Who Made Classical Music ‘Elitist’?

It’s the 21st century, yet still, still there is this perception that classical music is for a certain demographic that is predominantly white, middle class, monied, cultured and educated (but first and foremost, monied). It’s easy to “prove” this by highlighting the price of opera tickets, especially to prestigious venues like the Royal Opera House or Glyndebourne. Football is also expensive to attend, ditto pop gigs and festivals, but no one suggests that these activities are “elitist”. So there is a curious definition of the word “elitist” at work in relation to classical music that suggests both financial and cultural superiority, and that the artform is somehow rarefied and exclusive because of the type of people who usually engage with it. This also relates to the perceived customs and etiquette of classical music; for example, outsiders think that to attend a classical music concert or opera, one must dress up. It’s true that people dress up for Glyndebourne and other country house operas – it’s part of the experience – but take a look at the audience on any given night at a concert hall and you’ll find many people dressed comfortably and casually.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 – IV. Allegro con brio (Vienna Symphony Orchestra; Herbert von Karajan, cond.)

It troubles me, this negative perception of classical music and its fans, and it strikes me that currently there is an image crisis surrounding classical music, at least in the UK. It wasn’t always like this. When I was growing up in the 1970s, there was more classical music in our everyday lives – particularly on prime-time television with programmes like André Previn’s Music Night. I’m fairly sure classical music then did not have the elitist aura which surrounds it now.

The serious erosion of music provision in UK state schools and the view that music (and the arts in general) is a “soft subject”, that is does not bring value (i.e. monetary value), together with a certain philistinism on the part of those that govern us, has not helped classical music’s image. But I don’t believe education is the entire cause of the problem.

When and how did this negative image of classical music develop and who is responsible for it? Surely not the musicians, most of whom in my experience (and I have met a fair number via my interview series on my blog) are the antithesis of “elite” (except in the sense that they have undergone a long and rigorous training to become masters of their craft). Are audiences the problem? Those snobby, stuffy, mostly elderly classical music aficionados who make the ingénue concert goer feel unwelcome? Are the dedicated devotees of classical music actually the ones who are killing it? Is the problem with the gatekeepers, classical music’s “deep state”, who wish to keep the artform secure in its gilded cage, accessible only to the few not the many, to the extent that engaging with classical music can feel like joining a cult?

Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice, Act II: Dance of the Blessed Spirits (arr. for flute and harp) (Nora Shulman, flute; Judy Loman, harp)

Despite the best efforts of those of us within the profession – musicians, commentators, reviewers, writers, bloggers, promoters, teachers – who want to break down barriers, to do away with the elitist tag, it seems as if classical music’s image is pretty poor right now. Sadly, this elides with the egalitarian/populist assertion that people have “had enough” of experts, and are suspicious of anything that smacks of education or scholarship and are quick to conveniently label it “elitist”.

Enough of the smirking and eye-rolling, the apologetic marketing and talking about classical music as if it is some kind of weird taboo. It needs to lose the stigma of elitism and that it is only for the educated or older people. I believe that all of us who work in the profession and engage with the artform have a responsibility to accentuate the positives about classical music and to reach out and encourage others to experience it.

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  1. I think it’s a somewhat simpler issue. All the perceptions of elitism, music only intended for certain classes of society, etc. have been conflated with the more down-to-earth issue of whether or not those who listen truly like what they hear. Do they like it enough to repeat the experience as those who like pop, rock, country, or any of the many styles of music out there repeat those experiences?

    The revered composers and their works from the distant past are still consumed by many people who are neither elitist, white, male, or dead. As means for distributing music have multiplied over the centuries, audiences (people) have more access to more music than, likely, at any time in the past. They are choosing what they hear from among lots of different musics for lots of different reasons.

    Humans tend to respond to music (or other arts) that appeals to them emotionally, intellectually, physically, and aesthetically; sometimes in different combinations. Social codes of the past that determined how people must dress and behave to consume arts were only that; codes developed and adopted by people who were willing to pay the prices for the clothes, carriages, food, drink, that were part of the experience.

    We shouldn’t be surprised today that many people who cannot or are not willing to pay the prices for expensive programs simply do not do it. They will pay the prices for venues, styles of music, dress that is comfortable to them, and the freedom to react to the music as they feel the need.

    I seriously doubt any of that means that classical music, jazz, or any other aging style of music will actually die out. Bach’s music was thought to be dead until younger musicians rediscovered it and reused it. I think it does mean that the numbers of people willing to pay a lot, dress, and behave in prescribed ways will decline because they see the trappings they believe are expected of them as obstacles to the deep enjoyment of what they like.

    Those who are in the community of classical music performances might do well to learn from the ensembles who seem to be doing well and figure out how they are connecting to and bringing in their audiences.

  2. Who are these shadowy and hostile “gate-keepers”, exactly? I suspect the problem is not inside the concert hall, but outside it, in the systems that fail to make classical music a normal part of daily life, reinforcing school playground prejudices that it’s somehow not “cool”. The music industry is falling over backwards trying to make music more accessible; but it needs people beyond this small world to get aboard before anything will change.

  3. This is a “Money makes the world go round” world.

    Look at the rock stars tour, e.g. the Rolling Stones, the tickets won’t come cheaper than any classical music concerts. The reason behind is fans can rock around with the music, talk, squeeze/hold/hug your neighbour(s) and even sing along. Enjoy the ambience and the moment!

    People can enjoy the music in a carefree way.

    Can classical music concert allow that?! Don’t kid me! One has to sit still pretend doing nothing, no talk, no coughing and sneeze blah blah blah so you don’t disturb those sitting near you, otherwise you sure would be given a white eye. One can only clap or shout BRAVO! after a piece which could last from 10 minutes to 2 hours!

    Why people are getting away from classical music! Should we blame it on radios and TVs whose classical music channels are diminishing and may vanish like the dinosaurs. Y! The radios/TV channels make no money from it. Performers, promoters, producers etc etc etc are making good money on pop music. Even DG the yellow label is grinding out crossover LP/CD/Streaming.

    Is classical music going to die? It won’t be. Look at China, the upcoming biggest classical music market. One can enjoy Rock ‘n Roll and Putonghua pop, but and if you don’t play an instrument in China, you are not cultured and civilised! Who cares if one is a bad ass under the classical music dress.

    What’s your view when 1) one plays the violin and dress like a rock star. Cool! and 2) one plays the electric guitar and dress like a rock star. Cool! It makes no difference to me as long as music is there whether it’s pop or classical.

    There should be no labelling of elitists, which will only drive people away! Don’t even talk about it!

    Music is sheer enjoyment!

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