'We are the music centre of Europe, just as Vienna was in the 1870s,' proclaimed John Major, somewhat presumptuously, in his election campaign. The truth is that we have been hovering for half a century on the threshold of centrality, but are now in danger of being dragged back into provincialism by a simmering mess of institutional crises.
Official debate on the survival of the Royal Opera House will open on Wednesday at a meeting of the Arts Council, which is faced with a highly critical Warnock Report accusing the opera company of waste and mismanagement. Covent Garden consumes one-tenth of the nation's arts budget and reaches a tiny sliver of the electorate. It is overpriced, inaccessible and unimaginative. There is pressure to merge it with the English National Opera, reduce it to a three-month season or close it down altogether. To save Covent Garden as a year-round international company will take political guts and the administrative guile to reformulate its raison d'etre.
On Thursday night at the South Bank, the London Philharmonic Orchestra will take up residency in the latest episode of a long-running show called 'Superband'. Ever since Lord Goodman reported on the four self-governing orchestras in 1964, it has been received wisdom that London needs fewer ensembles with bigger state budgets. But the musicians who own the orchestras are resourceful and stubborn. Proposals to shift the Royal Philharmonic to the Midlands and merge the Philharmonia with the LPO were bitterly resisted.
The present scenario gives two of the orchestras million-plus subsidies and privileged homes - the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, the LPO on the South Bank - and leaves the others with much less money and second choice of concert dates. Needless to say, the dispossessed are not taking the decree lying down. The Prince of Wales was summoned to the defence of the Philharmonia and the opening of the South Bank season has been curdled by internecine strife. A fifth orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, waits in trepidation to learn whether it has avoided the guillotine of John Birt, Director-General designate.
This is, of course, no time for orchestras to fall out. The box office is poor, business sponsorship is down and recording work has shrivelled up. The Royal Festival Hall plays on average to a house that is less than two-thirds full.
None of the concert halls is up to world standard - indeed, London has not enjoyed a proper acoustic since the Queen's Hall was flattened by the Luftwaffe on 10 May 1941. The Royal Albert Hall, home of the Proms, has stuffed its dome with cotton wool and suspended plastic saucers from the roof in attempts to quell an appalling echo. The Royal Festival Hall inserted microphones and speakers in its walls and ceiling to boost a dull resonance, while at the Barbican there are seats where you hear no cellos.
To compete with Berlin and Vienna, London needs to improve its venues and achieve a consistency of high performance. The city has come a long way in the past 50 years, but for centuries it was the laughing stock of musical Europe: tuneless capital of the 'land without music', George Bernard Shaw called it. The German poet Heinrich Heine said its people had 'no ear, either for rhythm or music'. British politicians showed little sympathy for music, perhaps because its performance times clashed with parliament's unsocial hours. The 1908 Budget, for example, allocated pounds 17,000 to the National Gallery and pounds 171,000 to the British Museum. For music, it granted just pounds 1,000 - to be divided between the Royal College and the Royal Academy.
The London County Council was petitioned by senior musicians in 1898 for pounds 100,000 to build an opera house. It turned them away and spent three times as much on a Thames steamboat shuttle that collapsed in a couple of years.
London's rise began with the recognition that Elgar won in Germany and the creative confidence he revived at home. Holst, Vaughan Williams and Delius flourished in his wake. A permanent orchestra, the LSO, was founded in 1904. Thomas Beecham burst on to the scene soon after, establishing opera companies and orchestras at his whim.
But no amount of new music and institutions could have survived without a change in social attitudes. That was achieved by a 26-year-old conductor at a concert series he began on 10 August 1895. Henry Wood's Promenade Concerts crossed barriers of class and intellect. Patrons were encouraged to drop in for a few numbers, catching the music they knew and liked. Wood mingled popular and progressive works, introducing about 900 new scores to London in 50 years, 285 of them world premieres. He extended the concert audience and broadened its taste to appreciate masterpieces by Schoenberg, Bartok and Debussy that were still anathema in Vienna, Budapest and Paris. On the strength of the Proms, concerts were no longer confined to the fashionable 'season'.
The crash of 1929 threw half the city's musicians out of work, but help was at hand from an unlikely saviour, Adolf Hitler. During the Thirties, many of the refugees from Nazism were distinguished musicians who made vital contributions to British culture. By the outbreak of war, London enjoyed the liveliest musical scene in Europe.
The last two ingredients for world ranking were added immediately after the war. On 7 June 1945, Sadler's Wells staged the first performance of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, an opera that received 10 international productions in the next three years. In the same year, John Maynard Keynes inaugurated the Arts Council of Great Britain, establishing the principle of state funding for music. The amounts the council disbursed at first were modest. Covent Garden was reopened on pounds 25,000 a year and the LSO received pounds 2,000. In 1992, both require almost a thousand times as much in public subvention.
What has happened to music in London is that artistic ambition has run ahead of the political will to support it. A precondition for public funding was that it would make art publicly accessible. In 1949, the most expensive seat at Covent Garden cost 19 shillings (about pounds 14 at today's purchasing price). In 1992, the same seat will set you back pounds 120. Even these prices do not cover the cost of performance. Paying its singers and conductors last year cost the opera company pounds 1.5m more than its entire Arts Council grant.
The gulf between the cost of music and what the public is prepared to pay - whether from its pocket or the privy purse - is widening every year. A symphony orchestra loses pounds 30,000 every time it plays to a full house at the Royal Festival Hall. A new production of Wagner's Ring runs into seven figures.
There seem to be only two options currently available. Berlin and Paris have effectively signed a blank cheque, hoping to recoup the investment as invisible earnings in tourism and international prestige. Vienna, on the other hand, turned off the taps and told the state opera to make do with old productions; the tourists, they say, will not notice.
London will not be offered the first option and would not stomach the second. It has to devise an indigenous solution. And when the arts bureaucrats and heritage ministers run out of ideas and excuses, the buck will stop precisely where it should have started: at the door of the professional musicians who are responsible for present excellence.
It is their self-governing orchestras which, against all financial odds and predictions, have kept alive a vigorous concert scene and sustained world-class standards. London may be forced to choose between the excitement of a multifarious concert calendar or the luxury of a year- round international opera house.
'Music in London' by the author is published on Thursday by Aurum Press (pounds 9.95).
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