Open Letter from the Chair

The relevance of classical music

24 April 2017

We’ve heard it before, many times; “What possible relevance could classical music have in today’s world? It’s a music form that is ‘dull’ and lacks resonance with real life. It’s for old people sitting in posh concert halls, nursing a G&T, whose view of the world hasn’t changed for the last 40 years. Classical music has nothing to do with me. It doesn’t reflect my situation, and it has no connection to my experience of this world. It doesn’t resonate with me, it doesn’t ‘touch’ me in anyway”. Those speaking such words point to the rise of Punk, Hip Hop, and Rap, suggesting these, and their related genres, tell it like it really is. And they may well do, but there are always at least two sides to a story, and a narrow view of the world – musical, political, whatever – can be a dangerous thing.

I’m not ashamed to say that I have struggled recently to rehearse what others may consider to be ‘safe’, ‘staid’, ‘dull’ music since my thoughts have turned to war, conflicts, genocide, leaders with hate in their hearts and in their very public words. Who wouldn’t when put in the place of the Persecutors to sing “Away with them! Curse them! Kill them! They infect the state”. To be answered with “Why? Why? We have no refuge” from the Persecuted. As I sit politely in my choir bench, flinching whilst Tippett’s brutal words scar the air, my mind reels. The words could have been written this very morning rather than inspired by the assassination in 1938 of a German diplomat by a young Jewish refugee, and the Nazi government’s reaction in the form of a violent persecution against its Jewish population – the Kristallnacht pogrom of 9 November 1938.

I’m rehearsing A Child of our Time, written and composed by the British composer Michael Tippett (1905–98), a conscience objector, jailed for two months during World War 2, and I’m deeply troubled, since I’m sure Tippett would have hoped while composing his oratorio, such dark days as he was writing about would be far behind us. The soprano sings “How can I cherish my man in such days, or become a mother in a world of destruction? How shall I feed my children on so small a wage?” The work talks of the plight of migrants who “shall not work nor draw a dole” and find there is no-one to turn to, that authority does not help them and desperate souls are met with hostility. The global terror of man’s inhumanity to man is writ clear; in “Burn down their houses! Beat in their heads!” we see reflected the wars and conflicts facing us daily from our TVs, massacres, starving and unwanted children.

And yet, Tippett’s use of poignant spirituals, sees an equally heartfelt desire to see a world where dark forces no longer rise like a flood. Classical music can, and does both resonate and have deep relevance in today’s troubled world, and anything we can do, however minuscule, to help lighten the load of those suffering should and must be done. If such music has even the tiniest possibility to cause a solitary person to stop, consider and perhaps rethink their prejudices and behaviours then this musical form should be seen for what it is – the gentlest of butterfly effects – that with hope and perseverance can be deeply powerful.

Paul Henstridge, Chairman – Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus

Download: Press Open Letter Child of Our Time