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Needs no handle to its name!- Arthur Butterworth

Years ago there was a familiar poster on the hoardings advertising "Exide" car batteries. It showed a battery and by the side of it lay an old-fashioned starting-handle. This was of the type that used always to be provided in the tool kit of every car, since batteries fifty years ago were not as efficient as nowadays, and electronic ignition did not exist. The appearances of new models of cars with transverse engines perhaps around the very early 1950s, precluded the use of a starting handle. How would one crank the engine anyway – would it work through one of the front wheels? So starting handles became obsolete.

One of the greatest of 19th century concert organists was William Thomas Best (1826-1897), famed for his recitals at St. George’s Hall, Liverpool and associated with the great Handel festivals in London. He gave the opening recital on the Royal Albert Hall organ in 1871; and was regarded as "the best" of all organists of Victorian times – and he knew he was! At a time when the cathedral organist was regarded as the most academically knowledgeable of all musicians, invariably holding a doctorate in music, along with the de rigueur requirement of a Fellowship of the Royal College of Organists (FRCO) it was the custom at those august oratorio performances to print on the front cover of the programme:….."at the organ: Dr James Bloggs, FRCO, ARCM, LRAM,"… Whereas the soloists, conductor, chorus-master, and leader of the orchestra would simply appear as; Gladys Smith – soprano, Miss Hoot – contralto, ... and so on.

In the early 1900s Elgar had been prevailed upon, and had reluctantly accepted the first professorship of music at Birmingham University. The audience for his first public lecture included all the great and the good of musical society at the time; not least Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), that august Professor of Music at Cambridge, who, along with that other great figure in English music, Sir Charles Hastings Hubert Parry (1848-1918) - he of Jerusalem fame – Professor of Music at Oxford. Both these two gentlemen were the leading composers of the day and were highly regarded in academic circles and indeed by the musical public at large, especially in the field of oratorio. Elgar set the cat among the pigeons by his attitude towards academicism. As a consequence he called down upon himself the undying wrath of Stanford. Elgar, a self-taught outsider, had demonstrated that the genius for music does not depend on a rigid academic upbringing, and that creative artists need no such academic laurels – no "handle to his name".

Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and most certainly Berlioz and Debussy were anything but academic, and in our own time Walton and Britten could hardly have been said to be pillars of the academic establishment, sporting doctorates though these might certainly have been accorded to them later honoris causa. It is also true of executant musical performers. It was at one time the custom on printed programmes and in "Radio Times" to print:- "Conductor - SIR Adrian Boult" or "SIR Henry Wood", but distinguished, knighted British conductors have hardly ever been accorded such august titles when their names are printed on concert programmes abroad. Nowadays in Germany it is simply: "Simon Rattle" or "Colin Davis" – never the pedantic: "Sir Colin Davis, ARCM" although that is what he might claim as having been his academic entitlement. As a young man I knew a youth of my own age who was a fair to moderate pianist of about Grade 5 or 6 standard, he won dozens of cups and medals al local music festivals. He was forever boasting of his achievements and would seek to impress his friends with the notion that he would inevitably become a celebrated musician to be looked up to "when I get my cap & gown". This was delusion. Mere academic qualification - and certainly the ostentatious flaunting of it - does not guarantee such elevated status in the eyes of society. It more often than not indicates a rigid pedantry and self-conscious anxiety that one needs to tell everyone how good one is! As William Best, the organist knew, there was no need to tell everybody how good he was, it was obvious, he "needed no letters after his name" – his name was good enough in itself.

Now, society has changed: in all vocations it is necessary to acquire qualifications; whether it be medicine, engineering, accountancy, science, education, media studies, politics or whatever, applying for a job, and especially going for an interview, when compiling a CV it is de rigueur that one is qualified. But this hardly concerns the public face of the arts. Concert-goers do not need to be told on the printed programme that the conductor or soloist has a diploma or doctorate. Actors do not proclaim on the bill-board of the theatre that they have a diploma from RADA or some other school of drama, nor do world-class concert pianists or celebrated conductors announce on the printed programme: "Henry Bloggs, Mus.Doc, ARCM, LRAM, solo violin" or the conductor: "Dr. Sir Timothy Bonks, MA, D.Phil, LRAM, LTCL. ARAM (hons). This is ostentatious pedantry, reminding one of those earnest learned introductions one sees in miniature scores of the great classics: "Herr Professor Dr Wilhelm Zeitgeist".

Well, maybe the intellectual investigation such academic insight requires is the right place to flaunt one’s qualities, but practical performers have no need of this. It is out of place and suggests the person concerned is merely too full of his own importance. It more often makes the audience faintly derisive at the pedantic way the "artist" perceives himself when he insists on always being regarded or addressed as "doctor" this or "doctor" that. It suggests he does not regard his name as being celebrated enough without having to be bolstered up by listing his academic achievements. It perhaps even indicates a lack of self-confidence.

Lest this be thought "sour grapes" at lack of such paper qualification in myself, this true story must end this little observation:

As a music student I too aspired to getting the high-sounding social distinction of the title "Doctor". I had two professors at college. One was a doctor of music who possessed the diplomas of FRCO, LRAM, Hon TCL. He instructed me in formal harmony and counterpoint, but he was rather rigid in his outlook on the art of music. The exercises I did for him were regarded in a rigid, unimaginative, pedantic way. My other teacher had just an ARCM on the cello. He taught me composition. Now the august "doctor" is long-since gone, but the unassuming teacher who really taught me the art of music became distinguished for his originality and far-seeing imagination and for having stimulated and encouraged his students not to be hide-bound by the dictates of conventional academicism. He stimulated the imagination of some of Britain’s now most celebrated composers. This teacher held pedantic "degrees and diplomas and such like" in derision. He regarded them as signifying little if anything of true musical worth. If you’ve got it in you, you don’t need constantly to tell the world; your name should be distinction in itself. So I chose NOT to burden myself with all these "letters after my name" and I’ve never regretted taking his advice.

Arthur Butterworth

May 2006


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