Britain’s musical culture? It’s at great risk, says George Benjamin

The composer speaks to us about his new opera—and about the sorry hollowing-out of classical music in his own country

September 22, 2023
Blue notes: George Benjamin is distraught at the state of classical music in Britain. Image: Boris Horvat / AFP / Getty Images
Blue notes: George Benjamin is distraught at the state of classical music in Britain. Image: Boris Horvat / AFP / Getty Images

Alan Rusbridger: Why don’t we begin with your new opera, Picture a Day Like This: what’s it about and how’s it been?

George Benjamin: A very wonderful experience because, fortunately, the premiere at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence went really well, and I had the most marvellous singers and wonderful orchestra. And I think the directors did a fantastic job on it. We were supported superbly by the festival at every stage during the three or five years of the process. And on the first night, a strange phenomenon, it went well. Then we had nine performances after that.

AR: Can you tell me what it’s about?

GB: I’d rather anybody who comes to see it drew their own conclusions about what it’s about, because [GB’s librettist for four operas] Martin Crimp and I don’t really talk about that. Though I will say…

It’s the story of a woman who loses her young child. In her despair, she challenges death and is told that if, during a quest that is organised for her, she can find and encounter one person who’s completely and truly happy, and take a button from their shirt and return in 24 hours, then her child will come to life again.

She has these encounters with a whole sequence of people, each very contrasted and each, in their own way, initially seeming to be incredibly happy. And then that happiness unravels in front of her at successive different junctures. And eventually, when she’s almost given up hope, she meets an extraordinary woman who has an almost paradise-like garden and a life of perfection. She thinks she’s really found it. That dissolves when she’s told the truth…

And yet, from this, for all her mystifying and alienating and indeed terrifying experiences at turns, the ending is not bleak.

AR: Quite a lot of what Martin Crimp and you do feels as though it has a sort of fairytale element.

GB: Very much so. This more than any of them. Because if you were to look at how she travels from place to place in these encounters, it simply wouldn’t be possible. And also the strangeness of the encounters and a degree of the magical. I mean, it’s a serious fairytale, but it’s more fantastical than any of the other three.

AR: Is there something about fairytales that appeals to you?

GB: In some ways, yes. I mean, the previous two big operas were not more naturalistic. Far from it—particularly Written on Skin isn’t. But they are more realistic human dramas with a lot of sex and a lot of violence and tragic conclusions. So they’re not really fairytales.

I guess, though, that for me, personally, while writing, if the situations that I’m trying to set to music are day-to-day, in a way normal, I would find it very hard for people to sing. Just the very nature of the song voice—making contact with a word—transforms that word from its normal use. Therefore music is well suited to taking language and moving it a little bit away from reality.

Not very far, not science fiction or pure fantasy. But at least for me, while I’m working, to have some degree of strangeness in the mixture and in the language and in the situations I’m trying to capture… that can be captivating for the imagination.

AR: This setting of texts seems to have unlocked something in you?

GB: Yeah. I always wanted to write operas. Even when I was 10, I wanted to, and I wrote lots of music for plays at school and conducted them during performances. So the theatre was really in my blood.

Then somehow it just didn’t happen for, like, 25 years in my professional working life. I never met a dramatist or a poet or a novelist or a director or a film director who seemed to click with me, and maybe I wasn’t ready to click with someone else.

I also wanted to find a different way of telling stories that didn’t seem old-fashion and didn’t seem artificial or inauthentic to our times. With opera, that was very hard. I’d almost given up by the time I met Martin, and to encounter with him was a very happy surprise to me.

In so doing, I’ve worked out that I compose something like five times faster when I’m working on an opera than when I’m writing an orchestral or piano piece. It doesn’t mean that the process is easy or smooth at all, but it just goes much faster. And I’m able to produce. I’ve written now almost five hours of operatic music in the last… about 15 years. And that’s quite a big surprise to me.

AR: When you look back to the George Benjamin that worked in the opposite way—very slowly—you seemed to find it hard to put the notes down onto the page. How do you see that period in your professional career?

GB: Actually, I wrote very fast then, usually. But to get the piece going, to get it started, to get it cogent and to find the way of writing, it was that that took so much time.

Also, I don’t really see the periods as very different, because even when I was writing an orchestral piece or even a piece for two violas, the whole thing felt like it had to be dramatic to me. I was always thinking about abstract music as a form of opera without words, without characters, but in which the protagonists are the material itself.

Also, I did more conducting in those days than maybe I should have done. Looking back, six months would then go by, in between pieces, where I didn’t have time to compose.

So I’ve been stricter with my time in the last 20 years, and when I get down to writing an opera, I empty my diary for years. I mean, I’m conducting now and after the opera. But when I look ahead, and I’ve got a big opera to write, the world closes down.

AR: You really go into purdah?

GB: I seem only to be able to function when, well, when I’m marinated in a piece, when I’m absorbed entirely in it, when I go to bed with it in my head, and I wake up with it in my head, and that’s the case for months.

So when I’m starting, it’s very hard for me to find the sound-world of any piece and then to find a way of writing it. I know there’ll be weeks and weeks when not much will happen. I allow myself to keep on teaching at King’s College London, and I then will have some conducting interruptions. But once I know… two years or 18 months before the world premiere… I then know that I really, really need to devote myself almost entirely to the piece.

So I don’t go to concerts. I don’t go to operas. I don’t go to the theatre. The ambitus of where I live reduces to about a half-kilometre in any direction. I go for a walk in the Paddington recreation ground, the park near me in Maida Vale, and not much further. And I work seven days a week and every week of the year, and I read a huge amount. I devour books while I’m composing. And only a very few people I will even see or talk to. So it’s very strange, but it’s what works for me.

AR: Explain the link between devouring books and discovering a sound-world. What’s happening in your brain?

GB: To control all the elements of a really big piece, an opera, it needs extreme attention to almost the microsecond, to the detail of what’s happening in the now at every single position along the whole piece. But, at the same time, there’s what’s happened before and there’s what’s about to come on the bigger scale. And therefore the demands on the imagination and brain are very substantial.

And at least for me, because I’m fussy about detail, it doesn’t always function. When it wasn’t functioning in the past… 30, 40 years ago… my morale would sink, and I perhaps try too hard and I get myself into a knot, and knots are very un-useful and can take weeks to unravel.

Since then, I’ve discovered that in quietness, reading a book, reading a novel, reading a book about science, nature, history or music distracts me, keeps me silent, keeps me within myself, stimulates my mind, and—particularly with fiction—can also provoke ideas about structure and about approach to my own work.

But mainly it distracts me in a way that doesn’t make me leave the actual work I’m doing too much. So I can come out of the chapter and then—oh!—the problem has suddenly solved itself.

AR: How has your language, your musical language, changed over the last 10 years?

GB: While writing opera, the most essential thing… well, everything’s essential: drama, timing, orchestra, harmony, polyphony, rhythm… but the absolute centre has to be the human voice, of which I’ve become a besotted fan. And therefore, everything in opera has to, in a way, come from that. And the best way to set and fuse a voice into the fabric of an opera requires quite extreme modifications in terms of musical language from non-operatic music.

The singers need to know what notes they’re singing; not only what notes, but what notes are surrounding them, so they can sing better. If an opera singer is confused by the harmonic environment around them, that confusion transports the listener’s ear within a microsecond, because the singer will become insecure and will wobble to disguise the fact.

It’s basically meant that my harmonic language, in the places where it’s being sung, has had to simplify in order to give the transparency and the underpinning required for the voices.

AR: Is it too simplistic to interpret what you are saying as: when singers are singing, there needs to be a more clear tonality?

GB: No, not that. I mean, my music has not really been atonal at all, even when I started, but neither has it been conventionally tonal. I really don’t like those two simplistic terms. At some points, the music can be, particularly in interlude, very complex harmonically, and at other points in the drama, the texture can be so… I hope… transparent that it can evoke key maybe from time to time, but it’s never in [a particular key or other]. It is not like the tonality of the 19th or early 20th centuries; it’s different. I think it’s a different approach, but, equally, it’s not atonal.

AR: Do singers find them easy operas to learn?

GB: I don’t think so, no. Plus, in rehearsal, I’m very, very picky indeed. So if a note is written as a triplet and they do it as a quaver, I tend to get rather annoyed—in a nice way.

AR: Do you read critics? And how often are they helpful?

GB: If critics and people I trust and respect are negative, that can be thought-provoking. At the same time, I should in a way be oblivious to anything and just do my own independent thing. Fortunately, in Aix, the response from people in the theatre, but also afterwards in the press… I was astonished by how positive it was.

AR: Tell us about the big prize you won.

GB: Oh. I was in a hotel room in Paris preparing to conduct an afternoon rehearsal. And the caller, the very, very distinguished German composer Wolfgang Rihm, says, “I’m here with the committee of the Ernst von Siemens Foundation, and I would like to tell you that you have won the Music Prize.”

People say that it’s the Nobel Prize for music, and it is a big thing, particularly in Germany, which is the biggest country for music in the world. So I was speechless and thrilled. I was the 50th recipient. And the first one was Benjamin Britten, the second one was [my teacher] Olivier Messiaen.

AR: Travelling a lot around Europe, how does the musical culture in Britain appear to you, compared with the culture on the continent?

GB: There’s a big problem. We are facing a very, very big problem at the moment. Big problems.

I’m currently working with a group, the Ensemble Modern, arguably the most important contemporary music group in Germany, and one of the most important in the world. And they form, every year or two, a thing called the Ensemble Modern Orchestra, which is a huge orchestra of 90 people, made up mainly of young people from all over the world. And they go, like, we’re going on a tour with nothing but contemporary music.

But I was deeply upset by the fact that I don’t think there was a single English or British person in the orchestra. This would not have been the case 20, 30 years ago. I couldn’t believe it. It just made me feel so sad.

Also, if I look at the London Sinfonietta, a group for whom I also have limitless affection and gratitude, and I look at their current schedule, it’s been forced to become so small, because of dramatic cuts in funding going back 15 years—and an abysmal slicing off of… to almost 50 per cent of what it used to be. 40 per cent was cut off in November.

Just as I was finishing my opera, most of the organisations associated with bringing contemporary music to life were either cancelled, destroyed or cut in half. The Britten Sinfonia was cut 100 per cent; Psappha in Manchester, a contemporary music group, cut 100 per cent; London Sinfonia had 40 per cent cut off; an organisation called Sound and Music, all dedicated to contemporary music, was cut.

After the austerity of the last 15 years, this means that the infrastructure of contemporary music is crumbling. And then the BBC, probably due to threats from the then culture secretary, started on a journey to destroy its own musical fabric by cutting the BBC Singers 100 per cent and by reducing the BBC orchestras by 20 per cent, which is akin to destroying them; you just can’t do that to an orchestra and expect it to survive.

Now, a lot of these things have been changed since, fortunately. But I’ve been in France for three months this year, I’ve been in Germany for over a month. When I compare the avenues of possibility, the support, the enthusiasm for and the funding for, particularly, international contemporary music, my own country is doing quite extraordinarily badly at the moment.

And there’s a lot of pressure on heads of schools not to give funding to music. Proof of that is the number of people taking A-level Music has gone down 40 per cent in the last 10 years. So I’m haunted by worry—and almost shame, I’m afraid—that the situation has become as serious as it has.

I love the musical culture of my own country and the musicians, singers, conductors and composers. But I think it’s at great risk. I really do.

AR: What do you think it’s all about? The people in charge of the funding bodies and the people in charge of the BBC are reasonably cultured people…

GB: I do think that the previous culture secretary [Nadine Dorries] demanded a movement of funds and the cutting of funds with specific targets in a way that had never been done in the history of the Arts Council. The threatening of the BBC and the freezing of its budget also forced those running the organisation to have to think of some dramatic cuts. So I think there is some guilt specifically in the hands of one person there…

AR: That’s Nadine Dorries?

GB: Yes. I don’t like to go ad hominem. And I would never normally name someone, but I’m afraid that’s the case.

Other reasons. Music doesn’t hold the central position in culture here in the UK as it does here in Germany. It just doesn’t.

It holds a bigger place in culture and in the general self-knowledge, self-awareness of the nation, I think, than it did. And musical culture has burgeoned fantastically in the last century; that’s acknowledged. We’re no longer a joke abroad.

But somehow, within the realms of power, that maybe hasn’t embedded itself sufficiently deeply for people to care enough. Therefore, I don’t think it’s an active campaign—but I do think it's a sorry neglect for the health of one of the great wonders of any nation, which is its music.

Plus there’s encroaching populism. Of course, there’s been Covid, but also—I don’t like to bring it up because it’s a sore subject—Brexit. I know from my teaching in King’s College: suddenly students from Spain, Portugal, Germany, Holland, Italy, wherever, they’re not coming because it’s suddenly much more complex in terms of administration, and vastly more expensive to come. There’s an awful lot of red tape and complexity, making it so much harder for us to go abroad and also for people in Europe to come here.

We have our so-called independence, but musically it means we are an island again, and we feel cut off from the general culture of European music. That’s not good for us psychologically, I don’t think.

I’ve lived my whole life, or at least since I was 14, I think, with Britain as part of Europe. And I was able to go to Paris without a single bit of red tape to study with my beloved teacher, Messiaen. I’ve moved freely across the whole region as if it were my home.

Boris Johnson knowingly neglected this. They were offered some means of making it easier and saving music’s place within Europe, which I think they deliberately turned down. So I’d say the powers-that-be are showing very little care, love or enthusiasm. Probably, it’s off most of their radars.

AR: You talk about populism? Can you talk a bit about what you understand by the word “elite”? This is a word that is sort of thrown around almost as an insult.

GB: Maybe elite, but not elitist. For me, elite means things at the highest level, the highest possible level of integrity and of excellence, of technical competence, for anybody who wants to participate and anybody who wants to listen. For everybody. So, for me, it’s not an insult, at least.

I think the public deserves, and taxpayers also deserve, for their funds to be used for the absolute best of what can be produced. That demands not only people who have talent, but people who are serious, people who have expertise at their craft. That’s the elite aspect.

On the other hand, if education were better, and if there were more energy put into the art form and its propagation across the whole nation, it should be for everybody. I’ve got a festival including my works in Helsinki this November, and this is a country with half the population of London, I believe, isn’t it? The amount of gusto and energy put into music, the amount of pride of the nation in their conductors and musicians and singers, the size of the audience for anything that’s performed—contemporary music absolutely included—the amount of money spent on building a new brilliant hall in Helsinki… it’s absolutely phenomenal and inspirational.

I would like British politicians to look at Spain. There was a rule made when Spain become a democracy that 1 per cent of public funding had to go towards cultural organisations. This has meant that opera houses and concert halls of fantastic quality have been built across the whole of Spain, and from being a backwater, musically, it’s now one of the most active and propulsive musical cultures in Europe today. 

That shows itself in the number of Spanish conductors and singers and, above all, orchestral players. You’d find Spanish people in brass and wind sections 25 years ago—wonderful trumpeters, wonderful oboists, flute players—but now it’s string players as well. Every orchestra that I work with, some of the best players, even astonishing players, turned out to be Spanish. And that’s a new thing that’s happened in the last 30, 40 years.

AR: If you had the ear of an incoming Labour government, what would be the most important thing that you would urge them to do, given that money is not limitless?

GB: Place music in the curriculum, where it deserves to be for children­—and fund it. Let people play instruments, anybody have access to an instrument across the country. Also, have access to hearing our orchestras and our ensembles playing music themselves. That, I think, maybe is the most important thing.

But I would also say that our ensembles and orchestras need proper funding. And contemporary music will die on the tree unless it’s funded, unless there’s funding to commission, perform, propagate the music of current composers and young composers to come in the future.

As for opera, we have, what is it, four full-time opera houses in the nation? And the festivals in the summer. They’re on the way to 30 in France and over 80 in Germany. I think Austria has eight, I think Switzerland also has about eight or nine. And neither of their populations, I think, match that of London – or at least they’re roughly the same.

I’m here in Frankfurt, there’s a marvellous opera house just round the corner. Of course, in Berlin there’s three. In Vienna, there's three. In Prague, there’s three. In Paris, there’s three or four.

And, of course, there’s some great things. Covent Garden remains a great opera house; our orchestras are fabulous still. But there’s another thing, which is that the public schools, which I went to, they’ve seen what’s been going on, and so they’ve upped their game regarding classical music, fantastically putting vast sums in. And so they do it wonderfully.

And what’s going to result? It’s going to be an art form for toffs in the future, like it was in the 1920s.

George Benjamin’s new opera, Picture a Day Like This, runs at the Royal Opera House from 22nd September to 10th October