UK: HANDY'S VIEW - THE LESSONS OF A SUMMER NIGHT. - Charles Handy, at a musical festival in Italy, discovers in the work of Mahler a message which has as much relevance to organisations as to the individual listener.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Charles Handy, at a musical festival in Italy, discovers in the work of Mahler a message which has as much relevance to organisations as to the individual listener.

One of the delights of summer is the sound of music in unusual places. To each town and city its festival. Country houses turn into opera venues, parks become the arenas for concerts and stately halls resound to the music of Mozart or Handel. If you want, however, to enjoy one of the more special of these things, then go to Spoleto. Forty years ago, Gian Carlo Menotti, looking for a small town in which to stage a festival of music and theatre in his native Italy, settled on this beautiful but previously unnoticed place in southern Umbria. The three weeks of the Spoleto Festival attract distinguished musicians and performers from all over the world, and the little town hums with music and the arts under the summer sun.

The climax is the final Concerto in Piazza, staged in front of the magnificent cathedral with an audience of some 6,000 seated in the piazza and stretching away up the long flight of steps behind. This year, they performed Mahler's Resurrection symphony, all one and a half hours of it, complete with choir and trumpeters on the balcony, on a balmy night with Menotti, now 85, there to introduce it. Magic, of a sort, even if the gold-bedangled part of the audience had clearly come from Rome more to be seen than to listen.

But there was, to this listener anyway, a message behind the magic.

Writing about this symphony, Mahler observed that each of us must, at some time, question what it is all for. Is life more than a scherzo, he asked, to be rattled through as quickly and harmoniously as possible? Or is there more to it? I will answer that question, he said, in the final movement. That movement is one of the more exciting, upsetting and at the same time uplifting pieces of music one is likely to hear. I listened to it once on my headphones on a plane coming back to Britain over the Atlantic, as dawn was breaking above the clouds, when nature and the music seemed in complete harmony. It was even more powerful in Spoleto.

Everyone, of course, must make their own interpretation of what Mahler was trying to say in that last movement. For me, it was a declaration that, for all its ups and downs, life was about more than surviving, that there could be something glorious about it, that it could contribute to a better world.

That leaves one with a personal challenge, but it may go beyond that.

It is, I believe, a challenge for every organisation and every business that has in effect bought large chunks of other peoples' lives. It is not enough to offer them a scherzo. The survival of the business is not enough to justify their lives.

Business is wont to say that it is all about profit and that the bottom line is, more grandiosely, about increasing shareholder value. That is survival, and survival is, indeed, the bottom line for all of us including every business. But that answer still begs the question, Mahler's question, survival for what? If a business cannot answer that question, it will seem to outsiders to be interested only in itself or its owners and managers, to have no confidence in its raison d'etre, to be mean-spirited and selfish.

If business in the past had a tawdry image among the British, if it was seen as an unworthy profession by those who aspired to a worthwhile life, then it may have been because it was seen to have no proper answer to that question - 'survival for what?' - other than self-enrichment, a scherzo for the fortunate. I have used the past tense because things have changed of recent years. There is more talk now of working for the customers, not just the shareholders, of quality and excellence and pride in one's product.

Great businesses, if one reflects on them, have always been known for the things which they have given to the world rather than the amount that they have taken from the world. Of course, the two go together; satisfied customers come back for more and great products generate great profits. For once virtue does not have to be its own reward.

But it is a question of which comes first. Are the products and the customers there as the means to ever greater profits for the owners, or are the profits the essential ingredient for new growth, better products and life everlasting?

Life everlasting? It is not impossible. Businesses and other organisations have a privilege denied to ordinary mortals - they don't have to die.

They can live beyond our graves and can truly aim for indefinite, if not everlasting, life. The Mitsui corporation and Bologna University are both more than 600 years old and still going strong. The Catholic Church is older still.

To live that long, however, you have to deserve it. Most don't, and quite properly die or are absorbed into something bigger and better. Because to live that long you have to be special, you have constantly to change what you do and how you do it, to grow better although not necessarily bigger, and to have a continuing passion for your work, all exactly as documented by the research into long-lasting companies.

Maybe, I reflected in that piazza, Mahler was hinting at something like that. That if we are to deserve some sort of immortality, even the notion that we have left an indelible mark on time, then we have to aspire to be something special, and to change and to grow forever.

That's a tough challenge, of course, but if that night in Spoleto is anything to go by, it's well worth making the effort.

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