The Malice of Musicians
Kate Bush: Her recent comeback warmed the hearts of everybody except (some) musicians (credit: John Carder Bush/Kate Bush)
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, www.slippedisc.com, 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.