If Music Be The Food Of Love

If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.

Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act 1, Scene 1, 1-3

Last night I attended a magnificent BBC Promenade Concert, Prom 17, given by the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington; I had heard this combination before at the Proms and knew it would be a special experience. However, what I did not realise until the end of the concert was that this was to be the orchestra’s final appearance; funding cuts are causing it be merged with an equally fine orchestra, the SWR Symphony Orchestra, even though both have distinctive identities and play different kinds of music.

After a wonderful evening of Berlioz, Beethoven, and Brahms there were emotional scenes at the end when the co-concertmaster of the orchestra, Natalie Chee (an Australian, as it happens), told us what a sad moment it was for them but how much they appreciated being able to share it with the wonderful audience in the Royal Albert Hall, where they had been regulars for the previous six years. As a final encore, and to many tears both on and off stage, the orchestra played Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’; the poignancy of a German orchestra playing such a quintessentially English piece of music as their final act was not lost on the audience. At the very end we stood and applauded for 5 minutes until every single musician had left the stage.

Why am I telling this story on a blog about international intervention? First because it affected me deeply; I was in tears along with the rest of them. An orchestra is perhaps the ultimate expression of a group of people coming together, united in a common purpose, to achieve something potentially great. Its disbanding is therefore inherently tragic. But the added element for me was a huge sense of the preciousness of the tie between Britain and Germany that allows us to stand together to defend things that matter to us – like orchestras, like universities, like international peace and security – in uncertain and challenging times.

Inevitably I see this in the context of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union; the Proms, despite all the flag-waving of the Last Night, is a wonderfully cosmopolitan – and especially European – festival. I wonder whether we in the UK really appreciate what we are giving up by opting out of the entity that has helped to keep Europe together and safe for the last 70 years. Not always in tune, often not keeping the same time, usually wondering which person is the conductor, but always with a sense of the potential to be greater than the sum of its parts. And about so much more than the economics of the marketplace.

A very dear friend, sadly no longer with us, used to say she believed that giving people a love for music was the best way of bringing peace to the world; last night was a powerful illustration of what she meant.