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"Better to remain silent ..."

For the blissfully unaware, Simon Heffer is a historian, journalist and political commentator. He also entertains pretentions to being an arts critic, his views on related subjects often appearing in a weekly column in the ‘Review’ section of the Saturday Daily Telegraph, opinions that not infrequently reveal Heffer to be an egregious cultural snob. He consistently returns to two topics in particular: British films of the 1940s to 60s, preferably black and white, which Heffer finds in general far superior to anything produced subsequently, and the music of forgotten British composers of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including a fashionable nod in the direction of women. Particularly in the case of music, that in question is generally ‘great’, ‘shamefully neglected’ or some such epithet employed to convey to poor deprived souls just what they are missing.

Now, there is of course nothing intrinsically wrong with such enthusiasms, though one might hazard the suggestion that they are of the kind more usually associated with those of less mature years than Mr Heffer. However last autumn he obviously decided that he was being insufficiently controversial and so wrote a piece designed to arouse more interest. Headed ‘Mozart, schmozart – I wouldn't mind if I never heard any music from before 1800 again’, Heffer made absolutely clear that his intention was an adolescent desire to shock by adding a subheading,

‘Prepare to be horrified’. The nub of his piece, ostensibly observations on one of those rather superfluous books in which the author tells us which 100 pieces of music we cannot live without, came when he has able to let his hair down on the subject of pre-nineteenth century music:

Bach I find almost entirely tedious; Vivaldi belongs in an Italian restaurant; Mozart, with all his aspects of a court prostitute, I can’t stand […] Haydn (who is nearly Beethoven) I find impressive, but that is as far as I would go.

Rather than causing outrage, such observations tell us far more about Heffer himself than they do about the composers he seeks to denigrate. It might I suppose be of some interest to enquire of him what he means by the silly observations regarding Mozart’s, ‘aspects of a court prostitute’ or how poor old Haydn is ‘nearly Beethoven’. But here I have to confess to having at the time succumbed to the temptation of having directly contacted Heffer to give him my views on his deep musical insights. Predictably I received a response as overflowing with arrogance as might be expected from this pompous man.

Having established his credentials as a courageous anti-Mozartian campaigner, Heffer recently decided to return to the attack. His target on this occasion was more specific. Using the Garsington Opera production of Così fan tutte as his pretext, his piece carried the banner heading, ‘Can Garsington’s top-class production of Mozart’s most Carry On-like opera save it from cancellation?’ We’ll give Mr Heffer the benefit of the doubt and assume he was not responsible for the exquisitely inelegant English, but he cannot be forgiven the ignorance of incorrectly referring to the opera as Così Fan Tutte. ‘Così’, he presumptuously informs his readers, ‘is a work that not even Mozart’s greatest admirer would claim is his best: it has an absurd plot and pleasant but largely unmemorable music’. Well, I know of several Mozart experts and enthusiasts who while not necessarily using the word best, would certainly place Così among the works occupying something close to the pinnacle of his output. Like so many with little or no understanding of the objectives of seventeenth and eighteenth opera, Heffer fails to recognise that the plot is little more than a peg on which to hang a text that allows for examination of the emotions of the opera’s characters. In the case of Così the dangerous experiment with feelings leads to a profound and shattering conclusion for one pair, confusion for the other.

Mr Heffer, a self-declared life-long feminist, then addresses the central tenet of his argument against Così. This is of course the fashionable woke-infested contention that the opera is misogynistic. ‘One wonders’, he asks, ‘how long it will be before Così is cancelled: its title translates as “all women are like that”; in other words fickle to the point of unfaithful’. The last sub-clause is pure interpretation, the Italian being more nuanced and better rendered in English as ‘so do they [feminine] all’. More importantly Heffer again betrays his lack of understanding of the period (remember this is the man that would not care if he never heard any music composed before 1800 again) by being oblivious of the fact that accusations of fickleness and unfaithfulness by all members of both sexes were commonplace in eighteenth-century drama, particularly comedy. Heffer might with advantage devote some of his spare time to reading, for example, the plays and opera libretti of Carlo Goldoni, though doubtless eighteenth-century literature is as taboo to him as the music.

Finally, may I suggest to Heffer that in future he concentrates on the era that is central to his interests and studies. His views on Mozart or Bach are of no interest, let alone value, to anyone other than himself. He should recall that he is in the highly privileged position of having a national outlet in which to express his views. Use it more wisely, Mr Heffer.

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