popular and players also sang. That would be heresy.

Against the backdrop of fear and denigration, it is nothing short of a miracle that, in every generation, music brings forth men and women whose goodness shines in every note they sing or play and whose mortal deeds have moral worth. Cellists like Casals and Rostropovich. Violinists like Nathan Milstein and Yehudi Menuhin. Pianists like Martha Argerich and Myra Hess. No sooner have I named these paragons than someone will try to tear them down. But that’s music. Doncha just love it?

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