John Gilhooly’s 2023 RPS Awards speech

An urgent message about the reach and resonance of classical music has been made at the 2023 Royal Philharmonic Society Awards on 1 March 2023. Below is the complete transcript of the opening speech made by RPS Chairman John Gilhooly, conveying the urgent concerns and convictions of the music profession following Arts Council England’s funding review.

Good Evening. Thank you for coming, and thank you to all our friends, Members, and supporters whose faith in live classical music makes this year’s Awards possible – particularly this year’s Principal Supporters: BBC Radio 3, the ABRSM, PRS for Music, Yamaha, and BBC Music Magazine. And thank you to the Trustees and Council of the Royal Philharmonic Society for their year-round dedication, and to James Murphy and the staff for all they have put into this event.

An occasion like this allows us to send a message to government that we must cherish our composers, our musicians, and our proud musical heritage. It’s been a traumatic few years for live music, and the past six months have made many musicians and devoted administrators question just how much we are valued. Many colleagues are exhausted, and small wonder as we head off crisis after crisis.

But let’s not lose hope. A long view is necessary. Think of the period since 1900. Our four nations’ musical life has survived world wars, terrorism, pandemics and economic meltdowns, because audiences wanted it to survive. There is still a palpable hunger for live classical music from an increasing cross-section of society. A century ago, many of our treasured ensembles and musical organisations didn’t yet exist. Against the odds, exciting new ones are emerging yet. We are learning rapidly and vibrantly how to embrace digital platforms, and Generation Z is listening to classical music more than ever before.

The RPS Awards shortlists - from Aberdeenshire’s Sound Festival to Leeds Piano Trail to Wales’ Tredegar Town Band - are a tremendous portrait of music enlivening the nation.

Yet there is a current tension between the music profession and some key funders, with mistrust and misunderstanding on both sides. The industry feels sometimes that we are being instructed to dilute the quality of what we have to offer. Richard Morrison, commenting on the arrival of the twelfth culture secretary in thirteen years, suggested that she should bang heads together at Arts Council England, as there seems to be an ideological crusade against core classical music at that address. In preparing these words, for tonight, I have sought opinions from many in our community. I have recorded their anxieties and engaged in a constructive dialogue with ACE about the strength of feeling and palpable difficulties moving forward. In this, I’ve relayed huge concern about the fragility of the cultural ecology and the current state of music in the classroom. Don’t get me wrong, industry leaders appreciate the core principles of Let’s Create, ACE’s ten-year strategy. We know some of it is long overdue. And perhaps some of our criticisms are unnecessary – after all, ACE is just as happy to back The Multi-Story Orchestra or the excitingly fresh Manchester Collective, alongside major concert halls or orchestras.

However, unfortunately, there are deep fears. The pressures on defunded organisations have already made headlines, and let’s not overlook those who never had public funding in the first place, nor the many organisations supported for now but already worrying about the criteria they must fulfil by the next funding round. Another worry is that London till now remained one of the world’s cultural jewels, and for the entire nation to prosper we need London to prosper. The levelling-up agenda needs to support equitable investments in culture across the UK but not to London’s detriment. Post-pandemic, there is concern nationally – as all our cultural organisations must pivot their business models to radically-changing audiences’ habits in terms of attendance and philanthropy – that nobody is listening to us. There is huge pressure on individual donors, and Trusts are greatly stretched with every charitable and social cause asking for help.

It seems strange that there has been no refresh or adaptation of the Let’s Create plan to embrace this new landscape and the related headwinds we all face. Some senior people at ACE heard me out on this and I took at face value a willingness from them to listen to these concerns.

It is interesting to reflect on the words of John Maynard Keynes, the first Arts Council Chair, in 1945. He said:

‘The task of an official body is not to teach or to censor, but to give courage, confidence and opportunity…do not think of the Arts Council as a schoolmaster…the artist cannot be told their direction…they lead us to fresh pastures and teach us to love and to enjoy what we often begin by rejecting.’

Stirring words. But too often policymakers today regard artists as ‘creatives’ who can be mobilised to fulfil criteria imposed upon them. Artistic excellence is not something that we should be ashamed to champion. We shouldn’t have to think twice about saying that Bach, for instance, was a colossus, and that his music represents some of the greatest triumphs of human imagination, but in the current funding climate, statements like that seem to be less than welcome, or worse still, even irrelevant.

Of course, we need greater financial commitment from government. But classical music is not simply looking to the future with a begging bowl. We showed through the pandemic that we are central to the wellbeing and prosperity of our national life. The NHS and care providers nationwide increasingly draw on musicians to help in the comfort and recovery of people living with physical and mental health conditions. Look no further than Manchester Camerata, whose dedication to people living with dementia, recognised on tonight’s shortlists, is emblematic of so much activity like this nationwide. But it won’t last, and it certainly won’t grow, if we don’t invest in the musicians dedicated to it.

The arts are central to the international standing, character and wellbeing of the nation and bring in over £110 billion annually to the economy. Looking elsewhere: Berlin – a single city – gets cultural funding of around 600 million euros, while the annual ACE budget is £428 million. Charlotte Higgins aptly called this funding a thin gruel that organisations are forced to beg for. And we all remember ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ that subsidised restaurants during the pandemic. That cost some £849 million for one month alone. If any government, current or future, addresses the awful cost of living crisis by subsidising the hospitality sector, the arts should get a similar deal. At the very least, the government could look for new tax incentives which would encourage individual donors to give more effectively to causes they love.

So how can we make our case in the current economic climate and amid so much global turmoil? Let’s spell out what an ideal world could look like. All young people are passionate about music – and all types of music. Schools are facing many similar challenges to the cultural sector. We need to understand those challenges and address how we can all work together. It’s critical that we talk to young people and listen to their words. We also need to highlight the importance of music education and music literacy. The music of Beethoven, Britten or Caroline Shaw should be taught alongside the likes of Shakespeare, Austen or Bernardine Evaristo.

We need to renew our call to government to embrace the idea of a universal offer, like there is for literature. Rather than attack, which doesn’t get the classical music world very far, could we not come up with a united, tangible, and supportive suggestion from the sector? We should call for every primary school child to have the opportunity to attend many musical performances, to familiarise themselves with music history and an instrument, or to sing in a choir. I admire the rounded-educational model so well-embedded by our neighbours, Finland. Their Art Testers programme supports every child in a certain school year to attend two shows or exhibitions. Prime Minister, it’s not all about maths!

We need to put our hearts and souls into England’s refreshed National Plan for Music Education and similar plans in Scotland and Wales. Although many schools, music education hubs and national youth music organisations do fantastic work (among them, Awards for Young Musicians, nominated tonight as a new NPO), the days of free music education for all children throughout their schooling are largely gone, and investment in the whole system in real terms is at an all-time low.

Numbers of students taking GCSE and A-Level music exams have dipped, but those taking grade exams have increased. This would indicate that those who can afford to go private are making their own arrangements. Music is becoming the preserve of the middle classes, exactly the opposite of what Let’s Create is meant to achieve.

The government will say there is more money for the arts than before, and we are levelling up, with inclusion and community front and centre. There is over £100 million going into music education with £25 million for instruments. Innovative work is still happening, with new creative partnerships being forged. This is true but it’s around half of what’s really needed. Of course, creativity won’t dry up and ambition won’t end. But the expansive and accessible work we see on tonight’s shortlists - representative of so much music-making nationwide and one of the UK’s most magnificent assets - will be starkly diminished. Yet all the work we undertake in our opera houses, festivals and concert halls – including education events for schools and families – could be beamed at very little cost into every classroom or home across the country. A coordinated plan for live classical music and music education from government, led by each of the nations’ artistic funders, is long overdue. Classical music policy and strategy is confused and all over the place – but our amazing resources and talents could work wonders if properly harnessed. In the pandemic, everyone recognised and endorsed the remarkable, uplifting effects of music for people of all ages and backgrounds. From that, the industry has begun to construct a new narrative to embrace great artistic expression from everyone. We should work with all funders to recognise that no artist is formed in a vacuum. It takes a community to build and develop a musician, and we often neglect to acknowledge our own humble influences. We all have our own stories.

My personal gateway to classical music was the Limerick church choir I joined as a child. These early experiences are so formative – if we lose focus on those crucial school years, there is little hope for meeting any diversity target ten or twenty years down the line. It simply won’t happen, and the pressure is placed on classical music charities to fix what is essentially a problem in the classroom. Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare’s triumph last month with the Royal Opera’s Barber of Seville reminded me that he only discovered music as a fourteen-year-old. We have to create opportunities at each and every stage of people’s lives. We reach hundreds and thousands of children as an industry, but millions more are disenfranchised simply because of a lack of joined-up thinking. I spoke to John Wallace, the great musical crusader in Scotland, last week on the day after the Scottish Government U-turned on some proposed funding cuts (although Dundee Council didn’t seem to get the memo), and I asked him what lay behind this. He put it very succinctly:

‘Music runs deep through our Scottish veins, and we have managed to convey our message with passion, and remind our politicians, local and national, emphasising what was at stake. Now, we are all working together on making the most of what we’ve got.’

He added that when he met the late Queen, as the final recipient of her Medal for Music, just a few weeks before her death, she told him that she also believed every child should learn a musical instrument.

Music’s worth has never been clearer. Just look at tonight’s shortlists. They represent an army of music-makers ready to give even more of their remarkable talents for the benefit of society. But we all lose out when they have to fight to justify their worth. We need open, honest, and reasoned dialogue now with government and funders. Following my Sunday Times interview this week, I was heartened when the Minister of State for Schools, Nick Gibb, asked to meet with me. When I spoke to him, we discovered that we are very much of the same mind on many of these issues. He seemed genuinely engaged and passionate about music in the classroom. And he reminded me that he was supportive of the Classical 100 resource developed by ABRSM, which led to the Department for Education’s Model Music Curriculum guidance for schools. He wants to meet again, and I hope the conversation between him and other key stakeholders will continue in the months ahead. Let’s get music in the classroom into every party’s manifesto for the next election. Together we can create strategies we all believe in, that draw the very best from our brilliant musicians to rebuild the nation’s spirit, identity and pride.

John Gilhooly CBE
Chairman, Royal Philharmonic Society
Director, Wigmore Hall