Musicians have always had an uncertain social status in England, the traditional reactions varying from amused condescension to mild repulsion. The former was the old class-based judgment on men who had chosen to take up a profession which at best was associated with society women and at worst seemed menial; the latter directed towards brass players from rough backgrounds whose lips juggled pint pots with mouthpieces and not much else. The most respectable practitioners were probably organists, often referred to as ‘funny little men’, but taken seriously. As evidence of the class-based comment, this was Lord Chesterfield’s advice to his son towards the end of the 18th century: ‘If you love music, hear it; go to operas, concerts and pay fiddlers to play to you; but I insist upon your neither piping nor fiddling yourself. It puts a gentleman in a very frivolous, contemptible light…Few things would mortify me more, than to see you bearing a part in a concert, with a fiddle under your chin, or a pipe in your mouth.’But the real gem is the last paragraph which describes classical musicians rather better than the usual stereotypes and clichés:
Professional musicians remain a difficult body of people to classify. They are not posh; they are not detectably from really poor backgrounds; they have known how to work drillingly hard at one thing, sometimes against the advice of their families; they do not expect to earn a fortune but fight tooth and nail for what they do think they are worth. They tend to be plain and undemonstrative, difficult to gauge though easy to get on with, which may explain why they have proved easy targets for people to pin their petty theories on to. What I keep coming back to is the number of talented children, rich and poor, who have been denied the opportunity to develop as musicians, because their talent one way or another has not been taken seriously.To someone who has spent most of his life in their company, that seems a fair description.
Let's listen to some of these plain and undemonstrative, but deeply capable people. This is Julia Fischer playing the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Bohuslav Martinů with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by David Zinman: