Let us Despair No More – A Reply to Laurence Hughes

Let us Despair No More – A Reply to Laurence Hughes

By Duncan Whitmore

In a recent guest article for Free Life, the composer Laurence Hughes lamented, on his seventieth birthday, his relative lack of success in a culture that is waning in appreciation for the kind of art he has dedicated his life to producing:

The disappointment and disillusionment is now complete. As far as I am concerned, there is nothing left to aspire to or strive for. I just can’t be bothered any more. I have had enough. What a massive waste of time and energy!

Such disappointment and disillusionment is, needless to say, compounded by the more perceptible, material degradations of our society Hughes reels off within the article:

[W]e now have a ‘banana monarchy’ in which increasing surveillance and ‘social credit’ measures are dominant, everything is run by an unaccountable liberal-left ‘technocrat’ elite, and where opening your mouth if you have ‘incorrect’ views risks ruining your life.


I have watched my country become a ghettoised, divided society full of half-educated, obese, obedient, brain-dead sheep who merely live to consume, believe everything they hear in the media, and are quite happy – even eager – to have their basic civil and human rights trampled under foot, in return for ‘safety’ and instantaneous Amazon deliveries. It is a country in which I now feel a complete stranger most of the time.

In response to this, one has to agree that it is difficult, within the relative myopia of our own experiences, not to become disheartened by the state of the world – particularly when we are forced to behold a retrogression of a once great civilisation into something far more barbaric.

However, I am here, in this short piece, to suggest to Mr Hughes (and to everyone else dogged by such feelings) that any strides taken towards preserving our civilisation in no way amount to a “futility of human effort”.

Although anyone can leave a legacy, it’s fair to say that the material achievements of most of us – however valuable they may have been at the time – will go with us to the grave. Hughes, however, is among that vanishingly small number of human beings whose work will still be here, decade after decade, century after century, well into the future. As such, his creations stand to be enjoyed not only by his contemporaries, but by countless generations not yet born.

Thus, for one thing, Hughes has a shot at having his achievements assessed and reassessed continually into the future. Posterity has a habit of making that judgment rather differently from how inventors, theorists, artists, authors, poets, composers and so on were appreciated in their own lifetimes. Those who were lucky enough to have enjoyed wealth and fame personally can be forgotten within a generation of their deaths. On the other hand, those who faced a lifelong struggle for income and recognition can be catapulted to the height of popularity and renown long after they have departed this world – even if their work has to be dug out of a thick layer of dust.

Examples abound in the field of composers alone. During their lifetimes, the music of Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach (1714-88) and his younger brother, Johann Christian (1735-82), eclipsed that of their father, Johann Sebastian (1685-1750) – and, to a large extent, each experienced more fame and success than the elder Bach. Indeed, Johann Christian – “the London Bach” – was appointed music master to Queen Charlotte (consort of George III), with his works premiered at the heart of London high society in Mayfair. However, following a revival initiated largely by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47), the elder Bach is now dominant through his recognition as one of the greatest of all composers; the music of his sons, on the other hand, is heard comparatively less often. Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) was once one of the most revered composers throughout all of Europe; but in tandem with the ascension of his contemporary, Mozart (1756-91) – who died destitute, buried in a common grave – the name of Salieri has declined to relative obscurity. However, the popularity of Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus – a heavily fictionalised account of the rivalry between the two composers – has led, in turn, to something of a Salieri revival. How far might this resurrection grow nearly three-hundred years after his death? Georges Bizet (1838-75) died too young to see his Carmen go on to become possibly the finest and most popular opera ever written. And finally, the symphonies of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) – who was more well known as a conductor during his lifetime – did not even begin their movement towards the epicentre of today’s concert repertory until decades after his death.

It’s true, of course, that the achievement of success while alive on the one hand, and of a durable legacy on the other, are not entirely mutually exclusive. Again, of composers, we might cite George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) – whose estate amounted to the equivalent of some £20,000 (2022: £3 million) – as the most obvious example of one fortunate enough to have accomplished both. The point is that one is far from determinative of the other, and, indeed, a long lasting impact is likely to be somewhat reliant upon eschewing popular or passing fashions and consensuses.

These comparisons do not mean to assume, of course, that Mr Hughes has necessarily matched the creative genius of these greatest of all composers. Perhaps he is good, perhaps he is not so good, or may be he really is one of those rare artists of astonishing accomplishment (one can attempt a judgment in that regard through following the link he has provided.) But the question is beside the point, for there is a more fundamental reason to believe that it is his efforts alone that are the most vital aspect.

Whether or not people are prepared to acknowledge it, truth does not change with the passing of time. For instance, two and two will always equal four; water will always be liquid at standard room temperature/pressure; the generation of wealth and a generally higher standard of material living are impossible to achieve without strong rights to private property and free exchange. The fact that people may not wish, at any given moment, to acknowledge these truths – up to the point of arranging their lives in complete denial of them – does not cause them to become untrue. In fact, the greater the unwillingness of people to see the truth, the more important it is for the few retaining fidelity to shout it as loud as they possibly can.

Similarly, while artistic and creative achievements are subject to the vagaries of changing subjective taste, it is undeniable that there is a significant, long-standing measure of objectivity when it comes to matters such as beauty, craftsmanship, refinement and talent. Even a casual observer from a dumbed down population is able, for instance, to distinguish a good painting from a bad one, and, further, a very great painting from one that is merely good, regardless of any ability to articulate that judgment in detail.

In fact, I would say that one of the hallmarks of an accomplished culture is that its achievements are difficult to attain but are open to wide appreciation. In contrast, works that can be deemed the pinnacle of artistic and cultural achievement today often seem to be easy to produce, while grasping the psychobabble that “inspired” them remains the preserve of a small elite.

Critically, however, the fact that so much that is objectively good is discarded while so much that is abject rubbish is celebrated does not mean that the former ceases to be good and that the latter ceases to be trash.

To the extent that Hughes has endeavoured to preserve and refine the levels of artistic brilliance dictated by these objective standards – handed down to us by generations – that alone is his great achievement. It is not his fault if today’s audience has not been prepared to listen.

Similarly, as I pointed out in a recent article, one of our primary tasks as libertarians is to preserve and develop the knowledge and ideas that have been handed down to us by the great minds of the past. We should, of course, attempt to make as many concrete achievements as we can towards building a freer world in the here and now. But our highest priority must always be to ensure that what we know to be both true and good is left, ready and waiting, for an era in which people are more willing to hear it. Receptiveness to change and to fresh ideas is something which comes along only every few generations or so – and, given the manifold failures of statism that are now finally starting to unravel, we may arrive at that point again very soon. When there is hunger for new ideas, we must ensure that the library of freedom remains full. The work of Laurence Hughes is the cultural companion of this vital task.

When the light is bright, there is little need to shine a torch; it is when the world is dark that the flames need to be kept alight. Further, regardless of whether one succeeds in shining brightly as a beacon of indisputable genius, or barely manages to light a tiny candle, the effort alone is what matters. For even the smallest of our own flames can ignite a roaring fire in others.

Let us not, therefore, lament the darkness, but celebrate our efforts in showing the light.

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  1. This essay chimes with some recent musings of my own. I have been a devotee of Bruckner’s symphonies since I first encountered them some sixty years ago (when we still had the BBC Third Programme as a cultural force for good).
    You may like Bruckner’s symphonies or you may not. But you cannot deny that it must have taken a tremendous amount of effort to create them and commit them to paper.
    I am today in the astonishingly privileged position of having all of Bruckner’s twenty-odd symphonies (numbered 0-9!) available to my ears at will, at the mere click of a mouse.
    But what if I had lived a century or so ago? Would I even have heard of Anton Bruckner? If I had heard the name, what would I have heard? That here was a composer who wrote impenetrable, un-playable symphonies that went on forever, where, on the rare occasions a performance (of one of the few that were actually published) was attempted, audiences would often cat-call or walk out part-way through?
    Would I even have had an opportunity to hear a performance of one of these works? Most were un-published a hundred years ago, and there were no such things as ‘recordings’. I believe the only way it would have been remotely possible for me to experience a Bruckner symphony would have been in the form of a piano reduction (and it would take a brave pianist indeed to attempt such a task). In short, I very much doubt that I would ever have heard a note of Bruckner’s music in my lifetime.
    Which prompts me to ask why Bruckner ever bothered to go to all the trouble of writing symphonies in the first place. He himself would probably never have heard them performed, and if they were performed, the result was usually mere humiliation.
    But having given birth to these great works, they cannot be destroyed. They will exist – and be appreciated – for as long as humanity exists.
    What would Bruckner have made of the world we now live in, I wonder?

  2. I generally applaud your sentiments, but it is impossible to ‘show the light’ through music if the music is not performed and heard. The whole point of my piece was to explain that if you belong to the category of ‘old, white male composer’ it is almost impossible to get your music heard in modern Britain. Scores are not music – they are simply sets of instructions for creating music.

    • Symphonies can remain unplayed, plays may never be staged, and paintings can gather dust in attics. Even books, assuming they are published, will never be read unless they are picked from the library shelf. The struggle to be seen and heard is universal.

      The attitude we should take towards our contemporary struggles in this regard is precisely the point of this article.

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