Clare Moriarty: can music be the food of policy?

The DExEU permanent secretary considers the similarities between making music and making government work

Photo: Paul Heartfield

By Clare Moriarty

16 Oct 2019

When I was first invited to be part of a dialogue linking the civil service and music, I confess I was a little nonplussed. I’ve spent pretty much all my working life in the civil service, and way longer than that involved in music, mostly as a singer in choirs of every shape and size. I’d never thought of the two as having much connection between them.

But as I allowed my imagination to wander, points of connection started to come to the surface. The idea that the melody which carries a piece of music might have some analogy with the strategic intent of a policy document. That the coordination involved in preparing for a major announcement might equate to the conductor’s baton, bringing disparate elements into a performance.

I spend a lot of time thinking about leadership, and specifically leadership in the civil service. The roles I’ve had over the years have three elements in common: getting stuff done, building and nurturing the team, and engaging with the outside world. They turn up, and intersect, in slightly different configurations depending on the department and the wider context, but that triangle is rarely absent.

I began to wonder whether there is an equivalent ‘musician’s triangle’. Getting stuff done has a parallel in composing or interpreting music; building and nurturing the team in turning notes on the page into performance; and engaging with the external world in the effect that the performance has on the listener.

That’s what I’m hoping to explore with James O’Donnell, organist and master of the choristers at Westminster Abbey, in our dialogue on 12 November.

I’m interested in how James approaches his interpretation of music, whether he starts with the big picture and moves to the specifics, as we would in developing policy, or builds from detail to the overall impact. Does it matter whether the music has a logic flow?

I’m interested in James’s perspective on the team building element of musical performance, as someone who’s been part of a ‘musical team’ (aka a choir) but never led one. What are the conditions for a choir or orchestra to perform at its best? How do you balance the role of conductor of a single performance with longer term development of an ensemble?

And I’m interested in the relationship between making music and the impact that it has on those who hear and feel it. Is the experience of the audience all-important, or is it one aspect among many? Would a performance in a sterile room still be a performance?

Finally, as a practitioner first and foremost, it would feel very odd to talk about music without experiencing it. And I’m delighted that the wonderful Elysian Singers, who I have the privilege of being part of, are going to provide choral moments during the course of the dialogue. So if you are intrigued by the connection between the worlds of civil servants and musicians, do come and join us in the wonderful surroundings of Westminster Abbey for dialogue and music.


Bureaucracy should be Beautiful: the Musician and the Permanent Secretary is part of the Westminster Abbey Institute's 2019 Autumn Programme 

Date: 12 November

Speaker: James O’Donnell

Chair and interlocutor: Clare Moriarty 


Share this page