SIMON HEFFER HINTERLAND
Will we ever have another crop of British musicians this good? I fear not…
Last month I attended the most remarkable concert performance of one of the world’s greatest operas: the Saffron Opera Group’s account of Wagner’s Parsifal. The previous time I’d heard it, Daniel Barenboim was conducting it in Berlin; the
Saffron Opera Group’s performance, conducted by Michael Thorne, was not noticeably inferior. It certainly had the advantage of not being handicapped by an atrocious production, as was the one at the Staatsoper, at the end of which a third of the audience applauded, a third booed and a third laughed.
Saffron Opera has, since 2013, performed one opera a year, on a Sunday afternoon – a Ring cycle, Parsifal and, next year, Tristan und Isolde – in a state-of-the-art school concert hall in Saffron Walden, the gift of a local philanthropist. It has a superb acoustic, allowing no hiding place for a bad ensemble or poor soloists, neither of which appeared during Parsifal. But that brings me to the really remarkable point, that the “semi-professional” orchestra was 80 per cent amateur.
I would never have known. Nor was the Saffron Opera Chorus deficient. How wonderful that such an event could be staged in a market town in Essex, largely by local people of a certain age who have attained such high proficiency as instrumentalists or singers, yet earn their livings by other means: and use their considerable gift as a means of self-fulfilment and, incidentally, as a way of bringing pleasure to others.
One needs to ask, however, where these talented people came from. Most children lucky enough to attend private schools have some sort of musical education, even if only being told who Bach and Beethoven were. The majority of such schools have visiting music teachers who, albeit with a sometimes hefty addition to the end-of-term bill, give specialised instruction in learning an instrument or in developing a fine singing voice. The Church of England does its bit in cathedrals around the country in training children to sing in choirs, as do some of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. Outside that elite world, however, things do not look so good.
I, also being of a certain age, had a proper musical education at the state schools I attended between the ages of five and 18. At my tiny village primary school, every child learnt to play the recorder and, as a result, to read music. Every Monday morning, at 11am on the Home Service, as part of the BBC’s schools service, there was a wonderful programme called Singing Together, along with which we’d sing English folk songs, an activity that sank so deep into my psyche that it has accounted for my lifelong obsession with English music. The school had a choir, as did my grammar school, which produced several musicians of international renown. They were helped by the excellent peripatetic music teachers who turned up each week to give specialist tuition. The result is that thousands of children of my generation had an opportunity to learn music to a high standard, and to develop it as an accomplishment for life – ultimately in organisations such as Saffron Opera, or for their own pleasure at home.
Unfortunately, the chances of breeding future generations of fine amateur musicians are decreasing. In 2012, music was compulsory in 84 per cent of state schools; four years later it had fallen to 62 per cent. Peripatetic music teachers have virtually vanished. Successive education secretaries of both parties have simply shrugged their shoulders. It is ironic that, at a time when semi-professional groups are flourishing all over the country because of the sensible policies of the past, those polices have been abandoned to ensure, it seems, we never have it so good again. In the 19th century, the Germans used to call us the land without music. Is it really a political ambition to make us that again?
For details, see: saffronopera.org.uk