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Margaret Thatcher, a musical anathema?

It is a mark of the late prime minister’s impact on British society that she inspired more than a dozen pop songs of the ‘spit on your grave’ genre. Loathed by every faction of the Left, she appeared to the cultural establishment as a philistine career politician, who represented a provincial throwback to pre-War petty-mindedness, to Gilbert and Sullivan societies and classical lollipops.

In fact, she was far more cultured than any gave her credit.

She would go to the opera, always paying for her own seat, refusing to accept state charity. When she entered the opera house, various Covent Garden folk have told me, she would be formidably well informed about the plot and cast, and would test members of the board to see if they knew half as much as she did. Woe betide those who fell asleep in her box.

Summers, she would visit music festivals in Switzerland and Austria, always paying her own way.

Unexpectedly, she nurtured a passion for Bela  Bartok. When the composer’s remains were transported from the US back to Hungary in 1988, she drove to Southampton to pay her respects as the ship docked and attend a memorial concert. ‘I have always been whenever Sir George Solti has been doing Bartok,’ she once declared.

On the BBC’s Desert Island Discs in 1978, she chose music by Beethoven, Dvorak, Verdi, Mendelssohn and Mascagni.

Music and art were not driving forces in her life, but she always found space for them.


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  1. MARGARET THATCHER, the then Prime Minister: – “Tell me Christopher, does it hurt having to sing in such a … high voice?”
    CHRISTOPHER ROBSON – “Not really, Prime Minister,…. It’s probably more painful for the listeners in the audience!” (laughter)
    MARGARET THATCHER – “Yes… Yes, … I think I know exactly what you mean!” (smiling cheekily!!!)
    Excerpt of our conversation at the premiere party for “Xerxes”, 1st night English National Opera tour of the Soviet Union (Kiev, Moscow, Leningrad), June 1990.

  2. “she nurtured a passion for Bela Bartok”
    My God. I actually have something in common with Margaret Thatcher.

  3. I suspect that, like a number of other people of a certain age and a certain political disposition, my chief musical association involving Mrs. Thatcher is a composition by the composer Declan MacManus (best known by his stage name, Elvis Costello) entitled “Tamp the Dirt Down.” I confess that I was unable to resist the temptation to listen to it again on the occasion of her passing (I’m not necessarily proud of this, but there you are). What struck me as moderately interesting is how, in the final verse, the rage and bile that permeates the rest of the song subsides enough for the singer to wish the object of his hatred a “long life,” while still holding onto the hope that he will be granted a somewhat longer one, so that he may carry out the funerary act described in the chorus (which, nota bene, involves “stamping” rather than “spitting”).

    Mr. MacManus’s musical tastes are, of course, quite expansive: the “Juliette Letters,” his Shostakovich-inspired cycle of songs for voice and string quartet is worth a listen.

  4. Chevlaier Diddley says:

    Thanks for this, Norman.

    You see, conservatives are human beings. They love the arts, and they have hearts as well as brains and therein lies the crux of the matter.

  5. Remarkable! I can’t say I liked her politics, but the Iron Lady bought her own tickets. A good message, this. In addition, any politician who could express more than general lip-service to classical music–and LIKE the music–is rare. American PresidentJimmy Carter is another. Otherwise, many in Britain or America are either indifferent to such an “elitist” proclivity, sadly.

  6. Graf Nugent says:

    Maggie = Britain’s only post-war Prime Minister worth speaking of, even if her illustrious wartime predecessor would not have approved of my syntax.

  7. DebashishSharma says:

    I am really grateful to you Norman for writing this although The Guardian seems obsessed to portray her as a complete philistine. I never knew about her appreciation of Bartok. It is something I did not know I have in common with her

    Like Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher, changed the country fundamentally. A lot of the economic reforms she carried out were necessary. She made a lot of mistakes (Section 28, antipathy to German unification and a failure to oppose apartheid). However no major political party today would consider giving the trade unions more powers or nationalizing utilities.

    Yes she made big mistakes in cultural policy, most notably in music education. However, would anyone expect Miliband, Cameron or Clegg to call a contemporary composer a great musical figure in public?

    I may be on the centre-left but the failure of the political opponents such as Clare Short to even acknowledge things she may have got right (or things the Labour Party got wrong) is nauseating. Rest in peace Margaret.

    • Graf Nugent says:

      Their refusal to acknowledge any good in the lady is typical of the left: “Either you’re with us or you’re a nauseating fascist”, end of ‘debate’. But that’s another subject, if not website, entirely.

    • Don Ciccio says:

      Actually, Maggie’s antipathy to German unification is in my eyes one of her finest moments. Look how the political discourse have been changed in Germany since unification: you hear less and less about Germany’s crimes in WWII (those outside WWII are not even mentioned) and more and more about “good Germans” and that the Germans also suffereed in WWII. And, execept for a few courageouse people, very little is being discussed about what happened in the former DDR.

  8. One of the songs inspired by Mrs. Thatcher….

  9. Iain Scott says:

    Fascinating! As ever Norman you provide a different perspective

  10. I’m afraid the knowledge that Margaret Thatcher paid for her own tickets to major, well-funded opera houses and European festivals doesn’t change a nasty memory that continues to linger to this day – that of the Thatcher government nearly destroying the Almeida International Festival of Contemporary Music just as it was gaining recognition as one of the best of its kind in Europe.

    The Festival did eventually escape the political crossfire between the Thatcherites and the Greater London Council, but its battle-weary director (the battle having had nothing to do with the quality of the music itself, and everything to do with the imposition of political ideology) left the country and it effectively ceased to exist a few years afterwards.

    The thought of Margaret Thatcher enjoying her operas and symphonies at the same time as the Almeida Festival was gasping for air does not make things better….

  11. Her dreadful politics created a greed society. She should have withdrawn from Northern Ireland, given up the Falkland islands. The Poll tax was one of the last acts of total stupidity.

    • Alan, does the fact that the people of the Falkland Islands wished to remain British and not become the subjects of the invading Argentine military dictatorship really mean nothing?

      As for Northern Ireland, I suspect that she would happily have washed her hands (and Britain’s) of Northern Ireland if the majority of voters in the province wanted to leave the UK. But the majority, being Protestant, did not.

      And withdrawing the UK government nevertheless would have meant leaving the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland to the tender mercies of the Rev. Ian Paisley and his ilk (which could possibly have led to a war between the province and the Republic).

  12. beaumont says:

    Just a small note from central Europe -

    I am a fan of Gilbert & Sullivan societies, just as I have always been a fan of British choral societies. I remember a devastating review by Peter Philipps about a performance of Dvorak’s Requiem – great to read, but I came away feeling a bit odd. Of course, amateur choirs aren’t always the greatest choirs in the world (although, given the right choirmaster some of them can be spectacular), but I always found the idea of people making and enjoying music together uplifting and very positive. The British choral tradition has given the world much great music – and some great singers to boot.
    And G&S even made it into The West Wing and Frasier – so they can’t be that bad!

    I personally always look forward to my stays in Britain – especially because of the choirs and the singing in your cathedrals. This tradition is something to cherish and to be proud of.

    ‘Amateur’ means doing something out of love for it – just compare Thatcher’s list for Desert Island Discs with Tony Blair’s collection. Is there a better expression of the pathetic fear of not looking ‘relevant’, ‘modern’ – or even worse – looking elitist, than the latter’s collection of music?

    It would be nice to know which politicians today would publicly announce that they liked Bartok.
    None, I presume.

    • stanley cohen says:

      “The British choral tradition has given the world much great music – and some great singers to boot.
      And G&S even made it into The West Wing and Frasier – so they can’t be that bad!”
      Thank you for making my point so elegantly – and ironically, beaumont.

  13. She liked Bartok.

    Ah, so I can excuse her for being the root cause of the toilet this state now finds itself in.

    • Graf Nugent says:

      No, maybe you’d like to have a look at Tony Blair.

    • Naughty Nigel says:

      I think you will find that thirteen years of Noolabour has rather more to do with the appalling state of our economy than Mrs Thatcher. Noolabour was lucky enough to inherit a sound economy, but they still managed to bankrupt the country; again!

      Ultimately I suppose it all depends whether you believe that ordinary folk should have to work every hour that God sends so that individuals like Mick Philpott can live a life of comparative luxury without ever doing a day’s work; or whether you believe like I do, that those who can work should work, and should take responsibility for themselves and their offspring.

  14. Reggie Benstein says:

    Are we supposed to be impressed that she bought her own tickets ? Is that code for something or what am I missing?

    • Apparently you are not impressed.

      But it is instructive that with Lady Thatcher’s death we get to see the petty philistines show their true colors.

    • Many politicians in her position (or even positions of less power) would happily accept, or even demand, comps, even if they could well afford to pay for the tickets themselves.

      The fact that she paid for her own tickets may not excuse her policies (if you hated them), but no one is really suggesting that it should.

    • I don’t find it that impressive that someone who got where she did by marrying a millionaire happened to buy her own concert tickets.

  15. David Brown says:

    An appreciation of “good Music”, and a willingness to “pay her way”, does not mitigate the devastation her policies directly caused (dividing the country in half); and her poll tax which was her final undoing was too much, even for her own side of politics. A final comment; who says music uplifts the human spirit and is a civilising force, on society.? She did her best to disprove this.

    • stanley cohen says:

      Sorry, Mr Brown but the country had been divided in half for many hundreds of years before Maggie arose.

  16. I exchanged emails last night with a friend who was at the Bartok concert in Southampton to which Norman refers. It was at the Turner Sims concert hall, which is a raked 400-seater venue. My friend tells me he didn’t notice Mrs Thatcher’s presence at the concert – and that it would have been difficult to miss her, had she been there, given the design of the hall. Is it definitely known that she attended the concert? I ask not in an attempt to catch Mrs Thatcher out, but because my friend is seeking to find out.

  17. Also just wondering why she didn’t choose any Bartok for her Desert Island discs, if she was such a devotee.

  18. Actually, I heard that Bartok did not recognize the satirical intent in the Shostakovich and supposedly did not know the original Léhar quote. He did not listen or like operetta.

  19. sorry, “did not listen to”

  20. I was not a great fan of Mrs Thatcher when she was in power. Having said that, she did something that I miss in politics today and that was sticking to her principles.

    It does not surprise me that she enjoyed music, nor does it surprise me that she paid her way (despite her husband’s money).

    I felt the force of her reforms of the Education System whilst at secondary school and whilst a student. I still believe that it is wrong to saddle Undergraduate Students with debts, and that there should be a living grant for those studying at tertiary level. It was after her time when the Polytechnics were turned into Universities, yet I am proud of studying at a Poly, and that the courses were more ‘hands-on’ and applied to the industries they were serving. There is a need now for vocational tertitary degrees and HND/HNC courses (Graduate level diplomas).

    Having said that, not everyone is suited to a Polytechnic or University degree course, and even though the Youth Training Scheme paid pittance, in retrospect it was the right thing and more emphasis needs to be given to Post-GCSE and Post A level routes into professions and/or the wider workplace. The concept of the National Curriculum again was and still is correct. How it is being inforced is not working. There needs to be greater provision for non-academic students whilst core skills (Numeracy and Literacy) are provided.

    For brighter students, much as there is a need for foreign languages and the Natural Sciences a broader provision of Social Sciences and a sense of purpose in the Extended Arts are important too. It is easy to say, well you would say that, you’re a music graduate, yet when I see the positive effects that drama, music and fine art have in my ‘oh so logical, mathematically and scientifically gifted children have, the need for an extended arts strand to any English Baccalaurate is confirmed. These subjects encourage creativity and empathy: important skills that transfer to the higher levels of Maths and sciences. Mrs Thatcher’s model for a National Curriculum maintained a place for the extended arts until the end of KS3. This is right and it would be wrong to junk this now.

    Economically she got the country back on its feet. The methodology was brutal and she did not compromise. She took on the likes of Arthur Scargill and did not back down. Between them they broke our coal mining industry, but it was not one-sided. Yes, she got things wrong, but she believed in what she was doing.

    Her legacy lives on. There are plenty of positives to admire her for even when one is not her greatest fan. She insisted the books balanced, there was not the emphasis on the ‘never-never’ which has now plunged the country into recession.

    • stanley cohen says:

      An exceptionally well-articulated view of Maggie, Joanna.
      So were you one of her ‘Incomprehensibles?’ – (Goon Show 1958)?

    • There was a wonderful spoof poster made of her and Ronald Regan in the mid eighties.

      Regan as Rett Butler “He promised to take her to the end of the World”
      Thatcher as Scarlett “And she promised to arrange it.”

      It was one of CNDs finest, and yet I can’t help thinking she probably found it amusing at the same time. It was the sort of thing that suited her sense of humour.

      Mrs Thatcher described Neil Kinnock as “The best Labour Prime Minister the country never had,” when he resigned as leader of the Labour Party. Given how heated their exchanges were at the dispatch box, that is some compliment.

      I am almost certainly an “incomprehensible”, although thanks to Henry Morris, I attended a Village College and not a school that turned into a Comprehensive.

      Politically I couldn’t stand her, yet personally I admired her steely determination, her principled approach, and that even when “handbagging” someone she managed to remain a lady.

      • Naughty Nigel says:

        I also heard that the first BBC web bulletin announcing Lady Thatcher’s death reported that she had died following a ‘strike’, but this was quickly corrected to ‘stroke’. I imagine that would have made her smile too. :)

  21. Robin Blonstein says:

    From an American’s point of view, it’s not surprising that PM Thatcher was a fan of Bartok and an opera goer. She seemed, to me at least, a cultured lady…not a brute! I often repeat a quip she made, “Being powerful is like being a Lady. If you have to tell every body you are, then you’re not.” From across the Pond, it sure looked like she was both.

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