The love that dare not speak its name

Classical music has been tarnished with the dread word “elitism”

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Back in 1928, a magazine called The Musical Mirror published a satirical yet affectionate article about the relative popularity of classical music and sport. It imagined a future, 50 years hence, in which concerts drew larger crowds than football matches and presented a spoof review of a recital by the pianist “Schweinhund” at which the audience stormed the platform and 900 people had to be hospitalised for injuries.

In a companion piece, a fictional manager complained that football, “instead of being, like music, a great national sport, was merely the pursuit of the cultured few” and dreamed of the day when a cup final would be as popular as a symphony concert. For the time being though, the average man considered football a bit “heavy” and preferred to relax with a Schoenberg sextet.

Needless to say, the 1970s looked nothing like this. Yet classical music did still have a relatively prominent place in everyday British life. Implausible as it might sound today, in 1975 the Daily Mirror chose Monteverdi’s Homeric opera Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria as its pick of the week for the August bank holiday and billed a Christmas broadcast of Puccini’s La bohème as “not to be missed”. Classical music remained part of the mainstream British conversation, so much so that the conductor André Previn could appear for some gentle ribbing on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas special.

So it continued, to a large extent, throughout the 1980s, when it was possible for a teenager like me, with no family background in classical music, to discover it via schoolfriends and to teach myself the piano at a friend’s house.

Of course, there were trendy kids at school who would no more take an interest in classical music than would pick you, a swotty square, for the netball team. Still there were enough of us going out of class for instrumental lessons for it to seem normal. At weekends we would lug our cellos or trombones to the council-run Saturday orchestra and tape the top 40 off the radio on Sunday, and nobody saw any contradiction between the two.

Never “cool” exactly — and indeed why should it be? — classical music enjoyed a wider surge of popularity during the 1980s. Opera companies reported full-capacity houses such as had never been seen before; rock promoter Harvey Goldsmith started putting on large-scale productions at venues such as the Earls Court arena.

Buoyed up by featuring in popular films from Amadeus to A Room with a View, classical music was even riding high in the charts. Record stores devoted large areas of floorspace to it, even — if my memory serves me correctly — most of the basement of the HMV on Oxford Street. Classical music was never everyone’s cup of tea, but if it happened to be yours, nobody whose opinion you would value was going to laugh.

Today, however, things are different. Classical music has an image problem that feels like an existential threat. The pernicious idea of “elitism” — a word that was only coined in the 1980s — spread like Japanese knotweed through the pages of the press as the century neared its close. In the 21st century, classical music’s stock has fallen further still, to the point where it has become extremely difficult to make the case for it without apology. Why?

Since 2000, classical music has disappeared from most people’s daily lives. It is far less visible in the media. What are the chances of even one or two operas being screened on the BBC at peak time now, let alone 18 or 19 like in the Seventies? The idea of an opera being broadcast on Channel 4 (a regular occurrence in the Eighties) seems like a joke.

The press has drastically cut its arts coverage, only giving classical music prominent billing for stories that are scandalous or salacious, or for scenarios where the elitism charge can be triumphantly “proved”. Music has been sidelined in schools to a drastic extent, and for those who still have an opportunity to study it, classical music occupies only a small part of the remaining curriculum. A variety of different politicians and institutions, often with contradictory agendas, have conspired to bring all this about.

It is really no surprise that playing classical music or going to concerts should have become something of an oddity, despite the fact that many people will stop, mesmerised, and listen if they hear a talented classical busker in the street or happen to wander into a church where a good amateur choir is rehearsing. Classical music’s problem is even worse than this, for it is now not merely seen as “niche” but as somehow tainted.

There are still, of course, many people in the classical music world who bang the drum loudly for the art they love, but administrators have increasingly pursued the unhelpful path of either presenting classical music in “diluted” form or undertaking weird contortions to present it as something it is not. Driven no doubt by a desperate attempt to shrug off the constant taunts of “elitism”, 21st century musical institutions have made frantic efforts to rebrand classical music, either trying to make it “sexy” or by promoting it as if it were pop.

In 2005, for example, English National Opera put on a production of Gerald Barry’s challenging new work, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, billing it under the headline “Sexual Desire, Dominance, Submission”, illustrated with photographs of a singer in underwear cavorting with a mannequin, and saying nothing more about the music than that audience members should expect the influence of “Irish folk music”. As Philip Hensher noted wryly in The Independent, “its working strategy for selling a high-minded piece of new music seems to be (1) Tell them it’s dirty. (2) Tell them it sounds like Riverdance. (3) Run like hell before they ask for their money back.”

Arguments rage year after year, meanwhile, about the amount of classical music at the BBC Proms. Though the Proms still markets itself as a festival of classical music, and the vast majority of concerts would be classified thus, there are annual rows about the inclusion of other genres: jazz, film music, world music, or out-and-out pop and dance music (see for example 2015’s Radio 1 Ibiza Prom or last year’s Northern Soul Prom).

Many classical music fans welcome such “shaking up” and argue passionately that this is the only way to attract new and younger audiences, though whether listeners actually cross over between genres is a moot point.

Argue for the Proms to be strictly classical and you’re likely to be told to lighten up. Yet one cannot fail to notice that our countless pop and rock festivals feel no similar obligation to include classical artists in their line-ups: they do what they do, loud and proud. Endless debates about the Radio 3 schedules go over similar ground, pitting “fusty” purists against more chilled-out listeners who insist the station will die if it doesn’t adapt to changing times. Meanwhile, Radio 1 continues to do its own thing. I like an eclectic mix of music as much as the next person, but I feel it is legitimate to ask why only one type has to make all the concessions.

It is a similar story in universities. Most music lecturers who were students in the 1980s and 1990s will have taken an academic degree course devoted entirely to classical music. By the 2000s a wide array of different types of music started to feature on the curriculum, and this diversification was seen by most as a good thing.

We have reached a point where the pendulum has swung so far the other way that classical music is struggling to maintain a foothold at all on some university music courses. If any academic were to propose a degree course based entirely around classical music — and I imagine few would dare — they would be regarded as eccentric at best, politically dubious at worst.

This is the nub of the embarrassment. Classical music is no longer simply something that people enjoy listening to, playing, studying and writing about; rather, it has been intensely politicised. The relentless elitism barbs have already done a great deal to turn people off classical music, but in recent years these historically illiterate insults have morphed into something even worse, as the elitism stereotype has merged with wider debates about equality in ways that are making the classical music world very edgy indeed.

Students are taught that classical music causes numerous social ills

There is no reason why classical music shouldn’t appeal to people from all social backgrounds as it used to in the past. (Do read Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes if you’re inclined to be sceptical.) It is downright insulting to suggest that classical music cannot speak to people from non-white backgrounds. Yet narratives that construct such music as the preserve of a privileged, white “elite” abound, and they are even hinted at, or even asserted explicitly, by the very institutions we would expect to be championing the arts.

There has been a spate of recent books in which arts and social-science academics have made particularly concerted efforts to stress these arguments. In his new book Culture is not an Industry, Justin O’Connor argues that we should reclaim art and culture for the common good, which sounds brilliant, but it soon becomes abundantly clear that he means participatory community art and not the arts in their “highfalutin” manifestations.

Meanwhile, Anna Bull, a former professional musician, argues in her book Class, Control, and Classical Music that the middle classes use such music to “safeguard their privilege”, reproduce inequality, and “clos[e] off their protected and exclusive spaces to the other groups in society”.

Music students used to be able to sign up for a degree where they could expect to perform classical music, analyse its structures and learn about its history. It was a given that they had enthusiasm for the object of their study. Nowadays, much time will be devoted to “problematising” this repertoire, the canon will be thoroughly reviled, and students will probably be taught that classical music is the cause of numerous social ills. It is a rare and brave soul who will admit they find this objectionable.

Though the government’s cuts to arts funding and education and general rubbishing of the arts absolutely deserve our contempt, we cannot just sit back and wait for the fantastic renaissance for classical music Labour will supposedly bring about in 2025. What we are experiencing now is a much deeper problem of ingrained mentalities.

As a nation, we are in thrall to American commercial culture to a greater extent than ever before. We want the new and the edgy and we mock anything that gives the slightest whiff of being intellectual, “traditional” or, to put it bluntly, old. We have all, effectively, morphed into the trendy kids in the school playground.

There are loud voices, currently holding the microphone, who seem determined to run classical music into the ground. Even Arifa Akbar, The Guardian’s chief theatre critic, recently announced that traditional modes of listening to such music (respectfully and quietly) are elitist. This is only going to get worse. Those of us who really care about classical music, whether listeners, performers, educators, critics or arts administrators, need to be prepared to stand up and speak out.

We must find the courage to suppress our embarrassment, our nervousness about being labelled “snobs”, and explain why classical music has value, is worth bothering with, and is something anyone can enjoy. We must stand up for classical music on its own terms and vouch for it without limply falling back on the utilitarian argument that it makes a contribution to GDP. If we don’t, it will be game over for classical music, and soon. The time to stop apologising is now.

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