The weekend brought some time out to pause and reflect on the reactions of others and my own to that Guardian article and that Phase Eight dress (read my articles here and here). While some agreed with my view, others suggested I had over-reacted or not understood the message of The Guardian article in particular. There were a few rather bruising brickbats mingled with supportive words via Twitter; such is the nature of that particular beast and it was at least encouraging to see a lively discussion, regardless of one’s point of view.
Perhaps these two issues look like a storm in a classical music teacup. Why get so exercised about a red evening dress or an obviously clickbaity article? But I do think the Guardian article and the Phase Eight tweet are symptomatic of an ongoing issue for this art form which I love and about which I care passionately (and yes, my *over* reaction is a sign of my passion) – how classical music is perceived and presented.
“Classical Music is elitist”
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; thus outsiders think that to attend a classical music concert or opera, one must dress up (back to that Phase Eight dress again). 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 any UK concert hall and you’ll find people dressed comfortably and casually. There’s no dress code at the Wigmore Hall nor the Proms (something Phase Eight’s marketing department would have realised, had they done some homework).
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. 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 primetime television with programmes like André Previn’s. I’m fairly sure classical music then did not have the elitist aura which surrounds it now, and it was only when I went to secondary school that I began to sense a certain antagonism towards classical music which for me manifested itself in the attitude of some of my classmates who bullied me because I liked music and was “good at it”. Yet music was available to every pupil in the school should they choose to participate (this was in the early 1980s in the halcyon days of good music provision in state schools), but I was bullied because I was engaging in an activity which was perceived as highbrow and somehow exclusive.
The serious erosion of music provision in 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 Meet the Artist series) 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? A music journalist commented in response to the Outraged of Tunbridge Wells reaction to the Phase Eight dress furore that: “ … if classical music dies it will be the enthusiasts that kill it.” So maybe audience members, the enthusiasts and the fans, do have a responsibility? 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?
Despite the best efforts of those of us within the profession – musicians, commentators, reviewers, 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 (quick to label it “elitist”).
Enough already with the smirking and eye-rolling, the apologetic marketing, the 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 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.