The other day I listened to something or other on YouTube, and a link to Chopin’s Fourth Ballade performed by the Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili came up.
The link was accompanied by a close-up publicity photo of the musician: sloe bedroom eyes, sensual semi-open lips suggesting a delight that’s still illegal in Alabama, naked shoulders hinting at the similarly nude rest of her body regrettably out of shot…
Let me see where my wife is… Good, she isn’t looking over my shoulder, so I can admit to you that the picture got me excited in ways one doesn’t normally associate with Chopin’s Fourth Ballade or for that matter any other classical composition this side of Wagner or perhaps Ravel’s Bolero.
Searching for a more traditional musical rapture I clicked on the actual clip and alas found it anticlimactic, as it were. Khatia’s playing, though competent, is as undeniably so-what as her voluptuous figure undeniably isn’t. (Yes, I know the photograph I mentioned doesn’t show much of her figure apart from the luscious shoulders but, the prurient side of my nature piqued, I did a bit of a web crawl.)
Just for the hell of it I looked at the publicity shots of other currently active female musicians, such as Yuja Wang, Joanna MacGregor, Nicola Bendetti, Alison Balsom (nicknamed ‘crumpet with a trumpet’, her promos more often suggest ‘a strumpet with a trumpet’ instead), Anne-Sophie Mutter and a few others.
They didn’t disappoint the Peeping Tom lurking under my aging surface. Just about all the photographs showed the ladies in various stages of undress, in bed, lying in suggestive poses on top of the piano, playing in frocks (if any) open to the coccyx in the back and/or to the navel up front.
This is one thing these musicians have in common. The other is that none of them is all that good at her day job and some, such as Wang, are truly awful. Yet this doesn’t really matter either to them or to the public or, most important, to those who form the public tastes by writing about music and musicians.
Thus, for example, a tabloid pundit expressing his heartfelt regret that Nicola Benedetti “won’t be posing for the lads’ mags anytime soon. Pity, because she looks fit as a fiddle…” Geddit? She’s a violinist, which is to say fiddler – well, you do get it.
“But Nicola doesn’t always take the bonniest photo,” continues the writer, “she’s beaky in pics sometimes, which is weird because in the flesh she’s an absolute knock-out.
“The classical musician is wearing skinny jeans which show off her long legs. She’s also busty with a washboard flat tummy, tottering around 5ft 10in in her Dune platform wedges.”
How well does she play the violin though? No one cares. Not even critics writing for our broadsheets, who don’t mind talking about musicians in terms normally reserved for pole dancers. Thus for instance runs a review of a piano recital at Queen Elizabeth Hall, one of London’s top concert venues:
“She is the most photogenic of players: young, pretty, bare-footed; and, with her long dark hair and exquisite strapless dress of dazzling white, not only seemed to imply that sexuality itself can make you a profound musician, but was a perfect visual complement to the sleek monochrome of a concert grand… [but] there’s more to her than meets the eye.”
The male reader is clearly expected to get a stiffie trying to imagine what that might be. To help his imagination along, the piece is accompanied by a photo of the young lady in question reclining on her instrument in a pre-coital position with an unmistakable ‘come and get it’ expression on her face. The ‘monochrome’ piano is actually bright-red, a colour usually found not in concert halls but in dens of iniquity.
Nowhere does the review mention the fact obvious to anyone with any taste for musical performance: the girl is so bad that she should indeed be playing in a brothel, rather than on the concert platform.
Can you, in the wildest flight of fancy, imagine a reviewer talking in such terms about sublime women artists of the past, such as Myra Hess, Maria Yudina, Maria Grinberg, Clara Haskil, Marcelle Meyer, Marguerite Long, Kathleen Ferrier? Can you see any of them allowing themselves to be photographed in the style of “lads’ mags”?
I can’t, which raises the inevitable question: what exactly has changed in the last say 70 years? The short answer is, just about everything.
Concert organisers and impresarios, who used to be in the business because they loved music first and wanted to make a living second, now care about nothing but money. Critics, who used to have discernment and taste, now have nothing but greed and lust for popularity. The public… well, don’t get me started on that.
The circle is vicious: because tasteless ignoramuses use every available medium to build up musical nonentities, nonentities is all we get. And because the musical nonentities have no artistic qualities to write about, the writing nonentities have to concentrate on the more jutting attractions, using a vocabulary typically found in “lads’ mags”.
The adage “sex sells” used to be applied first to B-movies, then to B-novels, and now to real music. From “sex sells” it’s but a short distance to “only sex sells”. This distance has already been travelled – and we are all being sold short.