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Songs of Innocence and Experience

The classical music world tends to focus on its young stars, but as the recent BBC documentary on Janet Baker demonstrated, our venerable figures are an essential part of the community and we lose their voices at our own peril

Janet Baker
Crux Productions

I’m often late when it comes to collective cultural events, especially on television, and so months after my social media timeline was full of admiration for John Bridcut’s Janet Baker documentary on BBC, I have finally watched it.

For those of you who have seen it, I’m sorry for the following tardy reactions; for those of you haven’t, it’s available until the end of January here. Anyone who loves opera and classical music should watch it, and even more importantly, anyone who commissions any kind of classical music content.

On one level, it’s a simple 90-minute documentary about one of the finest singers ever to emerge from the UK. But there are many stories and subtexts – the sacrifices made for art (Baker chose not to have children); how emotional pain informs musical communication (she lost her beloved brother as a child); the demands of being a soloist and knowing when to quit (she retired from opera at 49); the dangers of loneliness (she was managed and supported by her husband James Keith Shelley); and memories of working with legends such as Britten and Barbirolli.

There’s qualitative analysis of her voice – former colleagues such as Raymond Leppard and André Previn, as well as Joyce DiDonato, are played recordings and comment on her technique and skill, DiDonato in some technical detail. I don’t know enough about singing to gauge how hagiographic these tributes are (a singing-geek friend tells me her voice lacked focus) but nevertheless, it’s a fascinating insight into what a good singer does.

The structure is not necessarily logical, there are some gaping holes – no mention of her training, for example – and it dwells a little too much at the end on her social group of Jane Glover, Felicity Lott and Imogen Cooper (although what a great Sex in the City-style show they would make!).

There is plenty of wonderful footage of Baker performing (such as a definitive Dido’s Lament), but the soul of the film is of her talking to camera, openly and frankly, given space and time without interruption to allow for honest self-reflection, detailed insight and personal story-telling.

This shouldn’t feel surprising, but it is. As was pointed out in many of the social media comments, we are not used to this kind of in-depth coverage of classical music these days – indeed of any art form. Even in documentaries about ‘cool’ subjects, we’re usually offered younger celebrity faces with banal soundbites.

Here, though, we have some of the finest musicians of a generation offering their expertise. They are almost entirely women and men ‘of a certain age’ – wrinkles, double chins, skin tags and all, and between them, they have huge amounts of insight and wisdom, as well as some cracking stories (Previn recalling inadvertently taking Baker’s crib notes off the piano; Leppard on how Baker missed the pitch and got the giggles, for example).

As classical musicians, we’re used to learning from and working with older musicians throughout our lives, and yet one of the pernicious elements of our story-telling, marketing and scheduling is that these generally focus on young faces. There are very good reasons for this – appealing to new audiences; encouraging diversity; promoting new talent. However, if we don’t include a long view of music, meaning and of life itself, we stand to lose out both individually and as a culture.

The final scenes feature Baker watching old videos with her husband, who was by then incapacitated by a stroke and looked after by Baker and his carer (Shelley died in June 2019). At first it seems unbearably sad – the ravages of age, sense of loss and sheer ugliness of illness. But as we watch the three of them fixed on the television, we are drawn into the most intimate moments of recognition and love as Shelley responds to his wife’s music and she squeezes his arm. It’s profoundly moving and says such important things about music and life.

After all, the miracles of classical music last a lifetime – the joy and comfort of playing and listening are available from cradle to grave. Of course, we must strive to encourage as many people to this journey as young as possible and use whatever means we must, but we should also keep each other company throughout the voyage, rather than disappearing people when they start to wrinkle.

Of course, some of this is self-imposed. Baker chose to retire relatively early, for which she had her reasons – she discusses the increasing difficulty in memorising music. For instrumentalists, the struggle is more often about keeping the enthusiasm of youth amid the slog of regular practice, travel and loneliness, and I’ve heard middle-aged violinists I once adored sounding bored and disengaged. On the other hand, I’ve heard nonagenarians Ivry Gitlis and Ida Haendel play scrappily but with more meaning in one phrase than a whole season of young stars.

In his song Chelsea Hotel, Leonard Cohen wrote, ‘Clenching your fist for the ones like us who are oppressed by the figures of beauty, you fixed yourself, you said, “Well never mind, we are ugly, but we have the music.”’ Music belongs to us all, whatever we look like, however old we are. So let’s celebrate age, experience and expertise. Let’s make long films about long lives. Let’s hear remarkable stories of longevous artists who bridge our past and future. Let’s ask them questions and hear their answers. They may not be young any more, but they have the music.


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