Sensitivity and Satire in Classical Music
Yes, we’ve seen the video. Over the last few days, the classical music media has become aware of a small but telling scandal. A Berlin-based concert curator, dramaturg, and VAN contributor named Arno Lücker published a shred on his blog. The video, part of a mashup genre in which new audio tracks are added to videos so that musicians appear to be playing embarrassingly badly, features the violinist Daniel Hope, accompanied by the pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi. Hope now wants to haul Lücker into court.
At this point, the incident has been widely reported, including on Forbes and Slipped Disc. What’s missing is that the video is genuinely funny, if you can stomach the average American standup comedy routine. Hope gives a brief concert introduction, in which his real words are substituted with Lücker’s precisely timed poop jokes and masturbation gags. Then Hope and Einaudi appear to play something cheesy and incoherent, instead of what was presumably slightly more coherent, pseudo-melancholic Einaudi diddling. It doesn’t come across as grudging or particularly mean, and, importantly, it punches up instead of down.
Soon after publication, Lücker received a cease-and-desist from Hope’s lawyer. Lücker immediately removed the video, and analytics show that few people saw it. Still, the president of Deutsche Grammophon, Clemens Trautmann, called the Neue Musikzeitung, which hosts Lücker’s blog, and demanded that Lücker be fired. (Lücker is now required to show each of his blog posts to the editor-in-chief for approval.) Additionally and by coincidence, Lücker and Hope both curate concerts at the Konzerthaus in Berlin. Though the institution disputes that the two incidents are related, the Konzerthaus declined to renew Lücker’s contract shortly after Hope decided not to meet with Lücker for a conversation in person. Hope’s lawyer recently made a conciliatory statement, but it’s not yet clear whether the lawsuit will be dropped.
Compared to the U.S., German law broadly restricts speech. It’s now up to the courts to decide, as a legal matter, whether Lücker’s video counts as defamation. But this relatively low stakes dustup has implications for the wider world of classical music. That the CEO of Deutsche Grammophon, once one of the most profoundly respected labels in the genre, would ask for the firing of an individual journalist, shows both how far it’s fallen, and that Daniel Hope must have influence at the corporation: He records about a new album every year, usually something thematic and fun, which presumably sells well. They clearly think they need to protect him, but that shows that they are thinking about music, and criticism, wrong.
Hope has shown himself to be thin-skinned before. He once dived into the Facebook comments to call a journalist’s mild critique “clickbait.” Criticisms of his playing seem to get to him, as does the implication that he lacks musical substance. Unfortunately for him, negative feedback comes with the territory of any artistic profession.
We’re well within our rights to say that Hope plays out of tune in this video. Why shouldn’t that same freedom apply to Lücker’s satire? There are many ways to combat negative press: ignore it, laugh about it, fight back. What you can’t do is make it go away. As so often in free speech debates, it boils down to this: People have the right to say what they want. That doesn’t mean anybody else has to listen. (Imagine for a moment that Hope had shared the above video saying, “Wow, I totally messed up this concert.” Wouldn’t that make him seem immediately charming?)
Here’s the thing: it’s possible to be an admired classical musician on the scene, pleasing connoisseurs, and never have to deal with something like Lücker’s shred. It’s also possible to reach a mass market with classical (or almost classical) style music. But you can’t have the best of both worlds: huge appeal without the potential to be criticized and even hated. On his website, Hope describes himself as an “activist.” No activist would ever expect her life to be free of resistance and hostility. Nor would even the average feminist on Twitter. It appears that Daniel has set his hopes too high. ¶