With 200 years of glorious history behind it and an action packed bicentenary year in prospect, the Royal Philharmonic Society could easily have held a celebratory launch party where we all shouted hooray at the announcements, got stuck into the buck’s fizz and bacon butties, then headed off with a warm glow in our hearts. But the society has always had a firm grip on reality, and launching the celebratory year in a West End pub on 7 November, chairman John Gilhooly was determined that the party mood should not throw a veil over the elephants in the bar. There is truly a great legacy to celebrate, and a fantastic bicentenary programme to enjoy, but while the past is safe in the history books, the future cannot be taken for granted.
Gilhooly said that in the early 19th century, 25% of London musicians who were successful at some point in their career ultimately became impoverished. Between 50% and 75% finished no better off than they started. ‘It sounds very familiar,’ he said, going on to make a passionate but clear-headed plea for investment in the arts. Nowhere is that investment in greater danger than in music education, and the RPS has loudly added its voice to the call for the arts to be included as a core element of the English Baccalaureate. ‘We should stop thinking of arts and music as an added extra,’ said Gilhooly. ‘History has told us time and again that when culture is destroyed or undervalued, the failure of society is never far behind.’ Let’s frame those words and put them on the wall of the Department of Education.
Gilhooly is no party pooper. But no one is more fierce in the conviction that this is a dangerous time for the arts and that there are things which need to be said: ‘Yes, let’s celebrate our collective achievements in the concert halls and the opera houses and the theatres of this country, and let’s celebrate everything that the Royal Philharmonic Society has represented over the last 200 years – but only in the context of shouting loudly and angrily if necessary to ensure that a really positive and exciting future exists for the arts. We can’t be undermined by a deeply flawed and incredibly damaging policy which destroys the foundation of the arts and the concept of fully rounded education.’
The RPS hopes to double its membership during the bicentenary year. It could hardly have a better rallying call.