A Post with No Name

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This is a difficult post to write, and I don't know how it is going to turn out. But it has been brewing for some months as the cherished institutions of specialist music education in the UK are engulfed in successive waves of scandal. I am, personally, among the numbers of neither the abused nor the abusers, but have friends and colleagues in both camps, and have had much to come to terms with recently.

Part of the shock of the whole process has been asking: why didn't we know this before? And the conversations between those who lived through the 1980s in these schools and colleges have shown that, well, we did know, kind of, but we didn't know how to articulate what we knew. It was a different version of what Betty Friedan called The Problem with No Name.

When I was warned against the predatory habits of one of my teachers in my late teens, it was a strange shadow world that was evoked. It was both unacceptable (something to warn young women against), and yet accepted - there was no suggestion that he might change his behaviour. (Incidentally, that warning turned out not to be needed for me - I had nothing but positive educational experiences with him. So I have no idea in retrospect what to make of the warning.)

Classical music back in the 1980s was of course still an astonishingly male-dominated profession. Whilst at a level of aesthetics, modernism was the dominant discourse, the concepts of the personnel involved were still heavily shaped by the ostensibly supplanted discourses of romanticism. Music was an appropriate accomplishment for young ladies, but at its highest levels was the domain of masculine genius.

Nobody really said this out loud, of course. They just wrote about the Great Works of the Great Masters in such a way that we imbibed the message along with our admiration for Beethoven's compositional virility. In fact, modernism's orthodoxy that music was abstract, autonomous from social meanings, draped a protecting veil over all the messy power-relations seething away underneath. There was a time when I took great solace in this abstraction: the content of art and literature may celebrate women's subordination, I thought, but at least music is pure.

(No, really, I did used to think this. My career as an academic was largely driven by the disillusionment of discovering what a load of crock that was.)

Now of course the problem of older and more powerful men's sexual exploitation of young women and girls (and boys of course) is not confined to classical music. We have the Catholic church (and, according to recent news, the Anglican too), we have show business, we have care homes around the country.

And in wider culture, the idea that middle-aged men in positions of power treat younger women as essentially consumables is somehow considered normal. From Henry VIII to Solomon, sexually predatory behaviour towards women is seen implicitly as a badge of status. For heaven's sake, the western world's most revered female figure is admired for having a pregnancy forced upon her without consultation, let alone consent. The idea seems to be that if the man (or deity) helping himself to the amenity of your body is sufficiently important, you should be honoured to be groped/raped/impregnated by him.

So classical music's shameful past is in some ways just part of a bigger cultural problem. And - like the other institutional scandals - the institutional setting itself facilitated the abuse by creating a self-enclosed world in which the power-relations operated more tightly.

But I think that the discipline's standard narratives of genius were also significant enablers. For a long time, music teaching worked in a culture of teacher as guru, controlling their student acolytes' access to the mysteries of musical enlightenment. Like Sarastro, they required blind obedience and the rejection of their previously-chosen world in return for initiation into their closed order. (I love the Magic Flute, but I can never shake the feeling that it gets good and evil a bit muddled up.)

Even where this moral order did not result in actual sexual abuse, it was often psychologically most unhealthy. A student's sense of self-worth gets far too dependent on the opinion of a single teacher. Acquiring high-level musicianship is emotionally challenging enough without building in that kind of structural vulnerability.

Pockets of it may still be found centred on certain high-profile teachers, but I am happy to say that teaching styles have shifted considerably in conservatoires over the last two decades. The requirement for critical and independent thought that comes with degree programmes has no doubt been part of that - indeed one could read the practical/academic conflicts that used to rage within institutions as being far more a struggle over educational philosophy than course content.

But in retrospect, I can see why the reaction to the early days of critical musicology may have been so virulent. When a generation of scholars started to question the discourses of privilege that had insulated classical music from ideological critique, it was not merely an aesthetic position we were attacking. It was also an attack on the cloak of self-justification that had been protecting those who had felt secure and reasonable in the ways they were wielding their power.

A very interesting blog Liz on a difficult subject, and as always, expertly written in your thoughtful and erudite way.

Thank you Barry. It was indeed difficult, and I appreciate your reassurance that I haven't botched it too badly!

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