Violin virtuoso joins ‘real battle’ to save classical music from UK funding cuts

There is no piece of classical music quite as sentimental about orchestras as Haydn’s Farewell Symphony. One by one, as the last movement closes, the musicians walk off the stage, eventually leaving just two violinists to carry the notes of the final adagio. At the 1772 premier of the work in Hungary, each player poignantly paused to snuff out the candle that lit up their sheet music.

The composer’s original aim was to emphasise the fact that his tired musicians badly wanted a rest after a long season performing at Prince Esterházy’s castle. But today this famous ritual of departing orchestra members has fresh potency.

The controversial cuts proposed last November and this spring to the English National Opera, the BBC Singers and the BBC orchestras, as well as to several other British opera companies and venues, have sent up a sequence of distress flares. Petitions have been signed and funding bodies and managers have been called to account. Yet the sudden sense of alarm among classical music fans has arrived after a painful decline in the scale of funding and level of activity had already been keenly felt by the professionals who mount concerts or play in them.

Now the great violinist Nicola Benedetti has added her powerful voice to the defence of an imperilled genre. “There has got to be scope for maintaining a central classical music environment, a space for Beethoven, for music like that, which should still be at the core of what people play and hear,” she said this weekend, acknowledging the onset of “the real battle” to get people to accept the greater challenge of listening to more complex sounds.

Born in West Kilbride, Ayrshire, the astonishing Benedetti led the National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain at the age of eight. A mere eight years later, she won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. As an elite, skilled artist, she continues to believe that everyone can be creative, but that hard work is the only route to excellence.

Speaking to the Observer after announcing the programme for her first Edinburgh international festival as director, the Scottish virtuoso said she had to walk a careful line between keeping classical music at the heart of the event while offering variety and accessibility.

The need to attract newcomers had to be balanced, she argued, with a new, wider threat to the classical repertoire: “You’ve only got to look at the audiences, at the numbers. They are going down. With the economic pressures of today, it means that, without subsidies and without high audience attendance, the inevitable question is: how are we going to plan to sustain our environment if we can’t convince people that music without a strong backbeat is something still worth listening to? That it’s worth the time spent?”

Sir Simon Rattle recently spoke out against music funding cuts at the Barbican.
Sir Simon Rattle recently spoke out against music funding cuts at the Barbican. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Sir Simon Rattle’s dramatic St George’s Day speech from the conductor’s podium at the Barbican had already put the spotlight on these fears. He saw a funding precipice nearing; one from which there could be no rescue. Musicians would do their best, he said, “but the closeness to the edge means that as support is constantly cut, there is no more room to manoeuvre, and inevitably organisations will start to fail. And as other political decisions affect music in schools and then music colleges, the vital organic pipeline that feeds our music will start to run dry.”

Rattle will make some of his final appearances as the music director of the London Symphony Orchestra at Benedetti’s festival and, in the penultimate week, the young musicians of the groundbreaking Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela will be conducted by its famous director, Gustavo Dudamel.

Other highlights will include a staging of choreographer Pina Bausch’s version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, danced by a cast drawn from 14 African countries.

Tickets for the entire international festival, recognised with its companion fringe festival as making up the largest celebration of the arts in the world, went on general sale last Wednesday at

At 35, Benedetti is not just the first woman but the first Scot to programme the festival in its 76 years, and she has picked a typically provocative question as her theme. Borrowing the title of a book by Martin Luther King Jr, she asks “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” in her choice of the almost 300 events to be staged in Edinburgh this August.

For both Rattle and Benedetti, however, a big annual music festival is not enough. Classical music has to be woven through education and the national calendar in order to play its part in cultural life. Speaking last month during a tour of Australia, the conductor warned of “real violence to the British music scene” and described the cuts inflicted by Arts Council England (ACE) as “an act of cultural vandalism”.

Benedetti, who will perform in the opening concert of her festival in three months’ time, also fronts her own foundation, which supports music teachers and young musicians and promotes music in education. She regards it as “a good fight” that must be “renewed over and over again” as cuts damage classical music’s key institutions.

Benedetti and Rattle are clearly convinced that an endgame is afoot. But is there truly an argument to be had, or is a dying kind of music just facing up to its fate? The impassioned public response to the cuts set out by ACE and the BBC certainly suggest that classical music should not be seen as such an easy target.

The choral composer Bob Chilcott believes that a vital struggle for the future of subsidised music is under way. “There are two key parts to the problem,” he said this weekend. “More music education is required, of course, so that more people are equipped to learn and understand instruments and music, and then, secondly, our classical music infrastructure needs building up. There is this damaging idea around that people should not aspire to anything too difficult. There is such nonchalance in this country, although we know that to succeed in music, as in sport, you have to work hard.”

A production by the ENO, which initially was threatened with having all of its funding removed.
A production by the ENO, which initially was threatened with having all of its funding removed recently. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Chilcott, a former tenor with the King’s Singers, has been encouraged by the “fantastic, unexpected reaction” to the cuts to the BBC Singers, but has noticed a shrinking of the number of full-scale works put on outside London that are not part of a brief festival programme.

“There was a time when I was a student that I would be sent out to sing solo with a choir performing a piece by Dvorak or Mendelssohn with an orchestra in somewhere in the Cotswolds, but those pieces are not so often tackled any more.”

In late March, classical music fans cheered the BBC’s decision to look again at ways to fund the BBC Singers, and they have several gigs in the forthcoming BBC Proms. A statement from George Chambers, the BBC’s head of classical music communications, said they had “received approaches from a number of organisations offering alternative funding models”. And similarly, Arts Council England’s negotiations with ENO, in the face of an outcry over plans to move it from its London home, seem to have created new room for manoeuvre. A possible sum of up to £24m is on the table while the opera company works out a new business model.

Scepticism remains though. The BBC, many suspect, is merely pausing while it considers how to gradually move away from employing classical musicians, while the Arts Council is simply prepared to spend more public money on covering up an unworkable, injurious mistake made with its original ruling on ENO.

No article should ignore all the classical music to be performed this summer. Small festivals in many towns, including Leamington, Bampton and Farnham, are responsible for hundreds of concerts that will delight fans. And it is true that coverage tends to focus on crisis, rather than celebration.

But the fact remains that less teaching and less public subsidy will result in a less educated, less confident musical culture in Britain. And classical music will be the chief victim.