My contribution to the debate on ‘Classical Music Performance: Meaning and Relevance in Modern Society’

I posted earlier my contribution to one component of the City School of Arts and Social Sciences debate on the legacy of Stuart Hall, which I co-convened. Another event within the same online conference was an excellent debate on ‘Classical Music Performance: Meaning and Relevance in Modern Society’, convened by Natalie Tsaldarakis and chaired by Professor Alexander Lingas (City, University of London), which took place on Monday 22 June 2020. The panellists were Natalie Tsaldarakis (City, University of London), myself (City, University of London, Dr Izabela Wagner (University of Warsaw), Professor Ratko Delorko (pianist), Ben Johnson (tenor). The event was stimulated by a lively debate following a tweet from Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, Emeritus Professor at King’s College, University of London.


The abstract for the debate said the following:

In this year of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary I propose to organise a public debate following the assertion by Dr. Leech-Wilkinson through social media that ‘classical music performance has nothing to say about current concerns’ taken together with his referenced work on the matter (Challenging Performance). Purportedly, the classical performing world as a whole offers approximations of a single idealised performance and rejects deviations, in the process becoming inaccessible to the audience, and finally culturally divorcing itself from current concerns. Thus, this public debate would welcome a balanced discussion about the role, meaning, and relevance of classical music.

Here is the link to the first episode of Leech-Wilkinson’s Challenging Performance, which was one of the subjects for discussion. 

It is important that practising professional musicians not working in academia were able to participate in this debate. As I indicate at the beginning of my contribution, academics frequently disparage musicians and the classical music world, but are rarely open to listening to criticism coming from the opposite direction. Leech-Wilkinson was invited to participate in this debate, but declined. One hopes that in the future he will be prepared to subject his views to more scrutiny from beyond circles of like-minded academics.

I am hoping that the video of the full debate will go online soon, and if so, I will post a link to it. Here is my contribution, of which I delivered a slightly abridged version in June.


It is common to hear musicologists passing judgement upon the work and other activities of classical musicians, sometimes in a deprecatory fashion, much less common to hear the reverse. There are various possible explanations for this; amongst the most plausible, I believe, would be that a good deal of contemporary musicology makes relatively little impact upon classical musicians in general, and so some find it insufficiently important or prominent to warrant comment. This is not a happy state of affairs, and there are many ways it can be demonstrated not always to have been the case. Certainly in the field of historical performance there has long been fruitful exchange between scholars and performers. More widely, those who simply draw upon relatively general literature on music to inform their music-making – I am thinking here of general histories or basic analytical work such as are aimed at those who are not academic musicologists, but have a sound general musical training – frequently imbibe the fruits of more detailed scholarly micro-studies which have informed the best of these more general texts. The writings on music of Charles Rosen, whose academic training was as a literary scholar rather than a musicologist, and who only ever held a few short-term fellowships in music departments, would nonetheless have been impossible without his wider knowledge of musicological scholarship, about which he sometimes wrote in more detail.

But while there is in my opinion still plenty of vital scholarship being produced which has at least the potential to be of value to practising musicians, there has been a counter-current for around three decades, a brand of scholarship which frequently seeks to indict numerous varieties of classical music in particular, charging it with colonialism, misogyny, elitism, or at best irrelevance. It is a bizarre spectacle to see such a number of musicologists – a disproportionate number of whom, as the musicologist Paul Harper-Scott has demonstrated, come from very privileged backgrounds in which a sound training in classical music can be taken for granted – spend a large part of their careers trying to do down this realm.[1]

Now, I would never argue that classical music is wholly autonomous of issues of imperialism, gender, race, social division, by any means, but nor do I accept those arguments that would reduce that music primarily or solely to such factors, with a concomitant disdain for any suggestion of musical ‘autonomy’. This direction, far more prevalent in Anglophone musicology than that from elsewhere, has been steered by self-styled ‘new’ musicologists, some ethnomusicologists, sociologists of music, and others who would view the study of classical music as just one relatively small component of cultural studies, its ‘relevance’ to be gauged primarily on the basis of the size of its audiences, by which measure it would become a minor concern compared to commercial pop.

It is in this context that we should consider this now somewhat notorious remark of Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, even though he is not really a figure commonly associated with the ‘new musicology’, nor with other of the factions I mentioned, and was for a long period primarily known as a scholar of medieval music. As I said, a key axiom of ‘new musicology’ (or its British near-counterpart, ‘critical musicology’) is a denial of the possibility that music can, let alone should, exhibit any autonomous features, those which cannot simply be explained by social, ideological or other determinants. Yet even if one believes this to be the case, demonstrating such a degree of determination is a difficult process, because of the nature of the medium, and attempts to do so often fall back upon hugely speculative associations. It is not difficult to see how some choral ode to a monarch is linked to aspects of feudalism and associated ceremony, but much harder to explain every note of it can be deduced from such an ideological viewpoint, even less why some such such works, but not others, have proved to have a lasting appeal long after such monarchs are consigned to history. To argue that Josquin’s masses or Bach’s sacred cantatas or Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus could only ever be meaningful or valuable to those committed to the particular religious beliefs associated with such works would be myopic in the extreme, and I maintain the same is true of much other music written for a particular social function or in a specific cultural context.

But such a view persists in sub-sections of musicology, and frequently takes another modified form, an active disapproval of music considered more abstract or autonomous. This view is not new, for sure, and is rooted in the nineteenth-century opposition between a more autonomous musical ‘romanticism’ and species of ‘realist’ music given to external depiction, such as fuelled opposing factions in the so-called ‘War of the Romantics’. The American musicologist Richard Taruskin in particular has been quite unequivocal in his partisanship in this respect,[2] drawing largely upon terminology largely developed in a musicological context by one of his nemeses, Carl Dahlhaus.[3] Another American musicologist, Lawrence Kramer, concludes some extravagant hermeneutical readings on the basis of relatively slight evidence,[4] but in particular is clear that the condition for music to be meaningful requires some external referent, a position which caused even Taruskin to balk somewhat.[5]

In an article which was in part a critique of Kramer, Rosen said that ‘music has meaning but very little reference’, having previously argued that ‘It is not that music is more autonomous [than literature], but more ambiguous, slippery: it will not allow itself to be caught and pinned down like a novel or even like a poem.’[6] The same could be said of sculpture, or of dance, and for none of these art forms is this a weakness. But for Leech-Wilkinson, it would appear that it is, as revealed through his disparaging tweet copied above.

This attracted a fair amount of charged response from musicians such as Peter Donohoe, Paul McCreesh, Lars Vogt, as can be seen in the thread which followed it, and here:


It should be noted that Leech-Wilkinson’s comment was itself a response to another tweet by Donohoe bemoaning the lack of mention of classical music in a BBC news item on the grave financial implications of the virus upon the arts. Leech-Wilkinson’s response was widely regarded as a highly insensitive comment at a time when, due to COVID-19, classical musicians and classical music per se are fighting for their very economic survival. An established musicologist, Emeritus Professor at one of the most prestigious of British institutions, King’s College, University of London, occupies at the very least a position of relative power compared to those dependent for their livelihoods on the field he is berating. However, when this was pointed out, Leech-Wilkinson did issue a partial apology in response to McCreesh.

But what would it mean for classical performance to have ‘something to say about current concerns’, specifically the virus? I fear we will soon come across a whole host of lachrymose works with opportunistic titles or dedications, COVID-19 Requiem, ‘To the memory of those we lost to the virus’, Lockdown Lament, and so on, just as many composers rushed to produce works alluding to 9/11.[7] In many cases the music employed might equally have been produced to order for any other traumatic event  – and will be interpreted as communicating an emotion of sadness, and thereby ‘tell’ listeners that they should remember how sad this is. Any other critical or aesthetic judgement of the piece may then be viewed as demonstrating some lack of proper sensitivity. It is not difficult to imagine at some future date a theatrically-inclined composer instructing all musicians to wear face masks during their piece (independently of any medical need), while the composer will speak in earnest tones in a pre-concert talk in about the importance of preserving memory and the like.

This is not to say that there cannot be value in music which attempts some wider commentary upon traumatic events – a strong counter-example would be Shostakovich’s settings of Yevgeny Yevtushenko in his Thirteenth Symphony – which generally avoids the type of mawkish sentimentality that can be found in many previous essays in the type of composition I have just described. Shostakovich’s work of course involves a text with vivid subject matter, and so hermeneutical readings are somewhat less contentious than has been the case for some of his purely instrumental works.

Ultimately, however, I do not accept that the primary purpose of music is to do social good, and reject prescriptive talk insisting that it must do so in order to be considered significant, as Leech-Wilkinson’s comment appears to imply. This view is not really so different from that of Victorian moralists such as Leech-Wilkinson’s compatriots John Ruskin or Matthew Arnold, who insisted on a socially edifying role for art.[8] What all appear to fear is the possibility that art may have value through such attributes as opening up new realms of consciousness, sensation, emotion, in ways which cannot be understood simply as an expression of moral philosophy or political dogma.

It is far too early to ascertain any conclusive scholarly data on how and to what extent classical music or other art might have been important to people during the time of COVID-19. All I can point to is that there have been a great many making the most of the small number of streamed videos of concerts, operas and other musical events, and by no means just those in which one might find particular references which can be linked to the current situation.

For the purposes of this debate, I also listened through to Episode 1 of Leech-Wilkinson’s Challenging Performance podcast. This features a mixture of frequent pleas as if from a beleaguered position, evoking some apparently sternly ‘policed’ environment of performance, which a range of comments suggesting an equal wish to ‘police’ this himself. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Leech-Wilkinson, while professing to wish for a more pluralistic culture of performance, is really arguing for one dominated by the aesthetics of the early twentieth-century. There are some quite bizarre claims, for example that only some historically ‘correct’ performances being allowed in conservatoires, which would be belied by conversations with those responsible for teaching historical performance at many conservatoires, frequently marginalised and dismissed by ‘star’ teachers.

Leech-Wilkinson’s examples of the Moonlight Sonata, claiming that both are acceptable in classical music circles, appear to contradict some of his earlier claims. No examples are given of these audience members who apparently hate something because it is ‘incorrect’. Also, when noting that Paderewski plays with the two hands desynchronised, Leech-Wilkinson argues as if this practice were not still employed by a fair range of pianists today, including Tom Beghin in the example he gives! My own observation of a large range of recordings through the course of the century shows that this practice never wholly disappeared, just that some came to use it rather more discreetly than was once more common. But even in Paderewski’s time, there were marked differences of degree as well. I myself regularly employ such a technique, not only between hands but also between parts in the same hand, but so do plenty of others, if not necessarily in such a stark fashion as Paderewski. Whether Paderewski’s style mirrors that of a century earlier, during Beethoven’s lifetime, we can never know for sure, but on the basis of other information which does exist about performance in the early nineteenth-century, it is safe to assume that there were a variety of different practices, as there are today. There is nothing to stop a Presto rendition of the Moonlight Sonata, as we hear on the podcast, if someone thinks it worthwhile – Leech-Wilkinson acts as his own ‘police’ when he declares ‘it works musically’, though I find his criteria narrow, by their rendering tempo as a secondary, even trivial, concern. He is perfectly entitled to his view, but so are some of the other reviewers and commenters on YouTube – it seems as if Leech-Wilkinson wants to ‘police’ them.

Would Paderewski be denied a conservatoire place today? I am not sure that can be answered unequivocally. Were critics and teachers somehow less censorious during Leech-Wilkinson’s golden age? I do not think so, as any survey of critical reception or pedagogical writings from musicians active during that time will show (obvious examples include those of Josef Lhevinne or Heinrich Neuhaus).[9] Furthermore, many would have found themselves pigeonholed on national grounds, explicitly attacked for being Jewish, for being women, with many attributes of their playing directly linked to such things. Very few non-white performers were ever heard in the West, and the opportunities for performers from non-monied backgrounds to achieve performing careers were very considerably fewer. The repertoire performed was very much smaller – works such as Schubert’s late sonatas or many of Liszt’s works or for that matter Bach’s cantatas, save for a small few, were practically unknown. Also – and this is no small point – the number of those prepared to explore earlier instruments, rather than assume that the most modern ones always entailed ‘progress’ in all respects, was very much smaller than today, and those who did occupied a very marginal position in performing culture. We need to remember these aspects of early twentieth-century performing culture, every bit as ‘policed’ as our own if not more so, rather than view it through a rose-tinted rear-view mirror.

If looking for more possibilities than appear to work musically at the moment, Leech-Wilkinson might consider more of the phenomenally creative work going on in early music, for example the medieval ensemble Graindelavoix, the manic virtuosity of some of the Italian baroque groups, or the vast amount of embellishment enacted by Robert Levin in performances of Mozart Concertos, so relentless as to be mannered. I am sure that he is aware of these; the choice to ignore them is one reason I believe his contribution is essentially polemical in nature.

Many of the other points made in the podcast concerning beliefs and aesthetics constitute more straw man arguments. I could add something about where the boundaries might lie in terms of in some sense playing a score,[10] but there is not really time for that. Leech-Wilkinson may have been open to a whole variety of performances of Machaut’s Mass,[11] but I wonder how he would have felt about one in which each part were played on swanee whistles, with most pitches extremely unstable. Everyone has their limits.

Ultimately, I think the majority of this says more about Leech-Wilkinson’s personal projections than about classical music. Furthermore, I do not believe many musicians need his permission to arrive at performances with which they feel pleased and creatively empowered.



[1] See J.P.E. Harper-Scott, ‘Musicology, the Middlebrow, and the Question of Elitism’, in Rethinking Contemporary Musicology: Perspectives on Interdisciplinarity, Skills and Deskilling, edited Ian Pace and Peter Tregear (London: Routledge, forthcoming).

[2] Richard Taruskin, ‘Speed Bumps’, 19th-Century Music, vol. 29, no. 2 (2005), pp. 185-207.

[3] See in particular Carl Dahlhaus, Realism in Nineteenth-Century Music, translated Mary Whittall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). Dahlhaus was not the first to theorise musical realism, for sure – one can find much earlier writings in English by Norman Cazden, ‘Towards a Theory of Realism in Music’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 10, no. 2 (1951), pp. 135-151, not to mention in the work on socialist realism of Boris Asafiev in the 1930s, specifically his Muzykal’naia Forma Kak Protsess (St Petersburg, 1930) and Intonazia (St Petersburg, 1947). A full translation into English of both of these (viewed as two volumes of a complete work) can be found in James Robert Tull, ‘B.V. Asaf’ev’s Musical Form as a Process: Translation and Commentary (Volumes I-III)’ (PhD thesis, Ohio State University, 1977); commentaries in English on both can be found in Malcolm H. Brown, ‘The Soviet Russian Concepts of “Intonazia” and “Musical Imagery”’, The Musical Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 4 (1974), pp. 557-567; Gordon D. McQuere, ‘Boris Asafiev and Musical Form as a Process’, in Russian Theoertical Thought in Music, edited Gordon D. McQuere (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1983), pp. 217-252; and Ildar Khannanov, ‘Boris Asafiev’s Intonatsia in the Context of Music Theory of the 21st Century’, Rasprave, vol. 44, no. 2 (2018), pp. 485-501. However, Dahlhaus went further than others before him in viewing nineteenth-century music in terms of a dichotomy of romanticism against realism, such as had long been applied to literature and the visual arts.

[4] See various of the essays in Lawrence Kramer, Music as Cultural Practice, 1800-1900 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London: University of California Press, 1990); Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London: University of California Press, 1995) and Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London: University of California Press, 2002).

[5] Taruskin writes ‘If the value of music lies in the words and the pictures that it prompts, then why not cut out the middleman and go straight for the words and the pictures?’; Richard Taruskin, ‘The Musical Mystique: Defending Classical Music against Its Devotees’, in The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA and London: University of California Press, 2009), p. 349.

[6] Charles Rosen, ‘The New Musicology’, in Critical Entertainments: Music Old and New (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 270. First published as ‘Music à la Mode’, New York Review of Books, vol. 41, no. 12 (23 June 1994), pp. 55-62, review of books by or edited by Lewis Lockwood, Elaine R. Sisman, James Webster, Susan McClary, Richard Leppert, Ruth A. Solie, Steven Paul Scher, Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood and Gary C. Thomas.

[7] Since giving this paper, I found out that the Last Night of the BBC Proms 2020 ‘will also feature the South African soprano Golda Schultz and a newly commissioned work by Swedish composer Andrea Torrodi which responds to the pandemic and will include sounds from the lockdown’. See Mark Brown, ‘BBC Proms: details announced of festival behind closed doors’, The Guardian, 3 July 2020, at .

[8] For a good study of this, see Edward Alexander, Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin, and the Modern Temper (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1973).

[9] Josef Lhevinne, Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing, with a new foreword by Rosina Lhevinne (New York: Dover, 1972); Heinrich Neuhaus, The Art of Piano Playing, translated K.A. Leibovitch (London: Kahn & Averill, 1993).

[10] This is a subject I pursue in my ‘Notation, Time and the Performer’s Relationship to the Score in Contemporary Music’, in Unfolding Time, edited Darla Crispin (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2009), pp. 151-192.

[11] About which he authored a book: Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, Machaut’s Mass: An Introduction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

Finnissy Piano Works (7) and (8) – November 7th and 21st, Oxford



[NEW: There will now be a new world premiere in the concert on Monday, November 21st, of the newly-composed Kleine Fjeldmelodien, dedicated to Ian Pace and Nigel McBride]

The seventh and eight concerts in my ongoing series of the complete piano works of Michael Finnissy will take place on Monday, November 7th, and Monday, November 21st, in the Holywell Music Room, Oxford. Both concerts will begin at 19:30. Tickets are £10, £5 concessions.

The first programme features a range of lesser-known works from the 1990s to the present day, including Finnissy’s unusual Machaut arrangement De toutes flours,of Francisco de Vidales’ villancico ‘Los que fueren de buen gusto’ in …desde que naçe, or his moving intimate tribute to soprano Tracey Chadwell, Tracey and Snowy in KölnThe much more extended Choralvorspiele (Koralforspill) is a series of fantastical post-Busoniesque chorale preludes sharing common material, an exercise in both compositional and pianistic virtuosity. The second half contains the second ever complete performance of the Second Political Agenda, three c. 20′ pieces embodying Finnissy’s extremely individual take on the music of Erik Satie, Arnold Schoenberg and Aleksander Skryabin.

The second programme features further tributes, to Satie again,  to Oliver Messiaen in A solis ortus cardine, to Bulgarian composer Georghi Tutev, and the UK premiere of Finnissy’s Brahms-Lieder, not to mention his Beatles’ arrangement Two of Us, as well as some pieces written for children or elementary pianists in Wee Saw Footprints and Edward. The longer pieces in the programme include Enough, Finnissy’s response to Samuel Beckett’s short text Assezand the monumental recent work Beat Generation Ballads.


Monday, November 7th, 2016, 19:30
Michael Finnissy at 70: The Piano Works (7)
Holywell Music Room, Holywell Street OX1 3SD

Elephant (1994)
Tracey and Snowy in Köln (1996)
The larger heart, the kindlier hand (1993)
…desde que naçe (1993)
De toutes flours (1990)
Cibavit eos (1991-92)
Zwei Deutsche mit Coda (2006)
Erscheinen ist der herrliche Tag (2003)
Choralvorspiele (Koralforspill) (2012)


Second Political Agenda (2000-8)

  1. ERIK SATIE like anyone else;
  2. Mit Arnold Schoenberg ;
  3. SKRYABIN in itself.



Guillaume de Machaut, De toutes flours


Finnissy, De toutes flours (1990)


Monday, November 21st, 2016, 19:30
Michael Finnissy at 70: The Piano Works (8)
Holywell Music Room, Holywell Street OX1 3SD

A solis ortus cardine (1992)
Stanley Stokes, East Street 1836
Deux Airs de Geneviève de Brabant (Erik Satie)
Brahms-Lieder (2015) (UK Premiere)


Wee Saw Footprints (1986-90)
Kleine Fjeldmelodien 
(2016) (World Premiere)
Lylyly li (1988-89)
Pimmel (1988-89)
Two of Us (1990)
Georghi Tutev (1996, rev. 2002)


Beat Generation Ballads (2013)
Meeting is pleasure, parting a grief (1996)


Finnissy, Stanley Stokes, East Street 1836 (1989-94)



Finnissy, Beat Generation Ballads (2013)