Academic Freedom: definitions and risks

Last week I attended the debate ‘How can universities promote academic freedom? Insights from the front line of the gender wars’, at University College London’s Institute of Education. This was a stimulating and thoughtful event, organised in conjunction with the publication of a booklet of the same name by philosopher Professor Judith Suissa and sociologist Professor Alice Sullivan (both from UCL) (free to download). Suissa and Sullivan gave short introductions then responses to the booklet came from Baroness Estelle Morris (former Labour Secretary of State for Education), Professor David Ruebain (Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Culture, Equality and Inclusion at the University of Sussex), Professor Arif Ahmed (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge) (Akua Reindorf was unable to be present). With a debate focused upon the issues of biological sex against gender, it would be hard to deny that the panel was dominated by those believing that the former is not simply subsumed within the latter, though I gather various proponents of the primacy of gender and/or trans individuals (the lack of which was noted by Ruebain) were invited but declined to participate. The discussion centered around the evidence and arguments in the booklet for concerted attempts to silence, no-platform and ostracise ‘gender-critical’ scholars, a phenomenon also identified in a recent Times Higher Education Supplement article by early career scholar Laura Favaro (also available at this link), based upon interviews with 50 academics involved with gender studies. Favaro found many examples of a culture of fear, self-censorship, gatekeeping within journals and academic networks, and a total lack of frank and open discussion on what are undoubtedly contested areas. Various panellists and members of the packed audience at the event related similar experiences. What I have not seen is gender-critical feminists attempting to have their opponents censored, no-platformed, or hounded from their positions, though some have naturally responded very negatively to highly abusive comments towards the former, sometimes advocating sexual or other violence.

Morris argued that the disputes relating to sex and gender were about ideology versus evidence-based reasoning. Sullivan argued that some university Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) organisations can be and have been infiltrated by those from activist groups with extremist views. Ahmed, who paid tribute to Suissa and Sullivan, recognising the concerted hostility they will have faced, also noted other areas of intolerance, such as a tendency to brand anyone in a university who was or is a supporter of Brexit as a bigot. Despite being a 200% Remainer myself, I would be hard-pressed to disagree that this is the case, and can see how much of a problem it is. Ruebain was the one panellist giving a somewhat different view, arguing that we need to understand the contexts in which contested examples of academic freedom occur, and also suggesting that the issues here are so intensely personal and emotionally felt by many that it is hard to subject them to the usual processes of academic critique. This may be the case, but personal feelings do not seem to be a concern for those engaged in quite vicious and abusive hate campaigns against those associated with gender-critical views, often trying to force them out of their job, as occurred with philosopher Professor Kathleen Stock at the University of Sussex, after facing a huge mobbing campaign from by students and colleagues. Ruebain also compared current debates with the fervent disputes between second-wave feminists and disability activists in the 1980s over such issues as abortion rights. One questioner argued that the situation depended a lot on the institution at which one was based, noting that UCL’s record on defending academic freedom and staff was exemplary, but the situation was rather different at the Universities of Birmingham or Sussex. A somewhat more ambivalent account of the debate was published by Jim Dickinson for Wonkhe. 

Academic freedom is in my view an utterly essential component of university life, a non-negotiable prerequisite of scholarly rigour and integrity. I nonetheless find it disappointing to find that there are more than a few academics, including some in senior positions, who have a rather dismissive view of the whole concept. In part I believe this is relates to one of the most troubling recent phenomena in academia, its infiltration by activists, uninterested in any scholarly knowledge other than that which bolsters their a priori positions, who attempt to recruit in their own image, limit curricula and teaching materials to those things which concur with their activist beliefs, and can act shockingly towards other scholars or students who dare to disagree (more to follow on fair engagement with students of multiple political perspectives in a subsequent blog post). Also at stake is the legacy of postmodernism, sometimes imagined now to be a dated movement of the 1980s and 1990s which no longer carries any sway, but some of the aspects of which, in particular extreme relativisation of concepts of ‘truth’ (often in opposition to straw man characterisations of positions supposedly insisting on 100% objectivity), and the somewhat later dissolution of scholarship into politics, continue to be major presences on the academic landscape.

Stock has written of her memories of pugilistic debate from faculty members (mostly men) with visiting speakers from when she was a Masters philosophy student, which seemed frightening at the time and designed to humiliate the speakers. But for all the problems with this (and it is certainly possible to conduct robust debate in a more civilised fashion), she believes that what came later was worse. Stock observed an exaggerated synthetic ‘niceness’ in debates, but combined with unctuous name-dropping, endless rules around debate, rather arcane rituals for raising hands and fingers, and often banal questions. This did not however remove the aggression, but simply directed it elsewhere. In the absence of proper open debate, many would revert to surreptitious means to undermine others, through mass denunciations on social media, many ad hominem attacks, complaints, hidden campaigns, and so on. As so often, those enforcing an agenda ostensibly about ‘kindness’ could be amongst the most vicious in trying to silence those who disagree with them on anything. One professor has even described debate per se as ‘an imperialist capitalist white supremacist cis heteropatriarchal technique that transforms a potential exchange of knowledge into a tool of exclusion & oppression.’

Suissa and Sullivan (whose excellent booklet I will not describe in detail here, as I would prefer that people read it themselves) find ample evidence of both students and academics attempting to suppress free speech and academic freedom, and make various key recommendations. These include the maintenance of the university as a pluralistic space which welcomes diverse views, avoiding official ideological viewpoints on behalf of institutions and the use of political lobby groups in shaping policy or providing training, and while recognising that activist networks have a place in academia, they must be independent of the university administration. They also advocate education of staff and students on academic freedom and the value of productive disagreement, including its legal and philosophical bases, the promotion of academic freedom alongside equality, including the appointment of a champion for academic freedom within the senior leadership team, further promotion of collegiality (sometimes a misused term taken to signify concurrence with a dominant ideology or promotion of a collective ‘brand’ – see below) and tackling harassment, providing security of tenure, signalling institutional support for academic freedom, and defence of the pursuit of truth. An article on the booklet, in particular the need for appointment of champions of academic freedom, can be read here


Definitions

What does ‘academic freedom’ mean? Many at the debate agreed that it was a different concept to ‘free speech’, though the two do overlap. In a paper I gave in ‘Musicology and Academic Freedom’ at the Music and the University Conference at City, University of London in July, I enlisted several definitions which I wanted to share here as well as some other arguments made in this paper. Whilst the concept can be dated back many centuries, it is generally accepted that the moder definition has its roots in the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt and the founding of the Berlin Universität in 1810. Humboldt published an essay entitled ‘Über die innere und äussere Organisation der höheren wissenschaftlichen Anstalten zu Berlin’ (1809-10), which has been translated as ‘On the Spirit and the Organisational Framework of Intellectual Institutions in Berlin’, Minerva, vol. 8, no. 2 (April 1970), pp. 242-250. The following are amongst the most pertinent passages:

Since these institutions [universities] can only fulfil their purposes when each of them bears continuously in mind the pure idea of science and scholarship [these two terms are used to translate Wissenschaft], their dominant principles must be freedom and the absence of distraction (Einsamkeit).

[…]

At the higher level, the teacher does not exist for the sake of the student; both teacher and student have their justification in the common pursuit of knowledge. The teacher’s performance depends on the students’ presence and interest – without this science and scholarship could not grow. If the students who are to form his audience did not come before him of their own free will, he, in his quest for knowledge, would have to seek them out. The goals of science and scholarship are worked towards most effectively through the synthesis of the teacher’s and the students’ dispositions.

[…]

The state must always remain conscious of the fact that it never has and in principle never can, by its own action, bring about the fruitfulness of intellectual activity. It must indeed be aware that it can only have a prejudicial influence if it intervenes. The state must understand that intellectual work will go on infinitely better if it does not intrude.

[…]

Now as regards the organisational and material side of the relationship of the institution to the state, the only concerns of the latter must be profusion (in the sense of mental power and variety) of intellectual talents to be brought together in the institution. This can be achieved through care in the selection of persons and the assurance of freedom in their intellectual activities. This intellectual freedom can be threatened not only by the state, but also by the intellectual institutions themselves which tend to develop, at their birth, a certain outlook and which will therefore readily resist the emergence of another outlook. The state must seek to avert the harm which can possibly arise from this source.

The heart of the matter is the appointment of the persons who are to do the intellectual work.

[…]

The state must not deal with its universities as Gymnasia or as specialised technical schools; it must not use its academy as if it were a technical or scientific commission. It must in general – with certain exceptions among the universities which will be considered later – demand nothing from them simply for the satisfaction of its own needs. It should instead adhere to a deep conviction that if the universities attain their highest ends, they will also realise the state’s ends too, and these on a far higher plane. On this higher plane, more is comprehended and forces and mechanisms are brought into action which are quite different from those which the state can command.

[…]

The young person, on entry into university, should be released from the compulsion to enter either into a state of idleness or into practical life, and should be enabled to aspire to and elevate himself to the cultivation of science or scholarship which hitherto have only been pointed out to him from afar.

The way thereto is simple and sure. The aim of the schools must be the harmonious development of all the capacities of their pupils. Their powers must be focused on the smallest possible number of subject- matters but every aspect of these must be dealt with to as great an extent as possible. Knowledge should be so implanted in the mind of the pupil that understanding, knowledge and creativity excite it, not through any external features, but through their inner precision, harmony and beauty. [. . . ] A mind which has been trained in this way will spontaneously aspire to science and scholarship.

Humboldt’s writings should be read in the context of the traditional German division between universities on one hand and academies of the sciences and arts on the other. He definitely favoured the former, and suggested that the latter have only really flourished where there are few universities. Academies had less strict requirements for selection of staff, compared to the habilitation required in a German university. Humboldt also believed the state should take exclusive control of appointments, rather than faculties:

Although disagreements and disputes within a university are wholesome and necessary, conflicts which might arise between teachers because of their specialised intellectual interests might unwittingly affect their viewpoints.

This important point is at odds with common processes for selection in the UK today.

From Humboldt’s ideas came the twin concepts of Lehrfreiheit (freedom to teach) and Lernfreiheit (freedom to learn), as subsets of Wissenschaftsfreiheit or Akademische Freiheit. These concepts developed through the course of the nineteenth century.

Another hugely important intervention in the development of the concept came from philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce, in his lectures delivered at Cambridge, MA in 1898 (collected in the 1992 Harvard University Press volume Reasoning and the Logic of Things: The Cambridge Conferences Lectures of 1898), in particular that entitled ‘The First Rule of Logic’, in which he compared the situation in American universities deeply unfavourably with their German counterparts in terms of free intellectual inquiry and in particular the link between this and teaching:

inquiry of every type, fully carried out, has the vital power of self-correction and of growth. This is a property so deeply saturating its inmost nature that it may truly be said that there is but one thing needful for learning the truth, and that is a hearty and active desire to learn what is true. If you really want to learn the truth, you will, by however devious a path, be surely led into the way of truth, at last. No matter how erroneous your ideas of the method may be at first, you will be forced at length to correct them so long as your activity is moved by that sincere desire. Nay, no matter if you only half desire it, at first, that desire would at length conquer all others could experience continue long enough. But the more voraciously truth is desired at the outset, the shorter by centuries will the road to it be.

In order to demonstrate that this is so, it is necessary to note what is essentially involved in The Will to Learn. The first thing that the Will to Learn supposes is a dissatisfaction with one’s present state of opinion. There lies the secret of why it is that our American Universities are so miserably insignificant. What have they done for the advance of civilization? What is the great idea or where is [a] single great man who can truly be said to be the product of an American University? The English universities, rotting with sloth as they always have, have nevertheless in the past given birth to Locke and to Newton, and in our time to Cayley, Sylvester and Clifford. The German universities have been the light of the whole world. The medieval University of Bologna gave Europe its system of law. The University of Paris, and that despised Scholasticism took Abelard and made him into Descartes. The reason was that they were institutions of learning while ours are institutions for teaching. In order that a man’s whole heart may be in teaching he must be thoroughly imbued with the vital importance and absolute truth of what he has to teach; while in order that he may have any measure of success in learning he must be penetrated with a sense of the unsatisfactoriness of his present condition of knowledge. The two attitudes are almost irreconcilable.

A range of statements followed from the American Association of University Professors, of which the most important is the ‘1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure’, which was and is endorsed by a wide range of US institutions:

  1. Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.
  2. Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject [my emphasis]. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.
  3. College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

The idea of limitations on academic freedom with deference to religious or other related principles now seems archaic in the modern secular university, but is understandable in the context of its time. What exactly is entailed by the phrase ‘respect for the opinions of others’ is open to much interpretation (certainly it is hard to see how this is true of those who regularly brand their opponents fascists, communists, colonialists, white supremacists, and so on), but there can be proper arenas and frameworks for this, through scholarly forums and the like, in which any aspect of someone’s arguments can be rigorously debated so long as this does not trespass into the realms of personalised attacks on an ad hominem basis, invoking factors irrelevant to the work. Most arguments, within reason, should be allowed a fair hearing but so should challenges to such arguments. To separate individual from work is harder than ever, however, in a time of intense subjectivity in scholarship, in which some make their case essentially on the basis of who they are and the experiences they have had, rather than the cogency of their arguments, as identified in William Matthews recent article for the THES.

In the UK, the most significant definition of academic freedom in recent times came about in the 1988 Education Reform Act, specifically in the so-called ‘Hillhead amendment’, named after Lord [Roy] Jenkins of Hillhead, which appeared within Section 202. This concerned the appointment of a body of University Commissioners (following the abolition of tenure), who would have various tasks:

to ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions;

Similar principles, presented in a more elaborate fashion, can be found in the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel:

III. 4: Institutions  of  higher  education,  and  more  particularly  universities,  are  communities of scholars preserving, disseminating and expressing freely their opinions on traditional knowledge and culture, and pursuing new knowledge without constriction by prescribed doctrines. The pursuit of new knowledge and its  application lie at the heart of the mandate of such institutions of higher education. In higher education institutions where original research is not required, higher-education teaching personnel should maintain and develop knowledge of their subject through scholarship and improved pedagogical skills.

VI. 26: Higher-education teaching personnel, like all other groups and individuals, should enjoy those internationally recognized civil, political, social  and  cultural  rights  applicable to all citizens. Therefore,  all higher-education teaching personnel should enjoy freedom of thought, conscience, religion, expression, assembly and association as well as the right to liberty and security of the person and liberty of movement. They should not be hindered or impeded in exercising their civil rights as citizens, including the right to contribute to social change through freely expressing their opinion of state policies and of policies affecting higher education. They should not suffer any penalties simply because of the exercise of such rights. Higher-education teaching personnel should not be subject to arbitrary arrest or detention, nor to torture, nor to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. In cases of gross violation of their rights, higher-education teaching personnel should have the right to appeal to the relevant national, regional or international bodies such as the agencies of the United Nations, and organizations representing higher-education teaching personnel should extend full support in such cases.

VI. 27: The maintaining of the above international standards should be upheld in the interest of higher education internationally and within the country. To do so, the principle of academic freedom should be scrupulously observed. Higher-education teaching personnel are entitled to the maintaining of academic freedom, that is to say, the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies. All higher-education teaching personnel should have the right to fulfil their functions  without discrimination of any kind and without fear of repression by the state or any other source. Higher-education teaching personnel can effectively do justice to this principle if the environment in which they operate is conducive, which requires a democratic atmosphere; hence the challenge for all of developing a democratic society.

VI. 28: Higher-education teaching personnel have the right to teach without any interference, subject to accepted professional principles including professional responsibility and intellectual rigour with regard to standards and methods of teaching. Higher-education teaching personnel should not be forced to instruct against their own best knowledge and conscience or be forced to use  curricula  and  methods  contrary  to  national and international human rights standards. Higher-education teaching personnel should play a significant role in determining the curriculum.

VI. 29: Higher-education teaching personnel have a right to carry out research work without any interference, or any suppression, in accordance with their professional responsibility and subject to nationally and internationally recognized professional principles of intellectual rigour, scientific inquiry and  research ethics. They should also have the right to publish and communicate the conclusions of the research  of which they are authors or co-authors, as stated in paragraph 12 of this Recommendation.

VI. 30: Higher-education teaching personnel have a right to undertake professional activities outside of their  employment, particularly those that enhance their professional skills or allow for the application of  knowledge to the problems of the community, provided such activities do not interfere with their primary commitments to their home institutions in accordance with institutional policies and regulations or national laws and practice where they exist.

The UK 2017 Higher Education and Research Act (which came in the wake of a wide range of changes to Higher Education from 2010 onwards and established the Office for Students, superseding the earlier Higher Education Funding Council for England and Office for Fair Access), contained relevant material on academic freedom in Section 2(8):

In this Part, “the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers” means—

(a) the freedom of English higher education providers within the law to conduct their day to day management in an effective and competent way,

(b) the freedom of English higher education providers—
(i) to determine the content of particular courses and the manner in which they are taught, supervised and assessed,
(ii) to determine the criteria for the selection, appointment and dismissal of academic staff and apply those criteria in particular cases, and
(iii) to determine the criteria for the admission of students and apply those criteria in particular cases, and

(c) the freedom within the law of academic staff at English higher education providers—
(i) to question and test received wisdom, and
(ii) to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions,

without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at the providers.

For wider reasons beyond the scope of this article (but which will appear in a piece to be published in the THES in the week beginning 3 October), I do question some aspects of complete autonomy of higher education providers, which I do not believe has ever been wholly meaningful in light of wider bodies dedicated to the maintenance of standards (until recently by the Quality Assurance Agency). Furthermore staff deserve wider protection in terms of selection, appointment and dismissal practices, through employment laws which exceed the priorities of individual providers. Nonetheless, sections (a) and (c) are sound bases for the conducting of academic work.

In 2020, The Academic Freedom and Internationalisation Working Group produced a document entitled ‘Model Code of Conduct for the Protection of Academic Freedom and the Academic Community in the Context of the Internationalisation of the UK Higher Education Sector. Whilst recognising the difficulties inherent in defining academic freedom satisfactorily, this group emphasise the following freedoms, drawing upon the 1988, 1997 and 2017 provisions:

  • teach, discuss, assess, define the curriculum and study within their areas of academic expertise and/or inquiry;
  • promote and engage in academic thinking, debate and inquiry;
  • carry out research, and publish the results and make them known;
  • freely express opinions about the academic institution or system in which they work or study;
  • participate in professional or representative academic bodies;
  • not be censored; and,
  • fulfil their functions without discrimination or fear of repression.

These should not supplant the earlier definitions, but can be combined with them to demonstrate the priorities, and this provides a good basis for formulating working definitions.

Finally, the 2021 Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) bill (based on the white paper ‘Higher Education: Free Speech and Academic Freedom‘) from the UK Department of Education, still going through Parliament, lists the following duties for Higher Education Providers (HEPs):

A1 Duty to take steps to secure freedom of speech

(1) The governing body of a registered higher education provider must take the steps that, having particular regard to the importance of freedom of speech, are reasonably practicable for it to take in order to achieve the objective in subsection (2).

(2) That objective is securing freedom of speech within the law for—
(a) staff of the provider,
(b) members of the provider,
(c) students of the provider, and
(d) visiting speakers.

(3) The objective in subsection (2) includes securing that—
(a) the use of any premises of the provider is not denied to any individual or body on grounds specified in subsection (4), and

(b) the terms on which such premises are provided are not to any extent based on such grounds.

(4) The grounds referred to in subsection (3)(a) and (b) are—
(a) in relation to an individual, their ideas, beliefs or views;
(b) in relation to a body, its policy or objectives or the ideas, beliefs or views of any of its members.

(5) The objective in subsection (2), so far as relating to academic staff, includes securing their academic freedom.

(6) In this Part, “academic freedom”, in relation to academic staff at a registered higher education provider, means their freedom within the law—
(a) to question and test received wisdom, and
(b) to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves at risk of being adversely affected in any of the ways described in subsection (7).

(7) Those ways are—
(a) loss of their jobs or privileges at the provider;
(b) the likelihood of their securing promotion or different jobs at the provider being reduced.

(8) The governing body of a registered higher education provider must take the steps that, having particular regard to the importance of freedom of speech, are reasonably practicable for it to take in order to achieve the objective in subsection (9).

(9) That objective is securing that, where a person applies to become a member of academic staff of the provider, the person is not adversely affected in relation to the application because they have exercised their freedom within the law to do the things referred to in subsection (6)(a) and (b).


(10) In order to achieve the objective in subsection (2), the governing body of a registered higher education provider must secure that, apart from in exceptional circumstances, use of its premises by any individual or body is not on terms that require the individual or body to bear some or all of the costs of security relating to their use of the premises.

(11) In this Part—
references to freedom of speech include the freedom to express ideas, beliefs and views without suffering adverse consequences;
“registered higher education provider” and “governing body”, in relation to such a provider, have the same meanings as in Part 1 of this Act

[…]

A3 Duty to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom

The governing body of a registered higher education provider must promote the importance of—
(a) freedom of speech within the law, and
(b) academic freedom for academic staff of registered higher education providers and their constituent institutions,
in the provision of higher education.

The bill goes on to list responsibilities for students unions, governing bodies and the Office for Students in these respects and in particular the creation of a Director of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom to monitor that such commitments on the part of HEPs are upheld.

While the bill is certainly not without problems, and may undergo further amendment before becoming law, I do believe overall it is a step forward. Those on the left who are committed to free speech and academic freedom should be prepared to concede some value in a piece of legislation introduced by a Conservative government.

Risks to Academic Freedom

In my own field of music/musicology, various recent events have highlighted issues of academic freedom. One is the affair known as ‘Schenkergate’, relating to the publication of a special issue of The Journal of Schenkerian Studies in 2020 in reference to the article by Philip A. Ewell, ‘Music Theory and the White Racial Frame’, Music Theory, vol. 26, no. 2 (September 2020). The controversy related in particular to an article by Schenker scholar Dr Timothy Jackson, making arguments about the prevalence of anti-semitism amongst African-Americans, and also arguing that the lack of involvement of African-Americans in music theory had much to do with the low incidence of classical music in the common upbringing of members of this community. Jackson found himself removed from the editorship of the journal as a result. He contested this in court and a Judge determined that this may violate his First Amendment rights. Prior to this, Jackson responded with an article for Quillette (‘The Schenker Controversy’, 20 December 2021) arguing for many fallacies in Ewell’s argument and reasoning.

The second affair was the resignation from a chair in musicology at Royal Holloway in the summer of 2021 of Professor J.P.E. Harper-Scott (who I will refer to as ‘Paul’, as that is how all who know him address him), about which I blogged earlier. Paul published an article online about his reasons for leaving academia, which included the following:

Without direct experience of academics until I went (as the first of my family) to university, I naively imagined them to be how they were presented in novels and TV programmes: sometimes quite bumbling and unworldly, but always committed to the pursuit of truth, never trusting in a commonplace ‘fact’ without subjecting it to the most serious sceptical scrutiny. This did not turn out to be true.

[…] It is a place filled with generally quite well-meaning people, but on the whole not with brave people, not people who are willing to follow the truth wherever it leads. 

[….] I would put the problem in this (Kantian) way: I wrongly supposed that universities would be critical places, but they are becoming increasingly dogmatic. 

This was followed by an example of a statement on the need to ‘decolonise’ the classical musical canon (on which subject I published an article in The Critic in July of this year), which was an example of what Harper-Scott deemed dogmatic, with a suggested alternative which he felt was more in the spirit of critical scholarly inquiry.

I share many of Paul’s concerns, and am also concerned with the trajectory of events relating to Schenkergate. But these relate to what I perceive as a range of factors which serve to limit and condition academic freedom in academia. So I offer the following list of these, some of which would concern those on the left, some those on the right, but all of which I think should concern anyone for whom academic freedom, defined more or less in the ways above, is a defining aspect of a university.

External Pressures from Industries and Institutions

I wrote more extensively about this subject in earlier blog posts here and here, but wish to emphasise (in line with the arguments in the later blog post), that in no sense should this be taken to imply that I oppose external engagement. I am referring to the situation whereby academics enter into partnerships with external institutions and bodies, which may be commercial, state-supported or partially state-supported. These partnerships may relate to research, teaching or both. In particular, I have in mind the situation in which the external institutions provide some financial support for these activities. If there is no such thing as a free lunch, there may also be no such thing as a free teaching or research grant. For such institutions to ask that their finance or other support entail concentration on certain areas is fair and to be expected. But what if the results are not necessarily what the external body wishes to hear?

The point may be made most clearly through reference to wider examples. Suppose that some major manufacturing corporation sponsors some research into the effects of particular types of manufacturing upon the environment. Perhaps the researchers in question may find their work leads them to the inexorable conclusion that this specific corporation are responsible for a range of environmentally damaging actions in the course of their regular activities, contrary to their own promotional material which argues that they are an environmentally-friendly corporation, also drawing attention to the fact that they sponsor this research in order to bolster such a thing. If the researchers felt under pressure to artificially modify or not publish their findings, for fear of not upsetting the corporation, this would in my view severely compromise academic freedom and integrity.

There needs to be some commonly agreed set of principles which become a basic prerequisite for academics entering into some partnership with an external institution, whereby they are free to follow where their research leads them without fear of the institution blocking their access or terminating the partnership prematurely, and also so that future partnerships will not discriminate against those who may have written critically about the institution in the past.

The Complex Relationship between Research and External Practice

This relates to concerns explored in some depth in the conference on ‘Writing on Contemporary Artists’ at the University of Surrey in 2017, organised by Christopher Wiley and myself, and features both in the 2020 Palgrave Macmillan, volume we edited, Researching and Writing on Contemporary Art and Artists: Challenges, Practices and Complexities, while in a specifically musical context will feature in our forthcoming Routledge volume Writing about Contemporary Musicians: Promotion, Advocacy, Disinterest, Censure. This subject is also discussed at more length in the two earlier blog posts linked to in the previous section.

What happens when academics are dealing with living or recently living practitioners or their estates – writers, composers, artists, directors of institutions, critics, promoters, and so on? Or if they have strong external connections with some of these people beyond academia? How free can they feel to write and research these independently, at least considering perspectives on them and their work which may not necessarily coincide with their own self-presentation, that of their publishers, and so on?

Is the role of academics to be ‘advocates’ for these figures, or is it the case, as I believe, that a too-strong application of this principle (as opposed to simply researching things to which one is sympathetic, which is a different matter) can easily result in hagiographic treatment? How do academics maintain critical independence without the fear of being frozen out of some of these people’s circles, their materials, and so on (a situation I know various scholars have experienced)? I have certainly felt the pressure when writing about a range of living composers whose work I also play, and to some extent upon whom I rely upon for some good favour, writing new works for me, recommending me to festivals to play their work, and so on. I am still unsure about the feasibility of reconciling this with being a critical scholar.

One of the factors afflicting a fair amount of writing on new music, in my view, is a failure to consider this. As I have written about in the case of various such writings, a position of defensive advocacy, coupled to attempts to pathologise any who disagree with a 100% favourable view, leads to something more akin to promotional material than more sober scholarly work.

There are of course also plenty of practitioners themselves active within academic arts departments. Whilst some are engaged in the type of more dispassionate scholarship characteristic of the humanities – and I would like to count myself in that category – in other cases the work is of a different nature, framing practice in terms of research questions and context, with the use of verbal material essentially to articulate the ways in which it qualifies ‘as research’. Artistic practitioners frequently have external careers, working in an alternative economy in which critical thinking is by no means necessarily respected or admired. Sometimes simply saying the right thing to the right people, those in positions of power able to do favours, and not questioning all sorts of dominant ideologies operative in these circles, is a much better bet than asking more difficult questions. This can lead to a situation which I conceive as ‘two cultures’ of scholars and practitioners in terms of the attitude and approaches they take.

These issues do, for sure, also apply to those who, as I do, seek to write in non-academic arenas about the arts (or other disciplines), for various reasons, not least because of the differing role that value judgement might play therein. But I think it is possible to differentiate between academic and other writing and not confuse the two. It is less clear where the distinction lies with non-written forms of practice.

Top-down demands by institutions.

In any institutions with a degree of central control of teaching and research, individual academics may find themselves in conflict with the explicit demands or requirements of their department, school, or whole university. Some may try to specify the contents of curricula, or require academics to fashion teaching in general towards generalised criteria of employability. In other cases, support and internal funding for research may rely upon its falling within certain areas, which may be fair enough, but could also require the employment of certain methods which themselves might be more likely to produce certain types of results. These factors might affect the extent, for example, to which teaching can realistically focus on critical perspectives upon the industries or institutions for which students might be looking to work, to link to the first point.

Elsewhere, policies relating to diversity or ‘decolonisation’ might dictate choices or approaches to their teaching, at worst precluding critical treatment of certain types of subjects, and conversely requiring only negative or pejorative attitudes towards others. It is notable in my experience that some who are ferociously defensive of their independence in other contexts can also be supportive of top-down policies in these respects.

But I believe it is important to maintain independence right down to singular academics when it comes to precisely how they conduct their teaching and research. It is fair that departments need to require that certain things are taught as part of a programme, and that certain knowledge and skills are imparted, but the approach to so doing should be left to the individual academic as far as possible. In this respect I have a lot of sympathy with the 2021 Higher Education Bill.

This said, as I will argue in next week’s THES, I do believe that there is a requirement for provision of certain core subjects to a recognised level in all regionalities of the country (not least to facilitate ‘commuter students’, not wishing to incur huge amounts of debt through moving away from home to study), and in this article will advocate some type of tertiary ‘national curriculum’, a more rigorous form of the types of subject benchmarks previously provided by the QAA. Nonetheless, it should still be possible to maintain freedom of individual academics within a framework of encouraging pluralistic perspectives and debate.

Departmental ‘branding’

Different academics, sometimes of very different or opposing views, work together in departments. A further concern in terms of academic freedom has to do with pressures to conform with prevailing orthodoxies within a department, not questioning these or colleagues who propagate them, so as to maintain a consistent ‘brand’ for a department which is competing with others for students.

Sometimes the term employed here to put pressures on individual academics is ‘collegiality’, understood as working within a set of parameters, not markedly questioning them in ways which are incompatible with a group view. But this is not consistent with what I think is a decent definition provided in the UNESCO 1997 document:

UNESCO 1997, VI. 32: The principles of collegiality include academic freedom, shared responsibility,  the  policy of participation of all concerned in internal decision making structures and practices, and the development of consultative mechanisms. Collegial decision-making should encompass decisions regarding the administration and determination of policies of higher education, curricula, research, extension work, the allocation of resources and other related activities, in order to improve academic excellence and quality for the benefit of society at large.

All of this is entirely compatible with permitting academics to work without feeling pressure to conform or fashion their work in line with some ‘majority view’ in their department, and I think this is also essential.



Need to concentrate work in particular fields.

Securing academic jobs depends a good deal on one’s particular field and the job opportunities available. In the UK, fewer than 20% of students take traditional BMus or BA courses with a humanities approach which includes historical, analytical, critical and other types of musicology. The remainder take courses in musical theatre, music technology, popular music to a lesser extent, and certain types of musical performance, all of which are primarily vocationally oriented. As a result, the openings for historical musicologists (especially those working on early music), music analysts, and indeed ethnomusicologists working on the non-Western world are limited. Even those already holding university positions can come under pressure to shift in certain directions in light of changing provision, and some have encountered redundancies as a result. To link to a point made earlier, in some contexts a more critical view of the music industry, compared to some presentations of it as a model of diversity and inclusivity, may create problems for the individual academics if they are seeking work in institutions wedded to such a view.

Here I would look back to the Humboldt model and make what now seems a radical suggestion, which is that appointments should be administered centrally by the state rather than individual institutions, so as to ensure a fair distribution and representation of plural areas of teaching and research. Individual departments may recruit ‘in their own image’, and this can have the effect of shutting out openings for academics who once again do not fit with the dominant ‘brand’.



Social Justice

Here I have in mind the view put forward by William Cheng, in his 2016 book Just Vibrations, which has received positive endorsement from a range of leading musicologists (see for example here and here), though others have written very critically about this (see also here). Cheng is dismissive of academic freedom and even of ‘the belief that academics have a right to pursue their work free from political pressures and without fear of termination’. In place of this he advocates a musicology which he says ‘upholds interpersonal care as a core feature’. This is hardly compatible with Cheng’s own dismissive remarks about other musicologists and musicology, but is part of a certain view, usually linked to the term ‘social justice’, seemingly innocuous, but which in reality requires that researchers comply with an unyielding political agenda and fashion their work towards this. A recent position advertised at the University of Southampton Music Department which included ‘social justice’ in the job title. I do not see the difference between this and advertising a position in ‘Music and Support for Jeremy Corbyn’, ‘Musicology and Brexit Advocacy’, and so on – it appears entirely unreasonable and a constraint on academic freedom to specify a specific political outlook in a job description, and this should be investigated in terms of employment law. The view of Cheng and others reminds me strongly of the dictates in various undemocratic countries, in which academics and artists found themselves under strong pressure to propagate particular political ideologies, or find themselves facing censure, termination or worse. This should be utterly unacceptable to anyone concerned about academic freedom.



Student-as-consumer

A new study conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Nick Hillman, ‘“You can’t say that!” What students really think of free speech on campus’ (June 2022)) suggests that very significant numbers of UK students prioritise what they regard as demands for safety and protection from discrimination over free speech, wish to place issues such as sexism and racism outside of the boundaries of legitimate debate, would limit expression of views which offend certain religious groups, and so on.

We hear in many places about the vital role of students as ‘consumers’ who make the activities of universities possible, definitively placing teaching rather than research at the centre of their activities. The pressure on institutions to respond to demands from these ‘consumers’ can be intense, and it is by no means guaranteed that they will always act to protect the freedoms of academics in the face of student pressure.

Here I think we do need statutory measures implemented and enforced by the state, and also welcome some of the proposals in the 2021 act for this reason. For students to be able to hound out academics because they do not like some of what they have to say (as opposed to illegal activity or other things which transgress the inevitable constraints on free speech which need to be enforced by law) is to produce a culture more reminiscent of Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution.



While formal disciplinary mechanisms precluding academic freedom in the Western world may not be that extensive, there are other pressures which can lead to self-censorship. These include increasingly precarious employment. In the UK there is no tenure system, and – as we are witnessing in other areas of the arts and humanities at present – academics can find themselves dispensable.

Some on the left often advocate for silencing of those they deem racist, transphobic, etc., but are highly defensive when others are accused of anti-semitism (or when those associated with genderist politics are accused of misogyny). Some on the right focus on anti-semitism (which ought to be an issue for those of all political persuasions) or advocacy of views they associate with terrorism, but are more defensive with respect to other things. I believe that only in very blatant and explicit cases should any of these be used as a justification for limiting academic freedom. Anti-Zionists and gender-critical feminists should not feel that their view is illegitimate in academia.

Critical subjects should remain a presence in all universities. All academics must be free to follow where their research and convictions take them, even if their conclusions are not what their institutions, external partners, or colleagues want to hear. To fashion one’s work according to the demands of any of these is another fundamental betrayal of academic freedom.


Critical Engagement with Practice is not the same as subservience, or being a practitioner

Over a long period, I have repeatedly considered the question of ‘practice’ in an academic context, its meanings and implications, following on from earlier writings on the relationship between practice and research (see an index to earlier blog posts on this subject here), then most recently two articles in the Times Higher Education Supplement arguing for the need of different means to integrate practitioners into academia (see here and here) and then a blog article intended as a dialectical response to those articles, drawing upon a wider debate of the relationship between ‘advocacy’ and ‘criticism’, mapped by some onto ‘practitioners’ and ‘scholars’ respectively.

These subjects remain not only complex, both in theory and literally in ‘practice’, but also touch upon raw nerves amongst various scholars and practitioners. I have encountered significant rage from some composers at the suggestion that perhaps, just as few would suggest that musicological scholars are experts in the practice of composition, they might show some humility towards musicologists as well, rather than assuming they know just as much about their discipline and are equally adept at teaching it. Much of this anger likely relates to competition for positions in an ever-more competitive and narrowing academic job market, especially at the current time, when at least in some other arts/humanities subjects (not music as of recently, though over the last two decades a significant number of music departments and programmes have closed), departments have been making sweeping cuts (for example Roehampton University).

There are those who choose to view the humanities on one hand, and practical work and the sciences on the other, as fundamentally opposing groups of disciplines, not only in their subject matter, but also in approach, method, ethos, and so on, so that any teaching which relates to the former is antithetical to the latter. I fundamentally disagree, and believe this view is at odds with the defining aspect of a university (as also argued back in 2010 in an article by Terry Eagleton, claiming that a university without humanities would be like ‘a pub without alcohol’). But that issue, which leads back to C.P. Snow’s 1959 essay on The Two Cultures, is extensive and for another article.

What I want to consider here is the role of universities in terms of engagement with practice, both practice undertaken by academics themselves, and that conducted in external institutions. In many ways I believe this is not just important but quite vital in a range of disciplines. Those working in medicine or other health sciences need to draw upon knowledge garnered through practical medical work, and conversely develop research with practical application. The same is true in study of business and the law. A literary scholar is engaging at a deep level with literary practice, just as is a music analyst with the musical equivalent. The extent to which academic research into the arts does or should feed into practice is more open to question, however. Certainly in the case of music there is a body of musicological opinion which is markedly sceptical about the value of performers using the findings of analytical and other research to inform their own performances, noting the very limited to which a great many important performers have done so over history, and how often their performances are quite distinct from what might be implied by such research. The same is true of composition – someone once wrote sardonically about composers who think that if one can analyse music, one can compose it, it is just a matter of doing the process in reverse! Nonetheless, in other ways performers do frequently draw upon knowledge in the business of crafting a performance (sometimes simply that garnered from listening to other performances), as do composers, and so such criticisms may in reality relate more to specific strategies than the use of external knowledge per se in the process of artistic creation.

Some areas such as pure maths (at the heart of my own first degree) may be different with respect to practical engagement; certainly from what I recall 35 years on a good deal of pure mathematical research was undertaken without primary consideration for its potential application, which was something to be discovered later on. I believe (but am no expert) that a similar approach underlies some work in other ‘pure’ sciences, and this is certainly true of those non-empirical branches of philosophy which believe in the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge.

But in fields for which large areas of practical activity exist, it would be foolish to deny the value of engaging with knowledge drawn from this realm. I will from this point limit my discussion to artistic areas, as they are those which I know best. The key issue, in my view, is not whether but how one should do so. And this is where I would emphasise the vital aspect of a critical engagement with practice, and also of academic independence. When dealing with external practitioners or institutions dedicated to practice, one is confronted with those who have their own distinct desires, needs, economic imperatives, possible rivalries with others, and so on. Not all of these things would make for good scholarship if taken at face value. An artist may prefer a scholar to focus exclusively on their most successful work, not that whose merits might be more questionable, but a scholar who did so and claimed to be examining the work in its entirety would be disingenuous. The same is true of one examining a theatre and the responses of its audiences, who chose to bracket out from their study those audience responses which were less positive, in order to avoid upsetting the theatre owners. To use a dichotomy underlying a blog post from almost a decade ago, this is the difference between scholarship and PR. The scholar’s task is to follow where the results of their research lead them; to bury some of these in order to keep an external partner happy, or for that matter to undertake the research in such a way as to make such an outcome inevitable (as I have criticised sharply in some varieties of ethnographic work which eschew a critical view of the views and perceptions of their subjects, and as such can amount to hagiography), is to foresake one of the most fundamental aspects of being a scholar.

What I am arguing here is that critical scholarly engagement with practice (which can certainly involve partnerships and the like) should not be confused with a subservient relationship to this. This may not be the preference of some external practitioners, but if they wish for academic input, they need to respect the integrity of the academics involved.

But what about if the scholar is also the practitioner, as is the case in various forms of practice-as-research, artistic research, and so on? I have argued repeatedly that the question of whether certain practice is research is rather banal. In some ways most practice can be construed as such (as most practice requires answering certain types of questions to which there are multiple possible answers, and a range of methods for doing so), but what really matters is the quality of the research. This is not necessarily synonymous with what satisfies other aesthetic criteria (in an artistic context), but has to do with the generation of new knowledge expressed in the form of practice, which can have at least potential application for others. So an artist who develops new approaches which are found to bear aesthetic fruit, and upon which others can draw, would in an academic context generally be thought of as having done valuable research of a type.

Not all do accept this view of research (certainly artistic researchers have on the whole rejected the idea that research can simply be located in practice itself). I do accept it, but I am less sure of the extent to which it maps onto other forms of research, or qualifies the practitioner to undertake the latter, other than in some exceptional circumstances. Furthermore, while the quality of such research can, I believe, be gauged simply by close inspection of the practical work engendered, I wonder of the extent to which those engaged in assessment really do those to an intense degree (hardly possible if one has a wide range of things to assess), or whether the research quality is based upon finding the work more-or-less seems to resemble some of the qualities presented in associated verbal material (see my post on the 300-word statements that are essentially mandatory for submission of practice-based outputs to the REF).

Once again, I return to the question of critical engagement, or self-critical engagement. A practitioner can describe their work, even give a significant amount of detail about how it was put together, upon which ideas, philosophies or other determinants they have drawn (as one will find in many an ‘artist’s statement’), but that does not amount to this form of engagement. What can be difficult for practitioners is an attempt to ‘stand outside’ of their own work (and the immediate concerns of their own self), especially when in other contexts they are required to ‘sell themselves’ and in the process hide any acknowledgement of weaknesses, doubts or other more ambivalent self-reflection. Of course academics are far from immune to the latter tendency, which can sometimes dampen the possibilities of their own self-criticism, but they do function in scholarly arenas where if they do not do so, others can and often will follow up on vulnerabilities in their work, which is not always the case in more precious artistic circles.

The much-debated and contested field of autoethnography appears to me to hinge on the critical element; critical self-reflection upon personal experience, for the purposes of generating new knowledge which wider potential application is not the same thing as simply writing about oneself (which would be closer to autobiography), though a fair amount of writing and lectures I have encountered which is billed as autoethnography comes closer to the second category.

One anecdote may explain how these different attitudes and approaches can also inform teaching and its relationship to external practice. At a former institution, I was once tasked with developing a module on ‘Music and the Marketplace’, which I conceived as a broad consideration of the ways in which market forces inform music and music-making over a period of history, how other forms of music-making less subject to market forces might be different in nature, and so on. I had to be away for a period for some external performing work, so someone else took over the module design in my absence. When I returned, it had been changed to something like ‘How to get ahead in the musical marketplace’, which was a long way from my original design. What is the difference exactly? The module as originally conceived was about a critical engagement with the practice of music-making and its economic context. This by no means need imply a primarily negative view of market forces or their effect upon music, but should have been able to entertain a plurality of possible perspectives based upon careful and critical study of the phenomenon. The latter would have been entirely an ’employability’ module. Now I am certainly not going to deny the importance of such things. Some aspects of such teaching, such as how to write a CV or design a business plan, I would categorise as ancillary rather than academic skills – certainly they are things which do not necessarily require a university in order to be learned. But if employability skills become the only or primary things taught in a university context, or the attitude associated with them underlies the majority of teaching, I wonder then if a university degree has become more of a training course, lacking true intellectual inquiry and critical thinking that is more than purely functional. This touches on the question of a humanities approach – critical thinking in that context I would associate with a relatively dispassionate search for ‘pure’ knowledge, rather than subsuming that knowledge to narrow external criteria such as ‘how do I get ahead?’ or ‘how do I keep certain people happy?’

Any academic department without critical scholars will be impoverished in terms of the wider mission of a university. Practitioners can be critical scholars/thinkers as well, as can external partners, but one should not assume this is necessarily the case and certainly not ignore the possibility that other agendas may condition their thinking, either as expressed explicitly or implicitly assumed. In order that universities fulfil their central mission, it is vital to engage with practice, but in a critical and independent manner, whilst recognising that simply undertaking practice and promoting it in a certain way is not at all the same thing. And institutions must take care to guard and protect scholars’ independence from external pressures, simply to ensure that what they do remains scholarship. Then there is no reason to worry that engagement with practice entails any necessary conflict with the imperatives of research.


Musicological Observations 12: Articles and links relating to Practice-Research

In advance of writing a new blog post on academic engagement with practice, I thought it might be useful to give links to my various writings on practice-research and other important links in one place here, much from the period following the publication of John Croft’s article ‘Composition is not Research’, Tempo, Vol. 69, Issue 272 (April 2015), pp. 6-11.

Here is Croft’s article and my response:

John Croft, ‘Composition is not Research’.
Ian Pace, ‘Composition and Performance can be, and often have been, Research’.

The following articles appeared in the same issue of Tempo as my response to Croft. Unfortunately there do not appear to be open access versions of them available.

Camden Reeves, ‘Composition, Research and Pseudo-Science: A Response to John Croft’.
John Croft, ‘Composing, Research and Ways of Talking’ (a response to both Reeves and myself)

Blog posts

Musicology is not Musical PR. A post from 2013, from when I started to think hard about the different value-systems and expectations of scholarship from practitioners and musicologists.

Research Forum, ‘Can Composition and Practice be Research? Critical Perspectives’, City University, November 25th, 2015. This was a post in advance of the debate.

‘Musicological Observations 4: Can Commercial Music be Research?’ This was an earlier article asking about the relationship between commerce and research in a musical context.

Performance-as-Research – A Reply to Luk Vaes. This was a response to an article by artistic researcher Luk Vaes (linked to in the post) in advance of the debate.

Video of Research Seminar on Composition and Performance as Research, and some wider responses to John Croft and others. This contains the full video of the debate, some of my text presented there (the information on university music departments is rather dated, and will be supplanted by new information posted on this blog soon), and wider responses to Croft’s response.

Some final thoughts on composition, performance, the REF, and teaching. Subsequent reflections following the debate.

Those 300-word statements on Practice-as-Research for the RAE/REF – origins and stipulations – ‘academic butt-covering’ or more problematic? Specifically on the role of 300-word statements accompanying practice-based outputs.

The RAE and REF: Resources and Critiques. An article written during the period of the 2018 industrial action in academia, collating a wide range of views on these institutions mostly expressed on social media, with wider links to literature on the subject. This contains a small amount relating to practice-research and the REF.

Musicological Thoughts 9: Practitioners and Scholars – Advocacy vs Criticism? A much more recent post, entailing some revision of earlier positions and somewhat more sceptical about the extent to which practitioners and scholars are able to find genuine common ground.

Musicological Thoughts 10: The Value of Empirical Musicology for the Performer? A piece written during the 2022 Performance Studies Network conference, after a mixture of listening to papers and practising, considering the relationship between practice and a particular musicological sub-discipline.

Two other articles, not blog posts, which I wrote earlier this year for the Times Higher Education Supplement, are also relevant in this context:

‘We need a Research and Practice Excellence Framework’ (10 May 2022)
‘University departments need a broad range of performing artists’ (22 May 2022) (written in response to Victoria Kelley, ‘The REF does not disadvantage practice-based subjects’ (13 May 2022)).

The blog post on ‘Practitioners and Scholars’ above is in part an attempt to offer a further side to this debate, not possible within the word-count of the THES articles.

Wider links

The following are a range of further weblinks available at the time of the debate.

Piers Hellawell, ‘Treating Composers as Researchers is Bonkers.’
Luk Vaes, ‘When Composition is not Research.’
Lawrence Dunn, ‘Squaring the damn composition-research circle.’
Martin Parker Dixon, ‘Composition can be research (some comments on John Croft’s recent article).’
David Pocknee, ‘Composition Is Not A Jaffa Cake, Research Is Not A Biscuit: A Riposte to John Croft.’
Lauren Redhead, ‘Is Composition Research?’
Nicholas Till, ‘Opus versus Output’
Huib Schippers, ‘The Marriage of Art and Academia: Challenges and Opportunities for Music Research in Practice-based Environments.’
Christopher Fox, ‘Music for a Dis-Uniting Kingdom?’ (Including some reflections on composition as research).

The following book chapter continues some of the important themes. Unfortunately it is not available open access, but can be requested from the authors at the link below.

Martin Scheuregger and Christopher Leedham, ‘The Purpose of the Written Element in Composition PhDs’, in Researching and Writing on Contemporary Art and Artists, edited Christopher Wiley and Ian Pace (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), pp. 65-90.

The website for PRAGUK (Practice Research Group UK) includes a good list of major texts on the subject. Especially important, coming out of this group, is the following:

James Bulley and Özden Şahin, ‘Practice Research’ (2021).

And the following are some earlier relevant articles more widely on practice and research:

Christopher Frayling, ‘Research in Art and Design.’
Linda Candy, ‘Practice Based Research: A Guide.’
Joanne ‘Bob’ Whalley and Lee Miller, ‘Partly Cloudy, Chance of Rain: A Case Study’, in John Freeman (ed) Blood, Sweat and Theory: Research through Practice in Performance. (Middlesex University Press, London, 2010), pp. 218-232.


New Music 1 – A Niche World

In several recent writings and various upcoming ones I have been considering in a more sustained fashion wider aspects of the culture of new music, both historically and in the present day. My long chapter, just published, ‘New Music: Performance Institutions and Practices’, in The Oxford Handbook of Music Performance, Volume 1, edited Gary E. McPherson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022), pp. 396-455, traces the growth of a network of festivals, concert series and other aspects of a new music infrastructure from after the end of World War One, as well as the development of specialised performance skills on the part of individual interpreters and ensembles, all as part of a specific culture of ‘new music’ which developed with a degree of autonomy from a more mainstream culture of art music performance (as represented by orchestral, chamber, choral, solo concerts of repertoire primarily from the common practice period) over the course of a century. This very fact of inhabiting a separate realm is to me a defining aspect of new music, a term which has developed ever since the publication of Paul Bekker’s vital essay ‘Neue Musik’ (1919), advocating a range of new approaches to music, some of them then still relatively latent, which constituted a significant break with or at least shift of emphasis from the immediate past, one which was amplified at a time which saw the collapse of various aspects of the pre-war order, revolution in Russia, and an attempt revolution in Germany, which members of the influential Berlin Novembergruppe sought to sublimate into artistic creation.

In ‘Modernist Fantasias: The Recuperation of a Concept’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, vol. 144, no. 2 (2019), pp. 473-493, starting from a detailed critical examination of The Routledge Research Companion to Modernism in Music, edited Björn Heile and Charles Wilson (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2019), I consider the provenance and development of the term ‘modernism’ (and its equivalents such as French modernisme, German Moderne, Spanish modernismo and so on) both in music and other arts, not least in terms of recent attempts to frame the concept more broadly than hitherto (in some cases to date it back to the French Revolution) as well as to recapture it as a living force deserving of reconsideration, as informed the so-called New Modernist Studies in literary and cultural scholarship beginning in 1999, which has been matched more gradually by the growth of parallel scholarship in music. I have also been working on a book chapter considering the historiography of new music since 1989, and recently gave a lecture looking more broadly at historiographical issues through the 20th and 21st century, which have also been the theme of other lectures and publications considering the ways in which ‘experimental’ and ‘minimal’ music have informed such historiography.

All of this work, combined with my ongoing work on the creation and development of the infrastructure for new music in post-1945 Germany, have brought to the fore difficult questions relating to new music as a whole and its place today. I have been professionally active as a pianist in the world of new music for three decades, and have become intimately aware of its range of mores, orthodoxies, internal politics, and so on, and the ways in which its institutions and those operating those tend to work. It remains a field of cultural activity which in my opinion has immense value, but claims for its wider importance and significance are less easy to articulate in a manner which might convince those who need convincing. But this latter activity, if one believes this importance to be the case (which I do, but in a less unequivocal manner than I might have done 15-20 years ago), is vital if those engaged with new music seek an impact and respect beyond the narrow realms of fellow travellers. This is not so often to be found, and a reticence to engage with the wider issues concerned suggests either dangerous complacency or even a wilful disregard married to a sense of entitlement, which I believe should be challenged.

I am fully aware that there are a great many who would describe a lot of the atonal music I play (and even some of the more dissonant late tonal music as well), and which those I know compose, at the politest as ‘not music’, often through much harsher derogatory epithets. These will include some friends, some students and many other members of the wider public with no personal investment in this work nor necessarily any desire for such. It is much too easy to dismiss those who think in such a way as idiots, philistines, etc., in the process writing off large swathes of any population. But in my experience those who think such a way do not particular care unless they feel made to listen to such music, whether in a performance situation where it is not their reason for being there, feeling it is imposed upon them in education, or in the face of stentorian claims about its importance.

Yet one might struggle to be aware of this within the rarefied circles of those professionally involved in new music. That a great many people might be not simply indifferent but actively hostile to their music in the contexts described above can seem a subject which it is unacceptable even to consider. That the work of musicians involved must be vital and must deserve the widest support is an article of faith, or at least amongst different factions of individuals, who do not necessarily extend this view to members of rival factions. Some looking from outside might be shocked to see the extent of the personalised vitriol extended by some towards anyone (not least critics, but also various others) who aver an opinion that they do not find some piece of music engaging, moving, or some other quality they seek. The response can be to pathologise those who think such a way, or seek to disallow their opinions from being heard. Following the recent death of Richard Taruskin, there was a furious set of posts on social media about a highly critical review he wrote of two CDs of the American composer Donald Martino, which extended into a wider critique of aspects of new music (see below). The view seemed to be that the only type of legitimate review is one which praises this type of work, and anything else should not be allowed to be printed. It would be interesting to see this principle applied to restaurant reviewing – I am sure some restaurant owners would be more than happy.

There are ways to frame new music and its particularity which avoid the need to make wider claims for its public significance. In a 2014 article, Martin Iddon conceptualised new music as a type of ‘subculture’, drawing upon the concept propounded most notoriously by Dick Hebdige in his 1979 book Subculture: The Meaning of Style. I have used this concept myself in my ‘New Music’ article mentioned above, but have doubts (some reservations expressed in a footnote there did not make it into the final version!). Certainly new music has from the outset entailed a realm of activity distinct from a ‘mainstream’, as is true of many subcultures explored and theorised by Hebdige and others (space does not allow consideration here of the later concept of ‘post-subculture’). But its economic situation is not at all comparable with the subculture of the mods, rockers, punks or whatever. In large measure, new music activity relies heavily on subsidy for its continued operation; it would not be financially viable via ticket sales alone, other than very small operations. This subsidy comes either from public money generated through taxation and distributed in various ways via local, regional and state arts organisations, as is the case in much of Western Europe and to a lesser extent the UK (though considerably less so in the United States), or through the patronage of universities, in which those involved in new music production may find employment and some concomitant financial support for their activities. These things lend such music a level of institutional or official prestige which is quite uncharacteristic of other forms of subculture. If one could imagine a group of death metal fans receiving regular government grants to develop their music, clothing, writings, and so on, and present these in major government-backed venues, this would surely seem a long way from the conventional idea of a subculture.

Here subcultural theory does present one phenomenon which is familiar in part: numerous studies observe how subcultures, despite defining themselves in opposition to some mainstream, exhibit marked homologous tendencies and appear to require a degree of discipline and unity from their own members, with little tolerance for internal dissent. In the case of new music circles, it would be untrue to deny the existence of divisions, because of the opposing factions mentioned earlier. But these are divisions between different groups competing for the mantle of new music, seen as representing progress, the one true way forward, the most supposedly enlightened form of music, and so on. It would be much more rare to hear many within any faction questioning the status of new music as a whole, or the purpose of its institutions. Some who have done – not least various of the key figures viewed as ‘minimalist’ (Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams, etc.) – have tended to operate to a large degree outside of these circles, while others holding to a neo-romantic or other related late tonal aesthetic have sought and sometimes found recognition within more mainstream performance circles.

In subsequent posts, I will consider wider issues to do with the institutionalisation of new music, the means by which it is legitimated (not least, in present times, by attachment to various political causes), and look more widely at the question of why new music and its practitioners enjoy a status in universities not always granted to other types of musicians and scholars. But here I want to consider some of the starkly opposed views from musicians scholars regarding the prestige of new music.

Milton Babbitt was one of the most articulate advocates of the benefits of new music composition in a university setting, allowing some degree of autonomy from audience indifference or hostility, or commercial pressures. This was outlined in his essay ‘The Composer as Specialist’ (1958), first published in High Fidelity, vol. 8, no. 2 (February 1958) to which editors (rather than Babbitt himself) gave the title ‘Who Cares if you Listen?’

Why should the layman be other than bored and puzzled by what he is unable to understand, music oranything else? It is only the translation of this boredom and puzzlement into resentment and denunciation that seems to me indefensible. After all, the public does have its own music, its ubiquitous music: music to eat by, to read by, to dance by, and to be impressed by. Why refuse to recognize the possibility that contemporary music has reached a stage long since attained by other forms of activity? The time has passed when the normally well-educated man without special preparation could understand the most advanced work in, for example, mathematics, philosophy, and physics. Advanced music, to the extent that it reflects the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive than his background in other fields. But to this, a double-standard is invoked, with the words “music is music,” implying also that “music is just music.” Why not, then, equate the activities of the radio repairman with those of thetheoretical physicist, on the basis of the dictum that “physics is physics”? It is not difficult to find statements like the following, from the New York Times of September 8, 1957: “The scientific level of the conference is so high . . . that there are in the world only 120 mathematicians specializing in the field who could contribute.” Specialized music on the other hand, far from signifying “height” of musical level, has been charged with “decadence,” even as evidence of an insidious “conspiracy.”

I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition. By so doing, the separation between the domains would be defined beyond any possibility of confusion of categories, and the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism.

But how, it may be asked, will this serve to secure the means of survival for the composer and his music? One answer is that, after all, such a private life is what the university provides the scholar and the scientist. It is only proper that the university, which—significantly—has provided so many contemporary composers with their professional training and general education, should provide a home for the “complex,” “difficult,” and “problematical” in music. Indeed, the process has begun; and if it appears to proceed too slowly, I take consolation in the knowledge that in this respect, too, music seems to be in historically retarded parallel with now sacrosanct fields of endeavor. In E. T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics, we read: “In the eighteenth century the universities were not the principal centers of research in Europe. They might have become such sooner than they did but for the classical tradition and its understandable hostility to science. Mathematics was close enough to antiquity to be respectable, but physics, being more recent, was suspect. Further, a mathematician in a university of the time would have been expected to put much of his effort on elementary teaching; his research, if any, would have been an unprofitable luxury.” A simple substitution of “musical composition” for “research”, of “academic” for “classical”, of “music” for “physics,” and of “composer” for “mathematician,” provides a strikingly accurate picture of the current situation. And as long as the confusion I have described continues to exist, how can the university and its community assume other than that the composer welcomes and courts public competition with the historically certified products of the past, and the commercially certified products of the present?

Perhaps for the same reason, the various institutes of advanced research and the large majority of foundations have disregarded this music’s need for means of survival. I do not wish to appear to obscure the obvious differences between musical composition and scholarly research, although it can be contended that these differences are no more fundamental than the differences among the various fields of study.

Babbitt’s article demonstrates an unerring faith of a notion of musical ‘progress’, which he maps onto scientific research. But he does not ask what purpose the ‘complex’, ‘difficult’ and ‘problematical’ in music serves? It is not so difficult to demonstrate the wider impact and application of various types of science, but what is the equivalent for music? Over a hundred years on, Schoenberg’s atonal and dodecaphonic explorations have won only a modest following even amongst musicians, certainly compared to the more widespread valuing of music of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartok, and others who were once viewed as members of avant-gardes. Some might cite the occasional use of atonal material in film or video games for particular effect, but this seems very modest in comparison to the claims made by Babbitt.

The polar opposite of Babbitt’s view can be found in feminist scholar Susan McClary’s essay ‘Terminal Prestige: The Case of Avant-Garde Music Composition’, Cultural Critique, No. 12 (Spring 1989), pp. 57-81, somewhat notorious in musicological circles. McClary considers the views of Arnold Schoenberg, Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt on certain valorisations of ‘difficult’ music and its distance from mainstream audiences (though she has relatively little to say on the music itself):

Perhaps only with the twentieth-century avant-garde, however, has there been a music that has sought to secure prestige precisely by claiming to renounce all possible social functions and values [….]

This strange posture was not invented in the twentieth century, of course. It is but the reductio ad absurdum of the nineteenth-century notion that music ought to be an autonomous activity, insulated from the contamination of the outside social world. […]

In this century (especially following World War II), the “serious” composer has felt beleaguered both by the reified, infinitely repeated classical music repertory and also by the mass media that have provided the previously disenfranchised with modes of “writing” and distribution-namely recording, radio, and television. Thus even though Schoenberg, Boulez,and Babbitt differ enormously from each other in terms of socio-historical context and music style, they at least share the siege mentality that has given rise to the extreme position we have been tracing: they all regard the audience as an irrelevant annoyance whose approval signals artistic failure. [….]

By aligning his music with the intellectual elite-with what he identifies as the autonomous “private life” of scholarship and science (this at the height of the Cold War!) – Babbitt appeals to a separate economy that confers prestige, but that also (it must be added) confers financial support in the form of foundation grants and university professorships. [….]

Babbitt’s rhetoric has achieved its goal: most university music departments support resident composers (though many, including the composers in my own department, find the “Who Cares if You Listen” attitude objectionable); and the small amount of money earmarked by foundations for music commissions is reserved for the kind of “serious” music that Babbitt and his colleagues advocate.

I objected a good deal to McClary’s essay when I first read it some 20 years ago, but as time has gone on have come to felt that she is onto something important in her allusions to legitimation via alignment to scholarship and science, though the exaggerated statements about claims to autonomy are unsustainable, especially today, when so many composers seek to justify their work as much through allusions to society and politics as through its musical merits.

I mentioned earlier a review-article by Richard Taruskin which generated a lot of anger amongst new music practitioners. In a range of writings, including in the Oxford History of Western Music, Taruskin has been sharply critical about many claims made by those associated with modernism and the avant-garde to the mantle of history, and of the ways in which historiography and pedagogy has foregrounded work of this type and marginalised other varieties. Perhaps the most prominent expression of Taruskin’s view is that article which takes some CD reviews of the music of Donald Martino as its starting point, ‘How Talented Composers Become Useless’. This was first published in The New York Times on 10 March 1996, and reprinted in the collection The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2009), pp. 86-93. Like McClary, Taruskin grounds his critic in an attack on the position of Babbitt:

By comparing “serious” or “original” contemporary music to mathematics (and appropriating concepts like seriousness and originality to one kind of music was where the arrogance lay), Mr. Babbitt was saying, in effect, that such music was to be valued and judged not for the pleasure it gave but for the truth it contained. Truth, in music as in math, lay in accountability to basic principles of relatedness. In the case of math, these were axioms and theorems: basic truth assumptions and the proofs they enabled. In the case of music, truth lay in the relationship of all its details to a basic axiomatic premise called the twelve-tone row.

Again, Mr. Babbitt’s implied contempt and his claims of exclusivity apart, the point could be viewed as valid. Why not allow that there could be the musical equivalent of an audience of math professors? It was a harmless enough concept in itself—although when the math professors went on to claim funds and resources that would otherwise go to the maintenance of the “lay” repertory, it was clear that the concept did not really exist “in itself”; it inescapably impinged on social and economic concerns. Yet calling his work the equivalent of a math lecture did at least make the composer’s intentions and expectations clear. You could take them or leave them. […]

Mr. Martino’s piano music […] strives for conventional expressivity while trying to maintain all the privileged and prestigious truth claims of academic modernism. Because there is no structural connection between the expressive gestures and the twelve-tone harmonic language, the gestures are not supported by the musical content (the way they are in Schumann, for example, whose music Mr. Martino professes to admire and emulate). And while the persistent academic claim is that music like Mr. Martino’s is too complex and advanced for lay listeners to comprehend, in fact the expressive gestures, unsupported by the music’s syntax or semantics, are primitive and simplistic in the extreme. [….]

The reason it is still necessary to expose these hypocrisies, even after the vaunted “postmodern” demise of serialism, is that the old-fashioned modernist position still thrives in its old bastion, the academy. Composers like Mr. Martino are still miseducating their pupils just as he was miseducated himself, dooming them to uselessness. Critics and “theorists,” many of them similarly miseducated, are still propagandizing for Pointwise Periodic Homeomorphisms in the concert hall, offering their blandishments as consolation for the loss of a musical language and decrying the attempts of younger composers to find a new one.

Taruskin has gone on to be a leading advocate of the ‘Cold War’ view of avant-garde musical history, which maintains essentially that the institutionalisation and prestige of avant-garde music was a product of both an intellectual culture privileging quasi-scientific positivism, and was dominant in US universities, but also the conspiratorial view, which I maintain is utterly false on the basis of a lot of archival result, that the success of the Darmstadt Summer Schools for new music, and other aspects of new music in Europe, were the result of covert funding by the CIA. There is no evidence to substantiate this (unlike with some other art forms, from which information this conclusion has simply been inferred); as Ian Wellens in particular has shown, the primary CIA-funded organisation, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, had as its secretary general Nicolas Nabokov, who showed no real interest in serial and other avant-garde composition in the post-1945 era (as compared to his advocacy of the music of Stravinsky), and the events sponsored by the CCF are too exceptional and unrepresentative as to be defining in terms of the wider history. I will expand on this in a subsequent post.

A British figure who has delivered harsh critiques of new music and the prestige it entertains is Nicholas Cook, from whom I offer two citations. The first is from his ‘On Qualifying Relativism’, Musica Scientiae, vol. 5, issue 2 supplement (September 2001), pp. 167-189.

As Richard Toop (who works in Sydney but is closely associated with the European avanr-garde) points out, composition occupies very different roles in different countries. In North America it has been almost inextricably entangled with universities since the early days of Babbitt (whose “social contract”, as Herman Sabbe points out, “is with the academy”); the relationship is only a little less close in Britain, where composition is fully accepted as a form of research for purposes of institutional and national quality reviews. But in continental Europe, as Toop goes on to say, contemporary music revolves around festivals and radio stations; “One may be dealing with a heavily subsidized market place,” he adds, “but it’s a market place none the less.” Makis Solomos also raises the issue of subsidy, contrasting the subsidization of contemporary music in France with the situation in Britain (where the subsidies do exist, incidentally, but they go towards propping up the social rituals of the Royal Opera House rather than into contemporary music).

Solornos’s key observation, however, is that “en France, où les subventions existent, la musique contemporaine a un public”. It does in Britain and America too, of course, but there the audience has traditionally been one of contemporary music buffs, a niche within a niche. (One should recognize the potential for change not only through the cross-over musical styles of composers like Glass or Zorn, but also through the incorporation of contemporary music within educational and outreach programmes, which is why I said “traditionally”: all part of the crumbling of barriers to which I referred in my Foreword.) And when taking part in conferences or workshops in such countries as Holland, Belgium, and Germany I have always been struck by the centrality of contemporary composition within the definition of what “music” is and what an intelligent interest in the subject might mean: it is simply taken for granted that one has an interest in and commitment to contemporary music, in a way that it would never be in a similar situation in Britain or America. But it seems that the position of contemporary music is even more varied than this might suggest, to judge by the comments of Robert Walker (who writes from the University of New South Wales, Sydney): “it is indeed ironic”, he says,”that the academy can now include Beatles songs in analysis classes and research reports, but still not Berio’s vocal music”. And later he talks of Messiaen, Britten, Cage, and electronic music, and comments that “The music academy has shown comparatively scant interest in all this”. That surprised me, not only because new music was high on the agenda when I was teaching at Sydney University (though that was back in 1988), but also because music from Messiaen and Cage to Berio and beyond is well represented in the British academy, far beyond any possible measure of the music’s dissemination throughout society at large. It is popular music that is under-represented, resulting in a situation where the few PhDs in this area get quickly snapped up by university departments anxious to respond to the interests of their students.

The second is from ‘Writing on Music or Axes to Grind: road rage and musical community’, Music Education Research, vol. 5, no. 3 (November 2003), pp. 249-261.

Writers on contemporary ‘art’ music—what they often call ‘new music’—generally act as apologists, in the same sense as the earliest analysts did: writing in the early decades of the 19th century, these analysts’ basic purpose was to explain the coherence and hence the greatness of Beethoven’s music, despite its discontinuities and sudden irruptions and otherwise incoherent appearance (it would hardly be exaggeration to say that the whole genre of musical analysis developed as an act of advocacy for Beethoven). In the same way, writers on new music either argue that the music is aesthetically attractive even though it might appear otherwise on first acquaintance, or they argue that its aesthetic unattractiveness is integral to its cultural significance (and sometimes, just to make sure, they argue both). Their advocacy is prompted by the increasingly marginalised nature of the music—now even to some extent within academia—and this apologetic function is built into the genre: if you pick a book on new music off the shelf, you expect it to fulfil this role of advocacy, and again the few books that have attacked new music have appeared anomalous against this background. [….]

I’ve noticed that, when I go to conferences or similar events in continental Europe, people make the assumption that, because I’m interested in music, I must have an interest in and commitment to new music; that’s not an expectation about me in particular, but a taken-for-granted assumption about what it means to be seriously engaged in music. (In the UK or the USA, people make no such assumption.) And at least as far as the contributors to the Musicae Scientiae collection were concerned, this revolved not so much around the aesthetic properties of new music as its critical potential. In my book, I referred briefly to critical theory in general and Adorno in particular, as a way of introducing one of the main intellectual strands of the ‘New’ musicology of the 1990s, but I made no direct link between Adorno’s critique and new music. In her commentary, Anne Boissière (2001, p. 32) picked this up, asking why I didn’t discuss ‘the problem of contemporary music which resists consumption’: instead, she complained, I made music sound as if it was just another commodity, and in this way passed up the opportunity to offer ‘a critical analysis of consumer society’. In which case, she asked, ‘what point is there in making reference to Adorno?’: if one’s critique isn’t motivated by moral or political commitment, as Adorno’s was, then what is there to it but nihilism?

Actually, the argument Boissière is putting forward here, and which other contributors also reflected, has a long and rather peculiar history. It originates in the conservative critique of the modern world—the attack on capitalism and consumerism that developed throughout the German-speaking countries in the 19th century (where it was associated with the nostalgic values of an idealised rural past), and fed ultimately into the Nazi creed of ‘blood and soil’.

There are many ripostes to the views of McClary, Taruskin and Cook, just as there are to that of Babbitt, or those advocates of latter day composition-as-research who essentially adhere to his view. In subsequent posts I will consider some of these in more detail.

But for now, I just want to end with a plea for moderation. New music is a niche interest; this much appears very clear, and there is little evidence of such a situation changing. Can we accept this, and move away from both the unmediated and exaggerated claims for its centrality of Babbitt, the hatred and aggression towards dissenters, but also the types of denunciations of McClary, Taruskin and Cook, often clothed in ferocious political language (as with Cook’s attempts to link Boissière to the Nazis, to which I have alluded on here before)?

Those involved in new music who enjoy institutional prestige and economic wherewithal because of existing situations are unlikely to be sympathetic to any view which questions their status. Nor are those who jealously covet such a thing from different fields likely to have any sympathy towards them. Neither of these groups are likely to engage in mature scholarly debate. But such a debate ought to be possible without degenerating into polarised oppositions, including some of those presented above.


How views of high culture in the UK have shifted across the political spectrum

Rightly or wrongly, today it seems quite widely assumed that a defence of high culture (and its public funding) is a conservative position, at odds with ‘progressive’ arguments which reject that it has any intrinsic value over and above popular/commercial alternatives, and as such deserves no special treatment (also that Western high culture is deeply entwined with colonialism, an argument I have attempted to address in a musical context in this article recently published in The Critic magazine).

At the height of the Thatcher-Reagan era, in 1989 (when both politicians were near the end of their careers, but their policies had become firmly entrenched), two books in the field of cultural studies appeared which argued this perspectively on high/low culture most fervently: John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989) and Andrew Ross, No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 1989). Fiske interprets various approaches to consumption (which he describes as ‘a tactical raid upon the system’), such as sporting of particular garments, make-up or hairstyles, as guerrilla actions which subvert dominant values, writing that ‘At the point of sale the commodity exhausts its role in the distribution economy, but begins its work in the cultural. Detached from the strategies of capitalism, its work for the bosses completed, it becomes a resource for the culture of everyday life’. Ross is utterly scathing about any type of defence of high culture, seeing in this an affront to the values of democracy, and a hegemonic attempt by a dominant class to protect their privilege.

Yet in the House of Commons, a very different political alignment was made clear the following year. It came about in a speech during a debate on arts funding by hard right-wing Conservative MP Terry Dicks (1937-2020), then MP for Hayes and Harlington:

Terry Dicks: My hon. Friend said that the arts contribute to the quality of life. Perhaps he could explain to me one day how the arts’ contribution to the quality of life affects my pensioners and ordinary people who want to buy a pint and have a game of bingo– [Interruption.] Their quality of life is not enhanced by seeing some man prance about in a box or by listening to the different range of an opera singer.

Other questions that I should like to ask–which nobody answers, certainly not any of the great and the good on the Opposition Benches–is, what is art? What is culture? Who defines it? The answers to those questions are personal, but I know who the hell pays for it. The ordinary chap down the street pays for most of it, while the great and the good take advantage.

We have heard about the royal opera house. I shall show the way in which it thinks about money. I gather that it is about £3 million in debt. It spent £200,000 recently on a production. It has agreed to a 15 per cent. increase for ballet dancers who prance around, pretending they are toys, at an annual cost of £600,000. I find it strange that the arts world is up in arms about the lack of money yet ballet dancers can get a 15 per cent. increase, which is twice the rate of inflation. Nobody mentions that–certainly no Opposition Member has mentioned it. When extra money is called for, all the whingers appear on both sides of the Chamber [Interruption.] Every man, well and good, appears. Nobody should need to question the situation : everyone should understand what needs to be done. Why should we subsidise old pros dressed in doublets and hose? I do not understand.

In common with my right hon. Friend the Minister, I could say that it is all “Much Ado About Nothing”, but I am not an expert on Shakespeare. The Royal Shakespeare Company has made its bed and it must lie on it. I see no justification for a grant increase, nor can I see any justification for any grant. No one in the working class, or the people I represent, could give a toss about the Royal Shakespeare Company staying open or closing down. There is nothing special about it.

One can compare and contrast the RSC with the commercial theatre, which must survive by putting on a programme that people are prepared to pay an economic cost to see. The same argument applies to professional football. In common, I am sure, with many colleagues I received a copy of a letter from Ken Bates, who is the chairman of Chelsea football club. He says :

“The Arts Council grant to the Opera House this year is more than £13.3 million, or £75,000 a week I’d be interested to know what percentage that is of the Opera House’s total income.”

So would I.

“Far from offering us any subsidy or assistance, it”–the Government–“takes £300 million a year in betting tax out of the game, which is equal to £3 million per Football League club”

Is it not strange that the working-class pastime gets hammered by the taxman while the upper-class pastime–I notice that a member of the middle class is sitting next to the upper-class man on the Opposition Front Bench- -is subsidised all the time by the rest of us. The poor chap down the road must pay the full whack to see Brentford or Chelsea, apart from the cost that he must meet in the future towards increased safety in those football grounds. He must pay for that ticket from his own pocket, but the great and the good, in their bow ties and long frocks, get them paid for by someone else. It is strange that we adopt such an approach to the upper class in this House and we forget the ordinary people who put us here. [ Hon. Members– : “Hear, hear.”] I am glad that the audience is so good, and that most of the audience have had a good dinner.

Child benefit has not been uprated for a couple of years and the ambulance men are being offered only 6.5 per cent. for this year–

After a few other interventions, and more from Dicks, the then-Labour MP for Newham North-West, Tony Banks (1942-2006) (associated with the relatively hard left, an ally of Ken Livingstone, Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn), responded as follows:

Tony Banks: My right hon. and hon. Friends know that an economically efficient and socially just society will not only address the problems of homelessness, poverty and unemployment that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) mentioned. Such a society will support also a thriving and burgeoning arts expenditure. It is a mark of a confident and strong society that it encourages and nurtures the arts. The Victorians did it in the past in this country, and the French, Germans and Italians do it today.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington is not in his place, because listening to him opining on the arts is rather like listening to Vlad the Impaler presenting “Blue Peter”. The hon. Gentleman is undoubtedly living proof that a pig’s bladder on a stick can be elected as a Member of Parliament.

Several Hon. Members rose —

Mr. Speaker : Order. I know–but although the hon. Gentleman’s comments may not be very pleasant, they are not unparliamentary.

This amusing exchange shows how the political alignment I outlined at the beginning of this piece has by no means always been accepted. Some of us on the left still believe passionately in the value of high culture, and of subsidy to try and make it available to a wider section of the population. For all that I would never defend Soviet communism, the success of such a venture on a large scale is made clear in Pauline Fairclough’s book Classics for the Masses: Shaping Soviet Musical Identity under Lenin and Stalin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), and recently in a fantastic keynote on ‘The Soviet model of teaching music at universities and conservatories, and its implementation in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe’ at my conference on ‘Music and the University: History, Models, Prospects’ (of which more in a blog post to follow), Serbian musicologist Ivana Medić gave plentiful detail about how this approach was disseminated through Eastern Europe (including in countries which had broken with Moscow such as Yugoslavia), and still informs musical education today. There remains plenty to learn from this.


Reflections on Richard Taruskin and Performance – statement given at Performance Studies Conference, 2 July 2022

During the 2022 conference of the Performance Studies Network, which took place at the University of Surrey from 30 June to 3 July, the news was received of the sad death of musicologist Richard Taruskin (2 April 1945 – 1 July 2022). His writings on performance, especially those collected in the volume Text and Act, have been hugely influential. With this in mind, I had the idea of assembling an impromptu roundtable of scholars present at the conference with an interest in him and his work. This roundtable, which I chaired, took place on the afternoon of Saturday 2 July, featuring Claire Fedoruk, Anthony Gritten, Julian Hellaby, George Kennaway, Lina Navickaite-Martinelli, John Rink and Eva Moreda Rodriguez. It ranged in scope from personal memories and anecdotes, through details of first encounters with his work, to wider scholarly critiques, but also generated a remarkable amount of consensus. The organisers of the conference hope at some point soon to assemble version of the various statements given on the conference website. For now, I am posting here my introductory overview of Taruskin’s life and work, and then my own statement for the roundtable, both with just minor edits and corrections.

Personally, despite many major differences with Taruskin on a range of things, his work was deeply important for me and also for teaching purposes. I only met him once, at the Ultima Festival in Oslo in 2015, where I was performing and he was delivering a lecture. This meeting was very cordial; we also corresponded a little by e-mail, not least in the last months of his life. This correspondence could be both cordial and uncordial! But I would always continue to read every new article or book from him.

The following is my overview of Richard Taruskin’s life and work:

Richard Taruskin was born in New York on 2 April 1945. He grew up in a moderately musical household; his mother taught violin and his father played the piano at an amateur level. He studied cello growing up and went to study at Columbia University in 1965 where he continued from Bachelor’s to Doctoral level, receiving a PhD in historical musicology in 1976, working with musicologist Paul Henry Lang. That he was part of a ‘sixties generation’, a student during that period, is something often overlooked, but I think is significant in terms of various iconoclastic aspects of his subsequent thought and work. He taught at Columbia until 1987, when he was appointed Professor of Music at University of California, Berkeley, where he remained for the rest of his life, eventually becoming Emeritus Professor.

In the earlier stage of his career Taruskin was also active first as a choral conductor, overseeing the Columbia University Collegium Musicum, and making recordings with them and Cappella Nova, such as those of Ockeghem and Byrd. He was also a viola da gamba player and toured as a soloist with Aulos Ensemble through to the late 1980s. As such, he was deeply involved in the early music world, of which he would become one of the leading critics.

Taruskin’s first book was Opera and Drama in Russia: As Preached and Practied in the 1860s (1981), establishing a scholarly basis for this body of work which was then relatively obscure to Anglophone musicians and scholars. His work on Russian music in general, which spanned several centuries of work, would be extended in his collection Musorgsky: Eight Essays and an Epilogue (1992), his mammoth two-volume study of Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions (1996), the important volume of essays Defining Russia Musically: Historical and Hermeneutical Essays (1997), and two later collections of journalistic and academic essays, On Russian Music (2009) and Russian Music at Home and Abroad (2016). He was a prominent protagonist in scholarly debates on such issues as the nature of Chaikovsky’s death, or the veracity of Solomon Volkov’s memoir of Shostakovich, Testimony.

Taruskin was also a journalist and ‘public musicologist’, writing regularly in particularly for The New York Times. Both in this capacity and also as a contributor to scholarly fora, Taruskin wrote regularly on performance and issues relating in particular to historically-informed performance (or ‘authentic performance’ or ‘period performance’, to use two terms now rather out of fashion but still common at the time Taruskin was writing). He was sharply critical of some of the work in this realm, in both musical and methodological terms, with a special focus on the work done by British performers and ensembles, not least Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. One of his key essays on this subject, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’, was collected in an 1988 symposium edited by Nicholas Kenyon, Authenticity and Early Music, and then in 1995 Taruskin collected all his major writings on the subject in a collection entitled Text and Act. Amongst his key arguments were those relating to the fragmentary, ambiguous, contradictory and inconclusive nature of documentary evidence into historical performance, and perhaps most significantly he created a range of dualisms, such as between ‘vitalist’ and ‘geometric’ performance, concluding from this that many supposedly ‘historical’ approaches actually represented modernist aesthetics, especially those associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit and the neo-classical Stravinsky.

Taruskin continued to be a prominent public intellectual throughout his career, generating much attention through wider op-eds and pronouncements on music in public fora, such as his support for the cancellation of a performance of John Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer in 2001, following the attacks of 9/11.

His major later work was undoubtedly the mammoth sole-authored six-volume The Oxford History of Western Music, first published in 2005, when Taruskin was 60. A hugely comprehensive but also highly contentious work, which overhauled all sorts of previous practices for history writing, Taruskin claimed a new dispassion and objectivity for his enterprise, in contrast to earlier writers. I am sure various people will have a variety of views on this type of claim.

For the rest of his life and career, Taruskin’s work was mostly occupied with some new essays and assembling new collections of others, in the volumes The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, (2008), and Cursed Question: On Music and its Social Practices (2020). Amongst these were a notorious review-article of Cambridge Histories of Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Music, ‘Speed Bumps’ (2005) which led to a quite exasperated response by Nicholas Cook. Another important article was ‘The Musical Mystique’ (2007), a review-article of books by Julian Johnson, Joshua Fineberg and Lawrence Kramer all considering the place of classical music today, with quite ferocious critiques of some of these. He was also of course a highly regular conference attendee and guaranteed to enliven proceedings.

The following is the statement I delivered at the roundtable.

I have found myself led towards engagement with Taruskin’s work of various types throughout my own career as performer and musicologist. His work on performance is obviously relevant to me as a scholar of historically-informed performance and performance studies, but also as one whose research has much to do with twentieth-century Germany, in light of Taruskin’s views on that region and its music. Also, when working on issues to do with the historiography of music, I could not fail to engage with Taruskin’s thoughts on that, and the ways in which they inform the Oxford History, not least in terms of new music and its place both in repertoire and music history and pedagogy. But I can say that his models and approaches for nineteenth- and twentieth century music history have had a profound impact on how I write and teach about it. Without them, I would not have had the same inspiration towards teaching a core music history module which tried to move away from technocratic and teleological approaches, focused above all on advances in compositional technique, towards broader approaches which do not overly privilege this line of development and attempt to give equal consideration to musical developments in terms of their social and political context, though in a less didactic fashion than Taruskin. Also, as one who teaches much about nineteenth-century music, not least opera, Taruskin’s writings on that area are regular set readings for my students.

But I want to focus on Taruskin’s thoughts on performance, the bulk of which are contained within Text and Act. He did occasionally return to the subject in some later essays, amongst the most interesting of which I would suggest is ‘Of Kings and Divas’ (1993), collected in The Danger of Music, a review-article of a range of recordings of French baroque music. But to the best of my knowledge Taruskin never wrote or spoke at length about later developments in the fields of performance studies, including the relationship between analysis and performance, ethnomusicological approaches, practice-research and Artistic Research, or the various work emerging from the research clusters in the UK CHARM and CMPCP, especially relating to the study of early recordings. Certainly Taruskin did write on early recordings earlier in his career, but not when the study of them had become a much more extensively developed field of scholarship. The heart of his work on performance has to do with historically-informed performance, the culture of early music, and the ways in which these came to encroach upon the performance of a good deal of mainstream repertoire.

One thing which is striking upon returning to Taruskin on performance, with knowledge of his later writings, is his at least partial advocacy of Adorno’s view (though Adorno was writing in a different time and context), and how strongly his critique of HIP is explicitly related to its anti-German tendencies. He only appears to have engaged with Adorno’s views as found in the essay ‘Bach Defended Against His Devotees’ (1951), not the Theory of Musical Reproduction, which was not available in either German or English at the time of most of Taruskin’s writings on performance.

I do not believe it would be unfair to say that Taruskin held frequently negative views about many things British. His writings on the historically-informed performance movement frequently dealt with the work of the likes of Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington, Trevor Pinnock, John Eliot Gardiner and their associated ensembles. He did also, for sure, consider some Austrian, German, Belgian and Dutch early music protagonists, most notably in a piece on the Harnoncourt-Leonhardt series of Bach Cantatas (‘Facing Up, Finally, to Bach’s Dark Vision’ (1991), reproduced in Text and Act), but these were generally treated as the periphery with the British scene as the centre. Taruskin also had little to say about the later growth of HIP elsewhere, especially France (except for in the essay I mentioned before) and Italy.

Yet I believe that the Austrian, Belgian and Dutch early music performance scenes were a central component of the wider international scene for as long as the British, even if some of the associated writings were less familiar to British and American scholars, as few were translated for a long time.

Taruskin’s views on German matters in this context were less wide-reaching; I am not aware of his considering in depth the problematic status of medieval music in Germany after 1945 following its appropriation by parts of the youth movement in the Third Reich. While various movements there which were already active in the 1920s, in regional centres such as Munich, Cologne and Freiburg, continued after 1945 to a limited extent, the growth of many a new Studio für alte Musik went alongside a similar Studio für neue Musik, as a means of resituating a realm of musical activity in a context which, rightly or wrongly, was for a period associated with opposition to fascism. But it is also surely no coincidence that one of the most important German groups for medieval music to be founded in the early post-war era, the Studio der frühen Musik in Munich, was led not by a German but an American, Thomas Binkley.

Taruskin did certainly engage with some aspects of a historically-informed performance and early music movement prior to around the 1960s, but in a fragmentary manner. In this he was no different to plenty of other scholars, but the appearance of Harry Haskell’s The Early Music Revival: A History in 1988 demonstrated the breadth and depth of a movement which can be traced back well into the nineteenth-century. Since Haskell, there has been a wide range of important wider scholarship – such as Katharine Ellis’s work on early music in France in the nineteenth century, Celia Applegate’s study of Mendelssohn and the Bach Revival, James Garratt on the German Palestrina Revival, William Weber’s study of concert programming, or various studies of individual musicians who contributed to revivals of earlier repertoire and performing styles. All of this could contribute to a new comprehensive history to succeed Haskell’s, which would I believe place the questions which Taruskin raises in a more nuanced context.

At the heart of Taruskin’s arguments are the conviction that historicist approaches are part of a modernist project, which he sets in opposition to earlier tendencies. But I believe this argument is founded upon too homogeneous a view of earlier traditions. Taruskin was without question aware of the extent to which Germanic constructions of musical subjectivity had more limited application in other regions in the nineteenth century, but was not prepared to go the extra mile and consider that some of what he constructs as ‘modern’ or ‘neo-classical’ might have deeper historical roots. That Chaikovsky’s neo-classicism might in some ways resemble Stravinsky’s is something I would not have imagined Taruskin denying, but he could have done more to draw the implications of this for a historical model.

Taruskin’s work on performance has certainly had its critics, or those who have presented alternative views. John Butt, in his book Playing with History (2003), offers a quite witty response to Taruskin’s self-presentation as a champion of consumers’ rights as against the ideals of historically-informed performers. Butt conflates this position with an advocacy of market forces, which is not strictly accurate. But nonetheless, he notes that in purely consumer terms, Taruskin’s arguments do not necessarily hold up – as he puts it ‘someone must have bought all those records’ (of Christopher Hogwood). Other important responses to the gauntlets laid down by Taruskin include those of Peter Walls, in his History, Imagination and the Performance of Music (2003), or Bruce Haynes, in his The End of Early Music (2007), which shares some of Taruskin’s view of ‘modernist’ performance. This is presented in an over-homogenised manner, in my opinion, by Haynes, as also by Nicholas Cook and Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, but this view has been challenged by some of the work of Dorottya Fabian. Haynes however creates a tripartite formulation of ‘romantic’, ‘modern’ and ‘period’ styles, the contrast between the second and third of which is at odds with Taruskin’s model. Nick Wilson, in his The Art of Re-Enchantment: Making Early Music in the Modern Age (2013), presents a quite different picture of the early music subculture than that at least implied by Taruskin. More recently Stefan Knapik, in a chapter in The Routledge Research Companion to Modernism in Music (2018) dealing with violin playing has shown how problematic are Taruskin’s dualisms, on the basis of wider reading of treatises.

I would say that Taruskin’s model is both British-centered and also centered upon a particular state of play which existed in the 1970s and 1980s, which is not unnatural as some of his first writings date from this time. We certainly know a good deal more now about ‘modernist’ performance from the early twentieth century, but Taruskin was definitely onto something by making the link with Stravinsky, Hindemith and other early twentieth-century figures, including José Ortega y Gassett or Ezra Pound, not primarily associated with music (referencing Pound’s interest in Arnold Dolmetsch and the particular culture around him and his work). That these and others such as Alfredo Casella, Gian Francesco Malipiero or Carl Orff were very significant in terms of the revival of some Renaissance and Baroque music is clearly documented. Hindemith, amazingly listed by ethnomusicologist Henry Kingsbury as an example of a composer who did not also perform, was not only a leading viola player involved in premieres of works from Webern to Walton, but also a prime moving force in the development of early music at Yale University after his relocation to the United States.

What is described most harshly as the ‘sewing machine’ style of baroque performance in mid-century grew out of some of the objectivist ideals of these composers and their interactions with the interwar early music scene. Adorno’s notorious essay was a response to this, and entirely in line with his own antipathy towards Stravinsky and Hindemith. But performance styles did change, and in some ways the branch of historically-informed performance which developed from this point was in some ways a reaction against this, seeking more nuanced and stylistically aware approaches through excavation of historical data. Taruskin’s all-purpose ‘modernist’ model takes too little account of these changing tendencies. There was of course also the radical shift in the 1970s away from the more ‘counter-cultural’ approach to early music associated with Binkley’s group in Munich, The Early Music Consort of London, and the Clemencic Consort towards the more austere a cappella approach pioneered by British groups in the 1970s, of which Christopher Page was the most eloquent spokesperson. Taruskin considers Page’s work in one essay, ‘High, Sweet, and Loud’ (1987) (reproduced in Text and Act), but does not really filter this shift into his wider arguments. All of these things point to the fact that the early music movement has been – and continues to be – a diffuse and diverse movement. Occasionally Taruskin acknowledges this, as in his contrasting of the ‘crooked’ work of Reinhard Goebel and Musica Antiqua Köln with some of their more ‘straight’ British counterparts, but does not draw the wider implications that would have been possible from a wider and more generous perspective.

What would have strengthened Taruskin’s arguments is the considerable cross-fertilisation between the early and new music worlds in the Netherlands in the 1960s, with common cause found between the likes of conductor and recorder/flute player Franz Brüggen, and the new generation involving individuals such as Louis Andriessen, Reinbert de Leeuw and Misha Mengelberg. All were united in antipathy to what they perceived as a conservative Dutch musical scene with pronounced Germanic elements, and espousing an objectivist style, in part influenced by American jazz and wider aspects of an idealised view of Americana, not dissimilar to the view of the Neue Sachlichkeit and others associated with Amerikanismus in Germany in the 1920s. In this Dutch context we absolutely see a commonality of purpose between those in early and new music, though married to a particular far left politics which I doubt Taruskin would have shared. To be fair, though, much of the information on this period in musical history was little known other than to Dutch specialists until recent work such as that of Robert Adlington, not available at the time Taruskin was writing. But it could fruitfully feed into reevaluations of Taruskin’s arguments.

Part of the problem is Taruskin’s tendency to employ a monolithic view of ‘modernism’, which he knew as well as anyone constituted a heterogenous body of music and aesthetic thought. But the tendency to employ an all-purpose conception of ‘modernism’ as a rhetorical strategy for dismissing musical work, in the process knowing the populist implications of so doing, was a shame. Few now would surely deny that Stravinsky and Schoenberg represented very different musical tendencies, and charged debates between factions associated with either have informed musical discourse since the mid-1920s. But Taruskin was not above associating one with ‘modernism’ and then using this as a stick to beat the other.

Taruskin’s views on many things German, which could translate into blanket remarks about European culture and thought, could have a waspish and xenophobic tint to them (which he would have been the first to condemn if applied to other regions or peoples), akin to the thought of Brexiteers and American neo-conservatives, especially in his later work. For one so unafraid to speak harshly of others, sometimes in ways I believe were ad hominem, Taruskin would cry foul if others did the same. In one article, he presented four of us, J.P.E. Harper-Scott, Christopher Fox, Franklin Cox and myself (all except Cox British), as his arch-opponents, almost as if part of a conspiracy. But I do believe the critiques of all of these were fundamentally about Taruskin’s work. My view may be more generous than some of the others, especially Harper-Scott, though I concur with some aspects of the latter’s critique, especially of Taruskin’s sometimes quite fanatical anti-German pronouncements, such as in ‘Speed Bumps’.

Taruskin’s knowledge of and interest in new music was, by many accounts of those who spoke to him about it at length, considerably more rich and nuanced than one would necessarily discern from some of his writings. He took, for example, a great interest in the work of Belgian pianist and musicologist Luk Vaes in the work of Mauricio Kagel. I regret that he did not write more from this perspective, though can see how it might have seemed uncharacteristic in the context of the wider views he frequently expressed.

Taruskin had a striking ability to identify the fundamental issues at stake in many scholarly and other musical debates without obfuscation. As a result his writing can be very direct and clearly expressed. Furthermore, he did not shy from viewing music in social, historical and political context, including specifically in relation to its meanings today. He was not one simply to take the views of composers or performers at face value, and recognised musicians’ self-fashioning immediately. All of this, from when I first encountered his work, was a breath of fresh air in the context of what I found, and still find in some ways, a rather stultified musical and academic culture in the UK, in which so much depends upon saying the right things to the right people with power rather than entering into more trenchant debate on the basis of conviction, with passive-aggressive demands to conform to prevailing group-think, and where short-term demands of pleasing others can supersede quests for truth.

As time went on and I became more familiar with his work, I came to realise that Taruskin was not however someone with whose work I would associate a balanced examination of evidence and a measured conclusion. The very possibility of moderate conclusions also appeared to elude him. Both of these things are very significant flaws in a scholar, I believe, but also characteristic of a polarised scholarly world. Taruskin was highly critical of others for drawing wide conclusions from fragmentary information, but was far from averse from doing the same himself to ram home points. An example would be his arguments about tempo flexibility in Beethoven Symphonies (in ‘Resisting the Ninth’ (1988-89), in Text and Act), which depend heavily on the account by Anton Schindler, with just token recognition of the various information which points to the unreliability of Schindler as a source. I would contrast this with the thorough examination of the conflicting accounts of Beethoven by Schindler and Carl Czerny in George Barth’s book The Pianist as Orator (1992), which also arrives at a conclusion that some of what Schindler claimed may be correct, but Barth does so on far stronger scholarly grounds.

Nonetheless, I believe Taruskin was a very worthy opponent and without doubt a tremendously significant figure in the landscape of musicology, from whom I will greatly miss the possibility of reading new writings.


On the importance of teaching musical theory and technique

In the period prior to the end of the Crimean War (1856), Russian musical life differed in various respects from that in other leading European countries. It was dominated by opera, but much else went on in aristocratic salons, with few regular concert societies. One exception, the St Petersburg Philharmonic Society, founded in 1802 (and which gave the premiere of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in 1824) mostly produced popular numbers from Italian opera. To be a professional musician meant being in the service of the state, which was unacceptable to most aristocrats. Most major recitals were given by visiting foreign artists, while few Russian composers had a formal musical training. The great pianist Nikolay Rubinstein, who had begun a professional career as a pianist in 1854 (he would later give the premieres of Mily Balakirev’s notorious piano piece Islamey (1869) and was a champion of Chaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto), was made to give up this career in 1855 in order to marry Yelizaveta Dmitriyevna Khrushchova, daughter of a prominent Moscow official, as the profession was deemed as little more than a low-class entertainer. The marriage however turned sour, and Nikolay resumed his career after they separated in 1858.

Nikolay’s older brother Anton, an equally leading pianist and also composer who spent much time travelling around Europe for concerts (both brothers had also spent four years in Berlin when young), wrote an article in the Viennese journal Blätter für Musik, Theater und Kunst in 1855 entitled ‘Die Komponisten Rußland’s’, in which he was sharply critical of the reliance of existing Russian music on allusions to folk songs and dance melodies, provoking some fury from nationalistically-minded composers (some of it deeply anti-semitic in nature), especially Mikhail Glinka, who had been singled out by Rubinstein. But Rubinstein’s article betokened a wider view, as he would later articulate – to him, Russian music was amateurish and dilletantish compared with that he had encountered elsewhere, in large measure down to the lack of provision of professional training, especially compared to that in the German Confederation. Some other Russian composers, led by Mily Balakirev, strongly opposed Rubinstein’s plans, believing him to be planning to import foreign and academic ideas to Russia (once again, in the ugly exchanges, Rubinstein’s Jewishness and the concomitant view that he was less deeply rooted in Russian culture and tradition than others, continued to be evoked). To teach compositional and other technique, to many nationalists, was in contradiction to the idea that it lay somehow deep within the Russian soul, an almost mystical conception. But with his convictions in mind, Rubinstein sought to establish a conservatoire on the model of those in other European cities to provide the training he sought. He was able to do this in 1862, in part due to the support of the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, in whose household he had earlier worked as an accompanist for singers, also due to relaxations in higher education brought in under the reign of Tsar Alexander II from 1855, enabling music graduates to call themselves ‘Free Artists’, which freed them from military service and some taxation.

Today the conservatoires in St Petersburg and Moscow (which was founded in 1866 by Nikolay) are amongst the most renowned in the world, and it is strange to think of how their very foundation occasioned such controversy. In 1871 Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov was invited to teach composition and orchestration (while remaining in the navy and teaching in uniform). Rimsky-Korsakov had previously been close to the Balakirev faction, but he changed ideological direction at this point and undertook his own intensive study of compositional technique, harmony and counterpoint, in order to be able to teach them. This also bore great fruit in his work, as can be found in works such as the Symphony No. 3 (1866-1873, rev. 1886).

This story came to mind in light of hearing similar arguments both over a period in musicological circles, and in an exchange (in Spanish) on social media. Commonly the type of argument in its contemporary guise goes as follows, with respect to composition teaching: ‘There is no need to teach boring things like harmony and counterpoint, the point is to allow students to be creative‘. Music theory is viewed in opposition to some sort of innate creativity, and the purpose of composition teaching is simply to liberate this, give students a type of ‘permission’ to express themselves however they want. Sometimes one will hear cited the words of John Cage recalling how his own ‘teacher’ (in a loose sense of the word) Arnold Schoenberg told him that he had no feeling for harmony and would come up against a wall which would prevent him from progressing, to which Cage replied that he would continue to beat his head against this wall (the veracity of Cage’s many anecdotes should always be treated with some scepticism, as he was clearly someone who carefully constructed his own mythology). As such, some of those identifying themselves with the field of ‘experimental music’ can be amongst the most vociferous opponents of the teaching of traditional technique (and some indeed advocate primarily for amateur rather than professional music-making).

But I find utterly unconvincing this opposition between technique and creativity, in music or any other art form. Harmony is a factor in most forms of Western music; that in jazz is every bit as sophisticated as in much classical music. Some other musical traditions, such as many from the Arab world, are primarily monophonic, but the primary focus of most education in the West, unsurprisingly and not unnaturally, is upon the range of traditions which have developed here, and this is the primary focus of most students (it would be as strange for Western institutions to discontinue the teaching of Western traditions as for Chinese institutions to do the same with their own). There are varieties of new music which owe relatively little to such traditions (such as that of Cage and some of his followers, or perhaps around Iannis Xenakis as well), but these are niche interests, like much new music (I will be writing more about this in a subsequent blog post). Most of those drawn to more integrative art music traditions, popular musics, musical theatre, film music and much else are dealing with musics rooted in developed harmonic traditions. To understand the workings of these and the possibilities thus engendered is to expand the range of possible creative application, not to narrow it.

The teaching of counterpoint has had an interesting history. In the Renaissance harmony was largely seen as a by-product of counterpoint, indicating particular ways in which musical lines formed vertical groupings of consonances and dissonances at particular points. In a gradual process from the advent of the seconda pratica at the beginning of the 17th century, harmony, and the structural relationships between different chords, came to assume an ever more prominent position in theory and education, coming to supersede the teaching of counterpoint in some places by the early 19th century, not least at the Paris Conservatoire. Certainly plenty of composers of this period, such as Frédéric Chopin or Johannes Brahms, still believed in the value of knowledge of counterpoint and studied it diligently. It was later in the century that counterpoint returned centre-stage in Paris, in the context of a post-1871 era which witnessed increased interest in earlier (pre-revolutionary) French musical traditions (which were viewed as archaic and reactionary after 1789), and became fundamental to the work and teaching of Gabriel Fauré, who was director of the Conservatoire from 1905 to 1920. Ultimately, I believe many who have studied it are deeply conscious of the value of understanding the interactions of lines even for the purpose of teaching more vertically-oriented music.

The same goes for the teaching of instrumental and orchestral technique – understanding the possibilities and limitations of different instruments, their particular characteristics and the results of performers employing certain techniques, and of course the ways in which they can be combined to optimal effect. Anyone wanting to write for live musicians can surely only gain from such knowledge, enabling more incisive use of such instruments. The same can be said for the compositional study of vocal technique.

Some such theoretical teaching is dismissed by some as simply a set of antiquated practices irrelevant to the modern era, and a means of artificially elevated the status of the group of dead white (mostly) males who developed them. But the same could be said of most technical or technological innovations which occurred in the West – would people reject the use of the telephone or the computer or the train for the same reason? In my opinion, very little music of lasting consequence is created ‘out of nothing’, most draws upon knowledge and understanding of other music which has preceded it, and can build upon or enter into a more critical relationship with its achievements (and limitations).

And once again this is not unique to classical traditions, as many others have highly developed and sophisticated styles which are the result of the application of various techniques. Sometimes these are of a different nature or constitute a different set of priorities, for sure; the sort of intricate thematic development which has traditionally accompanied a good deal of music in the sonata/symphonic classical tradition from the late 18th century is much less of a factor in popular song, for example, and other approaches to vocal writing, or particular use of instruments and electronic timbres, play a more central role. As one commentator on the thread linked to earlier pointed out, a great many blues musicians learned their craft through hours of listening, practice and imitation, which are another form of learning of technique. Those who idealise impressive instrumental improvised solos from jazz or other musicians may not always be aware of the many hours of work which have gone into developing the ability (not least the inner self-criticism) to do these, to go beyond simple repetition of known figurations, to be able to achieve fluency and genuine spontaneity, and so on; improvisation builds upon technique as much as any form of music-making.

It would be narrow to suggest that only a particular set of techniques from the common practice period should be taught (equally narrow not to teach them, however), and there is a reasonable argument that music theory and compositional technique should encompass a more plural range of traditions than has sometimes been the case hitherto. But the argument which opposes technique to creativity is myopic, primitivist and amateurish, in line with those arguments maintaining everyone is an artist and to pretend otherwise is the unwelcome hegemony of an elite, arguments which were soundly critiqued here. The professionalisation of musical education may in certain senses be ‘elitist’, in the sense that those who have had a professional training generally achieve skills and abilities which set them apart from those who have not. But to reject this type of elitism is really to reject education altogether, and (re-)institute other forms of less welcome elitism and discrimination, for if there is no reason to judge the quality of anyone’s work, one can be sure that other measures (which may relate to possession of independent means, family connections, and so on) will determine which art achieves some prominence.

Ultimately, if we eschew the teaching of compositional technique in education, we are giving students a meagre offering for the considerable amount of money they spend on such education. There are students who would prefer not to have to put in the considerable amount of self-directed study required to develop technique (definitely this cannot be achieved exclusively in the classroom), but to pander to this view is to facilitate a form of infantilisation and discourage students from developing the greater intellectual and creative maturity which will serve them well after graduation. If we want to help students be creative, we should be helping to provide them with the means to do so. And the wider the range of techniques taught, the greater the range of possibilities thus opened up.


(The story about the conservatoire and professionalisation of Russian musical life in the nineteenth century is covered in various books on Russian music and the Rubinsteins, but the most comprehensive treatment can be found in Lynn M. Sargeant’s Harmony & Discord: Music and the Transformation of Russian Cultural Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)).


The IICSA Report into Residential Schools – material on specialist music schools and some initial thoughts – Part 2

This post continues from that which I posted earlier this week following the publication of the IICSA Report into Residential Schools, including specialist music schools. This received fairly widespread coverage in the UK media, with reports in the Guardian, Independent, Telegraph, Manchester Evening News, and for the BBC (here and here), ITV and Sky News. A direct overview from the inquiry itself can be read here.

In the earlier post I linked to an earlier post of my own giving links to the videos and transcripts of the evidence given to the inquiry over three days in Autumn 2019. This transcript is especially key for Chetham’s, and includes my own evidence, while this transcript is particularly important in relation to the Purcell School.


I have added an extra passage at the end of the previous blog post, which I will also include here, on the role of educational guardians in residential schools, referencing a specific recent example involving Chetham’s:

Educational guardians
14. International students whose parents are not in the UK need an educational guardian if they attend a British boarding school in order to obtain the relevant visa. Educational guardians act in place of the parents while the child is in the UK, supporting the child throughout their studies and providing a home for them during holidays or weekends. He or she may be an individual appointed by the parents, such as a family member or a friend of the family, or the parents may use the services of an agency to provide an educational guardian.

15. Educational guardians are unregulated. There is no statutory licence, compulsory registration or training required for individuals or companies wishing to provide educational guardian services. If an educational guardian is appointed by a parent, the guardian is not required to comply with any standards or to obtain a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) certificate, and the school is not required to carry out any checks. This means that individuals who are unsuitable to work with children, or even those who have criminal convictions for child sexual abuse, can be appointed as educational guardians.

16. Currently, the NMS for boarding schools permit a member of school staff to be appointed as the educational guardian of an international student, although some schools do not permit this. As Ms Richards told us, school staff acting as educational guardians blurs boundaries, with the potential to cause problems or to prevent problems surfacing. At Chetham’s in the late 1990s, for example, violin tutor Wen Zhou Li was the educational guardian of a 16-year-old girl whom he sexually abused while she was residing with him during weekends and school holidays. In 2013, shortly after the arrest of Wen Zhou Li, ISI inspectors found that there was another staff member at the school who was acting as an educational guardian to a student.


Part E of the report deals with how allegations are responded to, and the role of the Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO) (a role introduced in 2006 to deal with allegations of abuse against children), also referencing the 2021 report Keeping Children Safe in Education (a modification of earlier reports of the same name). Various types of allegations should be referred to the LADO by a headteacher or chair of governors if the allegations involve the former, but the decision on whether the criteria are met is for one of these individuals to determine. This latter aspect has created a grey area with some headteachers claiming they were unsure whether the threshold was met. The LADO then involves police and social care, but does not investigate themselves. If they believe that an investigation by these bodies is unnecessary, they discuss how to proceed with the ‘case manager’ (usually the headteacher), leading either to further enquiries or no further action. If the former, they negotiate with the school about the nature of the investigation and who would carry it out. If an investigation finds that an allegation is substantiated with sufficient evidence, then the case manager and the LADO should meet to determine any improvements required to prevent such things in the future.

Most ambiguity seems to surround ‘low-level concerns’, which can include the use of ‘inappropriate sexualised, intimidating or offensive language.’ (p. 83) Policies are required to clarify the procedure here, and the inquiry noted that ‘Evidence was provided by residential special schools and some residential specialist music schools which had put in place procedures for reporting low-level concerns’ (p. 84). It also notes the following example of good practice:

At Wells Cathedral School, Mrs Helen Bennett, the DSL from 2006 to 2016, encouraged all staff to report any concerns about staff behaviour to her. She kept detailed notes of these concerns in a confidential file and reviewed these regularly to identify any patterns of behaviour. Mrs Bennett was able to discuss concerns with the headteacher and deputy headteacher who could take appropriate action with the staff member concerned. When Mrs Bennett retired in 2016, Wells Cathedral School continued the system, introducing an online neutral notification form to enable recording and cross-referencing of concerns. (p. 85)

This is however in contrast to the failures of an earlier case at the same school:

However, it should be noted that a low-level concerns policy may not prevent child sexual abuse by a determined perpetrator. At Wells Cathedral School, staff reported low-level concerns about the conduct of Julien Bertrand to the safeguarding lead and the senior leadership team over a period of two years. Bertrand was spoken to on several occasions and given an informal warning and reminded of the importance of boundaries and the school rules, but this did not deter Bertrand, who continued to sexually abuse RS-A202 until the abuse was disclosed to a trusted adult in 2005. (p. 86)



In the following section of Part E of the report, the Michael Brewer case (specifically that which led to his departure from the school) is referenced as an example of the problems inherent in the lack of a staff code of conduct, even after Brewer had left:

At Chetham’s School of Music, the headteacher introduced a staff code of conduct in 1995 following the resignation of the director of music, Michael Brewer, who had been conducting an abusive sexual relationship with a sixth-form pupil. Prior to Brewer’s resignation, there had been no code of conduct or other document setting out guidance and expectations regarding staff interactions with pupils. The staff code of conduct drafted in 1995 was not clear or specific regarding appropriate behaviour with students. Statutory guidance published in 1995 suggested that it may be “helpful” for schools to draw up a code of conduct in consultation with the local authority but it was not mandatory. KCSIE 2021 now requires schools to have a staff code of conduct, so that the boundaries of acceptable behaviour with children are made clear. A low-level concerns/neutral notification policy relies on the existence of a staff code of conduct to set out acceptable behaviour. (pp. 87-88)


In the case of the Purcell School, a major problem was the lack of proper recording of allegations against staff:

During Mr Peter Crook’s time as headteacher of The Purcell School for Young Musicians (the Purcell School), 2007–2011, there was poor recording of allegations against staff. In January 2009, an allegation of sexual abuse of a student by RS-F20, a staff member at the Purcell School, was referred to the LADO from outside the school. The LADO found that the allegation was unfounded and it was referred back to the school. A very similar allegation was made against RS-F20 in 2014, but no records of the 2009 allegation could be found at the school. Guidance at the time required a “clear and comprehensive summary of any allegations made, details of how the allegation was followed up and resolved, and a note of any action taken and decisions reached”, to be kept on the personnel file for at least 10 years or until the individual reached retirement age. In October 2009, Mr Crook found a member of staff, RS-F80, alone with a pupil, RS-A192, on the school field in the dark. Mr Crook arranged for RS-F80 to receive further safeguarding training but did not make a note of the incident and the action taken until RS-A192 disclosed in May 2010 that she had been sexually abused by RS-F80 on that occasion and had been in an abusive relationship with RS-F80 over several months. (p. 88)


However, some better practice appears to have been followed in 2010:

In May 2010, at the Purcell School, RS-A187, a sixth-form pupil aged under 18, disclosed to a non-teaching member of staff that she had been in an inappropriate sexual relationship with a member of staff for several months. RS-A187 spoke to several other members of staff and telephoned Childline before the headteacher and DSL were made aware two days later, when the school notified the LADO of the allegation. Statutory guidance required allegations to be reported straight away to the headteacher, in order for the headteacher to make a referral to the LADO. (p. 89)


Nonetheless, the case involving the headteacher himself, Peter Crook, laid bare the failings of a system to protect whistleblowing, a subject to which I will return in my conclusion. Those reporting abuse, sexual harassment, sexist or racist behaviours, or other comparable things will often find that those above them wish to make them into the issue.

55. In 2009 to 2010, staff at the Purcell School reported concerns to the chair of governors that the headteacher, Peter Crook, used sexually explicit and inappropriate language with children at the school. The concerns included a meeting that Mr Crook conducted with the Year 9 boys who boarded, held at his private residence on a Sunday evening, which he later suggested was a personal, social and health education (PSHE) class in response to an incident of sexualised bullying in a boarding house. Ms Margaret Moore, a teacher, reported her concerns about the ‘PSHE class’ anonymously to the chair of governors, Mr Graham Smallbone, because she had “a genuine fear of reprisal by the headmaster”. Twenty-five members of staff then sent an anonymous letter as the “Staff Association” to Mr Smallbone stating that this incident “is only one of a number of disturbing interactions between the Headmaster and Purcell students on the subject of human sexuality” and concluding that it was an issue which concerned “children at risk”. The letter was sent anonymously for fear of reprisal by the school. Mr Smallbone told the Inquiry that he did not take any action because the whistleblowers wished to remain anonymous. Mr Smallbone discussed the complaints with Mr Crook but did not refer any complaints to the LADO, despite guidance in place at the time requiring a referral to be made to the local authority without discussing the allegation with the person concerned.

56. Following Mr Smallbone’s failure to refer the allegations to the LADO, staff members reported a number of incidents anonymously to Ofsted and the local authority. The local authority found one allegation substantiated in July 2009 and advised that the headteacher should face disciplinary action. The local authority also advised that the ‘PSHE class’ was not an appropriate or sufficient response to bullying and that Mr Crook had breached “appropriate boundaries between staff and students” but concluded that there had been no intent to harm children and therefore that allegation was “unfounded”. The local authority did not appear to have considered whether the incident indicated that the headteacher may have been unsuitable to work with children, although this was a criteria for referral in the statutory guidance at the time but it did advise that the language used was inappropriate and should be dealt with through internal disciplinary procedures.

57. Mr Smallbone told the Inquiry that the staff members who reported the concerns about the headteacher were whistleblowers but that he nevertheless considered that “it would have been totally wrong to discipline the headmaster and not the members of staff”. The LADO advised Mr Smallbone that disciplining the whistleblowers would be disproportionate and reminded him that staff must be able to challenge poor practice.

58. Although staff were attempting to follow procedures and raise safeguarding concerns about the headteacher with the chair of governors, their concerns were not dealt with properly, despite the fact that the 2007 statutory guidance required schools to have appropriate whistleblowing procedures in place. There was an attempt to stifle the reporting of concerns internally and to characterise them to external bodies as malicious attempts to undermine the headteacher, who was making changes to the school which were unpopular with some staff. Suspected whistleblowers were required to attend an “intimidating” meeting with governors.


The failures here and lack of action are then summarised as follows:

59. Schools have not always carried out disciplinary investigations or taken appropriate disciplinary action when a LADO refers a case back to them. Mr Crook was never made the subject of any internal disciplinary sanction for incidents of inappropriate conversation with children at the school. During the same period, in 2009, an allegation of a staff member engaging in sexual activity with a student was referred to the LADO from outside the Purcell School. The student would not support a prosecution. The allegation was considered by the strategy meeting to be “unfounded” (“this indicated that the person making the allegation misinterpreted the incident or was mistaken about what they saw …. For an allegation to be classified as unfounded it will be necessary to have evidence to disprove the allegation”) and referred back to the school as an internal matter to address “unsafe practice”. The staff member had admitted to police that his relationship with the student was “too close” and that he had hugged and kissed the student on the cheek after rehearsals at his house. Although the original allegation was considered unfounded, the school had information that a teacher had acted inappropriately, which should have given rise to a disciplinary investigation.

60. The current headteacher at the Purcell School, Mr Paul Bambrough, noted that in such circumstances it would be helpful to have further guidance from the LADO on how to proceed following an allegation being handed back to the school. This is another area where schools are reliant on the LADO. Currently there is considerable variation between LADOs in terms of the time dedicated to helping schools once allegations are referred back to them.


Part F considers the nature of leadership and governance in schools in England (Wales is dealt with in a separate section, which is not strictly relevant to this post, as none of the specialist music schools are located there). The report focuses on the role of the headteacher and the designated safeguarding lead as holding primary responsibilities. In the case of specialist music schools, the report might have also noted the key position of the Director of Music, which in some cases can be almost as powerful as the headteacher, and usually has a more intimate and regular relationship with the music teachers (as the headteacher has often not been a musician themselves). But this role and its relationship to the headteacher has come under some question in recent times: for a period from 2013 the Purcell School abolished the role of Director of Music (though it was recreated again in 2018), while in 2020, following the retirement of former headteacher Alun Jones, Chetham’s created a joint headship shared between the existing Director of Music and Deputy Head.

The report notes the lack of any statutory governance requirements (such as a board of governors) for independent schools, with some overseen by a sole proprietor. While proprietors and governors are themselves required to undergo checks from the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), Her Majest’s Chief Inspector for Education, Skills and Children’s Services, Ms Amanda Spielman, believes these are insufficient. It would be interesting to consider, had any equivalent to the DBS (or its predecessor, the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA), working together with the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB), from 2002) been in place, in the 1980s, whether this would have prevented Robert Waddington, former Dean of Manchester Cathedral, against whom many allegations of abuse have been made (in which context IICSA in an earlier report were sharply critical of a lack of action on the part of the Church of England), becoming a governor of Chetham’s from 1984 to 1993, including during the time of disclosures of abuse in 1990 against Chris Ling, who left the country. Unfortunately the IICSA report makes no reference to Waddington, and a governing body containing someone for whom all evidence points to his being an abuser himself, but this subject is mention in Fiona Gardiner’s book Sex, Power, Control: Responding to Abuse in the Institutional Church

The report emphasises the role of headteachers in creating a positive culture of safeguarding, but also how this was lacking in most of the schools examined, through poor policies and procedures, inadequate implementation of these, lack of clear staff codes of conduct, inadequate safeguarding training, insufficient awareness by leaders of risks or the signs of abuse or inappropriate behaviour, insular and inward-looking schools with little internal or external accountability, treating allegations as a reputational rather than a child protection concern, discrediting of children who complain, a lack of concern about sexual activity between staff and students, and a general culture discouraging parents, children or staff members from complaining (p. 102). All of these factors were certainly at play at Chetham’s during the period when the maximum abuse occurred, and it would appear for a long period at many of the other SMSs too. John Vallins, headteacher at Chetham’s between 1974 and 1992 (the report wrongly claims he was head from 1970) gave evidence to the inquiry, and seemed to many to whom I spoke to have communicated a sense of being aloof, complacent, and little prepared to engage with the gravity of what had occurred under his watch. The report says the following:

In this investigation, there were examples of headteachers who found it inconceivable that staff might abuse their position of authority to abuse children. Mr John Vallins, headteacher of Chetham’s School of Music (Chetham’s) between 1970 and 1992, assumed the instrumental teachers were “admirable people with absolutely right relationships with their pupils” and that extra tuition outside of school hours was a “splendid aspiration”. There was a failure to recognise that such occasions were potential opportunities for abuse and therefore no safeguards were put in place to minimise such risks and to protect pupils. (p. 103)


At Purcell, Peter Crook’s priority appears to have been to protect teachers against allegations. If such allegations are false, this is indeed a paramount concern, but Crook does not seem to have considered seriously also attempting to ensure that credible accusations were taken seriously:

Mr Peter Crook, headteacher of The Purcell School for Young Musicians (the Purcell School) from 2007 to 2011, drafted a document on safer working practice in 2009 which he presented as being designed to protect staff from allegations which could be made by pupils “of unsound mind”. In the document, Mr Crook described adolescents as sometimes unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality and informed staff that pupils therefore may “present a danger, even to the most careful of teachers”. Although the document was described as a draft for discussion, it may have given rise to the inference that pupils were inherently unreliable and not worthy of belief, and that allegations against staff were likely to be false. Mr Crook subsequently told police investigating a staff member, RS-F80, for sexual offences against a pupil that he did not believe the girl and that her allegation was based on fantasy and exaggeration. It was wrong for Mr Crook to seek to undermine the credibility
of his pupil in this way. (p. 104)


The action of Peter Hullah, Vallins’ successor as headteacher at Chetham’s, working primarily to protect the reputation of the school after Michael Brewer’s relationship with a sixth-form student was discovered, is viewed no more favourably:

On occasion, when allegations of child sexual abuse arose, headteachers moved to protect the reputation of the school rather than the welfare of victims and other children at the school. In 1994, Michael Brewer, the director of music at Chetham’s, resigned after his inappropriate relationship with a sixth-form student was discovered by the headteacher, Mr Peter Hullah. The headteacher suggested that it would be publicly announced that Brewer had taken early retirement on the grounds of ill health, in order to preserve the reputation of the school and its director of music. Brewer went on to work with young people in the National Youth Choir. No external agencies were notified of the circumstances of Brewer’s departure. (p. 104)


In this context, the report also noted that:

The Charity Commission told the Inquiry that some independent schools see their reputation as being of paramount importance and that this has unduly influenced the handling of safeguarding matters by some charity trustees. (p. 104)


At Purcell, the sort of leadership required to protect children was clearly lacking under Peter Crook, as established by an independent report:

As the leader of the school, the headteacher has to be a role model to staff and students, and must embody the values of the school. The headteacher must demonstrate a commitment to safeguarding and adhere to the same rules and boundaries as other staff. An independent review of safeguarding practice at the Purcell School in 2019 found that Mr Crook, headteacher from 2007 to 2011, “did not provide a good role model”. The review concluded that, under the leadership of Mr Crook, the school “did not have a culture of safeguarding”, “safeguarding was not well understood” and “the attitude of senior leaders was complacent”. Mr Paul Bambrough took over as headteacher of the Purcell School in 2018. He said that the high turnover of staff in the headteacher role over the previous 10 years meant the school had no clear identity or idea of its function. Mr Bambrough sought to develop the safeguarding culture and ethos of the school by ensuring that everyone in the school was aware that the “overriding priority is to ensure that all students in the school are safe, happy and healthy”. He considered that consistency in messaging from the headteacher was of central importance in facilitating a safeguarding culture. (p. 104)


The report however considered Wells to have a better approach to such things, at least according to their own account:

Openness and transparency are key to a protective environment. Schools with a strong safeguarding culture responded promptly and appropriately to allegations and concerns, including complaints about non-recent incidents. Wells Cathedral School said that in the aftermath of allegations or safeguarding concerns, it cooperated with external agencies and reflected on opportunities to learn from mistakes in order to improve safeguarding arrangements in the school. (p. 105)


A little later in the section, the report considers further the role of governors and the need for them to act as a check on headteachers, which was not the case at Purcell:

Evidence from the schools examined showed that far from encouraging challenge from governors, some headteachers were resistant to scrutiny, while some governing bodies lacked the ability to challenge school leaders. In some cases, such as at Clifton College and at the Purcell School, governors simply ‘rubber-stamped’ the decisions of the headteacher or failed to address shortcomings in the safeguarding practice of the school, even when these issues had been identified by external safeguarding professionals. (p. 107)


In the case of both Chetham’s and Purcell, there was further reason to believe the governing body negligent in terms of their responsibilities in this respect:

42. The Inquiry heard that at many of the schools examined governors did not monitor the effective implementation of safeguarding arrangements through the scrutiny of safeguarding incidents which arose at the school. This was the case at Chetham’s prior to 2013 and at the Purcell School during the tenure of Mr Graham Smallbone as chair of governors from 1998 to 2010.

43. The local authority’s inspection report on Chetham’s in 2013 found there was little evidence that the governing body had held the school to account to ensure that safeguarding arrangements were “implemented, applied robustly, monitored appropriately, or evaluated effectively”. The ISI also inspected Chetham’s in 2013 and found that there was inadequate oversight of the safeguarding arrangements at the school. The governing body had no means of monitoring the implementation or effectiveness of safeguarding policies and procedures, for example by sampling cases which occurred at the school. In response to the ISI’s findings, the school endeavoured to improve transparency and accountability by creating new formal structures for the oversight of safeguarding. A dedicated safeguarding committee was established within the school’s governing body. It received anonymised reports of all safeguarding incidents which arose at the school, to ensure the school’s policies and procedures were complied with in practice and to enable assessment of the effectiveness of the school’s safeguarding processes. (p. 108)


The role of the Chair of Governors, Graham Smallbone, comes under further harsh scrutiny:

53. The Inquiry heard detailed evidence about governance issues at the Purcell School, where the chair of governors did not deal appropriately with concerns reported by staff about the headteacher, failed to hold the headteacher to account for his inappropriate behaviour, failed to refer matters of concern to the LADO and did not engage transparently with external bodies.

54. In the 2009/10 school year, the chair of governors, Mr Smallbone, was made aware of a number of complaints and concerns regarding the conduct of the headteacher, Mr Crook, in relation to inappropriate conversations with pupils. Mr Smallbone discussed the complaints with Mr Crook but did not refer any complaints to the LADO. Several direct referrals were made by whistleblowers on the school staff and in July 2009 the local authority found one allegation against the headteacher to be substantiated. It was referred back to the school so that the board of governors could take disciplinary action against Mr Crook but in September 2009 Mr Smallbone asked the LADO to reconsider the outcome of the case. It was inappropriate of him to question the outcome or ask the LADO to reconsider it. Mr Crook said that he was never informed by the chair of governors or anyone else that an allegation against him had been substantiated.

55. Mr Smallbone also heard a recording of Mr Crook speaking to Year 9 boys using language which Mr Smallbone described to the Inquiry as “absolutely unacceptable”, although he had previously told the governing body it was “very good with only very minor exceptions”. An independent review commissioned by the governing body in 2009 considered that Mr Crook had used inappropriate language with pupils and recommended that Mr Crook be given a formal final warning and placed on probation. The local authority had also recommended that disciplinary action be taken. Mr Smallbone declined to follow these recommendations to take disciplinary measures against Mr Crook but assured the local authority that disciplinary action had been taken. An independent review commissioned by the current headteacher of the Purcell School concluded in 2019 that the failure to discipline Mr Crook was a misjudgement on the part of the chair of governors and that he failed to properly hold the headteacher to account for inappropriate conduct.

56. Staff at the Purcell School at the time perceived that governors lacked accountability for their failure to hold the headteacher to account. Ms Margaret Moore, a whistleblower at the school during the headship of Mr Crook, told the Inquiry: “the governors ultimately, in that independent school, were in control, and they could do and say what they wanted to”. (pp. 110-111)

The final passage relating to SMSs in this section of the report does acknowledge some positive actions taken by Chetham’s after a critical report on safeguarding in 2013:

Independent school governors are not accountable to the local authority or to the Department for Education in how they exercise their oversight role. Such schools may choose to create an additional oversight mechanism to monitor the effectiveness of the governing body. After Chetham’s failed to meet safeguarding standards in 2013, in addition to creating a sub-committee of the governing body to monitor safeguarding at the school, an Independent Safeguarding Commission was established by the school, composed of individuals who were independent of the school and its governing body. The Independent Safeguarding Commission’s role was to have independent oversight of the safeguarding arrangements at the schools and to scrutinise the safeguarding committee of the governing body. It could request reports from the safeguarding committee and could also invite staff with safeguarding roles to present reports and answer questions regarding safeguarding at the school. (p. 112)


The next section looks in detail at existing and projected requirements in terms of safeguarding training for staff, and the need to renew these. Once again, Wells was cited as an example of good practice:

Effective training goes beyond the minimum of ensuring staff have read and understood the relevant parts of KCSIE and the school policies and procedures. Staff should have a clear understanding of the safeguarding risks which could arise in their school and how to be alert to signs of abuse. Mrs Helen Bennett, the former DSL of Wells Cathedral School, explained that she adapted and supplemented the training materials provided by the local authority to address particular aspects of a residential music school and used real-life examples to emphasise the importance of safeguarding: “I just didn’t really hold back on the dangers that were out there”. Mrs Bennett said that face-to-face training took place on a frequent basis, with training sessions tailored to different staff roles, including ancillary staff such as boarding house cleaners, “to keep child protection and safeguarding a bit of a buzz in the school, because I wanted people to be part of a team. I wanted everybody to be involved”. (p. 116)


This was in sharp contrast to Purcell under Peter Crook:

Mr Peter Crook, former headteacher of The Purcell School for Young Musicians, said that he did not receive any training from the DSL, and considered that he kept up to date with safeguarding by reading bulletins from the professional associations of which he was a member. Evidence showed that he lacked the safeguarding knowledge and awareness that would be expected of a headteacher. (p. 116)


The report also considers the lack of any special requirements in terms of training for those working in boarding schools, and concludes that these are needed. I would add that there should be extra forms of training for all involved in teaching music, because of the specific dangers there (the same may apply to dance, though with different specific dangers). (p. 118) It also the need for governors to have mandatory training and for there to be a standardised safeguarding course for these and proprietors. (pp. 120-122).


The following part of the report, on the role of inspections of schools, makes further reference to Chetham’s and Purcell:

31. During the 2013 inspection of Chetham’s School of Music, the headteacher, Ms Claire Moreland, initially failed to declare that a member of staff, Wen Zhou Li, had been arrested for non-recent sexual offences against a pupil only two or three weeks before the inspection. The ISI had been given this information by the local authority which was conducting an inspection at the same time and therefore knew to press the headteacher on this point. This illustrates both the extent to which the inspectorates are reliant on headteachers telling the truth and the importance of information-sharing.

32. In 2009, at The Purcell School for Young Musicians, there was a concerted effort by the chair of governors, Mr Graham Smallbone, to manage and downplay the safeguarding concerns that had been raised in respect of the headteacher to Ofsted, despite an allegation against the headteacher being found to be substantiated by the local authority. The inspector recorded that, after meeting with the chair of governors, she “felt very confident that the issues are being addressed appropriately and effectively by the governing body”. The Ofsted report did not address the fact that the local authority had been notified of concerns by whistleblowers on the school staff who had no confidence in the safeguarding regime at the school. The report stated that “There has been a small but effective element within the staff team which has actively undermined the headteacher and the school”. This was not a fair or accurate representation of the actions of whistleblowers on the school staff. The inspectors were too ready to accept the assertions of the chair of governors.


The final relevant section of the report is that on conclusions and recommendations. The most relevant aspects are as follows:

  • The dangers of sexual abuse in boarding schools are especially acute, are not addressed in current statutory guidance and standards, and the problem is heightened for those whose parents are overseas.
  • There are many cases of poor leadership, especially on the part of headteachers, and governance, while there are too few checks on independent schools.
  • Statutory training does not involve minimum standards, leading to inconsistency, nor does it address the particular needs of certain types of schools.
  • There should be a single inspectorate body (currently there are two), and better sharing of information between different parts of the system (schools, local, authorities, DBS, etc.). This would also address cases where school leaders do not disclose all the necessary information.
  • DBS checks do not make enhanced certificates compulsory for supervised volunteers, for whom the system is in general too loose.
  • Recruitment decisions have been made without full and proper assessment of relevant information.
  • The Teaching Regulation Agency (TRA) does not deal with those doing work such as being cover supervisors or teaching assistants, and should do.

As for recommendations to the Department of Education and the Welsh Government, the relevant ones are as follows:

  • A new duty for boarding schools to inform the relevant inspectorate of allegations of sexual abuse and other serious incidents, with professional/regulatory consequences for breach of this.
  • A system of licensing and registration of educational guardians, with DBS checks.
  • National standards for LADOs, and clarification that they can be contacted for informal advice too.
  • Modification of governance standards within the Independent School Standards, involving external scrutiny, transparency and honesty, and forbidding a proprietor to be a safeguarding lead.
  • Standards for independent schools to be brought in line with those for free schools or early years provision.
  • National standards for safeguarding training, mandatory for headteachers, safeguarding leads and safeguarding governors.
  • Schools to be required to inform the relevant inspectorate if they have referred a staff member to DBS, TRA or Education Workforce Council.
  • More guidance for supervised volunteers working with children, and ensuring DBS checks are free of charge to them.

Questions of mandatory reporting, support for victims and survivors, and vetting and barring will be revisited in IICSA’s final overall report, to be published later this year.

These may all seem quite general, and few of them specific to music schools, but nonetheless are all important developments. Overall, the report goes much further than any previous document in placing in the public domain a good deal of information relating to grievous past errors, neglect, complacency or even corruption such as has allowed abusers to act with relative impunity in a range of settings. I know from speaking to a range of survivors how important it is for much of this to be made public by a goverment-appointed body, in terms of clearly laying the issue of the responsibility not only with the abusers themselves, but also the institutions which failed to protect these survivors from them when children. There is absolutely no reason for any such survivors to ‘blame themselves’, as unfortunately the earlier processes of obfuscation, cover-up and denial on the part of the institutions have encouraged.

I believe various individuals deeply implicated in this ought to make some statement of their own, at the very least to acknowledge the severity of what has happened – in particular John Vallins, Peter Hullah and Clare Moreland, all former head teachers at Chetham’s, and Peter Crook and Graham Smallbone from Purcell. As was recounted in a piece for the LRB Blog by Laura Newey written soon after the IICSA hearings, one attendant there was incensed by Vallins’ testimony, claiming not to know about the abuse going on at the hands of Chris Ling, and shouted from the gallery at him (this was edited out from the video); in my own testimony I also made reference to various indviduals who had come to me with evidence that they had indeed told Vallins. If it may be the case that sexual abuse of the type perpetuated by Brewer, Ling, Gazelle and others is less likely today than it was in earlier decades, that is some consolation, but as Newey wrote, it is a ‘low bar’; there remain various types of other physical or emotional abuse and bullying which are often part of the culture of music education, and these are equally important to address.

I would have liked to have seen more consideration in the IICSA report of the wider culture at the schools (as well as the institutional structures). This is touched upon but not pursued in any depth, though may be somewhat daunting for non-musicians to consider. Undoubtedly this is an area which warrants much further study and research, some of which I will be undertaking myself.

Overwhelmingly the report identifies a prioritisation of the reputation of schools over the welfare of pupils, and does allude to the power and influence of revered music teachers, a theme about which I have also written on multiple occasions previously. The relatively unregulated form of patronage which exists in the wider musical world militates against those who have experienced abuse, assault, harassment or other discriminatory treatment from coming forward, and some wider regulatory measures to protect such individuals are needed, even if this means a less ‘hands-off’ approach to arts funding than has hitherto been the case.

As I mentioned in my previous post, despite clear evidence and knowledge of the activities of Philip Pickett, it took a long time before individuals finally felt able to go forward. How many are intimidated into staying silent so as not to ‘rock the boat’? How many fear that all they have worked for as a musician stands to be taken from them if they register a complaint, and may risk opprobrium from other musicians (as has been the case for some of those courageous ones who have come forward since the Brewer trial)? But people knew, some of these activities were relatively ‘common knowledge’ in sections of the music world. How many choose just to look the other way and ignore these in their own self-interests, leaving the victims even more isolated? Similarly, how many see individuals being mistreated in various environments, educational, workplace or even social, and think the simplest option for them is simply to tacitly go along with this, so as to stay with the ‘in group’? These types of bullying behaviour and complicity with the same may start at school but by no means necessarily end there. And all the evidence of intimidation and marginalisation of abuse survivors points to the same processes and behaviours being commonplace, and exploited maliciously. Principled whistleblowers like Margaret Moore are very much the exception rather than the rule. The whole music world needs to look at itself, and stop pretending that being involved in such an elevated field of practice somehow makes such concerns secondary.

I would also draw people’s attention to the recommendations submitted to the inquiry by lawyers Slater & Gordon, who represented a range of survivors. When IICSA produces its final report, then it will be time to reflect more widely on these.


The IICSA Report into Residential Schools – material on specialist music schools and some initial thoughts – Part 1

Today, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse have published their long-awaited report into residential schools, including specialist music schools, following their hearings in Autumn 2019. As a participant in the inquiry who gave verbal evidence and also a wide range of written data, submitted via lawyers Slater and Gordon, I wanted to draw attention to the sections relating to specialist music schools (as the report is 223 pages long), and offer some comments. I earlier published a post with a wide range of links to the testimonies and videos from the inquiry, and also an extensive range of testimonies collected at the time from former pupils at my former school, Chetham’s School of Music. Other relevant posts are indexed on my home page – perhaps most relevant are my digest of reported cases of abuse from 1990 to 2012, and detailed account of the trial of Michael Brewer and the aftermath.

Chetham’s School of Music, cloister buildings.

The report details widespread abuse throughout the four English specialist music schools (SMSs), including various cases for which circumstances including the fact that the alleged perpetrator is deceased precluded criminal proceedings. I am very glad that they have drawn attention to the allegations against Rzysard Bakst at Chetham’s and Marcel Gazelle at the Yehudi Menuhin School (for which I and several others worked with Channel 4 News to bring the story to light) in particular. But key to this type of report is not just which perpetrators carried out which incidents, but also how they were able to do so within the institutions in question, how those institutions responded when such allegations came to light, and which measures either were or have been put in place to safeguard pupils. It is clear that there were extremely serious deficiencies on the part of the schools, which enabled these incidents to happen. I link these to a much wider toxic culture (as attested to in the Chetham’s testimonies linked above) of reckless abuse of power, premature sexualisation, bullying, harassment, physical and emotional as well as sexual abuse, and in general, a privileging of the reputation of the institutions over the welfare of the pupils, as is made clear in the report. Furthermore, as also identified in the report, there are specific factors relating to specialist music schools which make pupils especially potentially vulnerable: the power and charisma of teachers, the intensely competitive environment in which the chances of ultimate success are low, the intimacy of the 1-1 teaching relationship, and more. From when these schools were founded (Purcell and Menuhin in the early 1960s; Chetham’s, Wells, and St Mary’s, Edinburgh, all became wholly or partially SMSs at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s), the dangers in terms of child welfare should have been obvious, but my research has uncovered little evidence of any particular concern about this on the part of those invested with power and responsibility at the schools. All sought inspiration from schools and pedagogy in Eastern Europe: the Central School in Moscow was the direct model for the Menuhin School, and by implication also St Mary’s (which was itself modelled on the Menuhin School), the Purcell School; Rosemary Rapaport, co-founder of the Central Tutorial School, later Purcell School, was inspired by what she saw in Czechoslovakia, and also wrote about the contrast between what students achieved in the UK and in Russia; the plans for Chetham’s were explicitly compared to schools in Russia and Hungary, and both John Vallins and Michael Brewer visited Hungary and the Soviet Union to seek information on approaches to tuition; pedagogy at Wells was deeply influenced by the violinist Yfrah Neaman, Lebanese-born but Moscow-trained. Furthermore, many teachers at the schools came from Eastern European ‘schools’ of playing and pedagogy, and made much of the mystique associated with these in the West. Specialist music education was in large measure an Eastern European development (there are a few precedents in Weimar-era Germany and even in the Third Reich, but these were not long-lasting) – many such schools sprung up throughout Eastern Europe after 1945, inspired especially by the model of the Moscow Central School, founded in 1932. Approaches to teaching which were developed in highly authoritarian and undemocratic societies were being transplanted into a Western liberal democracy; a theme of my forthcoming history will be the stark incompatibility of these with the wider values, including child welfare and nurturing, which should have been expected in the UK. To this day debates continue to rage as to what is reasonable in terms of expectations on young people studying music and dance at a high level, with examples from Russia and China cited in opposition to a more liberal and child-centered approaches.

Through the course of events, the actions of particular head teachers and music directors has been especially deficient, even when not directly involved with abuse – the report makes reference to John Vallins, Peter Hullah and Clare Moreland at Chetham’s, and Peter Crook at Purcell. The testimonies of these individuals and some others at the hearings were not impressive, and communicated to many alumni with whom I am in contact a sense of complacency, marginalisation, and even denial. Alas it is probably unsurprising to many to see confirmation that institutions have sought to protect their own reputations and those of their most senior staff, in the face of allegations of abuse, bullying, harassment, and so on, and those going forward to register such things can find themselves shunned, marginalised or victimised. This is why mandatory measures and reporting are needed, and proper protection offered for those who come forward. There is still a long way to go in this respect, and I will say more about this when writing about the report’s conclusions in a subsequent post. Many dangers are present in tertiary as well as primary/secondary music education: some will be aware of the case of Philip Pickett, jailed in 2015 for eleven-and-a-half years for offences including rape of female students in locked sound-proofed practice rooms. Also shocking was the reaction of the then-principal of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the late John Hosier, simply telling the parents of one girl who was attacked to take her to study somewhere else (see also my articles following the Pickett case here and here). I am aware of detailed testimony relating to another former conservatoire principal of a similar nature, from two individuals unbeknown to each other when they spoke to me, and relating to two different teachers who had committed grievous sexual offences. When considering going to the police about these cases, they were threatened with expulsion and career ruin by the principal in question. The possibilities for such corruption of power, in a world in which reputations are everything, and careers are greatly fragile and dependent upon good favour within narrow circles, must be addressed as a matter of urgency.


Here are the key passages from the IICSA report:

In 2013, Michael Brewer, the former director of music at Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester, was convicted of sexually abusing a former student when she was 14. His victim took her own life after giving evidence at his trial. This prompted other former pupils to come forward, with 47 alleged perpetrators reported to the police, 35 of whom were connected with the school. Four were charged with criminal offences, including Christopher Ling who had abused eight young girls, often in the guise of ‘rewards and punishments’ at his home during tutorials, during music courses in school holidays and at the school itself. This first came to light in 1990, shortly after Ling moved to the USA, taking a group of girls with him as pupils. Extradition was not pursued and no further action was taken at the time by the school or by others. It was, as one victim put it, “as if it hadn’t happened”. (p. 2)

At the Purcell School, a specialist music school, allegations against staff were not responded to appropriately under the headship of Mr Peter Crook. This is unsurprising, as the headteacher demonstrated a failure to understand some basic principles of safeguarding. For example, in 2009 Mr Crook took a group of Year 9 boys to his home, discussed his own sexual experiences with them, told the boys how to measure their penises and told them he would ignore it if he caught two boys masturbating each other. When this came to light, it was decided that no disciplinary measures were to be imposed on the headteacher.

Teachers and others exploited their positions of trust to abuse children in all the various types of educational settings the Inquiry considered. Some settings pose heightened risks. Boarding schools were described to us as “the ideal environment for grooming”, as the children have an increased dependency on those around them. (pp. 2-3)

In the specialist music schools examined, the power and influence of often revered and influential music teachers made some pupils even more vulnerable to being sexually abused by them. The reputations of both the musicians and the schools were often seen as more important than their victims and potential victims when allegations were made or concerns were raised. The response was similar when concerns were raised about well-liked and generally respected members of staff in other school contexts, in both the independent and state sectors. (p. 3)


There are details of the testimony of RS-A2 and RS-A3 on pp. 7-8, both relating to horrific abuse at the hands of Chris Ling. I will not give all the details, but quote here aspects relevant to the environment and response of the school. Very notable is the behaviour of houseparents (in a position of loco parentis in such schools), for which the evidence is damning.

RS-A2 was a boarder at Chetham’s School of Music (Chetham’s) in Manchester in the 1980s, from the ages of 13 to 18. She was far from home and found the atmosphere in the school to be “oppressive” and very competitive. She felt that there were no staff members who were approachable.

Christopher Ling became RS-A2’s violin tutor at Chetham’s when she was 15. RS-A2 said that she saw Ling as a father figure, and that he had convinced his students that he was their only chance of success. RS-A2 noticed that Ling frequently commented on the appearance of his female pupils, and he sometimes gave RS-A2 a shoulder massage for pain she developed from over-practising.
[…..]
When Ling’s abuse of pupils at Chetham’s came to light in December 1990, RS-A2 was interviewed by Greater Manchester Police in the presence of the housemistress, Mrs Anne Rhind. Although the female police officer who interviewed her was “kind”, RS-A2 had the impression that Mrs Rhind was worried about the impact on the school and that she was angry with RS-A2.

After RS-A2 disclosed the abuse at school, she spoke to her mother about it on the telephone. RS-A2 said that she later discovered that her mother tried to contact her at Chetham’s, but Mrs Rhind would not let her speak to or see RS-A2, saying that she was busy. RS-A2 said that she had not known at the time that her mother had tried to see her because Mrs Rhind did not tell RS-A2 that her mother had come to the school.

Some time after she was interviewed, RS-A2 recalled being told by the police that the case would not proceed due to a lack of evidence. Neither the police nor the school offered any counselling or support.

RS-A2 was allocated a new violin teacher at Chetham’s who also made sexual allusions in lessons and forcefully kissed her, but RS-A2 did not report it. She did not think she would be listened to: “if the other abuse hadn’t been listened to, then why would this?”

RS-A2 provided another statement to the police in 2013, when the case against Ling was reopened. Ling shot himself in the head when US marshals arrived at his home to serve extradition papers upon him in September 2015. When she heard of Ling’s suicide, RS-A2 felt that again the voices of his victims had not been heard. She felt shocked and angry, and described his suicide as “a final kick in the teeth”.

The sexual abuse has continued to affect RS-A2 emotionally and physically, causing problems with trust and self-esteem, and has affected her relationships with men. RS-A2 has not played classical music since leaving Chetham’s and finds it difficult to listen to it. (pp. 6-7)

Also:

[…..]
RS-A3 joined Chetham’s when she was 15 years old, living at the school as a boarder. Ling was her instrumental teacher and RS-A3 said that she looked up to him as an inspiring teacher. He continued to sexually abuse her, not on school premises but at his private residence, during additional lessons or tuition courses at weekends and in the school holidays.
[…..]

In autumn 1990, during a self-awareness course, RS-A3 disclosed that she had been sexually abused by Ling. Her parents were informed and reported him to the police. By this time, Ling was teaching in the United States and RS-A3 was in the sixth form at Chetham’s. Greater Manchester Police interviewed RS-A3 and several other girls at the school, although RS-A3 recalled being told by the police subsequently that there was not enough evidence to extradite Ling to face trial in England.

In 2013, the police reopened the case against Ling. RS-A3 was interviewed again by the police because the evidence gathered in 1990 had been lost. Extradition proceedings were initiated to bring Ling back from the United States to face trial in England, but Ling killed himself before he could be extradited.

When RS-A3 heard of his suicide, she felt a sense of relief but also was disappointed that Ling had never faced justice for his actions:

“I wanted it confirmed that we were telling the truth and I have missed out on the recognition of what we had gone through. I am especially angry that the school will never be held accountable”.

The abuse continues to affect RS-A3. She struggles to show her feelings and feels numb and disconnected. She gave up playing the violin as it triggered uncomfortable emotions. (pp. 7-8)


The following passage relates to the nature of specialist music provision in the UK, about which I am working on a history at present.

B.2: Music schools

2. Through the Music and Dance Scheme (MDS), the Department for Education provides income-assessed grants or bursaries to pay all or part of the fees for children at specialist music or dance schools in England. The schools themselves decide whom to offer places and may withdraw a place according to their own policies.

3. There are four specialist music schools in the MDS in England:

• Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester (Chetham’s);
• The Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey;
• The Purcell School for Young Musicians in Hertfordshire (the Purcell School); and
• Wells Cathedral School in Somerset
.

These four specialist music schools are independent boarding schools, although day pupils also attend. In all four schools, there have been allegations of sexual abuse of students by teachers or other adults working at the school.

4. A watershed moment came in 2013, when Mrs Frances Andrade took her own life shortly after giving evidence at the trial of Michael Brewer. The former director of music at Chetham’s was convicted of sexual offences against her when she was a pupil and boarder at the school (when named Miss Frances Shorney, as she is referred to below). Mrs Andrade’s death and Brewer’s conviction were widely reported in the press, prompting many former pupils of Chetham’s and the other specialist music schools to come forward and speak about their experiences of child sexual abuse within music education from the 1960s to the present day. Many spoke to the police through Operation Kiso, a large-scale investigation by Greater Manchester Police. Many more contacted Dr Ian Pace, a musicologist and former pupil of Chetham’s, who had written a number of articles on his blog, Desiring Progress, regarding the trial of Brewer and the incidence of child sexual abuse in specialist music education.

Chetham’s School of Music

5. Chetham’s is situated in the centre of Manchester, close to Manchester Cathedral. The Cathedral choristers are educated at the school.79 It became a co-educational specialist music school in 1969, having been a boys’ grammar school since 1656. Chetham’s is the largest of the four specialist music schools, currently providing full-time academic education, in addition to specialist music tuition, for just over 300 pupils aged between 8 and 18. More than one-third of its student body is in the sixth form (aged 16 to 18). At the time of the Inquiry’s hearing in October 2019, the school had 220 boarders and around 10 percent of its students were from overseas.

6. Incidents of child sexual abuse which occurred at Chetham’s between the 1970s and the 1990s led to five adults who worked with children there facing criminal charges. Some allegations of child sexual abuse at Chetham’s were reported after the alleged perpetrators had died, resulting in no further action being taken by police.’ (pp. 24-25)


The report looks specifically at the cases of Michael Brewer and Chris Ling, as well as the nature of Operation Kiso, set up soon after the Brewer trial. The case of Michael Brewer has been the most prominently reported because of the trial of him and his former wife, and the tragic suicide of their victim Frances Andrade, née Shorney, during the course of the trial. Especially notable here are the details of how Brewer’s departure from the school were handled, in such a manner as enabled him to continue working with young people. On the grapevine, at the time of his departure, I heard rumours about some scam involving a violin manufacturer and him, but this would have been far less serious. It cannot be underestimated how fundamental a role Brewer played in the lives of all who attended the school when he was Director of Music (some early reports described him simply as a choirmaster, which downplayed his power – see my earlier blog post here on Brewer), and as such what it meant to see him convicted of such a serious crime.

Michael Brewer

7. Michael Brewer was the director of music at Chetham’s for 20 years, from his appointment in 1974. He was appointed by and directly accountable to the governing body (known at that time as the School Committee), rather than the headteacher. Brewer was a powerful figure, having complete autonomy over all matters relating to music. Mr Peter Hullah (headteacher from 1992 to 1999) told the Inquiry that “the Director of Music was the School”. Brewer was also highly regarded outside the school. He left Chetham’s in December 1994 and continued to work with young people as the artistic director of the National Youth Choir, which he had founded in 1983. Brewer was awarded an OBE in the 1995 New Year’s Honours List for services to music education.

8. Frances Shorney was a boarder at Chetham’s during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Brewer groomed and sexually abused her when she was 14 and 15 years old in his office at Chetham’s and also at his family home. The sexual abuse escalated from kissing and touching to oral sex and penetrative sexual intercourse. At one point, because Miss Shorney was exhibiting emotional and behavioural problems, the headteacher, Mr John Vallins, agreed that she should move into the Brewers’ family home in order to help her cope with the pressures of the school. Brewer continued to sexually abuse her when she lived with his family. It was not until many years after she left Chetham’s that she felt able to confide in a fellow musician about the sexual abuse she had suffered as a pupil, before making formal allegations to the police in 2011.

9. In the course of its investigation into the allegations against Brewer, Greater Manchester Police spoke with a number of former pupils of the school. Several recalled that it was common knowledge amongst the student body that Brewer had an inappropriate sexual relationship with Miss Shorney and that Brewer had targeted other girls. One witness told the police that Brewer had made aggressive sexual advances towards her on a school trip when she was 16, which she had rebuffed.

10. The police also identified a former pupil, RS-A187, whom Brewer groomed and then engaged in sexual activity with over several months in 1994, when she was 17 years old and he was 49. RS-A187 gave evidence for the prosecution at the trial to show that Brewer had a sexual interest in the teenage girls in his care. Brewer did not face any criminal charges in relation to RS-A187, because it was not a criminal offence for a teacher to engage in consensual sexual activity with a pupil over 16 until 2001.

11. In November 1994, the headteacher, Mr Hullah, became suspicious of the nature of the relationship between Brewer and RS-A187. Mr Hullah asked the housemistress, Mrs Anne Rhind, to speak to RS-A187, and later spoke to Brewer himself. Brewer immediately acknowledged to the headteacher that a personal relationship had developed with RS-A187 which “did cross a professional boundary”, and said that his position had become untenable and that he wished to resign immediately.

12. The governing body accepted Brewer’s resignation with immediate effect, which brought the headteacher’s investigation into the matter to an “abrupt halt”. Brewer faced no disciplinary action. The reason given publicly for his departure was that he had retired due to ill health. Brewer told the court in 2013 that this was Mr Hullah’s suggestion, and accepted that this had been a “cover-up”. Mr Hullah told the Inquiry that Brewer had resigned and not retired, and that Brewer had not complained of any health problems at that time, but he denied that there had been a cover up in 1994. Mr Hullah stated that he had informed the governing body of all the circumstances of Brewer’s resignation from the school.

13. Brewer was paid his full salary from when he left Chetham’s in December 1994 until August 1995, which Mr Hullah considered to be a gesture of goodwill on the part of the governing body. Brewer continued to be associated with Chetham’s as an advisor and to work closely with young people as the artistic director of the National Youth Choir. Mr Hullah did not notify the National Youth Choir, the local authority or the Department for Education (which at that time operated ‘List 99’, a barred list of those deemed unsuitable to work with children) of the circumstances or the fact of Brewer’s resignation, although there was a statutory duty to notify the Department for Education of such resignations.

Mr Hullah did not consider that the circumstances of Brewer’s resignation were such as to require any referrals or notification.

14. In February 2013, Brewer was convicted of indecently assaulting Frances Shorney on multiple occasions when she was under 16.105 The trial judge sentenced Brewer to six years’ imprisonment and described him as a “predatory sex offender” whose behaviour was “manipulative and depraved”. He noted that Brewer’s power and influence in the school was such that he was able “with little, if any, prospect of challenge from anyone else”. He also expressed surprise that witnesses testified to Brewer’s good character in the knowledge that he had conducted a clandestine relationship with a pupil, and appeared to be “more than happy to overlook one of the most shocking aspects of this case”. (pp. 25-27)


The case of Chris Ling constitutes the most serious of all the allegations relating to Chetham’s, but was essentially ‘hushed up’ for over 20 years, even though many including myself were fully aware of the nature of his departure both from the school and the country (though not the scale or full nature of the offences). It is quite amazing to note the lack of interest on the part of headteacher John Vallins in Chris Ling’s whereabouts, together with his pupils, after fleeing to the United States.

Christopher Ling

15. Christopher Ling taught the violin at Chetham’s. He was recruited by Brewer in 1985. He left Chetham’s at the end of the school year in summer 1990 for a teaching role at the University of Miami, taking with him as his pupils a small group of girls from Chetham’s.

16. In autumn 1990, a female pupil at Chetham’s, RS-A3, disclosed that she had been sexually abused over a long period of time by Ling, who had been her violin tutor. Greater Manchester Police began a criminal investigation. The police identified eight girls who alleged they had been sexually abused by Ling while they were pupils at the school. The victims were aged between 9 and 15 years at the start of the abuse, which ranged from kissing, spanking and sexual touching to full sexual intercourse in some cases. Ling operated a reward and punishment system which enabled him to facilitate the sexual abuse, most of which took place at his private residence during tuition at weekends and on music courses during the school holidays. Some sexual assaults occurred in a small coffee room at Chetham’s.

17. Two of Ling’s victims, RS-A1 and RS-A2, gave evidence to the Inquiry. They both recalled making statements to the police in 1990. RS-A1 was interviewed at home over five hours. RS-A2 was then 16 years old. She told the Inquiry that she had been interviewed by the police in the presence of the housemistress, Mrs Rhind, which she found unhelpful. She had the impression that Mrs Rhind was worried about the reputation of the school and was angry with her.

18. RS-A2 recalled the police subsequently telling her that the case would not proceed due to a lack of evidence. Mr Vallins recalled that the police said there was sufficient evidence to charge Ling but that the offences were not extraditable. It appears that the prosecutor was wrongly advised by a senior Crown Prosecution Service lawyer that it was not possible to seek extradition from the USA in the circumstances.

19. Once it was clear that Ling would not be prosecuted, the school did not carry out any investigation into his conduct, nor did the governors or headteacher initiate any review of child protection arrangements at the school. The school did not notify children’s social care or the Department for Education of the allegations. The school did not make contact with Ling’s employer in the USA at any point. Mr Vallins stated that the school was not aware of where Ling was teaching, even though he had taken a number of pupils from Chetham’s with him. No school policies or procedures were updated or introduced. The children affected were not offered any counselling or any other form of support by the school. RS-A1 recalled “It was as if it hadn’t happened”. (pp. 27-28)


In the section on Operation Kiso, do note also further comments relating to a houseparent.

Operation Kiso

20. In the aftermath of Brewer’s trial, the police received a large number of complaints by former students of Chetham’s and the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester (RNCM, a college for students aged over 18, some of whom had been pupils at Chetham’s) alleging non-recent sexual abuse of pupils and students by staff. In February 2014, Greater Manchester Police launched Operation Kiso, a large-scale investigation into sexual offending at both institutions. During this investigation, 47 alleged perpetrators were reported to the police, 35 of whom were associated with Chetham’s. A number of the allegations related to staff who were deceased and therefore could not be prosecuted, including the highly esteemed piano teacher Ryszard Bakst, against whom the police compiled a “compelling”file of evidence, including complaints from six women. Criminal charges were brought against four men for sexual offences against pupils at Chetham’s: Nicholas Smith, Malcolm Layfield, Christopher Ling and Wen Zhou Li.

21. Nicholas Smith was associated with Chetham’s as a visiting conductor. In September 2014, he was sentenced to 8 months’ imprisonment after pleading guilty to indecently assaulting a 14 or 15-year-old Chetham’s pupil in the late 1970s. Smith had invited RS-A164 to his cottage for the weekend, as he knew she was homesick and unhappy, having endured “frankly sadistic” treatment at the hands of a housemistress. He sexually assaulted her by knocking her to the ground and groping her while his wife was in the bath upstairs. RS-A164 had been a pupil at Chetham’s at the same time as Frances Shorney and decided to come forward after reading reports of her death.

22. Malcolm Layfield taught and conducted chamber music at Chetham’s in the 1970s and 1980s, and also at the RNCM where he was appointed head of strings in 2002. Layfield was tried and acquitted in 2015 of the rape of an 18-year-old student in the 1980s, when he had been in his 30s. During the trial, he claimed that the sex had been consensual but admitted behaving “shamefully” by having consensual sexual intercourse with a number of his female students from Chetham’s and the RNCM, the youngest of whom was 17, during the 1980s.

23. In 2013, a teacher at Chetham’s, Wen Zhou Li, was arrested and charged with the rape of an overseas student, RS-A165, in the late 1990s.123 The charges were withdrawn before trial due to evidential issues. RS-A165 then brought a civil claim against Chetham’s for the sexual abuse she alleged that Li had committed against her when he was her tutor and her educational guardian at the school. In May 2021, a civil court found that Wen Zhou Li had kissed RS-A165 on several occasions in a teaching room at Chetham’s when she was 15, and that this was “the beginning of an escalating course of sexual assaults” committed in his car and in his flat, where she stayed on occasion because he was her educational guardian.The judge found that “Mr Li exploited the opportunities presented by being [RS-A165’s] teacher and by being her guardian”. The judge also found that Li was instrumental in persuading RS-A165 and her parents that she should leave the school where she was studying music and follow him to his new teaching post at Chetham’s in 1996. Chetham’s was ordered to pay damages to RS-A165.

24. During Operation Kiso, Greater Manchester Police re-investigated the Christopher Ling case. Because the original files of evidence were no longer in existence, the police had to interview the complainants again and build a new case file. The investigation identified 12 women who alleged that they had been abused by Ling as children, eight of whom had been pupils of Ling’s at Chetham’s. The Chetham’s pupils included RS-A1, RS-A2, RS-A3, RS-A4 and RS-A5, all of whom provided accounts of their abuse to the Inquiry.

25. In 2014, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service pursued Ling’s extradition from the USA to stand trial in England on 77 sexual offence charges relating to 11 complainants. In September 2015, as US Marshals arrived at his Los Angeles home with a warrant for his arrest, Ling shot himself dead. (pp. 28-29).


Then there are the following sections on the other three specialist music schools in England. That on the Menuhin School, which mentions the allegations against Marcel Gazelle, and also raises questions about safeguarding responses to other more recent allegations.

The Yehudi Menuhin School
26. The Yehudi Menuhin School was founded in 1963 by the celebrated violinist Yehudi Menuhin with the objective of educating young string players and pianists with exceptional musical ability from across the world. It began with 15 pupils and remains the smallest of the specialist schools, with 86 students across nine year-groups as at March 2019, and 68 full or weekly boarders. Sixty-one pupils benefit from MDS funding.130 The school is situated in Stoke d’Abernon, near Cobham in Surrey.

Allegations of non-recent child sexual abuse
27. In May 2013, following press reports of the trial and conviction of Brewer and the death of Mrs Andrade, Channel 4 News broadcast a segment focussing on allegations of non-recent child sexual abuse at specialist music schools. A number of former pupils spoke to Channel 4 News to allege sexual abuse by Mr Marcel Gazelle, a renowned pianist and the first director of music at The Yehudi Menuhin School. He died in 1969. One complainant recalled him coming into the dormitory in the morning, and his hands tickling her under the bedclothes “where they shouldn’t be”.

28. Around the time of the Channel 4 broadcast, four women contacted the headteacher, Dr Richard Hillier, to inform him of sexual abuse by Gazelle when they were among the first pupils at the school in the 1960s. All allegations were referred to the police, who logged the reports but took no further action as Gazelle was deceased. Dr Hillier discussed the complaints of non-recent sexual abuse with the school’s designated safeguarding lead (DSL), the senior management team and the chair of governors. No changes were made to school policies, because Dr Hillier was satisfied that music staff were no longer permitted to access boarding houses.

29. In 2009, a former student, RS-A218, contacted the director of music with allegations that a non-music teacher repeatedly sexually abused her over a 2-year period in the late 1970s or early 1980s, when she was under 13 years of age. RS-A218 did not wish to make a complaint to the police, and it appears that the allegation was not referred to the police at that time. When the director of music brought the allegation to the attention of Dr Hillier in 2013, Dr Hillier arranged to meet and speak with RS-A218 before referring the matter to the police, without naming her, in accordance with her wishes.

RS-F13
30. In around 2006, a female student complained that her tutor, RS-F13, had made sexualised and inappropriate comments in one-to-one instrumental lessons, which made her uncomfortable. The student was moved to another teacher by the headteacher, Mr Nicholas Chisholm. Mr Chisholm warned RS-F13 verbally about using inappropriate language but at that time he did not consider this to indicate a possible safeguarding risk and so the matter was not notified to the local authority.

31. In 2013, another female student, RS-A204, made an allegation that RS-F13 had attempted to kiss her a year previously. The allegation was referred to the local authority designated officer (LADO). A disciplinary investigation concluded that the disputed allegation was “unsubstantiated”. However, the school had sufficient concerns regarding RS-F13 that restrictions were placed upon his teaching relating to the time and location of his lessons. RS-F13 also had to undertake further safeguarding training.

32. Around the same time, a former student of a different specialist music school, RS-A170, made a complaint through Operation Kiso that RS-F13 had a sexual relationship with her in the 1980s, when she was 16 and his pupil.143 RS-A170’s account to the police raised issues regarding her consent to some of the sexual activity but she declined to support a prosecution. An internet search by a Greater Manchester Police officer revealed that RS-F13 was teaching at The Yehudi Menuhin School but the officer did not record this information and did not pass it on to the police force to which the case was referred (the alleged incidents were not connected with Chetham’s or the RNCM and did not take place within the operational area of Greater Manchester Police). No police force contacted The Yehudi Menuhin School in connection with RS-A170’s allegations to ascertain whether any potential safeguarding risks to children were appropriately managed. The Yehudi Menuhin School was not made aware in 2013 of the existence of RS-A170’s allegations about RS-F13’s conduct. Had the school been aware of this information, it would have been relevant to the investigation of the allegation made by RS-A204.

33. Further concerns regarding RS-F13’s conduct were raised in 2014, when a parent complained to the school’s DSL that RS-F13 had an overly close relationship with her child. He wanted to take photographs of her, would not permit her father to stay when he gave lessons at his private residence, gave her hand massages and seemed to have power over her. The pupil was moved to a different teacher. Dr Hillier and the DSL decided that the concerns did not warrant discussion with the LADO. A short time later, RS-F13 resigned from the school over an unrelated issue regarding new contractual terms. (pp. 29-31)


The section on Wells Cathedral School concentrates in particular on the case of Julien Bertrand, another case, the relationship of pupils to cathedral staff, and another case involving allegations against Malcolm Layfield, who faced criminal investigations with relation to Chetham’s, as documented above/

Wells Cathedral School
34. Wells Cathedral School is an independent day and boarding school for boys and girls in Somerset. It is a relatively small school of around 750 pupils from nursery to sixth form. There are 556 pupils in the senior school, approximately half of whom board, and there are 188 pupils whose parents live overseas. Unlike the other specialist music schools, it is predominantly an all-round school, with only around one-quarter of its pupils (approximately 160) from Year 6 upwards enrolled in the specialist music programme. It has very close links with the neighbouring Cathedral – all choristers are educated at Wells Cathedral School and some Cathedral employees have contact with pupils through the choir and music teaching.


Julien Bertrand
35. In 2006, Julien Bertrand, a former member of staff at Wells Cathedral School, was convicted of sexual offences against RS-A202 and another boy at a school where he had worked previously, and was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. Bertrand groomed RS-A202 and his family over a number of years. The offending began at a different school when RS-A202 was 14 years old, culminating in penetrative sexual assaults at Wells Cathedral School when RS-A202 was 17 years old. Bertrand began working at Wells Cathedral school as a graduate music assistant in 2002, with responsibility for supervising practice sessions for those pupils who were specialist musicians. Bertrand quickly volunteered his services as a French assistant and a badminton coach, and was appointed assistant housemaster in 2003. Several members of staff at Wells Cathedral School voiced concerns to the deputy headteacher or the headteacher about the conduct of Bertrand in relation to pupils at the school, and especially towards RS-A202. Bertrand was given an informal warning in 2003 for inviting RS-A202 to his room late at night.155 In 2004, Bertrand began an Open University course to train as a music teacher, whilst he continued working at the school. Around this time, the boys in the house where Bertrand was assistant housemaster were noted to be making comments about his closeness with RS-A202. These concerns were discussed with the housemaster, who spoke to Bertrand and considered that this failure to observe appropriate boundaries was due to Bertrand’s inexperience in the
role. In 2005, RS-A202 disclosed to a member of Cathedral staff that he had been sexually abused by Bertrand. The deputy headteacher was informed and he immediately reported the allegations to the police. Bertrand was arrested the same day. His flat at the school was searched and the police seized evidence including photographs and videos of RS-A202 and other boys. The headteacher suspended Bertrand and prohibited him from entering the school grounds.

36. RS-A202 was offered counselling with the school counsellor, which he accepted. The parents of children at the school were informed that Bertrand had been suspended following an allegation of sexual abuse, without identifying RS-A202. The school had obtained written references before employing Bertrand but after his arrest the DSL found that the references were missing from Bertrand’s file. It was suspected that Bertrand may have removed them himself. Following the arrest of Bertrand, Wells Cathedral School reviewed and revised its safeguarding policies and practice, including the staff code of conduct. External training providers were invited to give safeguarding training to all staff.


Other safeguarding concerns

37. In the early 2000s, a number of low-level concerns were raised in relation to the conduct of RS-F23, another member of staff at Wells Cathedral School. The DSL was concerned by RS-F23’s repeated infractions of school rules and failures to maintain appropriate professional boundaries. The DSL kept detailed dated records of any concerns reported to her by staff, as well as her own observations of RS-F23 and his interactions with children at the school. The DSL ensured that all reported concerns were passed on to the deputy headteacher or headteacher. The school took a number of actions in response to these concerns, which included giving a formal warning in relation to aspects of his conduct, ensuring he was mentored in his paid role and requiring him to cease his voluntary role at the school, which had given him access to the boarding house.

38. In addition, Mrs Helen Bennett stated that in her role as DSL, she received and recorded a number of concerns over a period of several years that a member of Cathedral staff had given lifts to boys in his car, and had allowed children to enter his accommodation next to the school grounds, which was a breach of his contract with the Cathedral. Mrs Bennett said that she discussed her concerns with the Cathedral safeguarding staff but, to her disappointment, no formal disciplinary action was taken by the Cathedral in respect of this conduct by a member of its staff. Since May 2019, a written Safeguarding Partnership has been established between the school and the Cathedral. The headteacher, Mr Alistair Tighe, considered that under the partnership agreement it would “probably not” be open to the Cathedral safeguarding authorities to take a less serious view of a safeguarding concern than the school, because of commonalities in their respective policies. A code of conduct for Cathedral staff coming into contact with choristers was in development at the time of the Phase 1 hearing.

39. In 2013, allegations came to light regarding the misconduct of Malcolm Layfield towards a sixth-form pupil under the age of 18 on a Wells Cathedral School music tour abroad in 1990. Mr Layfield was not a member of staff but had accompanied the school tour as guest conductor. There was no criminal prosecution arising from the allegations. When the allegations were reported in the press in 2013, the school decided to commission two independent safeguarding reviews from external experts – one to examine the school’s response in 1990 to the rumours which had surfaced at that time, and a second to audit the effectiveness of the current safeguarding arrangements at the school. The first review, by a former police child protection officer, concluded that the school had acted in accordance with child protection practice in 1990, by attempting an investigation and questioning potential witnesses (the girl had not wished to speak to the headteacher or make a complaint at the time). The second review found that the school’s safeguarding practice in 2013 was compliant with statutory requirements, although it made some recommendations for
improving the security of the school site, which were implemented by the school
. (pp. 31-33)


The section on the Purcell School is longer than all the others except for Chetham’s, and raises equally serious issues about the way the institution dealt with allegations and the behaviour of former headteacher Peter Crook.

The Purcell School for Young Musicians
40. The Central Tutorial School for Young Musicians was founded in 1962 in central London, changing its name to The Purcell School for Young Musicians (the Purcell School) in 1973 and moving to its current site in Bushey, Hertfordshire in 1997. It teaches 180 boys and girls from the ages of 10 to 18, although almost half the student body is in the sixth form. The majority of the pupils board but it has approximately 40 day pupils. The school had 36 international students in October 2019.

41. The Inquiry examined concerns raised regarding Mr Peter Crook, the headteacher of the Purcell School from 2007 to 2011, and allegations made against two members of staff, RS-F20 and RS-F80, during his headship.

42. A former teacher at the Purcell School, Mr Duncan McTier, was the subject of allegations brought to the police during Operation Kiso. In November 2014, he pleaded guilty to two counts of indecent assault and one attempted indecent assault which took place in the 1980s. The three victims had all been students of McTier, two at the RNCM and one at the Purcell School. In 1985, McTier had attempted to indecently assault the 17-year-old Purcell student by trying to grope her at his home after a private lesson. In response to newspaper reports that McTier had been charged with offences against students, the Purcell School issued a press release which stated that McTier had not been an employee of the school but had given private lessons to some pupils. The press release stated that a recent inspection report by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) confirmed that the school’s procedures were robust.

Allegations against RS-F20
43. In January 2009, while attending an external course, a Purcell sixth-form student aged under 18 alleged that she had been in an inappropriate sexual relationship with a member of staff, RS-F20. The allegation was reported by the course leader to the local authority who notified the police. The student, RS-A160, spoke to the police and indicated that there had been consensual sexual activity with RS-F20 when she was over 16. This would have constituted an ‘abuse of trust’ offence under section 16 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. RS-F20 was interviewed by police and denied any sexual activity but did accept that he had hugged RS-A160 and kissed her on the cheek.173 RS-A160 was not willing to support a prosecution and the investigation concluded that the allegation was “unfounded”.

44. The case was referred back to the Purcell School. The headteacher, Mr Crook, arranged for RS-F20 to undertake further safeguarding training with the DSL. No disciplinary action was taken against RS-F20, and his subsequent behaviour and contact with students was not monitored. No records of the allegation or of any steps taken were kept by the school.

45. Five years later, in 2014, another sixth-form student under the age of 18 made similar allegations against RS-F20. RS-A191 disclosed to a friend that she had a sexual “relationship” with RS-F20, and showed text messages of a sexual nature from RS-F20. The police and the local authority began a joint investigation, and notified the Purcell School. The then headteacher, Mr David Thomas, suspended RS-F20 and also notified the chair of governors, the DSL and the deputy headteacher. While the local authority investigation considered that the allegations were substantiated, the police concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute RS-F20, as RS-A191 was unwilling to provide evidence. A police application to obtain a Risk of Sexual Harm Order in order to restrict RS-F20’s contact with children was unsuccessful.

46. The case was referred back to the Purcell School for an internal investigation. RS-F20 resigned before a disciplinary meeting could take place. Mr Thomas took the view that there was insufficient evidence to proceed with the disciplinary investigation. He made a referral to the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), setting out the circumstances of RS-F20’s resignation from the school and also notified the Charity Commission of the incident. The DBS referred the case to the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) but it had no jurisdiction because RS-F20’s role was not defined as unsupervised teaching work. The Purcell School retained records relating to the 2014 allegation against RS-F20, and liaised with police subsequently when concerns were raised about RS-F20 contacting female pupils at the school via social media.

Allegations against RS-F80
47. In May 2010, RS-A192, a Purcell sixth-form student aged under 18, disclosed to a member of school staff that for some months she had been in an inappropriate relationship with a young staff member, RS-F80. RS-A192 spoke to several other staff members and reported the abuse to Childline before the school notified the LADO of the allegation two days later. RS-A192 alleged that RS-F80 had digitally penetrated her six months earlier, on the school field in the dark, when they were disturbed by the headteacher, Mr Crook. Mr Crook later told the strategy meeting and the Inquiry that he had not witnessed any sexual activity between RS-F80 and RS-A192 but recalled that he had told them to go inside and requested the DSL to ensure that RS-F80 received some further safeguarding training. At the time, Mr Crook did not report the incident to the LADO or arrange for anyone to speak to RS-A192, and no record of the incident was made.

48. After the LADO was notified in May 2010, the police commenced a criminal investigation. RS-A192 and RS-F80 were both interviewed, as was the headteacher. Mr Crook told the police that he thought that RS-A192 was not telling the truth, and believed that “fantasy and exaggeration featured heavily in her account of events”. When RS-F80 was interviewed by police, he admitted that an inappropriate sexual relationship had existed and that RS-A192 had told the truth about the sexual activity on the field. On 23 September 2010, RS-F80 accepted a police caution for the offence of sexual touching while being in a position of trust and was placed on the Sex Offenders Register. The LADO reminded the headteacher to refer the case to the Independent Safeguarding Authority to consider whether to bar RS-F80 from working with children, which he did.

Safeguarding concerns relating to the conduct of the headteacher
49. Throughout 2009 and 2010, a number of concerns were raised by staff and some parents regarding the behaviour of Mr Crook, in relation to inappropriate conversations he was alleged to have had with children at the school.

50. The first concern to be raised related to a meeting with the headteacher, the housemaster and the Year 9 boarding boys at the headteacher’s private accommodation on the school campus, on a Sunday evening in May 2009. Mr Crook described it as a personal, social and health education (PSHE) lesson and a “sexual talk”. He told the Inquiry it was in response to an incident of sexualised bullying in the boarding house involving two or three boys from that year group, in which two boys were rumoured to have ejaculated onto the bed of a third boy. A covert recording of the headteacher was made by one of the boys, which did not surface until some months after the meeting was held.

51. During the meeting, Mr Crook spoke to the boys at length about puberty, masturbation, pornography and other sexual matters. He discussed his own sexual experiences and fantasies. He told the boys how to measure their penises and spoke to the boys about sexual experimentation with one another, telling them that he would ignore it if he caught two boys masturbating each other. Mr Crook used explicit and obscene language during the meeting.

52. A group of school staff wrote anonymously to the chair of governors, Mr Graham Smallbone, about the meeting at the headteacher’s house. Mr Smallbone responded by letter, stating that he could not respond to the concerns without knowing the identity of the staff members. When no action was taken, whistleblowers on the school staff subsequently anonymously notified the local authority of their concerns about the conduct of the headteacher. The local authority considered the complaint over a series of strategy meetings in which the chair of governors participated. The local authority decided the allegation was “unsubstantiated” on the basis that the incident did not amount to a safeguarding risk. The local authority sent social workers to the Purcell School to ascertain the welfare of the boy who was alleged to have been bullied.

53. A number of other complaints were notified to the LADO regarding Mr Crook’s alleged conduct and language with pupils. The local authority considered each allegation, and all but one were concluded as unfounded or unsubstantiated. In July 2009, the local authority found an allegation was “substantiated” that Mr Crook had used obscene and inappropriate sexually explicit language when questioning two students who were rumoured to be in a sexual relationship.

54. The substantiated case was referred back to the school for the board of governors to take disciplinary action against Mr Crook. In September 2009, Mr Smallbone requested that the LADO reconsider the conclusion that the allegation was “substantiated”. The LADO declined to do so. The governing body commissioned an “independent review” to ascertain why staff had reported their concerns directly to the LADO, which the chair of governors considered to be in contravention of school procedures. The reviewers interviewed 47 members of staff. Their conclusions included that Mr Crook had “used totally inappropriate language with pupils and has taken a dangerously personal interest in their sexual conduct” and recommended that he be given a formal final written warning and placed on probation. The governing body convened a disciplinary meeting in November 2009, when they decided not to discipline the headteacher with a formal warning or otherwise.

55. When a covert recording of Mr Crook’s remarks surfaced several months after the initial referral, the local authority reconvened a number of strategy meetings to consider the matter again, and concluded that the allegation was “unfounded” as there was no evidence of any intent to harm children. The strategy meeting concluded that the ‘PSHE lesson’ was not an appropriate response to the allegation of bullying and that Mr Crook had made inappropriate remarks to the boys. They advised that these concerns should be dealt with through the school’s own disciplinary procedures, which Mr Smallbone assured them had been done. In fact, Mr Crook was never the subject of any disciplinary sanction in relation to his inappropriate conversations with children at the school.

56. Mr Crook resigned from the school in November 2011, having signed a compromise agreement.

57. In 2018, the governors of the Purcell School commissioned an independent safeguarding review to consider the school’s responses to a number of previous child safeguarding concerns. The reviewer noted that “the Chair of Governors and the Headteacher in post at the time of the case studies were not available for interview and so the reviewer was only able to examine documentary evidence”. The reviewers concluded that Mr Crook had made a “serious error of judgement” in holding a PSHE session in the manner he did and that it raised questions about the safeguarding culture of the school. The independent review also concluded that the chair of governors had not acted impartially in dealing with the complaints against the headteacher and that the failure to discipline Mr Crook was a “misjudgement”. (pp. 33-37)


The following passages from the section on Boarding Schools are also very relevant. Following the revelations of the Brewer trial and other information coming into public view about sexual and other abuse at Chetham’s, I noted amongst the alumni community marked differences in responses between boarders and ‘day pupils’ (those who commuted in on a daily basis, and were not resident). Many of the latter were less inclined to believe in the scale of the issue and its impact upon former pupils, not having experienced that sense of vulnerability which comes from being away from home, not being cared for by those with a personal investment in one’s welfare comparable to that of a parent, and feeling so much at their mercy. The consequences of this for those who suffered abuse (as well as chronic bullying and other behaviours) could be catastrophic.

3. Boarding schools could be said to provide “the ideal environment for grooming”. Certain characteristics unique to the boarding environment heighten the risks of sexual abuse of pupils by staff.

3.1. Boarders are under the authority of adults in the school and are dependent upon them for their welfare. Staff may live on site and spend time alone with individual children, creating opportunities for grooming and abuse, as was the case with Julien Bertrand, who sexually abused a boarding pupil at Wells Cathedral School. For children living away from home, staff play a unique role in their lives and this may create a dynamic of power and control that can be abused by offenders. The innate power imbalance between children wanting to succeed and staff responsible for helping them can facilitate abuse. This is especially true of staff with pastoral roles, such as housemasters or housemistresses and matrons. In some boarding schools, a sense of staff having power and control over pupils may be exacerbated by a strong sense of hierarchy within the school.

3.2. There is often a higher incidence of individual tuition at boarding schools, in music or sports coaching or for additional academic tuition. This can lead to unique and close relationships developing between pupils and staff. At Chetham’s in the 1980s and 1990s, both Michael Brewer and Christopher Ling, amongst others, exploited their positions of power and their one-to-one tuition with pupils to sexually abuse children.

3.3. Some boarding schools, especially long-established institutions, have developed strong traditions and a particular ethos in which the institution’s own rules and ways of doing things are seen as paramount. This may lead to a sense of exceptionalism and the tolerance of perceived ‘idiosyncrasies’ from staff, which can mask abusive or grooming behaviours. This enabled Jonathan Thomson-Glover’s offending to go undetected at Clifton College: “With a father and a grandfather who were Old Cliftonians, he had a deep understanding of the school’s history, culture and values, which camouflaged his eccentric behaviour”.

3.4. Boarding schools often produce a strong sense of group allegiance and very close relationships may exist between members of staff, some of whom will live together on site. Pupils’ awareness of such allegiances between staff may make it more difficult to identify staff members in whom they may confide, impeding the reporting of concerns. As was reflected in the evidence from Clifton College, parents as well as school governors in the independent sector may have attended the school themselves and have a strong loyalty to the institution and a tendency to protect its reputation.

3.5. Boarding pupils can be emotionally isolated because they are separated from their parents. Sometimes parents may choose to send their children to boarding school to distance them from domestic difficulties. Some boarding schools are also geographically isolated and some have limited opportunities for contact with people outside of the school. This was the case with many of the schools referenced in Counsel’s closed residential schools account.

3.6. Around one-third of boarding pupils are international students who are living far away from their families, having to adapt to what may be a very different culture, and who may also encounter difficulties in communicating in English. Some international pupils may have limited opportunities to contact their families, either because of time-zone differences or because of the regime of the school.

3.7. The very nature of boarding schools can create a number of issues that can compromise effective safeguarding. The school may exist within a “bubble where there is little influence over the norms of the school from the outside environment”. Boarding schools may be less often visited by external agencies, which can find it difficult to understand their practices and ethos. (pp. 57-58).


Then there is a section looking at specific dangers in the context of specialist music education, drawing in part on my testimony. The creation of a special conference between music and dance schools to discuss safeguarding is to be welcomed, but there is still much more work to be done on the specific dangers of this type of education in all respects – also relating to the psychological welfare of those who will invest a large amount of their time and emotional energy during formative years to an elusive goal which few will attain (because of limited amount of work). These former pupils, sometimes having to deal with feelings of failure and worthlessness, are every bit as much a part of the schools’ legacy as those (including myself) who have gone onto successful musical careers.

C.3: Additional risks in specialist music schools
8. The Inquiry heard evidence about child sexual abuse and safeguarding concerns which arose at the four specialist music schools in England. These are boarding schools, although some pupils attend as day pupils. All the specialist music schools include overseas students amongst their boarding pupils, who may be far from home and family
.

9. Music schools present particular challenges in terms of safeguarding. Instrumental tuition involves a high proportion of one-to-one teaching, usually with the same tutor, and often a degree of physical contact will be necessary. At specialist music schools, tuition may be provided by renowned and distinguished instrumentalists, who teach on a freelance basis without qualifications or training for teaching children. In the case of choir schools, choristers will come into regular contact with adults in the choir, or working at the cathedral, who are not employees of the school. Children who aspire to become successful musicians may look up to and even revere their teacher, who may seek to exploit their power and authority. There can be great pressure on children to succeed and make a career in the somewhat closed world of classical music. Concerns about being seen as ‘difficult’ may dissuade children from making complaints about their teachers, who can have significant influence over their future education and career. Evidence from former pupils indicated that the atmosphere within specialist music schools could be intensely competitive and emotionally charged, with insufficient regard for the emotional well-being of children.

10. The specialist music schools are independent boarding schools and are required to comply with the Independent School Standards and the NMS for boarding schools. Currently, there are no additional safeguarding requirements for specialist music education, notwithstanding the additional risks in these settings. A safeguarding conference took place between the specialist music and dance schools in 2018 and these schools now meet twice a year to discuss safeguarding. (pp. 59-60).


There is also an important passage on the role of educational guardians in residential schools, referencing a specific recent example involving Chetham’s:

Educational guardians
14. International students whose parents are not in the UK need an educational guardian
if they attend a British boarding school in order to obtain the relevant visa. Educational
guardians act in place of the parents while the child is in the UK, supporting the child
throughout their studies and providing a home for them during holidays or weekends.
He or she may be an individual appointed by the parents, such as a family member or
a friend of the family, or the parents may use the services of an agency to provide an
educational guardian.

15. Educational guardians are unregulated. There is no statutory licence, compulsory
registration or training required for individuals or companies wishing to provide educational
guardian services. If an educational guardian is appointed by a parent, the guardian is not required to comply with any standards or to obtain a Disclosure and Barring Service
(DBS) certificate, and the school is not required to carry out any checks. This means
that individuals who are unsuitable to work with children, or even those who have criminal
convictions for child sexual abuse, can be appointed as educational guardians.

16. Currently, the NMS for boarding schools permit a member of school staff to be
appointed as the educational guardian of an international student, although some schools
do not permit this. As Ms Richards told us, school staff acting as educational guardians
blurs boundaries, with the potential to cause problems or to prevent problems surfacing.
At Chetham’s in the late 1990s, for example, violin tutor Wen Zhou Li was the educational
guardian of a 16-year-old girl whom he sexually abused while she was residing with him
during weekends and school holidays. In 2013, shortly after the arrest of Wen Zhou Li,
ISI inspectors found that there was another staff member at the school who was acting as an
educational guardian to a student.



I will follow this up with another blog post considering the remaining sections of the report which are relevant to specialist music schools, their conclusions, and offer some more extended reflections of my own.


The Enduring Value of Shakespeare (contra #DisruptTexts) – a short discussion

One of the least inspiring cultural phenomena of the last few years has been the growth of the #DisruptTexts movement, founded in 2018 in the US. Broadly, this US-based movement is spearheading an attack on the teaching of classic literature in schools, on the grounds that these primarily embody values of their time now deemed unacceptable in terms of gender, race, social justice, etc. As is typical of such social justice movements, they pretend to inclusivity (in the case of DisruptTexts, towards allocating a central place to recent Young Adult (YA) literature in place of the classics) but in reality their attitudes and actions are highly denunciatory, more concerned to exclude than include, and pathologise any who disagree (a similar phenomenon to that about which I have recently published with respect to classical music – see also here and here). A decent summary by Lona Manning can be read here. One teacher in Massachusetts expressed pride in having Homer’s The Odyssey removed from the curriculum.

This movement is concentrated in the United States, in a country where the status of ‘high culture’ has long been more fragile than in other parts of the Western world, and a number of the debates are primarily centred around North American literature, assumed as central. The social justice claims which accompany it really speak to a particular type of high consumer culture focused upon short-term gratification, in which the types of more challenging and mind-expanding cultural experience, taking pupils and students outside of their comfort zones so as to encourage exploration of other times and places, or less familiar perspectives upon the world, are increasingly marginalised. Non-western canonical literary traditions barely feature in the debates, nor recognition that large parts of the world have highly sophisticated cultural traditions dating back many centuries or millennia. But it was alarming to see Penguin Books recently announce a partnership with #DisruptTexts, presumably in order to convey some message about their corporate image. Yet the ultimate outcome of the movement would be to render large sections of their own catalogue redundant – the classic writings of Cao Xueqin and Murasaki Shikibu every bit as much as those of Homer or Nathaniel Hawthorne. I hope that Oxford University Press do not follow suit.

Not all on the left are enamoured of the movement, which substitutes petty culture wars for a politics grounded in individuals’ and social groups’ material circumstances. In particular, the World Socialist Web Site, representing the views of the Trotskyite Fourth International, published a scathing critique by David Walsh. This concentrated in particular on Shakespeare, a frequent target of DisruptTexts, noting his importance to iconic African-American literary figures including Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. Walsh concludes:

A vast accumulation of human experiences, thoughts and feelings, pent up by institutions and religious dogma for hundreds of years, were able to find expression, not only in Shakespeare’s plays, of course, there were dozens of gifted dramatists in England, but most powerfully and concentratedly in his.

#DisruptTexts and its co-thinkers are dedicated enemies of enlightenment and education. Students, teachers and serious academics should treat them with derision, challenge them and expose their ignorance.

Walsh followed this up with an interview with veteran Australian Shakespeare actor John Bell, of which here is a short passage:

[JB]: I think the hardest part of course is teaching it [Shakespeare]. There aren’t that many teachers skilled in teaching Shakespeare. I’ve met so many people throughout my life who say, ‘Oh, I had a terrible time at school with Shakespeare.’ It takes a certain skill and dedication and imagination to teach Shakespeare in a way that’s inspiring to teenagers. It is difficult, but I think it’s also indispensable.

DW: Of course, there’s the claim as well that this is part of the establishment, this is “white culture.” There is an establishment Shakespeare. In Britain, there is certainly an establishment Shakespeare and there are political, patriotic-nationalist reasons and so forth, but that’s not the essential truth of it. There is some connection between Shakespeare and the modern world. Not that the world developed from his work, but that he reflected upon and provided some of the most profound insight into this developing modern world and you can’t understand that world fully without his understandings and his art.

JB: Shakespeare has been adopted by the establishment and used, I suppose, especially during the colonial era as a kind of shining example of what the establishment could achieve. But he himself was a down-to-earth entertainer who had nothing to do with big establishment as such. We have to understand what he was doing and what his work is really about. It exists entirely outside the establishment and most theater companies aren’t part of the establishment. They are self-starting, surviving, living on the smell of an oily rag. This kind of company manages to exist not with the heavy support of the establishment.

This interview elicited some interesting responses from friends on social media, relating more widely to issues of artistic canons and so on (see my earlier blog post here), which I am sharing here with their permission (I emphasise this very strongly). These are not necessarily in the exact order they were posted, and I have not heard from a few participants about their consent to publish, so am omitting their comments for now. These present a range of perspectives on the subject, by no means all in agreement with the position I take above, but a range of intelligent and thoughtful responses, in my view.

From Isaac Malitz:
[1]. Key issues (focusing on music, but applicable to literature, etc.)
[a] The “Canon”, the “Western Tradition”: Uses and mis-uses.
[b] Who owns the Canon? Is it *The* Canon, or *A* Canon
[c] Toxicity in white western culture, and its hijacking/misuse of [a]
[d] Proper attention to the above => better art[e] Is our artistic culture declining?

[2] The best thinkers on the above that I have found:
[a] White toxicity: WEB DuBois: https://medium.com/religion-bites/the-souls-of-white-folk-by-w-e-b-du-bois-354f91ca08ef?fbclid=IwAR0wxMFGPQrijvacY5GxVsHsKqIFRRGGwieV9tnkCtkfw94oHbdmYYNAEas
[b] White toxicity: Thomas Paine on “African Slavery in America”: https://constitution.org/2-Authors/tp/afri.htm
[c] Davone Tines: A superb musician, a very smart guy who has figured out how to navigate the above and produce great art. Tines has found a big-picture constructive view on some of these issues. And his views translate into better performances, much-better performances. Worth a close read.
[i] Long profile article, written by Alex Ross, New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/…/davone-tines-is-changing…
[ii] Review of Tines’ very very successful recital that he has constructed: Built on the model of the Mass and ancient traditions, but constructed in a personal, contemporary conception.Superb craftsmanship, knowledge, intelligence; authentic and compelling.https://www.sfcv.org/…/davone-tines-redefines-rules…
[iii] This recital was presented by MEC [Monday Evening Concerts, Los Angeles] in September. Here is the program, and a portion of the program notes. Apologies for the photos of the program, rather than text form. https://www.mondayeveningconcerts.org/9821—davoacutene-tines.html?fbclid=IwAR3Lc5teIqCSX85bC2E_jcnk5ZpoUY8uWGDgW9hlBzV_lvJ3iR_FWrB-YkU
https://photos.google.com/share/AF1QipNdWfQzg_kD4Nw5cB9rZtgZ1VygYHrbT34utXar0o4thJAb2EAjXPNcv3FdGZ31CQ?key=OUlDb0ZFMWQ1dVlxblpkZFYzcXlKR01JUGpaUzFn

From Franklin Cox, in response to an earlier post from Malitz along similar lines: Isaac Malitz, my problem with this is that any aspect valued by a dominant culture could be picked out and waved around and attacked as representing the sins of the whole culture. I think it’s the fallacy of “accident” (and “hasty generalization”), identifying an elite class with a highly-valued cultural figure, and attaching that cultural figure to the worst evils committed by that class. It’s the same tactic used to attach Beethoven to Nazi crimes, or to European racism. (Oddly enough, Puccini or Verdi, both widely played during Italian fascism, almost never seem to be the targets of this tactic.)

This argument might have been more relevant back when the elites of the dominant white culture valued Shakespeare highly and had pretensions to being highly cultivated, but that’s not really the case any more, and in fact I think this was less common in the past than most people think. During the high point of slavery, Shakespeare’s work wasn’t valued as much as it was later; it wasn’t until the 19th century that it became a central part of the curriculum, which was then expanded into mass education. The argument could be best applied to the British elite class, because Shakespeare became closely allied with the British mission, etc. But in the US, Shakespeare has always been a tough sell.

A more accurate target would be the leading literary figures of the day who were validating racism. Leading Anglo modernists, for instance, were racist and even proto-fascist. T.S. Eliot, for instance, was both, and he was one of the most widely-taught poets in the 20th century college literary curriculum in the US. I think even there the case is dodgy, as The Waste Land is a highly complex and elusive artwork, and about the least likely motivator one could find for motivating an angry mob.

Most of the arguments of this nature come from the literary class, which Du Bois was a member of, and the literary class often tends to overstate its importance. In the past it tended to be educated in largely the same curriculum, but again that’s not really the case any more. Shakespeare doesn’t play a central role in the curriculum of the sort it did in DuBois’s day. And the people organizing white mobs were not, I don’t think, doing this in Shakespeare’s name, or citing Shakespeare to unify the masses.

I think these sorts of arguments end up serving as a distraction, and they are also used as part of an anti-elite culture agenda. Partisans of pop culture use these tactics all the time, because it’s very useful for their purposes.

From me: Ezra Pound had clear and explicit fascist sympathies. But how many of today’s fascists read Ezra Pound?

Also, in response to a comment about ‘nasty white culture’, I posted: I think there are nasty elements in most cultures in the world.

A reply to this from Franklin Cox: I would extend that to “all”, if you look closely enough.

I’m not relativizing things; there are some cultures that have descended into mass murder (the earliest written records we have are marked by massacres), and others that have been relatively peaceful. But a large portion of humanity has been effectively enslaved throughout the entire history of humanity; ancient civilizations were essentially slave cultures, and slavery and caste culture appeared throughout the world–and are still present throughout much of the world. The poor classes lived in misery and with brutality unimaginable to our tender civilized sensibilities. Within these strata women were effectively more enslaved, and so forth.

When I was young I fell for some of the “but the East was different” rationales, but India had a harsh caste system that still is present, China and Japan were largely repressive caste/slave societies run by a distant elite, and so forth. Those of us who love the art of other cultures tend to minimize those aspects.

If you love the art of past periods and peak behind these curtains, you will pretty much always find slavery, oppression, violence, and so forth. Some small cultures managed to evade the big states, but I don’t believe for a moment that they didn’t practice violent and murderous acts when it was deemed necessary, or that there wasn’t societal repression in them. In fact, I think the denial of the harsh dynamics of social differentiation is one the most dangerous illusions one could have, fostering a naïve and totalizing conception of an ideal society.

So given this tawdry history, any art you love from anywhere or from any period grew out of oppression, unfairness, and probably brutality and murder.

The artists who did the best work were usually from the middle and lower classes, and becoming good at art was their ticket into “good society” and out of poverty (and often out of unspeakable misery). Shakespeare is an excellent example of this–in fact the Elizabethan Renaissance is full of ambitious, tremendously gifted commoners such as Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. They benefited from the opportunities they had and didn’t criticize their patrons (although Shakespeare revealed with tremendous subtlety the illusions of the upper classes). That was the norm pretty much everywhere.

Shakespeare’s work in fact took ages to become canonical, because he wrote for the public theater, which had a low reputation among the aristocracy. Ben Jonson did this as well, but wasn’t as successful as Shakespeare and settled on the more common path to success, writing Court masques and a tedious series of tributes to the wisdom and taste of aristocratic patrons.

Most of the poetry of the period was of this nature. The Shakespearean type of play was still considered disreputable as late as the 18th century. Frederick the Great, for example, wrote disparagingly of Shakespeare and Goethe as authors for the common rabble (Goethe used Shakespeare’s history plays as his models for Götz von Gerlingen; Hugo a generation later scandalized the French elite the same way). Beethoven was another example–in fact, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were all commoners, as were almost all the major composers of the period. Music was their ticket out of Nowheresville. Beethoven is in fact exceptional for the liberties he got away with in his ideas and behavior; in earlier times he probably would have been crushed.

Now of course Beethoven and Shakespeare flattered elites in order to succeed. But if there’s ever a case for artists from the lower strata of society distinguishing themselves on the basis of their talent and ceaseless energy, it’s those two (there are, of course, others). The default validation system until the 19th century was aristocratic. Shakespeare and Beethoven became central figures in bourgeois validation systems, which implicitly held open the promise of universality.

I recognize the horrid conditions of the working classes in England in the 19th century and the slaves in the South–and the (effectively) slaves in Russia as well. But in England and America, the long, rocky path to universal education was opened, and this path was gradually adopted by other European countries. Part of the curriculum in Anglo-Saxon countries included Shakespeare, and in music Beethoven.

One can of course criticize all sorts of elements and content of these earlier curricula. Sexism was reinforced, slavery was validated, and so forth, and Shakespeare and Beethoven got hooked to this baggage.

But on the other hand, we’ve made stunning progress toward universal education, haven’t we? We’ve made astonishing progress in opening up opportunities to all strata of society, at combatting sexism and racism, and so forth. If one studies the history of societies closely and looks at the changes over the last two centuries, one sees a logarithmic expansion of knowledge and opportunity. Deep into the 19th century, elites were often denying the basic humanity of people from the lower classes. But luckily this ideology lost the battle. (These views are still present, alas: just look into the heritage of Ayn Rand, for instance, who is a central pillar of oligarchic “Libertarianism”.) But each generation is imperfect, and each next age can look back in horror at what the previous generation believed and condemn it to perdition. This is, however, only possible if you have an idealistic ventures such as “universal suffrage” or “opening opportunities to all members of society” or “ending racism”. So the urge to condemn the past is constantly trapped in a performative contradiction.

Every past age can be condemned, and its best products burnt to exorcise the past, but then the next generation can do the same. I’ve gotten tired of this performance. Trying to understand the past is much more difficult than attempting to extinguish it.

And it’s also important to remember that we become the past with brutal swiftness.

From Peter Tregear: “I think that current reactions against Shakespeare and so on, are in large part reactions against this toxicity”. Hmmm, I’m really not so sure about the ‘large part;’.. These reactions just so happen to be also in lock-step with the views and actions of those who care little for the progressive causes espoused but would who still remove the capacity of our educational institutions even to offer Shakespeare (or other forms of ‘high’ culture) to people (of any ethnic origin etc) outside those who can afford it. I rather agree with Australian commentator Guy Rundle when he wrote recently that “The right and the technocrats would have come for the humanities no matter what happened. But there would have been a real fight to be had if they had not been undermined from within.” https://www.crikey.com.au/…/australias-world-class…/

He also says “this sort of left’s inability to hold two ideas at once — that there is a reflexive, inquiring process of free thought, that it is the pre-condition of the university, and of human liberation and flourishing in modern conditions, and that it has also been a tool of domination — has helped to wear away at the legitimacy of the institutions they are belatedly trying to defend.If the study of global astronomy is nothing more than “a cover”; if Arab studies are only Orientalism; if, as another Overland piece suggests, Emily Dickinson’s poetry is nothing other than “white elitism”, why should taxpayers stump up for any of it? It has no more social claim than the funding of badminton or stamp-collecting — just a hobby a few people like to follow.”

From Himadri Chatterjee: I’m coming to this debate late, and I don’t think there’s much I could add to what has already been said. But, to reiterate some of those points, I don’t think there has been any civilisation or culture anywhere in the world that has not been guilty of the most appalling practices. If we were to be guilty of what our forefathers have done, there’s not one of us who could sleep in our beds at night. To reject products of a civilisation on the grounds that that civilisation had toxic elements would be to reject everything everywhere – all poetry, all music, all painting, all sculpture, etc.

I personally think that the current angry rejection of what is generally termed “high culture” has nothing whatever to do with social justice, and everything to do with resentment – resentment of the very idea that certain products of culture (that the resenters don’t understand) have an intrinsically higher value than others.

In post-Independence India, when streets and places named after various colonial administrators were being renamed, a street in Calcutta (as it was then) was renamed to *honour* an Englishman: Theatre Road was renamed Shakespeare Sarani. I’d wager the people who made that decision understood the nature of colonial oppression somewhat better than the DisruptTexts mob and their ilk.

From Hai Di Nguyen: I’m going slightly off-topic here, but I am Vietnamese. Vietnam was under Chinese rule for about 1000 years & has had conflict with China lots of times throughout history, even now. China took some of our lands, & islands. But I can still love Zhang Yimou’s films (before “Hero”) & love “Hong lou meng”.I see the point that the anti-white thing spills over to Shakespeare, but frankly I find it idiotic. What does Shakespeare have to do with any of that?

The idea about aggression & stuff in so-called white culture is also annoying, there’s something egoistic & condescending in the way some people act as though white people are the most evil in the world & the rest don’t do anything similar, as though we’re noble savages. You can find bad things everywhere, & guess what, some of the bad things that happened in the West in the past are still happening now in other countries.

Unfortunately I’m one of those people with extreme opinions about Zhang Yimou lol, I think his masterpieces are before “Hero” & his career from “Hero” onwards, including “House of Flying Daggers”, went downhill. That’s when he started serving the CCP & lost his soul, which is a pity, because I do think he’s extremely talented.

Then a subthread begun by Steven Waling: This is partly an Australian thing. Australia is nearer to China than Britain. How much classic Chinese literature do they study? Or Japanese? Plus they have their own indigenous culture. Plus these damned colonials seem to have acquired their own culture in the over 200 years since the Brits decided to take other peoples’ land from them. Why apart from nostalgia should they study Shakespeare except as an example of World literature? If I’d grown up in France I’d expect to read Moliere; if Russian Pushkin etc etc…

Ian Pace: Why study Shakespeare? Because it is so incredibly rich in characters, drama, ideas, emotions, language and more, as a vast number of people have found in many parts of the world over centuries.

I see no particular reason why one has to be Russian to read Pushkin, either, except linguistic ones. I’m not yet at the level where I can read Russian literature in the original (but still working on it) but have managed a few Pushkin poems.

Waling: I know how good Shakespeare is. And I see no reason why it shouldn’t be studied or watched or acted by all sorts of people. But I also know there’s a lot of literature out there I haven’t read that also probably has those qualities you mention. They just haven’t had the equivalent to the Shakespeare industry to back them up.

Also, when I was mentoring African writers, I actively had to discourage some from regurgitating Wordsworth & Coleridge tropes. That came from their being taught exclusively English lit in African schools. Shakespeare’s many great things but he didn’t grow up in the streets of Bulawayo.

Pace: Well, which other literature do you think can compare with Shakespeare (I can think of some, and am sure there is other literature I don’t know, but doubt there is that much, worldwide).As for where Shakespeare grew up, I don’t accept this realist view of literature being based in experience. On the contrary, I am fascinated by writers’ abilities to create new and unknown worlds.

Waling: I’m fascinated by the same thing; but a new world has to start from where the writer is not from some poor imitation of Wordsworth’s Lake District. There’s a lot of deeply imaginative writing coming our of Africa for instance. Achebe’s writing for instance is hardly realist. And I do love Shakespeare and think everyone should have access to him. But I won’t get into arguments that revolve around who’s best because they’re pointless.

Hai Di Nguyen: “Why apart from nostalgia should they study Shakespeare except as an example of World literature?”

You honestly think that people teach or study Shakespeare because of nostalgia? I love Shakespeare and English is not even my mother tongue or my first language.”

If I’d grown up in France I’d expect to read Moliere; if Russian Pushkin etc etc…”Here’s some news for you: French people also read Shakespeare, Russians also read Shakespeare, the Chinese also read Shakespeare, etc.

If you want to read, or promote, other writers or literature of other countries, go ahead. But now you’re implying that Shakespeare is irrelevant (“he didn’t grow up in the streets of Bulawayo”), and that he’s considered the greatest only because of the Shakespeare industry.

Jonathan Bate covers this subject in “The Genius of Shakespeare”. Colonisation, with English becoming an international language, is certainly a factor, but there are also inherent qualities in Shakespeare that make him appeal to people from many different countries and cultures, people with different views and different political backgrounds, and so on.

Waling: I bet they don’t teach Shakespeare in the French literature classes though.

Nguyen: 1/ I have never understood this kind of complaint. The language of Australia is English, what’s unusual about literature classes in Australia teaching the greatest works in English, including Shakespeare? The way the greatest works in French are taught in France, and I assume other French-speaking countries, or the greatest works in Vietnamese are taught in Vietnam?

When I lived in Norway, I was in the IB (International Baccalaureate), so I studied Shakespeare and other English-language works in my English class. It was Norway, but the programme was in English, so we studied works in English. What’s so special about Australians, who speak English, studying Shakespeare? You study Shakespeare in the original, whereas Chinese works for example would be in translation.

2/ That being said, Shakespeare is taught in other countries: https://teachingshakespeareblog.folger.edu/…/shakespea…/ I’m aware that Shakespeare is taught in Vietnam. Not a lot, obviously, but he is.

Waling: yes I know he is. And I’m not complaining. But if you are in Africa, and all your education is fixated on Eng lit classics & not on African literature (of which there’s loads, no doubt good and bad, how do get the idea that your own culture has its own worth? And they speak many languages in Australia as well as English (as they do in English.) I do love Shakers but I do suspect a pedestal doesn’t suit him, or any great artist.

Nguyen: I don’t know what’s being taught in Africa, but this conversation is not about Africa.

The official language of Australia is English. Vietnam has 54 ethnic groups, but the official language/ the common language is Vietnamese.

I don’t think this is about putting anyone on a pedestal. But Shakespeare’s influence is undeniable. People may not like that Shakespeare became the most influential writer over the past few centuries (Tolstoy for one didn’t like it), but it so happened that he had huge influence on not only the English language but also literature and other arts (music, paintings, ballet, etc.) around the world. That’s just how things are, and people lose if they choose not to know Shakespeare.

I do promote non-Western classic literature on my blog (and on twitter, back when I was using it) though.

Lukas Ligeti: Greetings from Africa (Johannesburg). Personally, I reject expecting a person to have certain influences or write in a certain way just because they come from a certain place. Africa, just like everywhere else in the world, is way too complex to allow the imposition of simplistic identity categories on people and expect them to create accordingly. Some art/culture belongs to those who care about it. Nationalistic/ethnocentric approaches cause people to stir their own little pots rather than expanding their horizons. To me, creating art means creating new worlds, so why not look beyond what you already know? Shakespeare is one of those writers that allow for new insights every time you read them, but to me this discussion is more broadly about the crisis that the fixation on identity is causing in the arts – well-intentioned people wearing horse blinders, a fear of intellectual expansion, a retreat into the autobiographical.

Franklin Cox: I don’t really accept the notion that it’s somehow improper or harmful for African students to be influenced by English poetry, etc. For one thing, even for most modern British students, Shakespeare’s work is already distant from their own experiences, the language is distant, and so forth; for Americans it is even more foreign. Germans have their own version of Shakespeare through tremendous 19th-century translations into German.

Sure, if Shakespeare and Wordsworth are the only things being taught, that might be a problem, but I’ve never experienced anything like that. In fact, back when I was in high school our English teacher got in trouble for teaching Shakespeare in the Advanced English class, because it was too hard for the Advanced English students.

We can all learn a tremendous amount from highly accomplished cultures, and I especially value non-American traditions. Recently I’ve been obsessed with Japanese cinema of the 30s and 40s, which I think perhaps has more masterful achievements than any other tradition. I was brought up on Classical European music, but this didn’t prevent me from composing my own quite different music over the last five decades or so. I love a great deal of French and German poetry, and so forth.

I do acknowledge a problem if only historical works from a distant culture are taught. But is that really the case?

Pace: I am an atheist, but get an immense amount from reading Dante’s Divina Commedia, quite a bit of which (especially in Paradiso) is intimately linked to esoteric late medieval theological debates.

Waling: I get the feeling that people think I’ve got something against the teaching of Shakespeare or his influence on world culture. I don’t. But I did get the distinct impression that English Lit was all many schools taught in Africa, a continent where bookshops are still rare. African writers still have to get published outside their own countries to find audiences. So yes Franklin it really is the case, at least below university level. I had one writer tell me all about the ‘hills and vales’ as if his country were in England. I’m in favour of Shakespeare being an influence, among others. But when it’s still a hangover from colonial days I’d say it reeks of white privilege. In Japan Shakespeare influenced the film Throne of Blood but so did Japanese classic writing. Or there’s the influence of Homer’s Odyssey on Caribbean literature. But in neither of those cases do you get the “cultural cringe” that the “home country” is better than your own place.

For information, Hai Di Nguyen’s blog is here. Himadri Chatterjee’s blog is here. Both are highly recommended for those interested in literary matters.