Brits think Eurovision is all politics

YouGov’s EuroTrack survey released today reveals that Brits are most cynical about the Eurovision Song Contest.

As if our MPs squabbling over Britain’s EU membership wasn’t enough, a poll has revealed that Brits are the most cynical about the Eurovision Song Contest.

A new survey released just a day before the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest final in Sweden, a pan-European YouGov poll has shown that Brits are most likely to say that some countries suffer unfairly from political voting, and don't have any real chance of winning the annual talent contest.

YouGov’s EuroTrack survey, which tracks public opinion in Britain, Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway, found that a monstrous 75% of Brits believe some countries don’t have a proper chance of winning Eurovision because of political voting by other competing nations.

Britain has won five times since the competition began in 1956, but has done particularly poorly since 1999 when the rule that songs must be performed in one of the official languages of the participating country was abandoned. It has only finished in the top ten twice since 1999, and last year’s entry, musical veteran Engelbert Humperdinck, ended second last in 25th place.

In the past it has been suggested that voters were reluctant to vote for Britain following the start of the war in Iraq in 2003. Indeed that very same year, Britain’s entry of male-female duo Jemini received a record 0 points. The pair admitted they had sung off-key but claimed they were unable to hear the backing track due to a technical fault. Performer Chris also claimed Terry Wogan had warned them before the contest that they would not get any points due to the Iraq War.

It is worth noting, however, that while the number of competing nations has increased over the years, the probability of Britain winning has naturally decreased. There were only seven countries represented when the competition started and in recent years there have been 26. Britain’s entry this year is veteran Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler, who will perform ‘Believe in Me’ tomorrow night at the final held in Malmö, Sweden.

Does Eurovision really unite Europe?

The Eurovision Song Contest was started after World War II with the aim of bringing European countries closer together around a programme of fun, light entertainment.

However, the YouGov EuroTrack survey shows that all of the countries surveyed, and especially Britain, are rather skeptical about Eurovision’s capacity to unite. The Swedes are most likely to see Eurovision as a unifying force, with a third (33%) saying it helps bring Europe closer together, whilst only 14% of Brits felt the same.

Commenting on the EuroTrack findings, YouGov Director of Political and Social Research Joe Twyman said: “We haven’t won Eurovision since 1997, and a more than decade-long losing streak has obviously had an impact on how people in Britain feel about it. While all of the countries we surveyed have some degree of cynicism about Eurovision, it’s interesting that the Swedes – who won last year – are most likely to say it helps bring Europe together. I think it’s reasonable to assume that were Bonnie Tyler to win, or even finish strongly, Brits might start to feel just a little more enthusiastic about Eurovision.”

Last year's Eurovision winner Loreen of Sweden. Does the contest really bring Europe together? (Getty Images)
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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis