Monday, March 19, 2018

JDCMB Celebrity Interview: Meet George Li

A year ago I went to Hamburg to meet and hear the brilliant young Chinese-American pianist George Li. Tomorrow he's giving his first recital in the International Piano Series of the Southbank Centre - still at St John's Smith Square (the Queen Elizabeth Hall reopens in April) - and I'll be doing a pre-concert talk with him beforehand. Do come along if you can!

Here is the article I wrote about him after the Hamburg interview, reproduced here by kind permission of PIANIST Magazine (and edited slightly now for updating).

George Li: plenty to smile about.
Photo: Simon Fowler

One of the great misconceptions about music competitions is that a performer only benefits by winning first prize. But many of these events offer young players, whether or not they emerge triumphant, an exceptional platform to be heard by an audience that, with the advent of Internet live streaming, can nowadays run to millions. Moreover, those who win other prizes or simply catch the right person’s attention can find themselves fortunate enough to have a vital launching pad.

George Li won silver medal at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2015, when he was all of 19. The youthful Chinese American pianist from Boston quickly captured the imagination of a representative from the artists’ management firm Intermusica; a contract followed. Now he has another contract, this time with Warner Classics, which has signed him up for two recital discs and two with orchestra.

I caught up with the unassuming and highly intelligent young musician in Hamburg, where he was making his debut at the shiny new Elbphilharmonie with the Hamburg Philharmonic, playing Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for the first time. On stage his diminutive figure gives the illusion that he could still be a schoolboy – but when he starts to play, it’s another matter altogether. His musicianship is informed by a fulsome emotional world, sensitivity to drama, directness of expression and distinctive beauty of tone that together conspire to give him a strong personal voice at the instrument.

His passion for communicative music-making, he says, struck him in earnest when he first performed a Beethoven concerto with orchestra in his early teens. “All of a sudden I felt like I had entered a different world,” he says. “It was a unique and amazing experience: for the first time I was feeling music a lot more emotionally, rather than just remembering the right notes and where to come in. Afterwards people were coming up to me and saying that listening to me had changed their lives. I was shocked. I didn’t know before that music had that kind of power. After that, I just wanted to be able to find that feeling again.”

George, aged 11, plays Liszt...[this is SO CUTE - he can only just reach the pedals, but plays like a total pro...]

Born in Boston to parents who had each immigrated to the US from China, Li is the second of three musical children. His younger brother, Andrew, is also a gifted pianist, he reports; and their elder sister started piano lessons first, which spurred on the small George to try it too. “Neither of our parents is a musician,” he says. “They grew up during the Cultural Revolution and never had those opportunities.” His father is a scientist, his mother an accountant, but there was always music around: Li’s early musical memories include being taken to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the city’s series of celebrity recitals, “pianists like Evgeny Kissin and Murray Perahia, who really inspired me a lot. And I remember that right before I went to bed Mom used to turn on the classical radio station. All those elements nudged me in that direction.”

He soon became a seasoned competition participant, having taken part in local contests since the tender age of six. “It was something a lot of Asian kids who play piano used to do,” he remarks. “Every year they’d just try and see how they got on in competitions, as an incentive to learn repertoire and push yourself a little further. I did that for three or four years and then took it to another level.”

When he was 16, he was amazed to win an award from the Gilmore Foundation, which in addition to its more famous surprise-prize for established artists also selects young pianists to support. Li was its youngest winner to date. “It’s a really prestigious award and I had no idea because it’s anonymous – they don’t tell you anything until you get a phone call,” he recalls. “I was in Europe at 2am when I got the call and I was in shock – I was, like, ‘Wait, what did I win?’ It was very helpful because it’s a big cash award and you can use it for whatever you want, so it helped me save to get a new piano and set up a website. I also played some concerts at the Gilmore Festival [in Kalamazoo, Michigan], which is a really great place – people there are so warm and it’s a great atmosphere.”

Photo: Simon Fowler
A similarly life-changing event was the Young Concert Artists Competition, which he won in 2010; the organisation then managed his early career for three years. “They really helped me to jump-start the performance lifestyle, building confidence and some kind of experience with how that synergy and chemistry with the audience works,” he says. This helped him to lay the foundations of a burgeoning career. He entered competition after competition and soon prize heaped upon prize: second at the Gina Bachauer prize in 2010, the Tabor Foundation Piano Award at the Verbier Festival 2012, first prize at the Grand Prix Animato Piano Competition in Paris in 2014 – and plenty more. Therefore when he went to Russia for the Tchaikovsky Competition, he was effectively an old-timer.

The Tchaikovsky Competition proved beyond his wildest dreams – see the box-out – but since then he has scarcely had a chance to look back. He is particularly thrilled about making his first CD for Warner Classics. “It’s a huge thing, recording a CD and having it released, when there are so many recordings around. I’m so lucky!” he remarks. Recorded live in concert in the Mariinsky Concert Hall, St Petersburg, it should hit the shelves this autumn. The programme offers a distinctly unusual mix of repertoire, from Haydn through Chopin and Rachmaninoff to Liszt – but there is, Li says, method to the apparent madness.

“It takes the listener on a journey,” he suggests. “The Haydn is elegant, but also has a rather sorrowful element. That leads into the Chopin B flat minor ‘Funeral March’ Sonata: a very tragic piece which holds the entire spectrum of aching loss. That goes further with the Rachmaninoff Corelli Variations, a piece that is very special to me: it definitely explores that darker area and plunges you towards so much variety in shading, darkness and colouring of that feeling, and of course the ending is heartbreaking. It’s like a swansong. At the end you’re surrounded by despair, like a feeling from Dostoyevsky. But then the Liszt Consolation No.3 and Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 bring you back and lift you up from that depression. It takes you on a journey from darkness to light, from death to resurrection – that’s the motif I’ve envisaged.”

The reference to Dostoyevsky is no coincidence. Li is currently combining his meteoric career with studies not only musical but also academic, taking a joint course between Harvard University and the New England Conservatory. “I’m studying English Literature at Harvard, which is great,” he says. “It helps me make music because music and literature are so intertwined with each other, being able to experience different emotions and feelings through different mediums. Understanding how writers express themselves through words is helpful to understanding how composers express themselves through music.”

His special literary enthusiasms include English Romantic poetry, especially Wordsworth; novels by Dostoyevsky and James Joyce; and Shakespeare, which he says has proved a revelation. Not that the mix of study and musical career is easy. “It’s been hard because I travel a lot, and it’s hard to settle in, then leave and come back and have all this work to do,” he acknowledges, “but it’s wonderful to be in class with so many people who are brilliant in their own ways and to learn from them and the teachers.”

Tchaikovsky Competition Winners' Concert....with Gergiev and his toothpick

As for his mentors at the piano, he counts among them Russell Sherman and his wife Wha Kyung Byun. “In general, I’ve been so lucky to have the right teachers at the right times,” he says. “I studied first with a Chinese piano teacher, Dorothy Shi, who really worked on my technical foundation, building up a good, singing kind of sound, so that helped with a sound foundation that I could build upon musically. Then I studied for three years with the Chinese pianist Chengzong Yin, who won the silver medal of the Tchaikovsky Competition the same year Ashkenazy and John Ogdon won joint first. He really helped further the singing sound and deepened the musical side. Miss Byun and Mr Sherman have helped to push me as a person and as a human being and to refine my musicianship. I’m very grateful to them all and I’m still learning from them today. It’s great to have a teacher who can nudge you in the right direction if you’re straying too much towards impulsiveness and shift you back to not going overboard with  extremes.”

He admits he has learned some career lessons the hard way. “The travel schedule was quite jarring at first, even until two or three months ago,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of crazy things. In December [2016] I went to China for 24 hours; I’d played a concert in St Petersburg a couple of days before and then immediately flew to Miami for a concert, and the travelling was just too much for me and I got sick and I still had to play two concerts after that. That was a rough period.”

Unwinding, then? Rather unusually for a musician, Li is a sports fanatic, especially where soccer is concerned. “I’m an Arsenal fan,” he declares, “though unfortunately they haven’t been doing so well recently!” [this was in March 2017- ed]. He enjoys playing soccer himself, when time allows, the big advantage being that the sport is limited to footwork: “I can’t play basketball or baseball because of my hands,” Li says, “but with soccer it’s much more feasible to spend an hour now and then kicking the ball around with friends. Exercise is really important to keep fit and relieve stress,” he adds earnestly.

Li has already been in Britain this season, playing the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.2 with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall, and is making his recital debut in the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series at the Southbank Centre on 20 March 2018, including some repertoire from his new CD. Meanwhile, he has been enjoying trips to the Verbier Festival, Seattle, Sweden and plenty more performances around Europe. “There’s a lot of great things coming up,” Li beams. That is putting it mildly.

Liszt's Gnomenreigen, live in concert at Verbier, summer 2017


“The Tchaikovsky Competition is a great platform to show who you are and what you can bring towards music. And being in that Russian culture for a month, you can see how much people there appreciate music. For them it’s like the musical Olympics: they really love hearing you play and you can feel their appreciation. That takes away some of the pressure and the stress: when you enter, you see in the first few rows the jury sitting there being stern and strict – but behind them, people with shining eyes.

“It was a long month with a lot of pressure, but also I had a great time. Of course the competition pressures were always there, but it was a special month. For three weeks I was just living in my hotel and the conservatory, practising. In the final, fortunately I played on the first day, so I was exhausted, but had time before the verdict was announced to go sightseeing, relax and play a little soccer.

“I hadn’t expected to advance so far, so I was in shock to get second prize. We didn’t have any idea in advance of the results, so the announcement was very tension-filled. The finals were such a marathon, emotionally, spiritually and mentally, because it’s two back-to-back concerti with only a few minutes in between, so after finishing I felt completely drained. But then seeing people come up and say how powerful it was and how much it affected them – going back to the power of music and how much it can affect the emotions – that really stayed with me. It’s always been a dream to share how I feel about music with as many people as possible. So being there in Moscow was a sublime feeling.”


If you could play only one piece from now on, what would it be?
For a solo piece, either Beethoven’s Sonata Op.111 or the Schubert B flat major Sonata D960. For a concerto, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini – it’s so much fun!

If you could play only the music of one composer from now on, who would it be?

One pianist you’d travel long and far to hear?
Vladimir Horowitz.

One concert hall you’d like to play in?
The Elbphilharmonie or the Concertgebouw.

Any technical troubles?
I have rather small hands, so Rachmaninoff passagework can be difficult.

What advice would you give to an amateur pianist about how to improve?
Experiment with the potential of what the piano can do. It’s an orchestra in one instrument and based on that we can create so many different kinds of sounds and different worlds. And work on singing tone – it’s always the hardest thing, but something we’re constantly striving for.

If you weren’t a pianist, what would you be?
I would really love to work in English literature. I love analysing things and going deep into the texts.

One person you’d love to play for?
The Pope. I’m not religious, but I love the spiritual vibe of cathedrals.

A composer you’re not ready for?
Beethoven, though see above!

What other kind of music do you like listening to?
I listen to pop music now and then.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The age of age?

A century and still running? Several things have happened in the last few weeks that seem to add up to more than the sum of their random parts. These are they:

Debussy in 1908
1. The centenary of Debussy's death has sparked so many recordings, concerts, etc, that it looks as if he's more popular than I thought. Debussy is wonderful, amazing, original, seminal, groundbreaking, crucial, one of the all-time geniuses, etc, yet I've never thought of him as either a special audience draw, like Mozart, or a media-friendly dead-celebrity type, like Stravinsky (who pinched lavishly from him). But the CD releases have been hitting my desk at the rate of several a week, a nice big new book has already emerged, and it's still only the middle of March. What conclusion to draw? Debussy is super-duper-popularoony after all? Or: take a centenary, any centenary, jump aboard and expect to watch sales soar? Forgive me if I sound cynical, but this is 100 years, and 100 years is, nowadays, in living memory.

2. At the Institut Français discussion on Equality and Conductors last week, the French conductor Claire Gibault remarked that she thought the next big equality to tackle would be that of age. In a time in which everyone is hungry for the next bright young star to come along, older artists - well known or 'emerging' - can find themselves having a hard time, passed over despite having much to offer in terms of experience and wisdom. I have come across individuals (whether in person or sounding fed up on Twitter) attempting to pursue musical paths in later life, finding everything skewed against them. We forget sometimes that people develop at their own paces, and not always by choice: if you peak at 16 you may be forgotten by 56, or if your life gets in the way early on, your artistry may be waiting for a chance to shine through later. By the time you start to make the lemonade out of the lemons life has given you, other people may assume mistakenly that you are too old to know how much sugar to put in, adding insult to injury... We recommend they taste the lemonade before deciding.

3. Today there breaks news that the actress Olivia de Havilland, aged 101, is suing the makers of the TV series Feud, about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, for misrepresenting her. More here. De Havilland is the last surviving star of the 1930s golden age of Hollywood (and was, indeed, leading lady in a number of Korngold movies - apparently the composer rather took her under his wing when she appeared, very, very young, in Max Reinhardt's film of A Midsummer Night's Dream). She is quite right to speak up. Why should she not, just because she is 101? She is quoted as saying: "I feel strongly about it because when one person’s rights can be trampled on this way, the rights of others who are more vulnerable can be abused as well." What a heroine.

4. The pianist Marjan Kiepura has got in touch with news that it is now possible to listen to recordings by his mother, the legendary soprano Marta Eggerth (1912-2013), on Youtube, in a release of 43 numbers entitled My Life, My Song (it's also available on CD). These recordings were made as early as 1936 and as recently as 2002 when the Hungarian-born operetta star was 90. In some, Eggerth and her husband Jan Kiepura (Korngold's original tenor in Das Wunder der Heliane) sing together, in the mid 1950s. In others, Marjan accompanies his mother in beautifully paced Chopin songs. The voice changes, of course, but to hear Eggerth across some 70 years is to hear beyond the surface sound and delve into the underlying artistry that is conveyed by that sound through the decades. Here are some samples:

What is the linking factor in all these events? It's not just age - it's our attitude to it. Really we ought to be ashamed of ourselves, especially as we have these days an ageing population. Think about this a moment: our composers are producing music at three times Schubert's final age, or more. Elliott Carter was still composing at 100, Dutilleux into his nineties, Birtwistle and Gubaidulina are still going strong in their eighties. I'm not going to list the conductors or soloists, but you don't have to look far to find them. But isn't it strange that we celebrate the anniversaries later, rather than appreciating these individuals strongly enough when they're still with us?

Here's Mieczyslaw Horszowski in 1986, in his 90s, playing the Franck Prelude, Chorale and Fugue. I remember hearing him play it that year at Aldeburgh and have never forgotten how bowled over I was as it emerged almost as a mystical holy trinity, a three-in-one creation of utterly luminous intensity. 

It's wonderful that Debussy's anniversary is big-time. It's great that we're celebrating Bernstein's centenary so lavishly this year. But Bernstein is dead. What about the venerable artists who are still alive? Shouldn't we celebrate them while they're here? And why wait until they're 100? How much fine musicianship, creativity, insight, empathy and excellence are we missing out on if we judge people by their birthdays? 

Above all, Marta Eggerth's singing is proof, if it were needed, that though the body may age inevitably, the soul only ages if we let it, and we don't have to.

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Deeds, Not Words: a guest post by Zerlina Vulliamy

Music student Zerlina Vulliamy was playing the trumpet in the WOW Women of the World Women's Orchestra on Sunday in the annual Mirth Control concert at the RFH, presented by Sandi Toksvig. She was so inspired by the occasion that she wanted to write about it. I couldn't be there myself this time, annoyingly, so I am very grateful to her for covering it for us. 'Mirth Control' is part of the Southbank Centre's year-round work to give a platform to female musicians, artists and more. JD

Sandi and the WOW Orchestra

Deeds Not Words
By Zerlina Vulliamy

I am a self-confessed hypocrite. I realised this on Sunday 11 March, when playing the trumpet as part of the Women of the World Orchestra in the ‘Mirth Control’ event at the Royal Festival Hall, conducted by Alice Farnham. The orchestra was about to play a piece by the British composer Elisabeth Lutyens, titled ‘Overture (En Voyage)’, but before this, the presenter Sandi Toksvig informed the audience of the difficulty the orchestra manager experienced trying to get the score and parts of this music. After contacting many publishers, archives and libraries she finally managed to track it down and distribute the parts to those of us in the orchestra. However, this was on the harsh condition that they were to be used for one performance only and had to be destroyed afterwards. Naturally, those of us on stage and in the audience expressed concern at such a tragedy – first, that the work of an excellent composer was so difficult to find, but also that it might be never be performed again. Sandi herself strongly called on all of us to support this cause of the forgotten women composers, a message that featured prevalently throughout the evening.

Jude Kelly, the WOW Orchestra and some inspiration
Yet whilst I was sitting there, thinking about how limited the representation of women in the arts still is, I suddenly realised that I too was contributing, without realising, to this archaic canon which consists entirely of male composers. I present a weekly show on music called Behind the Classics at the University of Oxford’s student radio station, and I thought I was helping the cause by dedicating an entire episode to raising awareness of relatively unknown female musicians such as Mel Bonis and Melba Liston for International Women’s Day. Yet I too have unknowingly contributed to the tradition of playing music entirely by men in a few episodes. 

This is ridiculous when you think about it, seeing as women make up half the population and there are millions of female musicians throughout history to the present, all with music worth playing to an audience. And yet, because of the music I have been exposed to throughout my life, whether it be classical, jazz, hip hop or others, at the time it seemed normal not to feature a single woman in an episode.

The RFH is decked for the occasion
Well, to quote the slogan appearing on red carpets recently: time’s up. As Sandi Toksvig said herself at ‘Mirth Control’ - it seems absurd that still, in 2018, women are so under-represented in the arts, as well as other fields. She showed the audience many slides which projected shocking statistics, such as the percentages of women composers and conductors who featured at the 2017 BBC Proms, which was 7.5% and 11% respectively. Tragically, women have often been discouraged throughout history from picking up a pen and writing, or from standing on a podium and conducting. 

Perhaps the important work being done by the WOW festival, which encourages women to strive for success in all fields across the globe, will help rectify the situation. The WOW Orchestra consists entirely of excellent women who are students, young professionals or amateurs; we were also joined by the Voicelab choir, conducted by Jessie Maryon Davies for this event. The music that featured was by a large host of female composers such as Dame Ethel Smyth’s ‘Serenade in D’, Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ and ‘Revolution’ featuring Josette Bushell-Mingo’s stunning vocals and the song ‘What’s Up’ by 4 Non Blondes.

From my own perspective, it was truly an inspiring night, with some hilariously memorable moments such as Sandi’s masterclass with Marin Alsop, or the conducting relay where students of Alice Farnham’s ‘Women Conductors with the Royal Philharmonic Society’ had the chance to conduct the orchestra for a few bars each. The perfect balance was cast between humour and more earnest moments, such as the profound words Jude Kelly, the founder of WOW and Artistic Director of the Southbank, had to say about her own rather difficult past of being a prominent woman in the arts. Yet more importantly, she proved herself to be an inspiring figure when talking passionately about how optimistic she was for the future. 

Some more of the hand-stitched banners
This message must have been powerful to those in the audience, looking at the huge number of women on stage (over 300) against the backdrop of 50 hand-stitched banners, each inspired by historic Suffragette posters. As a female brass player myself, one of the most empowering moments of the night was playing the ‘Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman’ by Joan Tower, with the brass section of the WOW Orchestra, conducted by Alice Farnham. More often than not I have been the only woman in an all-male brass section, hence why it was most refreshing to play in such a fantastic section made up entirely of women. I hope it proved to those who were watching that women fundamentally deserve equality in music, and perhaps inspired young girls out there to pick up a brass instrument.

After a brilliant evening, there was certainly a positive buzz in the foyer afterwards. Sandi Toksvig managed to leave us all in good spirits, with a fundamental message of hope: that raising awareness is the next step. To quote the slogan of the brave Suffragettes, who achieved a measure of equality exactly 100 years ago with the Representation of the People Act (which gave the vote to men over 21 and women over 30 who owned property), we need ‘Deeds Not Words’. 

So to anyone reading this, I urge you to do something to try and raise the profile of all the wonderful women composers out there, whether it be attending concerts run by organisations who have pledged a 50/50 balance or even by word of mouth – talking about women composers will not only put their names in people’s minds but also will hopefully encourage publishers and concert programmers to promote them to a place where equality exists. I myself will do what I can but the more there are devoted to the cause, the better. To quote Jude Kelly, if you can do anything to promote women musicians: “Pass It On”!

Zerlina Vulliamy, 19, is a writer, broadcaster, trumpeter/singer and composer from London. She is currently in her first year studying Music at the University of Oxford where she produces and presents a weekly radio show on music called Behind the Classics on Oxide Radio: all episodes are available at 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Cathedrals of Sound - a Jack Pepper guest post

Our Youth Correspondent, Jack Pepper - who now presents his own show, Musical Minds, on Resonance FM - has a new article to get our grey matter working overtime on a Tuesday morning. Enjoy! JD

Cathedrals of Sound

Yes, music is majestic. But there is danger in the deification of the great composers. Putting writers on a pedestal serves only to detract from the music and alienate potential audiences, argues Jack Pepper

Music has an immense potency, striking the very core of our being. There is nothing like the thrill of music. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; we know that Bach’s structures are finely crafted, and that Beethoven’s innovations dragged music through a new age. But proficiency, innovation and craftmanship do not negate the fundamental factor that links all of the great composers: their humanity.

Mendelssohn: Bach's prophet? Berlioz thought so...
Bruckner’s music has been described as forming “cathedrals of sound”.  Robert Browning argued that “the grandeur of Beethoven’s thirty-second piano sonata represents the opening of the gates of heaven.” Berlioz believed that “there is only one god – Bach – and Mendelssohn is his prophet.” Whether these statements merely sought to emphasise the importance of such composers in the history of music, or instead arose out of a genuine conviction that these composers were linked with a higher power, the common allusion to God raises an interesting question.

It is curious that we still apply such religious analogies to past composers today, given the noticeable decline in religious belief in comparison to the 19th century, in which these quotes occurred. 
Although these quotations come from a notably different context to our own, we tend to perpetuate these viewpoints. The times have changed, and yet our inability to express admiration for a composer without recourse to quasi-religious language remains. It is (paradoxically) reductive for us to compare a composer with a higher power; it is their humanity that makes them special, the fact that a human could create such awe-inspiring works. When confronted with a masterpiece, we seem unable to accept that its creator was a human being.

Let us explore the opposite instance for a moment. When confronted with acts of evil, perhaps what shocks us most is that the perpetrators were human beings. Hitler’s favourite Wagner opera was Lohengrin. Hitler, whether we like the fact or not, was a human being; that is what makes his crimes so shocking. Yet, like so many significant figures in history, he has become a symbol, an academic discussion, a book title. It seems that the inevitable accumulation of books, essays and broadcasts have transported historical figures into the realm of the mythical.

Perhaps this is a natural consequence of history. When a significant figure dies, studies, books, lectures and documentaries are inevitable, and yet we run the risk of over-analysis; reading about a composer, talking about a piece of music, perhaps we forget that – one day in the past – this was a real, breathing human being, whether we like it or not.

I raise this question because the deification of composers – the placing of great music and musicians on a pedestal – could be a significant barrier to new listeners. As a young composer, I’m determined to share my love of classical music to a wider audience, and yet – as someone who already loves and actively explores the repertoire – it is all too easy to forget that classical music is intimidating to a new listener. With centuries of music - where even a single year contained so much musical variety, indeed where even a single composer evolved through many different styles - it is easy for classical musicians to forget that the ‘canon’ can be a little daunting. By emphasising the other-worldly qualities of a master composer, we overlook their humanity – forgetting that they were just like us – and this may create a sense of detachment. This detachment surely promotes the false assumption that classical music is ‘old’ music, rather than a living and breathing art.

Stravinsky: People should be taught to love music
Photo from Wikipedia
Presenting ‘Musical Minds’ on Resonance FM, I have been eager to explore the anecdotal lives of great composers, emphasising the humanity and reality that binds all musicians together. In the same way I may struggle to be inspired for a piece of music one morning, so too past composers – far more accomplished than I will ever be – encountered similar difficulties when writing. Deifying past writers makes us forget that they encountered the same challenges, emotions and thoughts that we do today. It makes us forget that their music is a response to many of the issues and emotions that we face too. It makes music seem irrelevant when it is anything but.

This means deification of the great composers won’t help classical music engage new audiences. Linking composers to a higher power can’t help but create an image of classical music as somehow lofty, distant and entirely cerebral. Whilst classical music is undoubtedly an ‘intellectual’ art form as well as a form of entertainment – works require repeated listening for a better understanding of their material – we should be wary of shaping the genre into some form of relic veneration, a cult or clique that worships at the altar of those who achieved what we can only marvel at. By likening composers to gods, and by neglecting the fact that even the greats could write bad music, we neglect the very thing that makes this music so impressive, so beautiful, so striking: the fact that it was written by humans.

We live in a world that frequently (and perhaps rightly) dwells on the negative. The news shows conflict, poverty and injustice. However, the world is also full of good. The world is full of musicians who visit care homes, of orchestras who run workshops with the local community, of instrumentalists who visit schools and inspire a love of music in others. The great composers were no less human than any of these modern-day musical heroes. In both past and present, composers have been trying to express important truths, be they personal, emotional, political or global. But high intentions and impressive masterpieces should not distract us from their humanity, the fact that these composers were all human beings like us. Musical masterpieces are a product of humanity; this is something we should be proud of. It is a medal for humankind. Equally, by emphasising the humanity of past composers, we remind new audiences that classical music is merely another form of expression, much the same in intention and origin as great artworks, pop songs and architecture. It is not intimidating. It is a real, human, living, breathing form of expression. An expression of humanity.

Marvel at the “cathedrals of sound” – analyse them, relax to them, read about them, talk about them - but do not forget that a human was behind it. The fact that humans are the creators of music is what makes it so special, so expressive. The human experience behind such music is surely what makes it speak to us? Deifying past masters only serves to reduce this power of their music by distancing the creators from our own lives, making them increasingly irrelevant and archaic at a time when we need their life-giving music more than ever.

Stravinsky would likely agree. He said that “the trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music; they should be taught to love it instead.” Music is emotional, as well as cerebral, and so we should not reduce composers to mere objects of intellectual worship. Music is mind and body.