Illustration by John Watson

George Benjamin: Government cuts are turning classical music back into an art form for toffs

The English composer and conductor on why the musical culture of his country is at ‘great risk’
October 4, 2023

George Benjamin is usually one of life’s optimists. A beatific smile; always ready with a laugh or a hint of mischief; full of generous praise for his fellow musicians and artists. But today, in a hotel room in Frankfurt, he is struggling to put a brave face on things.

In a way, he is thriving. He recently won the prestigious €250,000 Ernst von Siemens Music Prize. He is much in demand throughout Europe as a composer and conductor. On 22nd September his fourth opera, Picture a Day Like This, opened at the Royal Opera House in London. 

But all this is clouded by what feels like a hostile environment for music in the UK. He worries that the art form he inhabits and loves will soon become, once again, “for toffs, like it was in the 1920s, say.”

 “We are facing a very, very big problem at the moment,” says Benjamin. Where to start? The group he’s working with, the Ensemble Modern (“one of the most important in the world”), for the first time has no Britons among its 20-odd players. “I couldn’t believe it. It just made me feel so sad.”

I love the musical culture of my own country. But I think it’s at great risk

Then there are the cuts to so many of the groups he has worked with, including the London Sinfonietta, the Britten Sinfonia, Psappha in Manchester and a leading contemporary music organisation, Sound and Music.

“After the austerity of the last 15 years, the infrastructure of contemporary music is crumbling. And then the BBC started on the journey to destroy its own musical fabric by cutting the BBC Singers (now granted a temporary reprieve) 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.

“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 and the funding for particularly international contemporary music, my own country is doing quite extraordinarily badly.

“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, the fantastic singers, conductors and composers. But I think it’s at great risk.”

He is reluctant to name the main culprit, but it’s not hard to work out which “previous culture secretary” he holds responsible. “I do think she 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. And the threatening of the BBC, and the freezing of its budget, also forced the hand of those running the BBC… So I think there is some guilt specifically in the hands of one person there.”

The first winner of the Siemens Prize was Benjamin Britten; the second, (this) Benjamin’s former teacher Olivier Messiaen. Benjamin’s own music is as deeply embedded in the French tradition as the English one. And so he can’t help bringing up the B word. 

“Musically, it means we are an island again, and we feel cut off from the general culture of European music… I’ve lived my whole life, 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. And I’ve moved freely across the whole region as if it also was my home. 

“Boris Johnson knowingly neglected this… So I’d say the powers that be are showing [music] very little care, love and enthusiasm. Probably it’s off most of their radars.”

For a fuller version of this conversation, click here