Guest article by Adrian Ainsworth

The discussion that will not die: elitism in classical music. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve taken part in it, both in conversation and, here and there, in writing. What keeps it grinding on, blocking the through-routes to open-hearted enjoyment and appreciation?

Don’t worry – I can hear your response: people like you keep writing pieces like this! Well, touché. But this time, there are two particular prompts. First of all, pianist/composer Ludovico Einaudi – a genuine phenomenon – has made the news through one of the major music examination boards adding his work to their new piano syllabus. Einaudi appears to be an almost satanic figure to certain folk in the classical music sphere, inviting levels of dismissiveness and vitriol in line with his sales.

In parallel, we are living through a very specific, unusual period where artists and musicians are suddenly without income and, in many cases, are forced to consider the future viability of their planned projects, even careers. The ‘normal’ to come may not be the ‘normal’ we had before. With that in mind, isn’t it better to consider and examine – rather than dismiss – what could make more classical music more popular?

Of course, programmers and marketing departments have grappled with this conundrum since the year dot, and concerns about bringing in audiences persist, even in a pre- or post-covid scenario. There is no magic solution. We’ve seen venues try wildly different approaches: adding new or untried pieces to a bill featuring a dead-cert, bums-on-seats, absolute banger; staging concerts or musicals ‘off-season’ to help fund opera; performing short, sharp rush-hour sets to whet commuters’ appetites for more… and so on. The outbreak is driving even more innovation along these lines – English National Opera’s upcoming ‘drive-in opera’ performances at London’s Alexandra Palace, for example.

But it’s up to us – the audiences, the listeners, the teachers, the fans – to grapple with this, too. Our minds need to be as open and welcoming as the doors to our favourite venues. Our conversation, our social media accounts, can spread the word as efficiently as fliers and mailing lists.

Because love of music will always revolve around taste, ‘arguments’ against Einaudi don’t really stick.

  • “Just because it’s successful doesn’t make it good.” No, but it doesn’t make it bad either (leaving aside the obvious problem of who decides whether something is ‘good’ or not). In the same way, a piece is not ‘good’ just because it’s obscure.
  • “It’s so simple, anyone could do it.” But ‘anyone’ didn’t do it. Perhaps they didn’t have the ideas or techniques after all. Or if they had the ideas, they didn’t have the patience, staying power and determination to get it all down and produce it.
  • “It’s just pandering to popular culture / taste.” Well, isn’t that what composers and musicians want to do? If you have an income away from music that allows you to be utterly fearless and experimental in your art, fine: but surely everyone else is striving for the balance between staying true to themselves creatively and putting food on the table.

It’s not really a case of “I’m right and you’re wrong”: there is no right and wrong. If I like Einaudi, why should I care what the ‘establishment’ says about him? On one level, I don’t care one iota.

But widening the picture, it matters to me more, because to dismiss something because it’s too popular, not complex enough – not ‘good’ enough – is a form of gatekeeping, however accidental or unwitting. Whatever surface ‘elitist’ practices in classical music we may eventually conquer – high ticket prices, impenetrable etiquette, imaginary dress codes – a refusal to engage with and even embrace what fires up a wider, casual listenership will always stop us reaching the maximum possible audience.

I always have to remind myself that the dividing line between classical and popular music was only drawn in recent history. To pare one specific cliché down to its essence: “Modern classical music – where are the tunes?” As unfounded as that remark is, it comes from somewhere, and can’t be ignored. Perhaps during the twentieth century, as consumers increasingly got their ‘quick fixes’ from red-hot jazz sides, 3-minute salvos of rock ‘n’ roll and instantly alluring soul numbers, classical music went somewhere else: innovative, exploratory and definitely, even defiantly, more niche. (Otherwise, why would we need the term ‘light classics’ – themselves under fire from time to time – if there wasn’t some serious ‘heaviness’ elsewhere?)

Isn’t it time to bring these worlds together again? Isn’t it already happening? I type this on a Sunday in July. Only last night, Nicky Spence brought a superb online concert (part of Mary Bevan’s Music at the Tower series) to a close with ‘Nessun Dorma’ to the audience’s utter delight, and no wonder: it’s one of opera’s bona fide entries in the hit parade, thanks to Pavarotti. And the ‘Bitesize Proms’ series posted a performance by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny of… ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’, by The Smiths. Other examples spring to mind: Sheku Kanneh-Mason taking Elgar into the Top 10 mainstream album charts; Anna Meredith making electronica albums alongside her classical commissions; Max Richter curating a multi-disc compilation for Rough Trade introducing modern composition to indie/underground record buyers…

Information overload, shorter attention spans, more urgent need to multi-task: our culture and society is not just continually changing, but compressing. Like it or not, more people respond to the immediate, the impactful. For example, as an artist-led listener, I favour the increasingly popular approach of programming discs as though they were ‘albums’ rather than recordings. I willingly accompany certain artists on their creative journeys: the perfectly natural behaviour of a fan, essentially.

As listeners, the more that we can do to bring some of the impact found in other genres into the classical music world, the better. There’s no need to dilute the music itself – but no need to rarify it, either. We need to communicate our enthusiasm and excitement about classical music without embarrassment or inhibition…. And to do that, you have to let people in: not shut them out.

Adrian Ainsworth is, by day, a copywriter specialising in plain language communications about finance and benefits. However, he spends the rest of the time consuming as much music, live or recorded, as possible – then writing about it, often on Specs, his slightly erratic ‘cultural diary’ containing thought pieces, performance and exhibition write-ups, playlists, and even a spot of light photography. He has a particular interest in art song and opera… and a general interest in everything else. He is a regular contributor to this site and is also a reviewer for its sister site



As I said in my little appreciation yesterday, following the announcement of his death, André Previn was a significant presence in my cultural upbringing, and his passing has given me pause to reflect on that.

André Previn (picture from ClassicFM)

There was always a lot of music at home – on the radio, on LPs and, significantly, on television; so much in fact that classical music felt like a normal part of the day-to-day cultural landscape of the 1970s and 80s. As a family, we enjoyed André Previn’s programmes where, with the LSO, he introduced the great works from the classical repertoire in a way which was engaging, informative, intelligent – and accessible. The orchestra eschewed their usual formal attire of white tie and tails, as did Previn as conductor, yet despite the more relaxed setting, Previn never dumbed down the subject matter nor patronised his audience, but explained aspects such as musical structure and form in a way which was comprehensible to the lay viewer/listener. Talking about it this morning with my husband (who is not a natural classical music fan but who, like me, comes from an ordinary middle class family who enjoyed music of all genres), he commented that at that time (mid 1970s) it didn’t seem that unusual to find a full symphony orchestra or a string quartet or piano trio performing on the telly. In his André Previn & Friends programmes, Previn was joined by musical friends and acquaintances who performed music together and talked about it in a casual yet informed way which allowed the viewer to get beyond the notes and also discover some insights into the life of a classical musician (what I’m attempting to do with the Meet the Artist series). Come to think of it, having a classical musician appear on the Morecombe & Wise show, as Previn memorably did (“Mr Andrew Preview”), perhaps indicated just how much classical music was part of the our mainstream culture in those days.

In addition to Previn’s programmes, there were broadcast masterclasses with, amongst others, the cellist Paul Tortelier (about whom my mum had a bit of a “thing”!) and pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim. I watched these programmes with great curiosity – as a fledgling piano player, I was fascinated by the students being put through their paces and the critical comments of the “master”, and when, as an “adult returner”, I participated in my first masterclass, I recalled these programmes with a Proustian rush of memories.

Face the Music was another popular television programme in the 1970s –  I loved it, taking pride in the rare occasions when I got a question right. Such an esoteric quiz show would never be shown on mainstream TV today, and in some ways Face the Music, with its intelligentsia-rich panel of people like Robin Ray and Bernard Levin, and hosted by accomplished pianist Joseph Cooper, was at the opposite end of the spectrum to Previn’s programmes, which demystified and democratised classical music by combining humour with breadth of knowledge, yet both were regular – and popular – features on the BBC.

Face the Music tv quiz show with Robin Ray, Joyce Grenfell and David Attenborough (front row)

Sadly, neither Previn’s programmes nor Face the Music would probably see the light of day on mainstream TV today (though FTM was revived, briefly and substantially dumbed down, in 2007 on BBCFour): both would be deemed too rarefied, too esoteric. We do of course still have programmes about classical music on the BBC but in general these are consigned to the relative backwater of BBCFour, which is where the BBC shows its more recondite programmes on, for example, art, history, music and drama. There have been some good classical music programmes on BBCFour, including The Sound and The Fury (broadcast in 2013 in conjunction with the Southbank Centre’s The Rest Is Noise festival of twentieth-century music) and Revolution and Romance: Musical Masters of the Nineteenth Century (2016), presented by Suzy Klein and featuring performances by pianist Daniel Grimwood. During the Proms season in the summer, the BBC broadcasts selected concerts, often edited to exclude modern, contemporary or potentially “difficult” music and to make the broadcast shorter (back in the good old days, Prom concerts were broadcast uncut). I know I am not alone in having an issue with this kind of presentation: it’s a form of censorship, the programme makers deeming what is acceptable for the viewer. It troubles me because if people are not exposed to modern or more challenging music how can they ever make a judgement about whether or not they actually like it or find it interesting? It also reveals a certain reverence towards the core canon of classical music, and a (possibly inaccurate) view that this is what the public wants. We also have the Proms Extra programme, which “casts an eye over the best of the action from the BBC Proms” and includes interviews and features with some of the performers. Personally, I find these programmes fairly anodyne, a kind of One Show for classical music. By contrast, Previn’s programmes, those masterclasses and other culture broadcasting now seems bold and challenging.

So why did classical music broadcasting on television become so dumbed down? In part, I think it is down to education: as music education has been eroded and devalued in our schools, so classical music in particular has dropped off the mainstream cultural radar. Now largely the preserve of the privileged few rather than the many, it is regarded as “elitist” and “inaccessible” and, importantly, unpopular. And so in an attempt to engage more people with the artform, some programme makers and presenters have sought to “trendify” or popularise classical music (the BBC’s Our Classical Century is, in my humble opinion, a cringeworthy current example of this). Take the BBC Young Musician competition. Once a serious music contest in which talented young players competed in instrumental categories to secure a place in the concerto final (and for many entry to a professional career), the focus of the competition now seems more geared to the back stories of the performers (and asking them immediately they come off stage “how did you feel?”), and attractive overly-enthusiastic presenters. The sets are flashy and in the midst of all the X-Factor style razzamatazz, the actual music – which is what the competition is meant to be about – feels rather sidelined. In fact, the performances are often edited to shorten them, usually to exclude that challenging contemporary music, and to make the show more appealing (for which read “popular”).

And this, I think, it what lies at the heart of presentation of classical music (what little there is now) on the BBC. As the corporation has had to become more commercial and competitive, so its programming has shifted towards the popular and populist.

I hope I do not come across as a classical music snob because I do not regard myself as one. I care very passionately about music and I want others to care as well. I also want people to engage with classical music, to discover just how wonderful and varied it really is, but not to be guided by presenters who cheerily tell us that Debussy’s Clair de Lune is “relaxing” rather than letting the music speak for itself. What André Previn did so successfully with his tv programmes was to raise “the public’s awareness of great music and its performance by demonstrating just how great – majestic, magical, exciting, moving – it actually is, as opposed to attempting to make it easy and approachable and thus losing almost everyone. ” (Peter Donohoe, concert pianist). Previn’s intelligent, informed and natural approach made the artform accessible, in the best possible sense of that word, rather than behaving as if it is some kind of taboo or weird hobby, to be whispered about behind one’s hand, as is too often the attitude now.

I’m not advocating a return to the 1970s style of broadcasting, but I think today’s programme makers and presenters could learn a lot from Previn’s unpretentious style and approach. I know some would argue that we have digital and streaming services like MediciTV and World Concert Hall which offer wall-to-wall classical music broadcasting – concerts, masterclasses, interviews, features et al – but the BBC does have a duty as a public service broadcaster to offer a broad range of programmes. Music is a key facet of our culture and heritage and as such should not be ignored nor devalued. We need music, and the BBC has within its remit the opportunity to foster an appreciation of and interest in music.

Watch Andre Previn at the BBC

The lost art of the classical music animateur



(Picture source: ClassicFM)
Recently I was contacted by a marketing company working for superstar Dutch violinist, composer and concert master André Rieu. In addition to inviting me to review Andre’s latest CD ‘Roman Holiday’, I was also asked if I might help advertise “André Rieu themed parties”.

For many “serious” classical music fans, André Rieu epitomises high schmalz and low culture: the Disney-esque concert master with the curly mullet, his concerts brimming with Viennese waltzes and polkas, the women in his orchestra resplendent in bouffant crinolines. Ye gods! The man even has his own tv series on Sky Arts. However, for many people he also represents an accessible way into classical music: his concerts sell out, he makes millions in CD sales, he has undeniably clever and powerful marketing and PR. The latest strand in the André Rieu empire is “themed parties” where, presumably, people sit around listening to his new CD (mullets and crinolines not necessarily obligatory). Whilst enjoying a joint guffaw with my musician friends and colleagues on Facebook, a number of people suggesting that these parties might be like updated Tupperware or Anne Summers parties which take place “guiltily behind closed doors”, the idea of a classical music themed party began to gain some credence – for me at least…..

How to engage new audiences is a constant preoccupation of almost everyone in the classical music industry. Many things have been tried, from The Late Shift (classical music in a pub) and Speed Dating with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to performers eschewing formal clothing in favour of comfy sneakers and jeans and swearing a lot while talking about Bach’s sex life, or asking the audience to pay only what they think the concert is worth (a recent initiative from the Hallé). These days you can enjoy contemporary classical music in a carpark, or Baroque music in a semi-ruined church (The Asylum in Peckham). I’ve hosted and performed in several concerts at Brunswick House, part of the London Architectural Salvage & Supply Co, where you can buy the chair on which you are sitting, or even the piano, as everything in the building is for sale. 

Performers, promoters and concert organisers are constantly trying to find new ways to rebrand the notion that most classical music was written by “dead white males” to sex it up for new audiences and the younger generation. Trouble is, the younger generation can spot an older person trying to get on down with the kids a mile off, or recognise when they are being patronised – and to be honest, classical music doesn’t really need sexing up: it’s quite sexy – and exciting and varied and heart-stoppingly wonderful – enough as it is.

(Picture source: Kef store)
Is the idea of a “themed party” where one enjoys classical music really such a preposterous one? Once upon a time there were record clubs where people met to listen to LPs and enjoy and discuss the music/performers they heard. If not André Rieu, what about a Philip Glass themed party, or a Mozart party (with the option to wear powdered wigs and brocade waistcoats), or a Messiaen party where we all wear shades of mauve and orange with flashes of sky blue? Joking apart, such events could be another way to engage new audiences by allowing people to sample classical music in an informal setting (someone’s home or a small intimate venue), where there is no etiquette (beyond good manners), no need to worry about clapping at the wrong time, or not knowing enough about the Second Viennese School….. (In fact, this notion is not so far removed from something I was involved in until recently – the London Piano Meetup Group, an informal group of pianists and piano fans who met in various venues to perform, share repertoire and generally rave about what we love about the piano and it’s literature.) You see, I believe that if people are allowed to explore classical music on their own terms in a friendly and unpretentious environment, they might just consider buying a ticket to a concert at the Southbank or Wigmore Hall. In some ways, it’s just about giving them to confidence to make that leap from living room to Leipzig Gewandhaus…..

Returning to Mr Rieu, here is an intelligent and entertaining article on what mainstream classical musicians and orchestras might learn from André. After all, he must be doing something right, given his full houses and million-dollar CD sales….. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

More on engaging audiences for classical music here

Five Ways to Attract New Arts Audiences

What’s wrong with the classical concert experience in the 21st century?

Classical music isn’t a secret society unless we allow it to be