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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On the soaring interest in studying music,
and when Wilfrid Mellers met Margaret Thatcher ...
with classical music agony aunt ALICE McVEIGH

? 'Hi Alice!!

A week or two back, I heard from Andrew Street, that Wilfrid Mellers, the renowned English music historian, passed away a few months ago at the age of 94. He was an extraordinary man and without doubt, the most profoundly wise musicologist I've ever met.

Here is the link to his obituary in The Guardian.

I first became aware of Wilfrid Mellers in 1974 when I bought a copy of his book, Twilight of the Gods: The Music of the Beatles. (As early as 1963 he stood out as the first professor of music who dared to speak of the value of their music and to suggest it would last.) But what really cinched it for me is when I read his book on Francis Poulenc (1993). Poulenc has meant a great deal to me over the years, but I'd never read anyone who truly understood his music as well as Wilfrid Mellers. So I guess you could say I sent him a fan letter. He wrote back and told me, of all the letters he'd received in his lifetime, none touched him as deeply as mine. He said if I was ever in England, I should come and see him. I wrote back saying, how about January?

I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of his study (frozen, as I recall), as he didn't have a guest room. The walls were lined with the most extraordinary collection of books and manuscripts you can imagine (and I know those of you reading this have massive imaginations). I perused them into the wee hours of the night.

The most impactful tale he spun was the story of his receiving the OBE from Queen Elizabeth in 1982. As he made his way through the receiving line that ended with the Queen herself, he came upon Margaret Thatcher. She asked, 'And what is it that you do?' He told her he was a professor of music at York University, an author and a composer. Her immediate reply: 'Well, you shouldn't even be here. Music is just a vocational activity.' He told me he'd never really hated anyone in his entire life, but he hated her.

Wilfrid Mellers was often the object of derision among his colleagues for always daring to take musical analysis beyond the sterile and into the realm of human emotion, for indeed that's what music expresses. And he never let us forget it.

' Virginia Kron,

Ask Alice

Alice Hi Virginia,

Great to hear from you again, and thanks for reminding me about this irrepressible person, powerful thinker and wonderful stylist. You were so lucky to know him personally.


Ask Alice

? 'Hi Alice,

Do you keep up with the Chicago Tribune? I found this fascinating. On March 8 Howard Reich (music critic) wrote:

With the economy in free-fall and unemployment taking off, it's no wonder college students these days are clamoring to study ... music?

... Applications are soaring at music schools across the country, often mirroring the overall rise in college enrollment but in many cases surpassing the interest in other disciplines ... Indiana University in Bloomington saw music applications swell fifty percent from 2000 to 2008 ...

But ardor for playing music will not spare students the tough times they are likely to face upon graduating. 'There are just so many orchestras and so many jobs', said Francis Akos, who played in the violin section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1955 to 2003. 'And now, there are many more people who are looking for jobs.'

What do you think?

' D G,

Ask Alice

Alice Dear D,

Well, it is very interesting -- and I'd love to know if this was mirrored in other countries. (We all know how keen the zillions of young Chinese pianists are ...) It does seem bizarre, in a contracting world, where even people with jobs feel nervous about keeping them (and even orchestral musicians in jobs have to fear for their orchestras) that this is the case. On the other hand, remember that, until Autumn 2008, the economy was chuntering along quite nicely, and shares had yet to fall. When the students alluded to actually applied to study at conservatories, in other words, it probably looked to be a very different world.

I'd be interested to read whether numbers of music applicants fall this spring -- or in spring 2010 -- when reality will have hit home. Though it may be, as a Russian friend of mine once dismissively told me, that the West has grown so soft and rich that the realities of life pass us by (which is where the hard-thinking Chinese come in, and take over!) Maybe our 'softness' arises from disillusion with 'sensible' jobs and a longing for self-expression, at least for our children -- though the last time a poll was taken in a top UK orchestra, this was exactly what three out of four orchestra members were missing, and those of us who've been there already know that orchestras don't in fact supply the self-expression those headed for Indiana University now are probably yearning for.

Thanks for the article!!

Copyright © 13 March 2009 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

Ask Alice

Alice's mother-in-law died of a heart attack in the early hours of Sunday morning, a couple of days after this episode of Ask Alice was published. She hopes to return to her column early in April 2009.





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