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:

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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.