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. If we must stick with the word elite, then it can be said of probably most of the music we refer to as classical that it does more often that ‘pop’ demand a degree of empathy with emotions that only a minority is able to respond to. Isn’t it the same with literature, threatre, art? There’s also the question of taste which to some degree is inculcated at a formative age. Again the many who respond to Andre Rieu or Tretchikoff are not the same as those to whom Schubert or Turner will appeal. People do not have ‘classical’ music delivered to their ears with anyting like the frequency with which they are subjected to other kinds of music. It has to be sought out, yet people seem increasingly to settle apathetically for things delivered on a plate, especially if that fare is in easily digestible sound bites. Most people will watch whatever’s on television rather than sample a video to ‘suit their taste’, because that taste is being formed by whatever is dished out. People are also too stressed and tired from trying to earn a living, and this certainly doesn’t leave one responsive to an an art form that demands attentive listening.

    Why can’t a fan of Heavy Metal respond to, say, Prokofieff’s Suggestion Diabolique or the finale of his seventh piano sonata? Why can’t someone who enjoys ‘I Have Been a Rover’ enjoy, say, Faure’s Romance without Words? I can understand such people having trouble with, say, Mahler’s ninth symphony, but the explanation of my examples, I believe, is in the fact that they have not had these pieces dished up to them and haven’t bothered to seek them out. When Glenn Gould died, among the eulogies from his listeners was the typical “I listen to him while preparing the family’s breakfast, washing up and taking the kids to school’. That’s not listening. Could such a person sit without distraction and concentrate on Bach’s Goldberg Variations as though at a recital?

    As for ‘elitist’ dress, a tailcoat, open fronted, is freer for a performer than a standard suit jacket, not that many seem to wear tails today. The men in the audience of the past wore the same. People today certainly don’t. I remember members of the audiences at concerts in London’s major halls in the 1970s dressed variously in suits and evening wear to jeans and open shirts or tops that looked like they were meant for jogging. Isn’t it the same today? I have to attend a heavy metal concert in a few days’ time. I’m not going to dress in torn jeans, canvas shoes and a black tee shirt with a scull or some slogan emblazoned on the front. Nor will I wear a suit, because I live in a subtropical climate. I think all of this is nonsense and, like the age of the audience, has no part in repelling people. The audience listening to Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath are listening to classic underground music and are also largely an aged audience. The teenagers of that vintage are in their late sixties today.

    I believe the problem is largely one of mentality and mindset and the ever-shortening attention limit cultivated by electronic devices, tweets, the expectation of instant and effortless understanding and gratification, the lack of education in the arts and similar factors. Regarding ticket prices, as noted elsewhere, they are generally no higher than for pop performances or eating out, which the masses can evidently afford. We can’t make philosophy or any high art appeal to the masses without diluting and deforming it. It’s ‘the people’ and the system imposed – not the music!

    1. The article is about you. You need ears to enjoy music not educaction, intellect or empathy.
      Your’re the gatekeeper telling everyone outside that they’re too dumb to like what you like.

    2. Sorry but I’m a classical trained musician who is also a fan of heavy metal music…. you are allowed to enjoy both and it’s unfair of you to say that somebody who enjoys pop music can’t also find a deep connection with classical. You absolutely have to listen to it in a different way but by no means does that mean it’s mutually exclusive from any other form of music. I believe this is one of the parts of our culture we need to do away with. Classical music is for everyone, don’t claim that you have to be special to enjoy it

      1. I just heard the wonderful pianist Igor Levit at Carnegie Hall last night who plays Beethoven, Liszt but also Fred Hirsch and Metallica!!

  2. I recommend that you read this book by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu — Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (French: La distinction : Critique sociale du judgment). Bourdieu had answered the question you raised—Who Made Classical Music ‘Elitist’?—with the entire book. The keyword to the answer is #social capital. (BTW, if you read French, you should go with the French version. Which is so much easier to read than the 1984 English translation.)

    1. Good point. But it’s one of the other capitals that apply here: cultural capital. For what it’s worth in this day and age…

  3. We need high art, art that makes us conscious of those qualities of the mind, heart and spirit that make us uniquely human. The experience of high art should be an exalted, solemn occasion, like inaugurating a President, signing a peace treaty or an important religious holiday. Kids should be educated to understand, appreciate and cherish this. The lack of such emphasis in our public education and our wretched corporate media is the root of the problem, not a lack of mosh pits in our symphony halls.

  4. IT IS what It IS, you can’t expect things to change when management is poor, advertising is a day late, Season programs do not address the needs and desires of the communities needs and interests. It’s not that less-than-rich communities are not interested in music. Money, donations, funding is a higher profile than the performances. Sell tickets, wow, is that some new radical concept? What! People are much more comfortable buying a ticket than getting hammered for donations and the ransom threat of losing an orchestra. Concert halls are funded with taxpayers money for a palace for the communities elite with a token nod to the community and it’s culture. People love music, listen to music, pay for music every day, A stale Classical program and outdated management practices, and Rich people soliciting the rest of the community to fund their playground isn’t worth listening to. The orchestras do not belong to the People, they belong to the elite. Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny, Disney and The Three Stooges and just about any silent film have done more for Classical music education and interest. You can’t expect new results from the same old elitist point of view and outdated methods of management. It is what it is and will always be. Tally Ho!

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