Brexit will strike a discordant note for Britain’s musical relationship with Europe

BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Brexit will strike a discordant note for Britain’s musical relationship with Europe

Franz Liszt, the 19th century’s most famous pianist, arrived in London in May 1840 ready to tour the United Kingdom. On arrival, he may have registered his name and rank – a legacy of regulating the flocks of French immigrants who gravitated to “La Généreuse Nation” following the French Revolution – but, in all probability, Liszt was simply met off the boat by his London agent. No questions asked.

Liszt, like other visiting musicians, enjoyed Britain’s liberal “open door” approach to immigration. Then, as now, London was truly an international city. The relative lack of native composers meant that the city was particularly welcoming to foreign musical talent. Londoners enjoyed Italian, French and, later, German opera, and German symphonic and choral music – the best singers and instrumentalists that Europe had to offer. Musicians and composers moved between London and the other great musical centres of Europe with ease.

What a contrast, then, to the conditions that visiting musicians are already beginning to encounter in anticipation of Brexit. This summer, various overseas musicians were forced to withdraw from performing in the recent WOMAD festival due to negative perceptions of the UK and “humiliating” immigration processes. The European Union Baroque Orchestra has relocated from Oxfordshire to Antwerp, and the EU Youth Orchestra has moved its headquarters from London to a new home in Italy.

The Musicians’ Union and the Association of British Orchestras have both expressed concerns over Brexit, highlighting how musicians rely on multinational touring and numerous other benefits of EU membership. And anxiety over Britain’s position on the international cultural stage post-Brexit culminated this summer in provocative pro-Remain demonstrations at the Last Night of the Proms.

In the hostile climate encouraged by Brexit, it is more important than ever to preserve Britain and Europe’s shared cultural heritage and to spotlight the longstanding mutual benefits of easy musical touring.

Welcoming talent

London has a long history of “adopting” European composers. Most famously, Handel became a naturalised British subject in 1727. But the close relationship between British and European musicians really stepped up a gear in the 19th century. A series of transformative technological leaps – the railway, the telegraph, and developments in printing – connected people more than ever before. British musical life benefited greatly from the ease with which ideas could be exchanged.

George Frideric Handel (left) became a British citizen by act of parliament in 1727. Edouard Jean Conrad Hamman

Networks of institutions and ambassadors transformed British musicians’ ability to perform in Europe in the 19th century. Meanwhile, London compensated for a dearth of native talent by actively recruiting foreign artists.

British musical institutions actively welcomed European talent. From their inception in the early 19th century, the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) and the Royal Philhamonic Society (RPS) were at the centre of important continental networks enabling the movement of musicians across the channel. The RAM developed an informal relationship with the Leipzig Conservatory which enabled students to travel to Germany to continue their studies and to enjoy Leipzig’s unrivalled musical culture. Most English students then returned to London; Great Britain’s musical life benefited from their knowledge and the connections they had made.

Key players

The RPS also promoted the relationship between English and German musicians. Several of its most influential members were German (such as composer Ferdinand Ries and virtuoso pianist Ignaz Moscheles), but spent the greater part of their careers in London while maintaining ties with their colleagues at home. The RPS also actively recruited famous visiting artists from abroad to bolster its reputation and keep London society abreast of the latest musical developments. Felix Mendelssohn became one of its most trusted advisers, recommending visiting artists and easing the entry of Continental musicians into British musical life.

English composers boasting European contacts acted as intermediaries between London and the Continent. Composer William Sterndale Bennett was a particularly effective networker. Having studied at the RAM, Bennett had spent time in Germany, becoming popular in local musical circles. Bennett acted as an ambassador for the RPS in Germany, keeping musicians there informed about its activities. He persuaded Mendelssohn to conduct the 1842 season and was also the point of contact for Louis Spohr, one of the most famous composers of his day, when he was invited to conduct the RPS’s 1843 season.

These institutions and their unofficial ambassadors promoted the exchange of musical ideas in the 19th century between Great Britain and the Continent. Publishers, and later agents, were also crucial in enabling Continental musicians to undertake British tours. They had the local knowledge needed to book venues, plan transportation, and manage promotion and ticket sales. Today, agencies such as Visiting Arts, perform a similar role in helping musicians to cross borders. It too, is also closely monitoring the effects of Brexit.

Just as in the past, institutions and ambassadors will have an important role to play in smoothing relationships post-Brexit. And musicians need to be guaranteed the free movement that is so essential to their work. International collaboration is historically a source of considerable pride and success in British musical life. Let’s ensure it stays that way.