Our Narrow Repertoire is Holding Classical Music Back

Guest post by Simon Brackenborough

It’s safe to say that I was never a conventional teenager. Some time around the age of 15 or 16, while my peers were obsessed with Radiohead, I discovered a profound affinity with the music of half-forgotten British composer Arnold Bax (1883-1953). I became absorbed in his epic symphonies, chamber music and tone poems. So In 2003, aged 18, I wrote to the then director of the BBC Proms to ask why a Bax symphony hadn’t been programmed for the 50th anniversary of his death. His reply was that the last time one had had a Proms performance, the attendance had been one of the lowest in memory. His memory, that is: the fateful Prom was in 1984, a few months before I was born.

Arnold Bax

Many classical fans have their own favourite neglected composers, or works of music that haven’t received their fair due. In most cases we rarely, if ever, get chances to hear them performed live. And yet at the same time, we live in a golden age for access to recorded music. Thanks to YouTube, there is now more classical music available to hear than you could listen to in a lifetime, much of it by composers you’ve never heard of, and all for free.

But taking time to explore this amazing resource can be a daunting prospect, and that’s why last year I started a blog specifically to share some of this rarely-performed music with a wider audience, and explain why it means something to me. But I don’t want to argue that Bax or anyone else join an elite canon of great composers. Mostly I avoid the whole concept: the words ‘great’ and ‘masterpiece’, while fine as expressions of admiration, are actually some of the least informative descriptions you can give. In fact, they are often a way of not exploring what the music means.

The idea of timeless ‘greatness’ is also ahistorical. Even Bach’s music needed a revival in the nineteenth century. However proud we may be of our discerning ears, we all underestimate the role that expectations play in our perceptions, and studies have shown this to be the case from art to wine tasting. That isn’t to deny that some works have a wide and enduring appeal, but it is to acknowledge that music can be different things to different people at different times, and for different reasons. And this is no bad thing: in fact, I argue, it opens up a much more interesting conversation to have with new listeners.

Because – crucially – we need to look at the current marginalisation of so many brilliant and individual composers as a microcosm of the bigger marginalisation of classical music within society. Both are symptoms of a failure to fully realise, and adequately express, the basic relevance of the music. That’s why I believe that if we can invite the public to hear a Bax symphony, by finding ways to engage them in who he was and what makes his music distinctive, we will increase the pool of listeners who come to hear Beethoven too.

It’s not about whether enough people will like Bax. But by confidently confronting the question of why he produces both obsessive fans and sniffy detractors, you have exactly the opportunity to engage people that the Proms should have seized with both hands. Disagreement, after all, is a sign that an art form matters: a repertoire of limited risk is a repertoire of limited relevance. The industry will be in a healthier place when concert-goers are less sure that they will enjoy the experience, but are willing to pay to find out.

There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a huge untapped curiosity about classical music in the wider population, but with busy lives, listeners need to be given a route in. The success of the TED movement shows a popular hunger for learning which can be met with a smart, co-ordinated effort to feed that curiosity. Similarly encouraging is that my two most recent blog posts, looking at music through the theme of St. George’s Day and natural wildness, both had a great response from people who are not classical fans, but for whom I offered a musical connection to subjects they were already interested in. And in these contexts, an obscure composer can be just as relevant and revealing as any other.

A lateral, interdisciplinary, magpie approach surely holds more fruitful opportunities for classical music than what I call the ‘connoisseur culture’– that rather cosy preoccupation with the finer points of interpretations of core repertoire which too often seems to be the default setting in parts of the music media. Even as a music graduate I find this cliquey and uninspiring, so goodness knows how new listeners must feel. Just look at the average concert brochure today, and how little information is given on why you might want to hear anything on offer. The assumed knowledge of the repertoire suggests an industry content with preaching to the converted.

Of course, I understand that there are commercial calculations in programming pieces that are proven to sell tickets and that performers are already familiar with. But the canon, like any hierarchy, is also a way of preserving the status quo, and the status quo always benefits those with power. For people at the top of the classical industry, unfamiliar repertoire challenges the expertise on which they have built their authority. Yet as the comic writer and lifelong classical listener Armando Iannucci observed in this fantastic speech to the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2006, new listeners are blessed by not knowing what is deemed to be worthy. I sometimes think we would be better off with people running the show who know nothing about the music at all.

If it were up to me, finding ways to connect people to the ideas and themes of the music would have a much bigger role in how performances are conceived and marketed; an over-priced concert programme that you have to read in a hurry just doesn’t cut it. A good example of a step in the right direction was the heavily-conceptualised The Rest Is Noise festival at London’s South Bank Centre. Discussion of themes can even form part of the event itself, as with the Orpheus Sinfonia’s ‘Beneath the Score’ concerts, which combine biography and analysis with performance. But these forward-thinking examples are still too rare.

Steve Jobs once said of his rival Bill Gates that ‘he’d be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.’ Now I’m no Apple-worshipper, but it’s clear that their phenomenal success is not just down to computer science, but understanding aesthetics, intuitive design, and consumer psychology. In contrast, we have a classical music industry that produces incredible musicians but is pretty woeful at telling the world why all their years of training, and all the amazing music they play, actually has anything to say. Even worse, it often doesn’t seem to care.

Of course I’m not the first person to make these sorts of arguments, and I won’t be the last. I particularly recommend this typically insightful post from the excellent On An Overgrown Path blog, contrasting the growth of Mahler’s popularity with that of ever-neglected Malcolm Arnold. But the arguments need continual revisiting, reconsidering, and refreshing. Because too often, classical music looks like it’s stuck in a dead-end job: one of comfortable routine that just about pays the bills, but whose narrow scope and dull repetition prevents any hope of reaching something greater.

Perhaps, in fact, the classical music world is sometimes guilty of forgetting just what an amazing resource a musical score is. Each one is a repository of years of learning, soul-searching and toil, and yet look at how we treat them – the majority gather dust while a select few grow dog-eared through overuse. This is nothing short of an artistic tragedy. The fact that scores are the starting point for classical music is what makes the art form so special, and it’s vital that they are at the heart of where it goes next.

That does not mean that all pieces offer something equally compelling. But, to borrow from George Orwell, it is to remind us that each reflects a composer seeing, feeling, hearing, and understanding the world. Quite simply, for every artist who lies forgotten we miss a unique perspective of what it means to be human; our culture carries one mind less, one world less. That is the essential truth that classical music needs to remember in order to thrive. We’re all here just trying to make sense of being alive. And through the incredible richness and diversity of our music, that’s all we should be trying to do.

Simon Brackenborough is a music graduate, currently living in Hampshire, and author of the Corymbus blog which has a special focus on neglected or little-known repertoire and composers.



  1. Really interesting, and thanks to commenters for pointers to composers worthy of investigation.

    I heartily agree that the concert experience should be enriched by discussion and learning. If an audience can have a more wholistic experience of a piece — not merely audio/visual and applause — then it becomes a more memorable experience, and one that is likely to prompt greater engagement in future.

    You mention that expectations influence judgement (art, wine, …). This can be harnessed. If an audience is invited and helped to enjoy an unfamiliar piece, they probably will.

  2. Very encouraging and stimulating blog. One sentence jumped out at me though:

    “Thanks to YouTube, there is now more classical music available to hear than you could listen to in a lifetime, much of it by composers you’ve never heard of, and all for free.”

    Strictly speaking this is true, but I’d be wary of casting Youtube in too kind a light. It’s “free” in the sense that people are data mined and presented with corresponding targeted advertising, which presents continuous suggestions – that while occasionally helpful – generally reenforce a person’s existing tastes. Furthermore, all streaming services currently are unsustainable for artists, so while they may be useful for “sharing” culture that was created in another economic environment, they are not adding substantially to the creative economy that originally created these works.

    I know this is slightly tangential to what the primary subject of your article, but I thought it worth mentioning. Also, I’m all for social media in principle, but the current iterations are built on very dubious economic models.

    • Thanks for your comments Dom, I think you make very valid points. The disruptive power of the internet certainly poses a lot of problems as it creates opportunities, for all sorts of industries and fields. Where this new (and fast-evolving) media landscape might take classical music, given the sustainability concerns you mention, is a big alarming/exciting question in itself.

    • You are absolutely right Dom it is worth mentioning and the sustainability issue of streaming services is not specific to classical music. But when talking about unknown composers on dedicated YouTube channels I don’t think there is a real loss of profit as it is pretty clear to me that people are probably less inclined to buy a CD if they have never heard the piece before or at least are a bit familiar with the composer. And I have myself bought many CDs after discovering a composer on YouTube thanks to KuhlauDilfeng4, musicanth, novichok3, collectionCB2, winkle522000, GoldieG91 and other channels that closed in the recent years.

      But I agree 100% with Simon about the need to think of the concert experience as a way to feed people’s hunger for discovery. That would be a great marketing move! To my opinion, everything should be imagined, built and directed towards the live performance. This is classical music’s main strength and it has sadly become one of its major weaknesses. And I think it should determine its economic model by learning from pop music and other arts forms. Museums have done their own revolution a few years ago and they succeeded in attracting a broader public and finding a sustainable business model, in particular by using the digital tools at their disposal instead of considering it a threat.

      For that, the classical music industry must quit thinking about short term income and reimagine itself, think about the big picture and start realising that there will be no point in fighting your own corner when there is no audience anymore!

      This is an absolute condition for changes to happen, including with the programming issue so well presented by Simon in this article. Classical music suffers from a poor public image, and this is not making things any easier. I would even say that it is a symbol of the conservative and narrow-minded vision of its leaders.

      PS : great series of articles about promoting classical music concerts and how to write press releases on Greg Sandow’s blog http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2015/04/a-quiet-warning.html

      • Who pays the composer working outside a genre.?Who pays the performers of new works?.Show me a record company which will open to anyone not hugely bankable.full marks to Greg but the situation is more complex than many suggest..no-one has addressed the depth of the prob s; but full marks to those who have initiated things

  3. Great post Simon, I was looking forward to it and it is unsurprisingly really inspiring! I can’t agree more on the need for the industry to feed curiosity and hunger for discovery – especially among younger audiences – rather than preaching to the converted. Although when you say “I sometimes think we would be better off with people running the show who know nothing about the music at all.”, I’d rather say that we would be better off with people who know and, more importantly, love the music better than they do…

  4. Thanks for the kind comments. It’s evidently an issue that a lot of people care about. I’m not sure what the best way to tackle this problem is (in the absence of getting some visionary leadership from the top of the industry) but I always think that continuing to talk about and share music that we love has got to be worthwhile.

  5. ” The industry will be in a healthier place when concert-goers are less sure that they will enjoy the experience, but are willing to pay to find out”

    I completely agree, though I confess I have no idea how we can get to this point.
    I certainly don’t envy the job our marketing teams have

  6. Wonderful. I particularly like his points on Malcolm Arnold. I find that the ‘serious’ compositions of people known for pop/film/theatre music also intriguing. Steven Sondheim has a piano sonata which, I believe, he refuses to publish. Rosza, Silvestri and the like all have these sorts of compositions but rarely do they see the concert platform. There is also the case of playing pieces from other countries rather than the usual French, German, Russian fare. What about Estonian? Armenian? (With the exception of poor Khatchaturian who is, still, debated about as to what is his compositional nationality), Turkish, Africa, Egypt, Australia. They ARE out there and some of it is amazing.

    Even if a pianist chooses to stick with the Romantic or Late-Romantic period, there are still a truckload of composers overlooked:
    Palmgren (yes, there is more music than May Night)
    Moszkowski (lord knows, the piano concerto needs to be a standard)
    Saint Saens (treasure trove of unplayed music. Not least, his two piano arrangements of standard rep)

    The author talks about turn of the century English composers. Ireland, Bax, and Bridge may have their works on exam lists but they are still largely unheard. The sonatas and piano concerti of these composers alone are also something to be admired.

    With the advent of IMSLP, a concert programmer really has no excuse now for lacklustre programming.

    No excuse other than money and bums on seats. The Bax issue of this article. Very sad. Is the answer just to keep trying?

    The perception needs to be changed. That’s the hard part!

    • Not only relatively “modern” composers are sadly neglected. I’m thinking of Soler, Galuppi, Dussek, Onslow, Louise Farrenc, +++, & that’s only referring to keyboard music ! Beethoven’s genius has a lot to answer for !

Comments are closed.