Renewing Culture

Published July 20, 2014


The world-famous musician Lorin Maazel died on July 13th at his home in Castleton, Virginia. Maazel was a distinguished violinist and a great conductor with a profound feeling for the romantic and modern repertoire. He was also a composer, whose opera 1984 gives musical form to Orwell’s nightmare, and shows that Maazel was one of the rare intellectuals who grasped the inner reality of totalitarian government. In addition to his very great virtues as an artist and a musician, Maazel deserves to be remembered also for his public spirit, inherited in part from his mother, who founded the Pittsburgh Youth Orchestra in her adopted city. Lorin Maazel was endowed with the democratic reciprocity of spirit that has been, over the centuries, one of the glories of America. He looked for ways to give back to others some of the joy he had, in his life, received from them. While pursuing his calling as a conductor all around the world, he sought to encourage, teach and promote young musicians wherever he encountered them. Together with his wife Dietlinde he founded and ran the Castleton Festival on his farm in the beautiful region around Culpeper. Young singers and performers would congregate here over the summer, attending master classes, and performing in an increasingly ambitious repertoire of instrumental and operatic masterpieces.

For six happy years of my life I lived near Castleton, and was able to experience at first hand what such a festival can bring to an otherwise isolated community, not only by way of enjoyment, but also through creating a shared sense of the value of being here, now, in this place. In the world that we inhabit live music is a rare gift, which we must search out in the few places where it occurs, and usually at great cost in terms of money, time and travel. To have, within reach of our old Virginia house, a source of musical and artistic life that matched anything that could be offered by the average American city, but in a calm rural setting and an atmosphere of neighbourly goodwill, was a transforming experience. It showed me that culture rescues life, just as life rescues culture. They are not two things, but one, and the divorce between them is a threat to both.

This impression is not new, nor is it mine only. Festivals of the arts and literature sprang up all across England during the post-war period, and today form an important part of the life of rural communities. These communities would otherwise be starved of the social and economic activity on which they now depend. The festivals sprang up not because the indigenous population wanted them but because the incomers brought them. Farmers create the landscape, and it is thanks to the farmers of Virginia that it is still the kind of place to which people like Lorin Maazel will gravitate. But farmers don’t, on the whole, see the point of Brahms or Schoenberg, and apart from Church, bowls and the rescue squad, they don’t much see the point of neighbours either.

The lead in this matter was taken by Benjamin Britten. In 1942, Returning from America to his native countryside around Aldeburgh in Suffolk, he wrote the great masterpiece – Peter Grimes – that invoked the landscape and seascape that had filled his emotions as a child. Britten’s opera is imbued with the rhythms of the fishing life, elevated to a poetic level that they had achieved perhaps only once before, in The Borough, the great cycle of poems by the Reverend George Crabbe, which contained the original story of Peter Grimes.

Other towns have moved in the same direction: Bath, whose music festival was established by the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin, another man of immense public spirit and devotion to the young; Edinburgh, whose festival of literature and the arts served to revive the capital of Scotland in a way that no other industry has managed; the tiny village of Hay-on-Wye, with its book fair in waterlogged fields; the equally tiny village of Presteigne; lovely neglected Buxton in the Pennines, even tourist-crammed Oxford, where the literary festival attracts more people than any lecture in the university.  All over Britain country life flourishes during those short months of the summer in which the middle classes emerge from their urban redoubts to travel from town to town, spending their money in restaurants, and pausing for picnics in the fields. And many of them settle, to be regarded at first with suspicion by the farmers, but usually accepted when they take the trouble to become part of the landscape.

There are those who don’t take that trouble. And this is as true of America as it is of Britain. The Western counties of Virginia were staunchly Republican during the early years of the twenty-first century when we lived there. Each year, however, the incomers from Washington increase in numbers. Andwith their wealth and their culture they bring views about the American settlement that question the values and habits of the natives. This is one of the most troubling aspects of the festival culture. For reasons that it is hard to explain, people who attend theatre, read books and appreciate art and music tend to be liberal. Precisely because their culture teaches them to question, to argue, and to define their views, they cease to believe in objective truth, question all certainties, regard Church going and Bible reading as quaint survivals, and are often unsound on the questions about which the locals demand a rigorous orthodoxy – hunting, for instance, or rodeos, not to speak of the best recipe for squirrel or the way to brew your own moonshine.

Visit the Castelton Festival website if you would like to know more about the program or if you would like to donate to the charity in memory of Lorin Maazel.

— Roger Scruton is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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