9.5 The risk performers take in the face of criticism


Mitsuko Uchida has said, ‘You have to risk your life on stage’.[1] I’m sorry to contradict such a rewarding musician; but one risks her life leaving a cellar in Sarajevo or Sanaa in search of water, not playing Mozart in Salzburg: that isn’t even ‘Grand Piano’; though sometimes one senses that critics would like it to be. That said, relative to most western cultural activities, performing WCM is personally fraught with risk to reputation and psychological health. It’s an unpleasant fact that if you play or sing even a moment in a well-known score fractionally louder or quieter, or longer or shorter, or earlier or later, or with more or less vibrato or portamento than the current norm, you risk being labelled a narcissist, egocentric, self-indulgent, preening, vain, irritating, tiresome, distracting, unbearable, intrusive, meddling, gratuitous, wilful, unspontaneous, excessive, capricious, idiosyncratic, personal[!], odd, strange, eccentric, exaggerated, extreme, aggressive, fussy, finicky, sentimental, romantic, theatrical, vulgar, cheap, emasculated, effeminate, affected, arch, mincing, unseemly, or unwanted. (Gramophone, passim)

This is the language of intolerance. If audiences and readerships are happy with this then it tells us things we might rather not know about the kinds of people WCM serves at the moment. Is this really who we are? Small (1998) thought so, though perhaps without realising quite how far it went.

I hope we are better than this: if we’re not yet, then we can be. And heaven knows, WCM performers deserve very much better in return for the huge skill and artistry that they’ve spent so long acquiring on our behalf. Reviewers surely owe it to performers to think more self-critically about what they write. In saying this I am acutely aware of hypocrisy, both because of the highly critical tone I’m taking in this book, and because of reviews I’ve written myself in the past.[2] For the reviews I can only apologise again. For the book, I think this is so serious a problem that a mild response won’t make the smallest dent in the status quo. Because of what’s at stake, we really need to take a stronger stand than is compatible with nice manners.

My case is that musicians would be healthier, happier, and WCM more widely enjoyed and better rewarded—and, within WCM, what could be more important aims than these?—if there were more of the non-normative performances that critics spend too much of their lives trying to prevent.


Continue to 9.6 ‘The lack of intellectual debate about WCM

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[1] Interview with Fiona Maddocks, The Guardian, 4 December 2018.

[2] I’ve apologised for some of my youthful intemperance in Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 2002. The Modern Invention of Medieval Music (Cambridge University Press), and also in Leech-Wilkinson (2020), Moral Judgement…, where I have to show myself having done exactly what I criticise.

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