Abuse minimisation as an example of the writing of history as kitsch

One issue arising from the revelations of abuse in music schools actually links with some wider historical questions. Apologists (such as some of those posting on the thread on Norman Lebrecht’s blog following the latest arrest, here) frequently like to underline how these incidents happened in the past, that the current institutions are completely different and bear no responsibility for what went on then, and so on. Quite apart from the fact that there are current teachers being investigated (and one who has been arrested), and all sorts of other links between past and current managements, this attitude generally entails a highly selective disowning of these institutions’ history. Their reputation is in large measure based upon those past achievements which they trumpet, and they are happy to take credit for these, but ask that their grave failings – with horrendous consequences for victims – are ignored. If a school takes credit for one of the small minority of alumni who have gone on to conduct prominent orchestras, sing in major international opera houses, give renowned solo recitals or play in a leading string quartet, they also need to take responsibility for those other alumni who, as a direct result of the actions of staff at the schools they attended, have faced lifetimes sometimes of chronic depression and low self-esteem, difficulty in ever being able to establish meaningful adult relationships, self-harm or suicide attempts, or psychiatric institutionalisation. The latter are every big as much a part of their legacy, and many of the former would strongly agree.

This attitude to the writing of such institutions’ own history is not dissimilar to the attitude of Michael Gove and other Tories towards the teaching of British history in schools: they want a highly selective reading of the past which downplays slavery, imperialism, terrible famines with death tolls in the millions as a direct result of government policy, inhuman working conditions as a result of industrialisation, and so on, in favour of a merry tale of kings and queens, a nation dedicated to ‘progress’, and so on, as part of some attempt to forge a national identity. This option is not available in Germany above all, despite the efforts (brought to light at the time of the 1980s Historikerstreit) of some right wing historians to portray the Nazi era as a mere blip in their country’s history, an understandable response to the rise of communism, and so on. Nor should it be possible for almost any Western nation to minimise its own imperial history. History written or taught for the purposes of nationalist propaganda, which ignores, disregards or distorts clear evidence, is no form of scholarship, but merely kitsch.

I have over the course of this year collected most of the books available on the history of both specialist music schools and colleges in the UK (a small bibliography is provided below). Whilst many contain important factual information, and sometimes more honest accounts of distant periods in the institutions’ histories, for the most part many of those produced or published by the institutions themselves exhibit the same qualities as many other ‘in-house’ institutional histories: a tendency to appropriate history for the purposes of creating a positive spin for the institutions at present, a process surely encouraged by the fact that the authors are frequently employed or otherwise financed by the institutions themselves. Having researched extensively into history of European orchestras, teaching institutions, festivals, concert series, radio stations, and so on, not least in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germany, I have encountered a similar phenomenon with many histories written by those with an obvious interest in presenting the most glowing picture possible. The same is true of many wider corporate histories written by in-house figures, for example of corporations such as Siemens, AEG or BASF, all of whom played important parts in the development of music technology, and all of whom have deeply tainted histories due to their actions during the time of the Third Reich, which are sometimes relegated to a couple of footnotes which are easy to miss.

Scholarly or even journalistic objectivity may be something of an ideal, perhaps never wholly attainable, but I have little truck with those of a postmodernist bent who would deny there is any meaningful distinction to be made between historical truth and fiction (some of the strongest arguments against the extreme postmodern position can be found in Richard Evans’ In Defence of History, revised edition (London: Granta, 2001), which points out that without a concept of relative historical truth, the work of holocaust deniers is no less valid than any other writing on the subject). It is possible, I believe, to write history with a degree of scholarly objectivity, asking meaningful historical questions and assuming an attitude of respect towards available data, avoiding blatant disregard for that which does not accord with intuitive a prior conclusions or assumptions, not distorting or wilfully misreading evidence, and so on. Many different pieces of work can be produced by such means (often depending upon the research questions involved), but that does not mean that just anything claiming to be history has an equal claim to validity.

Past crimes and past abuses are part of musical institutions’ own history, and with a huge range of evidence of such things now available, any future writers who choose to ignore it are indulging in wilful negligence, in my opinion. The wider history of musical pedagogy may also benefit from paradigms other than those of ‘great’ and charismatic teachers and shining students (in fairness, some of the best writing below, not least that of Cyril Ehrlich, is not at all like this, though Ehrlich was a brilliant, rigorous and independent social and economic historian), not least by considering the many former students who did not progress to great careers, or the potential dangers in particular types of master-pupil relationship and all the power vested in these. The results might prove quite different from that which would suit the PR departments of the institutions in question, but history should not simply be spin.

In many areas of music, there are obvious reasons for potential conflicts of interest between those looking to write about music, musicians and institutions, and practitioners, or those whose salaries and livelihoods depend upon such institutions’ continuing to flourish. As a professional musician and also historical musicologist myself, I face these conflicts on a daily basis. In institutional contexts, I have argued (and continue to argue) against the encouragement merely of a type of scholarship primarily geared towards serving the interests of practitioners, and looked askance at, say, round tables on the subject of musical promotion populated in large measure by people who use the opportunity to do some promotion for their own ventures rather than engage critically with the nature of promotion. The field of scholarship on contemporary music has in my opinion for a long time been seriously coloured by the fact that many involved about writing about such music also have close personal and professional connections with the musicians and institutions about which they write, leading unsurprisingly to a good deal of verbiage which rarely questions all sorts of founding assumptions presented by composers and others (and I would include much earlier writing on the work of Michael Finnissy, including my own, in this category, not to mention much of that on Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and others, though the situation has begun to change since some of these figures’ deaths). In other cases, the need to remain the ‘chosen one’ selected by a composer to give presentations on his or her work at prestigious events, and the very real possibility of losing this role if one’s work is even mildly critical of that composer’s self-presentation, is hardly a situation inducive towards any degree of balanced perspective in one’s writings. I will write in more detail about problems entailed in writing about contemporary music in a separate blog post at a later stage.

The same applies to writing about specialist music schools and colleges. Genuinely independent figures are now needed, with no personal connections to or other interests embroiled with the institutions and those who work at them. Battles are being fought in the media and online between alumni (including myself), current and former teachers, parents, musicians close to some of those affected, and so on; the extent, nature and implications of abuse in musical education needs to be assessed by others outside of this process. Attempts to minimise this on the part of those with a clear vested interest in maintaining a rose-tinted picture of musical life and its institutions are little more than historical kitsch.

(the following bibliography does not pretend to be comprehensive, and does not include a wide range of scholarly articles considering various aspects of pedagogy and other matters at the various institutions in question, nor some other wider literature on the Menuhin family, nor some books on Chetham’s focused more on the architecture or the wider history prior to its becoming a specialist music school)

Hugh Barty-King, GSMD: A Hundred Years’ Performance (London: Guildhall School of Music and Drama, 1980)
Humphrey Burton, Menuhin: A Life (London: Faber & Faber, 2000)
William Wahab Cazalet, The History of the Royal Academy of Music, compiled from authentic sources (London: T. Bosworth, 1854)
L.S. Colchester, David Tudway Quilter and Alan Quilter, A History of Wells Cathedral School (Southover, Wells: Clare Son and Company, 1985)
H.C. Colles and John Cruft, The Royal College of Music: a Centenary Record 1883-1983 (London: Royal College of Music, 1982)
Cyril Ehrlich, The Music Profession in Britain since the Eighteenth Century: A Social History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985)
Eric Fenby, Menuhin’s House of Music, with foreword by Yehudi Menuhin (London: Icon Books, 1969)
Michael Kennedy, History of the Royal Manchester College of Music 1893-1972 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1971)
Michael Kennedy, Music Enriches All. The Royal Northern College of Music: The First Twenty-One Years (Manchester: Carcanet, 1994)
Natasha Loges and Colin Lawson, ‘The teaching of performance’, in The Cambridge History of Musical Performance, edited Colin Lawson and Robin Stowell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 135-168
Noel Long, Music in English Education: Grammar School, University and Conservatoire (London: Faber & Faber, 1959)
Grace Matchett and Frank Spedding, Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama: The First 150 Years (Glasgow: Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, 1997)
Diane Menuhin, Fiddler’s Moll: Life with Yehudi (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1984)
Yehudi Menuhin, Unfinished Journey, revised edition (London: Methuen, 1996)
Tony Palmer, Menuhin: A Family Portrait (London: Faber & Faber, 1991)
John Robert-Blunn, Northern Accent: The Life Story of the Northern School of Music (Altrincham: John Sherratt and Son, 1972)
John Sugden, A History of the Purcell School, with an introduction by HRH The Prince of Wales (Harrow on the Hill: The Purcell School, 1989)
Dennis Townhill, The Imp and The Thistle: The story of a life of music making (Easingwold, York: G.H. Smith & Son, 2000)
Penry Williams, Chetham’s: Old and New in Harmony (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986)
David Wright, ‘The South Kensington Music Schools and the Development of the British Conservatoire in the Late Nineteenth Century’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, Vol. 130, No. 2 (2005), pp. 236-282.
A Report on Orchestral Resources in Great Britain 1970 (London: The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1970)
Making Musicians: a Report to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation 1965 (London: The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 1965)
Orchestras in Scotland : report and recommendations of the Committee of Enquiry into Orchestral Demands and Resources in Scotland, March 1970 ([Edinburgh?]: The Committee, 1970)
Training Musicians: A Report to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation on the training of professional musicians 1978 (London: The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 1978)


3 Comments on “Abuse minimisation as an example of the writing of history as kitsch”

  1. […] Abuse minimisation as an example of the writing of history as kitsch […]

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