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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The marketing department at Phase Eight, a women’s fashion label which does a nice line in evening wear, clearly hadn’t done their research when they tweeted this:

Image-1

If you turn up at the Proms dressed like that, especially if you have a ticket to promenade (stand) in the arena, heads would turn, eyes would roll…. because the Proms is surely the most relaxed and casually attired of any classical music event. By all means don a scarlet evening dress to attend the opera at Glyndebourne or Grange Park, but maybe not for the Proms.

Perhaps someone in Phase Eight’s marketing department read that silly article in The Guardian last week which claims that classical music is for the elite, monied class, the “yachts and have yachts” and decided that classical music afficionados leave their yachts and Porsches and head for The Proms, dressed in full evening dress. Or perhaps they’ve confused The Proms with the school prom, that dreadful American import which has infiltrated our UK schools, where teenagers celebrate the end of term by dressing up to the nines and arriving at a local hotel in a stretch limo.

There’s also another tired old misconception at work here, that one must “dress up” to attend a classical music concert. The Proms in particular is very much a “come as you are” festival, and of course if you want to wear a full-length evening gown to a concert at the hot, airless, crowded Royal Albert Hall, by all means feel free to do so, but you’ll probably feel more comfortable in shorts and a tee-shirt!

Sadly, the kind of attire Phase Eight is promoting does rather perpetuate the tedious stereotype that classical music is somehow far grander than other artforms and that one must dress and behave in accordance with strict codes of conduct. This doesn’t really help those of us within the profession who are keen to promote classical music as something for everyone, and where everyone is welcome.

 

According to this article which appeared in The Guardian at the weekend, classical music is for the elite monied few, not the many. What a shame The Guardian, which in the past has championed classical music, has fallen back on that tired old trope that classical music is elitist and inaccessible – and to make the point, the (unknown) author of this lazy article has chosen the Proms as the prime example of this.

The Proms is the most democratic, non-elitist and accessible classical music festival there is. Not only can one pick up a promming (standing) ticket for just £6 and thereby have access to some of the greatest musicians and orchestras in the world, there are cheap seats in the auditorium, and every concert is broadcast on BBC Radio Three, so you can listen at home, for free. If that’s not “accessible”, I don’t know what is.

Classical music concert tickets are generally far cheaper than West End theatre and musicals, and significantly cheaper than pop gigs/festivals and football matches. Even opera, always tiresomely wheeled out as an example of how elitist classical music is, is affordable with venues like the Royal Opera House offering tickets in the gods for c£25, and ENO’s secret seat scheme where you pay c£30 and may end up in a £100 seat in the front row of the dress circle. Meanwhile, Wigmore Hall’s partnership with ClassicFM gives under 30s the opportunity to purchase tickets for just £5, and Cavatina Trust‘s ticket scheme provides young people free entry to 100+ concerts around the country every year.

In its keeness to highlight “the unwillingness of many audiences to expose themselves to the shock of the musically new” (the author blames the UK’s classical music radio stations and their “unchallenging” programming for this), the article omits to mention that the Proms is also one of the greatest showcases for new music, opening with a world premiere and new commissions peformed in virtually every concert, thus bringing contemporary music and living composers (of every gender and colour) to the attention of a large audience (in fact, the article reads as if the author has never actually attended a Prom, or indeed any other classical music concert).

With its obsession with elitism and privilege, The Guardian article also overlooks the primary reason why most people engage with classical music. At its best, classical music has the power to transport us to places we never thought possible, freeing the imagination and removing us, for a few hours at least, from the every day. Classical music puts us in touch with the full range of human emotion – because those who wrote/write it, whether dead white guys or living composers of all genders/colours, were/are human too and share our hopes and desires, fears and joys. For some, classical music provides therapy, solace and comfort (and let’s not snobbishly dismiss the therapeutic, relaxing benefits of classical music); it uplifts and excites, energises and thrills.

Classical music still has an image problem and its association with privilege, the notion that one must have specialist knowledge to “understand” or appreciate it, and that the etiquette and customs of classical music concerts or opera are confusing and off-putting, remains a problem for those of us who seek to encourage more people to engage with this fantastic artform. Ill-thought articles such as the piece in The Guardian are not helping.

Meanwhile, if you want to sample classical music, just buy some goddam concert tickets – because classical music is for everyone.