Roger Scruton

The sound of silence

Roger Scruton describes a left-wing smear campaign that has persuaded the Anglican authorities to cancel a tour this autumn by the German conductor Volker Hartung

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The musical profession has never recognised borders. Composers, performers and ensembles have moved from city to city and country to country, learning and teaching, experimenting with local styles, adding to the repertoire and delighting patrons and the public. This cosmopolitanism belongs to the spirit of Western music, which is an art without frontiers, flowing unhindered into every corner of the civilised world. You can put together an orchestra in which no member shares ethnicity, language or creed with any other, and still be true to the spirit of Mozart, Debussy or Elgar. For our musical tradition is a universal bond between strangers. Music is the one sphere in which the EU’s goal of a Europe without national boundaries makes sense — for it was a goal already achieved by Handel, Scarlatti and Bach.

It was in this cosmopolitan spirit that the German conductor Volker Hartung founded the Cologne New Philharmonic, an orchestra of young musicians that has now begun to make recordings under Hartung’s refined and devoted leadership. The band travels from place to place across the Continent, performing in all the venues that would like to hear live music, but which cannot afford the fees demanded by the big established orchestras.

It is enthusiastically received, but that enthusiasm is not universally shared. After a performance of Ravel’s Bolero and Bizet’s Carmen Suite at the Strasbourg Palais de la Musique in February, Hartung returned to the platform to thunderous applause, picked up his baton to begin an encore, and was promptly seized and marched off by the police. This was not the first time that he had been in trouble with the French authorities: a previous concert in Nice having also been raided. However, it was the first time that he had been forced to pay for his popularity with a couple of nights in jail, being interrogated throughout the first of those nights by insolent officers who denied him not only food and drink but also the use of the toilet. Needless to say, for a gentle and civilised person who had dedicated himself to bringing the music of Europe to the people of Europe, the experience was shattering.

What was Hartung’s crime? The allegation, put about by the French musicians union, is that Hartung employs performers from Eastern Europe without work permits. Actually Hartung employs musicians from everywhere, in a job that involves constant travel between countries, a constant search for audiences, and a hand-to-mouth existence from one engagement to the next. Taking a job in such an orchestra is like joining the circus. It is a job that simply could not exist under the terms of a normal German employment contract, with all the benefits and perks that make the employer more responsible for his employee than a husband for his wife. In short, it is a job for free-lancers, and the Cologne New Philharmonic contracts with its players on those terms.

There is nothing illegal in this under either German or European law. Indeed, one consequence of German employment law, with its socialist bias in favour of the employee, is that employment is rapidly disappearing from Germany. More and more Germans are either self-employed or unemployed. To offer regular employment contracts, a German orchestra would have to charge the kind of ticket prices, and receive the kind of subsidies, that would confine it to the big concert venues. Fortunately for the musical life of Europe, there are people like Volker Hartung who look for ways to bring music to the wider public.

In order to obtain permission to perform in Strasbourg, Hartung had applied for a collective work permit for his orchestra, and this had been granted. He had filled in all the relevant forms, believing that he was covered, like every business, by the EU treaties guaranteeing the free transference of goods and services across borders. And it is certain that he was. To his astonishment, though, the work permit was suddenly withdrawn, by a fax received at the last minute, when the concert could not be cancelled. No explanation was given, and the manner of the withdrawal was surely illegal. Nevertheless, under pressure from the 1,000-strong French musicians union, the police decided to act. Despite having maintained France in a state of musical impoverishment unequalled anywhere in Europe, the musicians’ union nevertheless resents the intrusion of friendly competition into its territory. And Hartung was given the full gamut of punishment. Not prosecution, of course, since this would have given him the chance to vindicate himself and to turn the tables on his accusers; but intimidation, allegations, a sustained smear campaign in the press, and a ‘caution’, together with a ‘ban’ on future performances in France — a ban which is almost certainly illegal under community law.

The smear campaign, launched by a leftist trade union, was taken up also by Germany’s orchestra union, which shares the protectionist ideology of its French counterpart. And repeated allegations are far more damaging than criminal prosecutions, since they offer the victim no right of defence. It was the Guardian, notoriously addicted to leftist smear campaigns, that brought the case to England. In a piece of shamelessly biased reporting from Berlin, the paper managed to repeat all the allegations against Hartung without exposing their utter and transparent baselessness. As a consequence, Hartung’s scheduled concerts in English cathedrals this autumn have been peremptorily cancelled by deans who recognise no authority higher than a Guardian leader. One letter deserves to be quoted:

‘You will know of the negative publicity that appeared in the Guardian in the UK on 2 March 2005 concerning the Cologne New Philharmonic Orchestra. We cannot judge the truth of these allegations but —– Cathedral cannot proceed with your proposed event here while these allegations and the associated publicity continue.’

Since when has Christian charity permitted us to act on unproven allegations, or to withdraw our help from their victim? It is surely a great mistake of the Anglican Church to join forces with protectionist trade unions, against the style of music-making on which the Church itself depends. Through the Three Choirs Festival and the weekly engagement in music-making, the cathedrals have shown how to keep a musical culture alive by involving amateurs and professionals on an equal footing. At Malmesbury Abbey once a year, the Ukrainian Boyan Ensemble sing the sacred music of the Orthodox Church. They travel from church to church, charging £2,000 a time, and for that price affordable tickets are available to local music lovers and money is still raised for charity. Such peripatetic musicians exemplify Hartung’s philosophy, and it would be shameful of the Anglican Church to spurn him, simply because journalists have sided with those who wish both to monopolise live music and also to keep it to themselves. Or are we to look forward to a time when the cathedral choirs are unionised, and when all music in church is governed by the equivalent of German employment law, with a pension for life for every choirboy when his voice breaks?