We Americans like to think we have no social classes. The founders of the new nation forbade all titles of nobility, and we have taken that idea and run a long way with it. Imagine if contemporary customs of affected egalitarianism had been in place when the Federalist papers first appeared: Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison would have appeared on the Sunday morning talk shows with name tags proclaiming “Hi! I’m AL!” “Hello! I’m JIM!” “Hey there! I’m JOHNNY!”
(An aside: this posting is really about extraordinary music that you can stream on line. Bear with me and I’ll get there shortly.)
Back in the lands of the Crown from which the colonists rebelled, no such pretense prevails today. The most popular British exports on the telly are ones in which snooty landed gentry lord it over their servants, who actually pull their masters’ puppet strings at will. Acres of ink have been devoted to the proper way of addressing a young couple who skedaddled to California to get some distance from his royal granny. After their recent tell-all interview on American television, the onetime Crown Prince may have earned a new sobriquet: His Disloyal Highness.
Allow me a personal story. When the distinguished British philosopher Anthony Kenny participated in a conference at Calvin College in the 1970s, he extended a cordial invitation to this philosophy undergraduate to pay him a visit should I have reason to visit Oxford. Some months later, taking the invitation more seriously than he probably intended, I asked the porter at Balliol College where I might find “Professor Kenny.” He showed me the way to the rooms of – ahem, with emphasis – “Dr. Kenny,” who received me warmly. In British academia the title “professor” is not promiscuously bestowed on someone who, like Dr. Kenny, had only four or five major monographs to his name. Today I would need to address him as Sir Anthony, the Queen having named him a Knight Bachelor in 1992.
(And what about the music? I am just coming to that.)
One of the effects of the virus still rampaging around the globe has been a great flowering of music via video streaming. One of the most exquisite treasure boxes of all emanates from Wigmore Hall in London, one of Europe’s most renowned recital venues. Unable to invite a live audience, the hall’s management has instead made its solo and chamber programs – fifteen of them in February alone – available to viewers and listeners around the globe.
I have barely skimmed the surface but already have been able to listen to an intimate sampling of pianist Andras Schiff’s favorite Bach works, the Dover Quartet in sensitive readings of Mozart and Beethoven, a delectable program (excuse me, programme) of Renaissance viol music by Fretwork, and a virtuosic recital of Russian and Czech sonatas by cellist Stephen Isserlis and accompanist Mishka Momen.
Each performance is streamed live, then archived for thirty days. Filmed in a small hall renowned for the clarity of its acoustics, the video and audio quality are top-notch. All events are available without charge, live or from the archive, both on the Wigmore website and on Youtube, but contributions are invited. The appeal is very understated, very British, and for that reason impossible to ignore. No endless hours of pledge week blather for these chaps.
Viewers are also invited to sign up for updates on forthcoming events. In the March line-up are pianist Kirill Gerstein, tenor Ian Bostridge, countertenor Iestyn Davies, The English Concert, and the vocal ensemble Tenebrae.
(In just a moment the two strands of this essay will converge at last. Thank you for your patience.)
Filling out an on-line form on an American website, one is often invited to select a title: “Mr., Mrs., or Ms.?” There may be a few more options for doctors and professors, and for those of the cloth there is “Rev.,” an honorific that has lost its requisite definite article on our side of the ocean.
For the webmasters at Wigmore Hall, this is far too coarse-grained. Invited to “select a title,” all of the above are available but this is only the beginning of the beginning. For churchmen and churchwomen the choices include “Reverend,” “The Very Reverend,” “Monsignor,” “Father,” “Brother,” “Sister,” “Canon,” and “Cantor.” Or one may choose “Bishop,” “Cardinal,” or “Rabbi.”
Back to the beginning of the alphabet: would you like to be addressed as “Air Chief Marshal,” “Air Commodore,” or “Air Vice-Marshal”? “Flight Lieutenant” and “Marshal of the Royal Air Force” are distinct ranks requiring distinct modes of address. I’ll skip over all the terrestrial military offices, of which there are a dozen or more. Those holding public office may choose “Alderman,” “Ambassador,” “Counsellor” or, more generically, “The Rt. Hon.”
Continuing to peruse the options, we rise in the ranks of the still-potent British class system. Subscribers are invited to identify themselves as “Baroness,” “Count,” “Countess,” “Earl,” “Lady” or “Lord.” Until recently Harry and Meghan would have chosen “H.R.H.,” but today they would have to settle for one of the other eighty options.
In a collection of Lenten devotions suggested for congregational use by the pastor of my Tucson church, we were asked, in a reflection on Mark 1:9-11, to picture Jesus slipping inconspicuously into a long line of people waiting on the banks of the Jordan to be baptized. So far as we know he was not wearing a “Hi! I’m JESHUA from Nazareth!” name tag.
In any event his attempt to disappear into the crowd was blown when John recognized the promised Messiah, an identification immediately confirmed by a voice sounding from heaven. In Matthew’s telling John tries to swap roles—he wants Jesus to baptize the Baptizer—but Jesus demurs. Over John’s protest he models the humility to which we aspire as his followers.
On the Wigmore website, I suspect, Jesus would have chosen “Brother.” In his kingdom there is no first or last, no elite and no peasantry. I admire the church communities in which all, whatever their education or office, greet each other as “brother” and “sister.”
But for my part I’m looking forward to receiving concert announcements addressed (yes, this really is one of the choices) to “Dowager Viscountess D. Hoekema.”