Sunday, 17 August 2008

On snobbery and classical music

People (like me) who mainly listen to so-called "classical music" are often - both implicitly and explicitly - accused of snobbery. The assumption that dedicated classical music listeners are somehow elitist is everywhere, and has even been internalised in the classical music world itself: so often, concert promoters, radio stations, award panels, arts councils, local councils, funding councils and so on insist on a false inclusiveness, an avowedly "low-brow" approach which amounts to a patronising attempt to broaden audiences beyond the white middle-classes. The fact that classical music listeners and practitioners have never been exclusively white or middle-class is lost and ignored for political reasons. Look at Mahler, rising from the Jewish working classes in a Bohemian backwater to being declared the "most famous man on earth"; look at Goldmark, who rose from obscurity and starvation; look at Samuel Coleridge-Taylor ....

No: it's assumed that classical music is still an elitist, snobbish and exclusive club which needs taking down a peg or two. The irony is that I've met lots of "pop musos" in my time, whose pride in their own pop knowledge, and whose derision at kinds of pop music they perceive as overly populist and commercial is at least as elitist as any classical musician. But, because they're into pop music no one ever dreams of accusing them of snobbery.

This modern belief that classical music is somehow inherently snobbish, and that it's only of interest to an exclusive middle or upper-class clique has, I think, had the effect in education of actually reducing opportunities for lower-middle-class or lower-class students in music. Because it is assumed that classical music is of interest only to an elite; because it is assumed that no one would want to study it from other backgrounds; because of a false kind of inclusiveness which reduces classical music to the status of an expensive luxury which must always be leavened with pop and other kinds of music; because of all this, classical music in education has, through no fault of its own, been partly shut off from state education.

This is also partly, I think, because music itself is perceived to be useless (an old British failing), and state education is even more utilitarian and gradgrindish than it used to be - and a Gradgrind can't see any reason for working class people to dedicate themselves to music. Classical music in particular takes a lifetime of dedication and training, and the benefits it brings don't fit in with a National Curriculum devoted to utility and immediate money-making results.

Hence, peripetetic music lessons, GCSEs and A' Levels in Music, proper classical training are the first things to be cut in schools, and particularly academies built on the New Labour Gradgrind model, which seem designed (ironically for a Labour invention) to train and keep the urban working classes in so-called "practical" jobs. In this context, classical music is in danger of being forced into the position that it's actually never been in before, in terms of education: it's in danger of being made into the exclusive province of private school education.


William J. Zick said...

Congratulations on making the point that Classical Music is racially and socially diverse! Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is one of several important composers of African descent in Britain. He is one of 52 people profiled at, devoted to African Heritage in Classical Music. links to this post today. I invite you and your readers to visit my website, which offers over 100 audio samples.

Eugene said...

Great post! Music is such a fickle industry, and that goes for education as well as performance. Musicians are often highly admired by the general public for their passion and commitment - sometimes as you point out, in the face of extreme odds. At the same time, within the group there are striations, in-fighting and bad-mouthing the likes of which could give Hollywood a run for its money.

The music education side of the coin is no different. I teach in a private music school that goes directly against the 'conservatory' model. It's not that we can't train the next Van Cliburn contestant, it's that we provide quality music education regardless of ability.

We also have a unique perspective in that ours is a for-profit enterprise operating as a stand alone facility in our community.
We take many slings and arrows from our so called peers in academia who can only stand by helplessly and watch as their programs are being cut to shreds.

I think Christopher Small had it right. Music is a verb, it's something we DO and it's valid at every level. When more of us both inside AND outside of music realize this, we'll all be better off.

JW said...

Interesting post. Thanks for making the effort. On that youtube performance, it's important to note that it is at best an arrangement or improvisation based loosely upon Coleridge-Taylor's setting from the 24 Negro Melodies. Nice it is, but not C-T.

Scott Ashby said...

Interesting. So what's the answer? Just let classical music stand on it's own two feet? Quit marketing "down" by adding pop elements? How do we break into the established system and change its priorities? Just questions. I recently posted on my own blog pointing to another article on how historical perspectives on music have changed. This could be a long battle.

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