The case of Ian Lake, and reflections on the year

A new report in today’s Independent, by pioneering journalist Paul Gallagher, lifts the lid upon another sorry episode in the history of abuse in musical education – the story of pianist and composer Ian Lake (1935-2004), piano teacher at Watford School of Music, Associated Board examiner and professor at the Royal College of Music for almost 30 years. Lake wrote three books of Music for Young Pianists (New York: Chappel & Co, 1966); his piano piece The Milky Way ) was on the Associated Board syllabus at one point; this became well-known amongst young pianists. He toured the world as an examiner, and also created a concert series for contemporary music, Music in our Time, which ran in London from 1960 to 1970, through which many young composers (many of whom now have significant reputations) received their first major breaks.

Lake’s name is not entirely new in this context; he was convicted in 1995 on sexual offences, though neither the nature of the conviction nor the sentence (which remains unclear) were widely reported at the time or since, and he was able to continue his concert career soon afterwards. At the time of his death in 2004, one obituary by composer and pianist John White minimised this fact, writing:

Ian Lake’s later years were clouded by a conviction for sexual offences in 1995. But he continued his concert career. Strongly self-willed and stubborn, he had set himself several demanding tasks in the weeks following the diagnosis of his cancer a few months ago, including the recording, with his son Jeremy, of his own arrangements for cello and piano of pieces by G.I. Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann. The recording sessions went well and represent a satisfactory completion of the last project he was able to undertake.

Another obituary by composer Christopher Hobbs in The Guardian (Christopher Hobbs, ‘Obituaries: Ian Lake: Pianist who championed contemporary composers’, The Guardian, 7/9/04, not available for general access online) did not even mention the conviction.

I and some others have known for a while of various further serious allegations concerning Lake’s actions during the course of his career; now some of his victims, including one man who was abused by Lake from the age of 10, have chosen to speak out. According to his account, Lake was simply removed from his position at some point during his study in the 1970s, but was left free to teach elsewhere; others have spoken of the abuse they encountered at Lake’s hands at the RCM. One former principal of the RCM, Dame Janet Ritterman, under whose directorship Lake continued to teach (and was convicted) declined to answer as to what was known about Lake’s history of abuse. Responses of others in the musical world have been disappointing; too many musicians (including the writers of the obituaries mentioned above) were well-disposed towards Lake for how he had helped their own careers to want to think about how he might have also been responsible for terrible acts leading to a range of destroyed and tormented lives.

As more and more revelations about abusive teachers have emerged, some have branded these a ‘witch hunt’ (one commenter argued that ‘people such as Ian Pace are simply fuelling an environment of paranoia and mistrust which is looking more like a witchhunt every day’) and have often implied that the musicianly qualities of individuals like Lake somehow mitigate their other actions. It is hard to imagine many taking this attitude towards a caretaker, postal worker or comprehensive school teacher accused of similar offences; somehow a distorted morality applies different principles according to class and artistic prestige.

The full extent and scale of Lake’s activities may not be known properly, nor would victims stand a chance of being heard safely and gaining some degree of closure, without a public inquiry of the type for which I and others have been campaigning through the course of this year. Various MPs, including Lucy Powell (Labour, Manchester Central, Shadow Minister for Childcare, and whose constituency contains Chetham’s and the Royal Northern College of Music) and Tim Loughton (Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham, former Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families), have made clear their own support for this type of judicial inquiry, and I continue to hope that the government will recognise the pressing need for this. Since around 1990, there have been sporadic reports about abuse in music education, which have come to a head this year; I have compiled a summary of these in another blog post here.

Following a minor involvement with the Michael Brewer trial (about which trial I will post a thorough account with full references at a later date) and having been the hoster of the petition for a public inquiry into all types of abuse in musical education, I have become deeply involved in this issue during the course of this year, and the effect has been sobering and often distressing. Whilst collating signatures for the petition, a great many people wrote to me with a plethora of awful allegations concerning abuse at all five specialist music schools (Chetham’s, the Yehudi Menuhin School, the Purcell School, Wells Cathedral School and St Mary’s Music School) and all the major conservatoires as well (not to mention at choir schools, summer courses, from private teachers, and more – and also in various other countries as well as the UK). To be in possession of such a range of allegations, but unable to pass them on without permission in each individual case, creates a sense of grave responsibility. As well as the direct allegations of abusive teachers, I was made aware of much more information concerning how other people working at these institutions systematically sought to cover up for and protect such teachers, often delivering short shrift to those who complained, or even attempting to bully or blackmail them into silence, more concerned about the reputation of the institutions than the welfare of their pupils. Furthermore, some have tried to excuse such actions on grounds of some type of artistic temperament, alleging that disdain for abuse represented nothing more than a fear of ‘passion’ or ‘intimacy’ (see my post here – the debate in question in full, with question, can be viewed here).

As I have argued elsewhere, all of this is symptomatic of a twisted set of values in the music world, dominated by a culture of prestige which translates musical hierarchies into wider hierarchies between human beings; some individuals’ well-being and livelihoods are deemed more worthy than others, who are easily dehumanised and viewed as little more than thorns in the sides of hallowed musicians. This is a pattern I have observed in various manifestations for many years in the musical world (and have also noticed the extent to which such hierarchies relate not simply to individuals’ prowess and achievements as musicians, but also to their social class), and it legitimises many wider forms of bullying, psychological abuse, blatant discrimination and exclusion, and a generally macho and brutal musical culture, at least where starry musicians are involved. All of this is masked by a veneer of culture and civilised values which is supposed to result from the elevating power of classical music; the reality is very far from this.

Nonetheless, many musicians (and especially former students at specialist music schools) have lent their support for a full inquiry into abuse in musical education. With only a few exceptions, this has not been matched from those in senior positions at institutions, or for that matter from musicologists. Scholars and academics should be amongst those best placed to undertake critical investigation into the wider cultures and ideologies of music-making (and there are certainly some researching musical education who have gone some way towards doing so). However, with increasing numbers of academic positions being held by practitioners rather than scholars, and the wider effect of the new ‘impact’ requirement upon scholarly production (placing great value, and concomitant implications for research funding for academic departments, upon work which in one or other sense can be shown to have an impact outside of academia) leads to more and more academics producing deferential and sometimes hagiographic writings about musicians and musical institutions from whom they might potentially receive external favour and advancement.

A major police investigation, Operation Kiso, was mounted by Greater Manchester Police, leading to four arrests to date. A former long-term teacher at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama has also been arrested on multiple occasions. Some other investigations continue. Revelations have been made public about various individuals who are now dead, including Lake, leading piano teacher at Chetham’s and the RNCM, Ryzsard Bakst, co-founder and director of music at the Yehudi Menuhin School, Marcel Gazelle (see my blog post with links to other reports on Gazelle), former Dean of Manchester Cathedral (in daily contact with choristers from Chetham’s), Robert Waddington (this blog post includes for links to articles), and Menuhin school cello teacher Maurice Gendron. There are quite a number of other late individuals about whom I have been made privy to allegations, but it is not possible for the police to undertake prosecutions for obvious reasons. Also, cases of abuse where the victim was aged 16 or above, before 2003, or cases of psychological and emotional abuse, or physical abuse (for which there are statutory limitations for reporting), and of course institutional complicity, cannot be addressed simply by criminal prosecutions.

There are various considerations here. The presumption of innocence is vital, as is the principle by which individuals cannot be prosecuted for acts which were not criminal offences at the time they were committed. But this does not make the effects of the latter acts any less serious. When faced by cases of sexual offences (or domestic violence, or racial crimes), some on the left can resort to a black-and-white Old Testament style moralising that might even make the Daily Mail blush. Simply demonising such offenders, calling them scum and so on, may provide a focus for some abstracted hatred in need of an outlet (such as is directed by others towards immigrants, benefit claimants, and so on), but this trivialises the issue by reducing it simply to one of human wickedness, which minimises the issues of institutional responsibility and the culture which allows, arguably even sometimes encourages, abuse to occur. Many abusers are deeply disturbed individuals, sometimes the victims of abuse themselves, or having been nurtured in a culture where it is normalised (one recent allegations suggests that some students of abusive teachers at music schools may have gone on to repeat such behaviour themselves); they need not only to be kept away from vulnerable children, but also to be helped. It is also simplistic to present abuse as a one-dimensional issue of gender; some sexual abusers have been female (including Kay Brewer, former wife of Michael Brewer, who was convicted alongside her ex-husband), there are many allegations of non-sexual abuse on the part of female teachers and musicians, some of the staunchest and most unyielding defenders and apologists for abusive teachers have also been female, whilst some of their most fervent antagonists have been male.

The press coverage over the course of this year has on the whole been well-researched and measured rather than hysterical, and some articles have chosen to dwell on deeper issues than just the identity of abusers (see in particular articles in the Telegraph here, here, and here, as well as the report following the Channel 4 News investigation which named Gazelle. But both police and media can only ever go a certain way in addressing the wider issues, for the reasons given above. The campaign for a full public inquiry must proceed, and once again I implore all those in agreement to write to their MPs to solicit their support (for details on doing this, see here).


5 Comments on “The case of Ian Lake, and reflections on the year”

  1. […] The case of Ian Lake, and reflections on the year The whiter-than-white world of published British composers, and some wider thoughts […]

  2. Julia Greene says:

    Ian, I wanted to let you know that when I spoke on the phone with Paul Gallagher about Ian Lake’s abuse to me, he made it very simple, he did not press me for anything including my name and kept the conversation very minimal, simply asking one yes or no question. It was a huge sense of relief and peace after speaking with him. I wanted to let you know and anyone who might want to speak out that Paul Gallagher is very good.

  3. […] of a sexual offence (of which details remain hazy) in 1995, but was revealed to be a serial abuser; I wrote about the Lake story here. One of the victims spoke of how she went to the then-principal of the RCM, Michael Gough Matthews […]

  4. Rob brown says:

    I was sexually abused by Ian lake at. The Watford school of music……………..it feels good to say that and I was glad I could show my wife and mother to my three beautiful sons a picture of the human being who has had such a big impact on our lives.

  5. […] The case of Ian Lake and reflections on the year […]


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