Simon Rattle speech
Sir Simon Rattle'’ reply to Sir Nicholas Kenyon’s citation on the occasion of the giving to him of an Honorary Doctorate of the University of London on 4th March 2011:
Hello, ladies and gentlemen. This is such an honour, and so terribly embarrassing at the same time! I have to say first that I have not prepared anything to say to you. But we will shortly play the first movement of Bruckner’s Ninth and we hope that somehow this performance will be our ‘speech’. Musicians talk best through the language of music.
As I walked into the Duke's Hall today, I was brought back to the first morning when I worked with this orchestra here, 40 years ago. I remember that on the front desk Elizabeth Wallfisch and Irvine Arditti sat next to each other, and both still remain part of my life to this day. Maurice Hanford — great, wonderful orchestral trainer and martinet — worked us for three hours. At the end of the three hours we were informed that we were going to play Brahms's Academic Festival Overture to a distinguished visitor. When the distinguished visitor turned up, it was Otto Klemperer. He was not in fantastic physical shape, but my god, could you feel what was going on in those eyes.
Apparently he was asked afterwards what he thought of the performance. He said, “(laughs) very amusing’’. So I’m hoping that all the wit of the first movement of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony will get through to people today!
You are very sweet to say that the Academy has been a small part of my life. But it has not. This building has been absolutely at the centre of everything that I have done, everything that I have learnt.
Two of my most really important teachers — John Carewe and John Streets (who is here today) — I met at the Academy. Both gave me the kind of vitamins you need for lifelong music making, and some little semblance of the kind of discipline which I’m still struggling to keep up to. I took the opportunity to accompany for almost every professor here. So, I spent a term accompanying for Gwydion Brooke’s bassoon class, and for Marjorie Thomas’ singing class; I worked for Sydney Griller, who as a quartet trainer was more terrifying than any teacher I have ever come across. I had the opportunity to work with all the extraordinary people who came in to coach the orchestra. Nadia Boulanger came for a season and gave us insights which are still tattooed on the inside of the arm. Unforgettable. And whatever else we did, including performing Mahler Symphonies, whether the administration at the time liked it or not! I will never forget all these opportunities.
At that time I also found that I could slip into almost anybody’s rehearsals in London. There were art galleries, there were theatres, there were all types of things that simply gave a different horizon. So if I am going to say anything to this collection of wonderful players behind me, I would say: please use the time, and not just for music. My favourite sentence of Brahms is from when a group of students asked him how could they be better musicians. His answer: “I would suggest that every day you practise one more hour less and read one more good book”.
By this I mean to say that what we do is about something: the world of sounds is not just sound, but it means something. Nicholas Harnoncourt’s wonderful sentence, “no, I don’t want to know what it says, I want to know what it means”, is what we all are going to have to search for.
Everything that is around in this extraordinary city is open to you. Go and use it: nothing is wasted, not for one moment. I don’t think I’ve ever talked to an orchestra about unsuccessfully hunting for lion in Tanzania before. But nothing is wasted and I would wish you all the joy and love for this extraordinary world out there, which you will enrich. Go out there and make hell for all of us.
Ladies and Gentlemen, from my heart thank you for this honour, thank you for inviting me back home and thank you, so many of you, for looking after the next generation of us up here. Now maybe we should just play you – if I am allowed to take off this gown! – we should just play some Bruckner, which is what we really do.