On the first night of the 2017 BBC Proms, the pianist Igor Levit pointedly performed a transcription of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, aka the European anthem, as an encore, while sporting a European flag. On the fourth night, the conductor Daniel Barenboim made a barely disguised anti-Brexit speech from the podium voicing “human concern” about the rise of isolationism and nationalism. Britain’s most important classical music festival seems to be doing a Glastonbury. What’s going on?
Before the tabloids seize on such events to rail again against the BBC and global liberal luvviedom, remember two things. First, the Proms are no stranger to political controversy. Most of that centres on the jingoism of the Last Night, but politically charged concerts have included a Soviet orchestra playing on the night that Russian tanks rolled into Prague in 1968 and, more recently, protests against the Israel Philharmonic. Second, political gestures at classical and even rock festivals are still an exception. So the fact that these things are happening now may be telling us something worth thinking about.
Music transcends politics but music and musicians are not unpolitical. Brexit is a source of dismay, here and elsewhere. It is naive to think concerts will not reflect that. We should keep our ears open and listen.