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What is it like to come from an intensely musical family?

Many generations of Steven Isserlis's family have been involved in making music, transported and shaped by opportunities to play. A celebrated cellist himself, he describes how closely music is connected to a happy family life.

“I used to go to sleep every night to the sounds of my parents practising.” Photo: Getty

The other day, during an interview with a rather intense journalist in Armenia, I was asked a question that took me aback: “Coming from a musical family, did you feel more privilege or pressure?” I replied – almost immediately – “more privilege, of course”. But the question did get me thinking about what the effect of belonging to a family of musicians has on a child’s life.

Music was like an extra language in our family, one we all spoke. My father was a very keen amateur violinist, my mother a piano teacher, and my sisters both played piano for as long as I remember. The elder, Annette, is now a professional violist, as well as producer and arranger, while my middle sister, Rachel, is a professional violinist. (Perhaps the most expressive musician in the family, however, was our dog Dandy, a Dandie Dinmont Terrier of vast intellect and noble character – and impressive musical integrity. He would invariably howl a heartfelt accompaniment whenever any of us played Mozart’s piano sonata in C major, a particular favourite of his; but if we dared to change key – playing it a semitone lower, for instance – he would instantly break off and glare at us accusingly.) Obviously, with the piano, the violin and the viola taken care of, a cello was needed; and that was why I was taken to a local teacher to begin lessons when I was six.

The musical calling came from beyond our immediate family. While my mother’s background was not especially musical, my paternal grandfather was a pianist and composer famous in his day, Julius Isserlis. Julius was born in Kishinev in 1888. He was a child prodigy who was accepted to the Moscow Conservatoire at the age of 10 – a particularly impressive honour given that he was Jewish. His teachers there included a legendarily fierce piano professor called Vassily Safonov, who regularly reduced him to tears over the next six years or so, and for composition the great Sergei Taneyev, favourite pupil and later musical confidante of Tchaikovsky, and himself teacher of Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Medtner. Julius enjoyed a successful career within both Russia and the Soviet Union, until in 1922 Lenin decreed that 12 Soviet musicians should travel abroad with their families in order to spread the word about the cultural glories of the Soviet Union. A fine idea – except that not one of the 12 ever went back. Julius, with his wife Rita (also a pianist) and my father George, then five years old, settled in Vienna, lured by the same charms that had ensnared Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and countless others. (Not entirely relevant to the subject of this article, but this story is a favourite of mine: among their first tasks was that of finding somewhere to live. My father vaguely remembered going to see an apartment owned by a hausfrau of 102, who was friendly enough until she discovered that Julius was a musician. “I hate musicians,” she declared. “Why?” “Because I remember that when I was a little girl, my aunt had a lodger who was a filthy old man who used to spit all over the floor. Euagh!”  “But who was that?” “Beethoven!” So, for many years before he died in 2012, I am sure that my father must have been the last person alive to have met someone who had met Beethoven.)

Life in Vienna, not surprisingly, became increasingly difficult as time went on, and anti-Semitism increased. Luckily, Julius happened to be in England, playing here for the first time, when the Anschluss took place in 1938. He stayed here, Rita and George finally joining him some months later. My father, after being briefly interned as an “enemy alien” on the Isle of Man – where he roomed and played chamber-music with future members of the Amadeus Quartet – settled in London, and built up a career as a metallurgist.

Music remained his driving passion, however, and also my mother’s. I used to go to sleep every night to the sounds of them practising their violin and piano. (A few years ago, we found a privately recorded 78 of them playing together; we had it put on to CD for George’s 90th birthday – it is actually quite beautiful!) As far back as I remember, Annette and Rachel were already having music lessons. The sight and sound of my older sisters playing their instruments was a tremendous spur – I had to do something similar, or I would be left out. So – after a false start at the age of four or five when I refused to play on the right side of the bridge, driving my poor teacher to distraction with the horrible squeaky noise that made – I joined in. The house was alive with the sound of music; perhaps we were not the best neighbours, but we were too involved to give others much thought.

Occasionally the five of us (with Dandy adding a descant if he was in the mood) would play quintets together. That was not an unqualified success, I have to admit, rehearsals frequently ending in tears. But of greater effect were the times that Annette (on piano in those days), Rachel and I would play trios together. Playing chamber music with two older sisters of whom I was a bit in awe has had a huge effect on my musical life. These days I like to describe myself as essentially a chamber-musician – even though I spend most of my life playing concertos with orchestras. I was taught, by my sisters as much as by my teachers, to listen to other voices, to treat music as a conversation between equals. It was a very different upbringing from that of the prodigy who is put in a room by him or herself and made to practise eight hours a day, learning to play louder and faster, the main aim being to win competitions.

Of course, there were pressures on us too. We were entered far too soon for competitive music festivals – something I would never suggest for a musical child. Music is not a competitive sport. And sometimes it was hard for my sisters, who were less lucky in their childhood teachers than I was. At the age of ten, I had been sent to study with an extraordinary lady called Jane Cowan. She had studied general musicianship with Donald Tovey – still one of the most revered writers on music of all time – and cello with Emmanuel Feuermann, famous for his total command of the cello. (Much later, I would get to play his Stradivarius cello for many years – a satisfying connection.) Jane was an inspiring teacher; she gave me the feeling that the composers were in the room with us, fascinating, humorous beings who could become my friends for life. It was her influence that led me to renounce my earlier ambitions to be either a rabbi or a footballer, and to devote myself to the cello; and it was also my memories of those early lessons that inspired me later to write two books for children about composers, in the hope that my young readers would also make friends with these glorious (if complicated) beings.

Jane’s influence percolated into our home, as a great teacher’s will. Although she could not teach Annette or Rachel their instruments, she suggested better teachers for them than they’d had previously, and she coached us all in chamber music together. And so the family musical bond prospered, as we grew older and started to play professionally. Annette, Rachel and I grew up knowing many of the same people, because we work with them.  Having been exposed to the same musical influences as children, we have pretty similar tastes; that is a huge link between us – like having a similar sense of humour. Some siblings drift apart as they get older; that couldn’t really happen to us, because we are always meeting at concerts – our own and those of our friends. We all married musicians, and have passed on the musical genes to our children – Rachel’s two daughters Isabel and Natasha, and my son Gabriel, who play viola, cello and cello respectively. No matter that of the three, only Isabel is training to be a professional musician; the musical link is there. At Christmas, the three children used to read through chamber music for fun; it was a melting sight.

So, apart from all the arguments for a musical education that are regularly put forth – music, we are reliably informed, is good for both brain and character development, as well as for a child’s happiness (it’s true that a child humming Mozart is likely to be a happy child) – I would say that some sort of connection with music is an overwhelmingly positive feature in family life. Of course, our family is exceptional in that we three siblings chose music as a profession; but that is not at all essential. Music is something that everyone in the family can share – either as players, on whatever level, or as enthusiastic listeners, telling the players how wonderful they are.

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror