Music

The mean, bullying maestro is extinct – or should be

It’s fine for artists to lord it about but it’s another thing for conductors to do so

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

W.H.Auden once wrote: ‘Real artists are not nice people. All their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue’ — which puts those who aspire to be artists in a bit of a quandary. Is it a measure of one’s success as a ‘real artist’ that one is not a nice person? Is it in fact possible to be a real artist and a nice person? And, if it is not, is it better to be a real artist or a nice person? Auden, who was speaking from first-hand experience, implies that it must be one or the other.

By the time he wrote this, Auden was sure of his standing both as an artist and as a person. His friends might say that he was a nicer person than he thought he was, but no one was going to say he was not a great artist. The quandary is for those who are not quite sure of their standing as artists, and who are tempted to think that bad behaviour proves that their creative work must have a certain worth. And that, by extension, the public will forgive them their bad behaviour out of respect for their work.

The most impressive cases are those where centuries after the event we admire the work and find the life entirely forgiveable. If Caravaggio had to live in such a rough milieu that he murdered his friends, we wouldn’t want his paintings to be any different — and perhaps if he had stayed his hand his paintings would be less adventurous. Presumably Christopher Marlowe didn’t get stabbed in the eye because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but because he lived that sort of life. Even that arch-shit Richard Wagner, despite being a sponger and adulterer, is let off the hook for being a tedious human being because he created towering masterpieces that we love. So far, Auden was right.


The problem is with musicians, and in particular with performing musicians, whose reputations can never be as secure as those of composers: the former are recreative artists, the latter creative, with posterity always remembering the creative ones, no matter how good the former may have been in their lifetimes. When one hears of outrageous behaviour among practising musicians, the first thought is that they think their greatness will protect them from opprobrium. This is despite the fact that every musician knows they will perform better if they are encouraged rather than being shouted at. In this day and age, to have to play or sing in a state of fear of the maestro out front is simply counterproductive. No one will tolerate it; nor should they.

I wonder to what extent Auden’s remark may be applied to the story that John Eliot Gardiner recently lost his temper with a brass player in the London Symphony Orchestra. His ‘notorious rudeness to performers and colleagues’ has been referred to in these pages by Stephen Walsh. What do we think of that? Do we love his music-making so much that we forgive him the odd peccadillo? Perhaps we think his music-making must be all the better for it. What is certain is that Gardiner is no Wagner: his achievements are likely to be forgotten soon after his death, as is the case with just about every conductor there ever was. If this is true, do we still indulge him?

This kind of behaviour derives from a whole host of out-of-date impulses: the maestro’s belief that he is right by definition; that women are less strong contributors than men, whose talents should not be taken on an equal footing (I think of the Vienna Philharmonic here); that any form of recording, video or audio, is a higher form of activity than mere concert-giving, deserving of extra respect, preparation and financing (I think of the Tallis Scholars here).

I find I have a visceral reaction to any evidence that a conductor feels he is so above his colleagues that he can lord it over them and abuse them. Any music worth performing has to be a collaborative venture. Rank and file players and singers these days have already spent many hours being lectured to, on the way to becoming qualified — they do not need any more of it from the podium. They need to be encouraged. Recreators of other people’s ideas should remember that they are not unique — there is always another way of looking at a masterpiece — and that anyway in another 20 years or so there will be a completely new wave of performers who will be all the rage, for a while. Even Abbado’s work may not be much remembered in a few years’ time.

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  • JuliannaSmith

    They must really know how it feels to be bullied and how it disrespects in the part of the victim. However, I can’t judge them if they really did it.The thing we can do is to protect ourselves and take this as a lesson to be cautious and ward. And it’s a great thing to find out a safety service which helps you get protected.Defend yourself and love ones. Be protected and keep safe. Sight it here to see: http://safekidzone.com/?a_aid=52f12f7275422

  • Tess Alexandra Pope

    In the age of psychology, whenever I have played under a conductor who did not treat the players well, all I can think is “Wow. You really need a good shrink.” I am amazed at what fellow musicians will sometimes allow a conductor to get away with in terms of behavior. I think an orchestra of almost a hundred players can use a collective sense of peer pressure to push back on such bad behavior, and I think that they ought to.

  • Peter Laki

    This article confuses the issue. Whether or not we should accept bad behavior from a great artist has nothing to do with whether they are creative or recreative. Wagner is dead, and he can no longer be bad to anyone, but we still have his music. When Gardiner dies, he will likewise no longer be able to be rude to anyone, but we will still have his recordings. Creative or recreative, we must separate the work from the person, and no one can stop us from accepting one while rejecting the other. Otherwise, we will need a certificate from the moral police before listening to anything.

    • Shenandoah

      On the other hand, I refused to watch the latest comedy with O. J. Simpson in it when I knew that he had murdered two people in cold blood; and I won’t listen to anything by the former Cat Stevens any more, even though I enjoyed much of it before he embraced a death cult.

  • laura claycomb

    Great article. I think it is a shame when “recreative artists” like myself and conductors make the process unpalatable. With a composition or a piece of art, the piece remains despite what could’ve been a horrible person or a horrible process to make the piece. But with performing arts, the performance is GONE after it has been done (and youtube, dvd’s and cd’s don’t really capture the essence of the performance live that you get in the hall.) So the process makes up a big part of the music-makers’ experience of the performance. If it has been crappy, you most likely will not get one of those transcendental performances of a lifetime. For me, the process is part and parcel to the whole performance. If a conductor makes it hell, he is not getting the point of making music!! I hope, more and more, that the people doing the hiring realize that music, being a collaborative art, needs to have people that bring the best out of the performers. You don’t get that by berating them or belittling them. There are few singers that have long careers that are pains in the butts. I can name only a few, and they’re in difficult repertoire to cast; otherwise, people would’ve thrown these mean bullies under the bus early on in their careers…

  • Olympia Winchester

    actually this is the same for the wealthiest people also, they are sometimes labelled not the nicest but it’s because they work hard and have more responsibility, something the poor do not appreciate when rich are busy making their country great

    • Tom Faulk

      I couldn’t disagree more. Bad behavior = bad character = not achieving anything great.

      This is not to say that there are no rich people who are also good, as well as achieving things for the greater good. They exist; they just don’t talk like this.

  • Shenandoah

    Oh, bollocks, Auden. I’m a ‘real’ artist and I’m wonderful.

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