Mervyn King

« previous episode | next episode »

Sunday, June 06, 2004

In our country, Mervyn King would be called the Alan Greenspan of England. As the Governor of the Bank of England, his every move is carefully calibrated by the market for clues as to what will happen to interest rates, the pound, and the British stock market. Far less known is his abiding passion for music. He joins host Gilbert Kaplan to tell a unique story of how he and music found their way to each other.
Ludwig van Beethoven Symphony No. 7 in A major. Fourth Movement. Vienna Philharmonic. Carlos Kleiber. Deutsche Grammophon 447 400.

Giuseppe Verdi La Traviata. "E strano!…Ah, fors' è lui" from Act I . Royal Opera House Orchestra. Sir Georg Solti. Angela Gheorghiu, Violetta. London/Decca 448 119.

Anton Bruckner Symphony No. 7 in E major. Excerpt from Third Movement. Berlin Philharmonic. Günter Wand. RCA Red Seal/BMG Classics 74321 68716.

C. Dumont/M. Vaucaire "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien". Edith Piaf. Capitol Records CPD 7-96632-2.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Symphony No. 40, K.550 in G minor. First Movement. Berlin Philharmonic. Herbert von Karajan. EMI Classics 66100.
Kaplan Governor of the Bank of England and music lover, Mervyn King, on today's edition of "Mad About Music."

[Theme music]

In our country, he would be called the Alan Greenspan of England. Across the Atlantic, he's called the Governor of the Bank of England, his nation's central bank, which sets interest rates for the whole of the United Kingdom. His every move is carefully calibrated by the market for clues as to what will happen to interest rates, the pound, and the British stock market. Far less known is his abiding passion for music and the unique story of how he and music found their way to each other. Mervyn King, welcome to "Mad About Music."

King Thank you very much.

Kaplan Now that I've intrigued our audience by characterizing your path to music as a unique one, I guess we should start by asking you to tell this amazing story.

King Well, my story with music got off to a very bad beginning. In Britain, it used to be the case that at the age of eleven, you would take a competitive aptitude test, I suppose, and that would determine which secondary school you went to. So, when I arrived at the first day of my new secondary school, all the new entrants to the school were asked on the first morning to sing up and down a scale, on their own, in turn. We all lined up, I made my attempt and I failed. And I was told that the sheep and the goats meant that I was a goat. I wasn't in the school choir, I wasn't allowed to have lunch in the first sitting, I had to have lunch on the second sitting every day for the rest of my school career, and I was told that I was "not musical." We were divided into two groups - those who were musical and those who weren't. And for many years, I thought that was my fate. Then, years later, I listened to a radio program - this is only about 12 years ago now, which said, "Are you tone-deaf? There is no such thing. Listen to this," they said. "Here is a recording of a school choir made up of children who are tone-deaf." And it sounded wonderful. So I did something that I always wanted to do, which was to rush out, buy a CD player, buy a CD, and listen to it.

Kaplan Now, I'm surprised in a way that even though you were told you couldn't sing in the choir, it took you perhaps 40 years before you decided to listen to music. Even people who are tone-deaf, which you probably are not completely tone-deaf, do enjoy listening to music even if they don't professionally or even amateurishly sing or play instruments. Why didn't you at least be listening along the way?

King I suppose that there was no one in my life who took me and guided me towards music in that way. My mother did sing in the church choir at school, but there was never an occasion where I felt this was my thing. I was told I was good at other things, like at mathematics, at sport, and so on.

Kaplan Well then, all that remains, I suppose, to conclude your story then, is for you to tell us, what was that first CD you bought?

King Well, I said I went out and I bought, first of all, a magazine with extracts from new CDs and I heard one extract and it completely caught my attention. It seemed to me one of the most passionate things I had ever heard. This was not the complexity or the seriousness of classical music as I might have feared it. It was something that immediately gripped me. And it was Beethoven's Seventh Symphony and I went out and I bought the recording, Carlos Kleiber, the Vienna Philharmonic. And I felt this was a piece of music to which one could not sit still and listen. And I still cannot sit completely still in a concert hall and listen to it. It should appeal to all sorts of people, just as rock music or pop music does. And it's all those years old, and it really caught me and it still does. I cannot listen to this without feeling the energy and the passion that goes into the music.

[Music]

Kaplan The concluding movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic led by Carlos Kleiber, a selection of my guest on "Mad About Music" today, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King. Now, earlier, I described you as the Alan Greenspan of England, and like him, you have the power to influence interest rates. But you're not alone. The Bank's Monetary Policy Committee is made up of nine members, but you chair it. So let's compare power in high finance to power in music. How would you describe your role as the chairman of this Committee? Are you more like a conductor, setting the tempo, driving people to your interpretation? Or would you be more of a true team player, as someone playing chamber music together with your colleagues?

King It's much more the latter. But I suppose you could think of it as a string orchestra where I always have the option of standing up and leading the orchestra in a direction on the odd occasions when I think they might need that steer. But usually I would help them start, help to set the pace and the issues that we talk about, but it is one person, one vote.

Kaplan I see. Now last November this Committee made a huge policy switch deciding to raise interest rates. It must have been a tense atmosphere. And before we came on this show, I asked you if you would look in your experience of music and pick some work that might serve as a soundtrack for that landmark meeting. What did you come up with?

King Well, I think if I were to say what piece of music best represented the atmosphere and the style of the Monetary Policy Committee, it would probably have to be a Beethoven string quartet, a late string quartet of Beethoven, because it combines that element of intellectual depth and seriousness. We discuss in a heavily intellectual way what is going on with the economy, together with what was described of Beethoven's quartets, an innovation in harmony, so that the Monetary Policy Committee in Britain is an innovation. It's the first committee of its kind in the world, I think, which has this approach of each individual giving their own view and having their votes recorded and published only two weeks after they cast their votes. So we are an innovation in the way monetary policy is set and we operate under what's called constrained discretion. That is, we do make our own judgments, but within the constraint of being told to hit a precise inflation target looking ahead. And I like to think of Beethoven's string quartets as an exercise in imagination and discretion but within the constraints, the pattern laid down by the form of a string quartet and by the fact that each individual player is playing their own instrument, comes to their own judgment, but nevertheless recognizes that they are working as a team and that the outside world sees them as a collective, even if their own individual contribution is that of an individual.

Kaplan That's a marvelous description of how music and your decision process work. We'll look forward to reading in the British press about the installation of a new sound system in the meeting room soon. Now, I've been comparing you constantly to Alan Greenspan because he's such a familiar name in America, but you know, he started out to be a musician before he went what I regard as "wrong," and became an economist. He's actually a graduate of our Juilliard School. Do you and he ever discuss music?

King Yes, sometimes. We discuss music and tennis. I think we both have these interests that take us away from the minutiae of details of the economy.

Kaplan What about Tony Blair, your Prime Minister? Is he passionate in music? Do you ever discuss music with him?

King I don't know what his interest in music is except that he does play the guitar rather a lot, as opposed to the violin. Certainly his playing career was in a rock band rather than an orchestra.

Kaplan I see. All right then, let's return to your next selection, which I see is opera. Was there a defining moment for you when you first connected to opera?

King I don't think there was a single defining moment. I listened to a number of operas, but there was a moment when I first heard La Traviata, and it is not perhaps the most sophisticated of operas, but it is one of the most moving. And perhaps because it connected with me, I don't know, but hearing Angela Gheorghiu make her reputation, really, at the Royal Opera House singing under Georg Solti in La Traviata, playing Violetta, is something that I will never forget and I cannot listen to La Traviata without feeling extraordinarily moved. And that final act is one in which it's hard not to be moved to tears. But it's the first act where the tremendous music, the rhythm is built up, each scene links closely to another, and the piece I've chosen is where Violetta suddenly feels that perhaps something that she might have dreamt of could come true, even though she never really believed it could happen. And she sings, "How strange a joy I never knew, to love and to be loved."

[Music]

Kaplan "E strano!" and the aria that follows, from Verdi's La Traviata, sung by soprano Angela Gheorghiu with the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, led by Sir Georg Solti, the second selection of my guest on today's edition of "Mad About Music," the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King. You can learn more about Mervyn King, listen to any of our prior shows, read transcripts about them, by logging onto our website at wnyc.org and then just click on "Mad About Music." When we return, we'll discuss whether it's possible for opera to be a profit-making enterprise.

[Station Break]

Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on today's edition of "Mad About Music," the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King. Now, as we just listened to opera, I'd like to have your view on what many regard as a remarkable experiment that took place recently in your country. Yet a new opera company was attempted, hoping it could be a money-making operation. It didn't work. But what does the Governor of the Bank of England think about this whole idea?

King Well, I'm all in favor of competition and new entry, and I think any attempt to give people the feeling that there is a new way to go and to listen to the opera without going to the old established opera houses, may bring more people into opera and to music. And then they can graduate and move on, and try different opera houses. And although many people who work in the traditional state-subsidized sector feel that they need the subsidies to continue, and in the short run maybe they probably do. As with most forms of culture or education, in the long run, to depend too heavily on state subsidy is to find yourself drawn in to what is a rather deadening influence from the state bureaucracy. And you want the freedom to put on new productions with new singers and new ideas. You need to be independent.

Kaplan Now beyond opera, in looking over your musical selections, I am struck by the complete absence of any British composers. No Elgar, no Vaughan Williams, no Benjamin Britten. How can the Governor of the Bank of England neglect his own composers?

King Well, I think we have a long tradition at the Bank of England of going for what we think is the best, and we don't, for example, make our employees travel on British Airways if that is not the most convenient way to get there. My personal selection doesn't include, as you say, a British composer. I'm sure that others would include it. But it should be a matter of free choice and competition.

Kaplan All right now, perhaps the most popular event in classical music in Britain is the final night at the Proms, where as many as 6,000 people are packed into the Royal Albert Hall, waving flags and finally singing, "Rule, Britannia." Have you ever attended the last night of the Proms?

King I have and it is a quite extraordinary occasion. It's not entirely a musical occasion. It's a celebration of the Proms and Britishness and everyone thoroughly enjoys it.

Kaplan Now, continuing to explore your own musical taste, I also see you have no contemporary music on your list. Can you respond to music of our own time, which is often atonal and dissonant?

King I can, although somewhat less so, perhaps. I've chosen the pieces for today's program on the basis of the pieces that meant something to me when I came to music. And I think it's fair to say that some of the recent compositions that I've listened to and enjoyed would not have perhaps had quite the same impact at the very outset. But I have become keen on the question of, what can we do to ensure that there is new music, from our generation, to hand on to future generations? And together with a group of friends in London, collectively, we are commissioning a new work for the centenary of the London Symphony Orchestra. What we wanted to do was to demonstrate to people that it was possible to commission music without being very rich. None of us have a great deal of money, and we put in a relatively small amount of money each. I would encourage others who are interested in commissioning music, to form a group of friends, and then just approach your local orchestra.

Kaplan Now, you mentioned this is with the London Symphony Orchestra, and I understand you serve on their advisory board. What kind of advice do they want from the Governor of the Bank of England?

King Well, I don't think it's advice about which music to play.

Kaplan All right. Now they're often paid in foreign currency when they travel. Do you give them advice on hedging against the pound?

King Certainly not, because I have no idea how any currency is likely to move.

Kaplan Now before we turn to your next selection, I would ask you just one more general question about music you like, which you haven't necessarily picked today. In fact, what I'm about to ask you about, I know you haven't picked today. I wonder if there are any mainstream composers whose music you don't especially connect to? My guest on our last show, the actor Alec Baldwin, actually put Mozart in this category.

King That is not true for me. I suppose the unfortunate thing is that I'm not especially excited by the British composers. Although I think Benjamin Britten is an exception. And his music, I think, does have an extraordinary depth and passion to it. To some extent, I feel it is that lack of passion that I felt in some of the early British composers - not all, some of the Elgar works are really very special

Kaplan So let's then turn back to music you do listen to, and I see that Bruckner is on your list for a next selection.

King It's that particular work here that meant something to me. This was one of the very first pieces that I listened to when I discovered music, as it were, very late in life, Bruckner's Seventh Symphony. The story of Bruckner is one that I also find fascinating. Described as the eternal student, he didn't have very much success until quite late in life. And indeed, the Seventh Symphony was in many ways the first popular success that he had. And there was always this struggle. He was always the outsider; the person who failed and then he finally came good. And I suppose that story rather appeals to me. And about this work, I was struck by, again, the extraordinary passion and the depth with which he presents the music. And it just hit me, the first time I listened to it.

[Music]

Kaplan An excerpt from the scherzo from Bruckner's Seventh Symphony, conductor Günter Wand leads the Berlin Philharmonic, a selection of my guest on today's edition of "Mad About Music," the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King. Now, as you plunged into classical music, you've begun to come in contact with performers. You mentioned earlier that you're working with a group of musicians in the London Symphony Orchestra. Have you met and come to know any of the real stars?

King No, I haven't. One of the stars I would love to meet is Nigel Kennedy, the violinist. There is something about the violin that I love, as an instrument. It's one that I know I could never play, but if I could play an instrument, that's the one I'd go for. He's a rather unusual person, hasn't always been a conventional musician. He has worn his emotions on his sleeve quite literally in the fact that he wears the scarf of his favorite football team when performing quite often. And of course, his favorite football team, Aston Villa from Birmingham in England, is also my favorite football team. And I have been at an occasion in the boardroom at the club, Aston Villa, at the end of the season; after the last match of the season, he was invited into the boardroom and he played on the violin the theme tune from the television series, which shows the highlights of the best matches of the day, "Match of the Day" it's called. And he transported this into a piece for the violin, and played it in quite a remarkable fashion. So he's somebody who I'd quite like to have the chance to talk to.

Kaplan Now many English football teams, or soccer as we call it over here, are known for their songs and you said Nigel Kennedy transposed one on the violin. But they're normally sung in unison, even in harmony, by thousands of their fans at matches. But I hope you don't mind my asking you, because I understand that the lyrics of many of Aston Villa's most popular songs contain some shockingly foul language, and I suppose not the lyrics that the Governor of the Bank of England should be caught dead singing?

King That is true, but I still will persevere in my attempts to get the club to play over the loudspeaker system in the ground as the teams run out, a little extract from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. I think that would really get the players going.

Kaplan I hope it keeps the audience there, I don't know, with the songs they like to sing! All right, well, while we're discussing pop culture, why don't we transition into that part of our show we call the "Wildcard," where guests have an opportunity to select music from outside the classical or opera genre. It can be anything: rock music, rap, jazz. What is your "Wildcard" today?

King The "Wildcard" I've chosen is a song from Edith Piaf. Her very famous song, "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien." I suppose I chose it because in the 1970s, when I was a young fellow at St. John's College in Cambridge, I had a tiny record player. They didn't work very well and I wasn't able to play any serious music on this. I didn't have any loudspeakers to speak of. And I was given a disc by Edith Piaf and there was something haunting about the way she sings it. In many ways it's her life story. It's not that dissimilar from Bruckner, or indeed, I suppose at some stage, Beethoven, which is a great struggle and the passion comes out. The self-confidence, the self-confidence that she does, is willing to follow her own choices. She doesn't regret anything. She will carry on. She believes in herself, even if the world has not believed in her for very long. And that self-belief that comes out, the struggle of coming through these times comes out in that song in a way that I don't think it does in some of the other pieces I've chosen.

[Music]

Kaplan Edith Piaf singing one of her classics, "I Have No Regrets," the "Wildcard" selection of my guest on today's edition of "Mad About Music," the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King. When we return, we'll explore the role music plays in the Governor's life today.

[Station Break]

Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King. Now with the pressure and the demanding schedule of your job, how often are you able to attend the opera or symphonic performances?

King Fairly regularly. I make a point of putting this in the diary. I can just walk from my office to the Barbican to hear the London Symphony Orchestra extremely easily, and in no more than ten minutes. The Wigmore Hall, for chamber music and recitals is on the way home. And the South Bank is also fairly close, as indeed, is Covent Garden and the English National Opera. So we are fortunate in London in having so many various types of music available all the time. And I try to make sure it goes in the diary.

Kaplan Now, at home when you are working, and I presume you also work at home; but say you're working on a policy statement - will you have music on in the background?

King No, I don't, because when I'm actually focusing on drafting one particular document, then I want peace and quiet to focus on that drafting. And I prefer, when I'm listening to music, just to relax and concentrate on the music. So I don't think of classical music as something which is background music. It is something to listen to, to concentrate on, perhaps to read sometimes a work of fiction to, maybe. But not when drafting a rather narrow document.

Kaplan As your passion for music came on so fast during the past 12 years, have you also become hooked on the technology side of the business? Are you one of those people who must have the latest high tech equipment?

King I'm afraid the latest high tech equipment is rather too expensive for a central bank governor. So, no, and I think the trouble with it is that it's changing all the time. I am interested in the technology, and I do have one of these little devices that you can carry around and listen when traveling. So I think what really helped me a great deal was the ability to have an iPod in which I can download -- about 150 CDs I have on it now.

Kaplan Legally, I hope?

King Quite legally, yes, absolutely.

Kaplan All right, then let's turn to your final selection, one of Mozart's best-known symphonies.

King Well, the background to this is that British monetary policy, rather like my interest in music, and indeed, the achievements of the composers I've chosen today came rather late in life. And we had a record in the last 50 years in Britain of a rather unsuccessful degree of monetary policy, and it all changed in the last ten years or so. And it began in 1992 when we left what was called the exchange rate mechanism. We used to have a fixed exchange rate with the Deutschmark. And it all fell apart in September 1992. Now, two days before it all fell apart, I was sent to Frankfurt to meet with the Bundesbank, and we went on what became probably one of the world's most unsuccessful diplomatic missions. We were there to persuade the Germans that the link between Sterling and the Deutschmark should be kept. And two days later, it was swept away under massive speculation. Now, I mention all this because that was the time when I met, for the first time, Ottmar Issing, the German economist who is now the Chief Economist of the European Central Bank, who was then in the same position at the Bundesbank. And as we approached the building representing Britain on our mission, it was almost a Wagnerian scene. There was thunder and lighting overhead; flashes of lightning, thunder as we approached the building. It really did symbolize something that was going to be very important. But for me the importance was that I met Ottmar Issing. Several years later, he took me to the Mozart Festival at Wurzburg, south of Frankfurt, which is his hometown. And that was the first occasion when I heard Mozart's Fortieth Symphony, one of his late symphonies. And that, too, had this extraordinary energy and sense of urgency about it, and I've never forgotten that first, my first listening to that. And there was another piece of music that I love to listen to and again cannot sit still when I hear it. It's one that makes you want to move.

[Music]

Kaplan The First Movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 40, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic with conductor Herbert von Karajan, the final selection of my guest on today's edition of "Mad About Music", the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King. You know, the singer of your "Wildcard" selection, Edith Piaf, had no regrets. What about the Governor of the Bank of England? Do you regret, or do you wish that you could have been a musician instead of an economist?

King In some ways, I think I do. I think I would like to have started as a violinist and then become a conductor. I think I would really have enjoyed that. I think the role of conductor combines the ability to be a free spirit, to use imagination, as well as to be an intellectual study, which is what I did for most of my life. I've only been at the Bank of England for the last 13 years. The ability to do that, and also to lead a team, just to get a team of people playing for you. That's what I've tried to do at the Bank of England and what I think I would have much enjoyed doing as a conductor. And of course, the great virtue of being a conductor is that you can go on forever.

Kaplan Well, we certainly wish you the best of luck as you continue to pursue your present career and any other you might choose. You've been a fascinating guest, proving once again that there's no escaping the power music can exert on our lives. Even if, in your case, you had to wait about 40 years for that magic to happen. Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, thank you so much for appearing today. This is Gilbert Kaplan for "Mad About Music."

[Credits]

About Mervyn King
Mervyn King is Governor of the Bank of England and is Chairman of the Monetary Policy Committee. He was previously Deputy Governor from 1998 to 2003, and Chief Economist and Executive Director from 1991. Mervyn King was a non-executive director of the Bank from 1990 to 1991.

Born in 1948, Mervyn King studied at King's College, Cambridge, and Harvard (as a Kennedy Scholar) and taught at Cambridge and Birmingham Universities before spells as Visiting Professor at both Harvard University and MIT. From October 1984 he was Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics.

Mervyn King is a Fellow of the British Academy, an Honorary Fellow of King's and St John's Colleges, Cambridge and holds honorary degrees from Birmingham, London Guildhall, Wolverhampton, City (London) Universities and the London School of Economics. He is a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is on the Advisory Council of the London Symphony Orchestra, and is Patron of Worcestershire County Cricket Club.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Leave a Comment

Register for your own account so you can vote on comments, save your favorites, and more. Learn more.
Please stay on topic, be civil, and be brief.
Email addresses are never displayed, but they are required to confirm your comments. Names are displayed with all comments. We reserve the right to edit any comments posted on this site. Please read the Comment Guidelines before posting. By leaving a comment, you agree to New York Public Radio's Privacy Policy and Terms Of Use.