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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

CLASSICAL MUSIC - TOO ÉLITIST ?

Arthur Butterworth

A commentary by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen’s Music was the subject of a news item on Radio 4 in recent days. Sir Peter pointed out that there would seem to be a real possibility that classical music might, perhaps before too long, die out completely. One of his contentions being that in a growing number of schools there was no proper provision for serious music being taught properly, if at all, or that many who are supposed to teach music are themselves so lacking in both technical knowledge of the subject, and what is even more insidious, a sense of its ideals and purpose. On the face of it this appears to be all too true. Sir Peter also hinted that the very nature of classical music is now widely regarded as too élitist. Perhaps this is also true, especially in these times of political correctness and the obsessive desire to bring all things in life to a common level.

The situation deserves some consideration. Firstly all human beings start out in childhood in a state of innocence: they have to learn by degrees what the world they have been (unwillingly) born into is all about. There is another way of regarding this pristine innocence, we might not like this alternative way of putting it, but it is nonetheless a true description: we are all born ignorant, and only through a long and often difficult process do we acquire knowledge and understanding; or put another way, insight and culture. In the widest sense the human race as a whole has had to develop a sense of culture. Probably for the great majority this has ever been a very slow thing to acquire; only a comparative few have, either by an in-born talent, or because of some good fortune in their antecedents, been able to rise to the top of the social/élitist scale. This of course, is now regarded as iniquitous and not to be perpetrated any longer in an ideal world. But it is not, nor ever has been an ideal world; there have always been those who have had a greater insight into things. Quite apart from equality of opportunity (set such store by in present-day attitudes) some people, in virtually all vocations seem to stand out from the rest; they are gifted in some way.

In the earliest days of music the large masses of the population could only perceive and understand the most basic of popular tavern tunes, country dances and such like; the ‘pop’ music of the day. The only other music, and probably the first to be properly organised as an art form at all, seems to have been in the realms of the church, and certainly music in the service of the church might well have been the only formalised music making available to the common person. As in later times it must at first only have been the privileged who were to realise the potential, intellectual and emotional, that music (like the sister arts) could rise to. The early classics were indeed élitist - in the best sense of that much maligned word. The creation of such élitist arts depended on the heightened imagination and creative insight of writers (such as Shakespeare) painters (Titian,. Rembrandt, whoever else you care to think of) and composers (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven ....). Even in that so-called "Age of Enlightenment" such music could never have had the widespread appeal to the masses that the naive music of popular taste - music heard in ale houses, at country fairs and local merry-making must have enjoyed.

By its very nature that high élitist culture and an insight into where it could lead spiritually must ever have had but a relatively restricted appeal. The first manifestations of what we now loosely call ‘classical music’ could reach but few of the population. Yet by degrees this growing awareness of the good things of life began to reach the greater masses of humanity. Despite the general awakening to all forms of knowledge and culture, and its becoming more in reach of the less-privileged, by its very nature it was always bound to carry in it an élitism: not an élitism born of privilege, but a natural élitism of the human mind, which sad, but true, to say, is not vouchsafed to the majority of us. We can be led so far, but as the old saying goes: "You can lead a horse to the trough but you cannot make it drink". This then, it seems to me is part of the dilemma.

In the great age of nineteenth century revolution the art of music certainly does appear to have blossomed, perhaps it reached a peak. This did not stop in the twentieth century; it even spread more widely and effectively. So what has happened ?

The world-wide situation is too complex to examine in a short commentary but it is possible to assess things as they seem to be happening on a narrower scale, which in itself could (like a pre-general election poll) give some idea as to what is happening in other places.

While in Britain there has long been music-making of a vast variety: not solely the really popular or common-place, or music connected with religious observance and ritual, but music on a grand scale: operatic, symphonic, chamber music, local choirs and bands. In the past century this has certainly grown beyond the expectations of the times. There are now permanent orchestras and opera companies where there were comparatively few before. Yet from what our grandparents tell us there were often musical events that were grandiose - and popular - as they are now even if not of quite such frequent happening.

Coming nearer to our own time: It is worth relating what happened in just one major city in the 1930’s. Hallé school children’s concerts were promoted once a month. They were fairly cheap, not freely provided, and school children had to make their own way to the centre of Manchester on concert evenings. They were encouraged to attend, but there was no coercion; it remained a free choice. The concerts were presented with the same kind of prestige and "élitist glamour" that the Hallé Society offered to its wealthy upper-class patrons at the regular subscription concerts. The children’s concerts never played down to their audiences: the orchestra appeared. in full evening dress, the programmes were of the standard classics, and a full two-hours in duration, and there were international soloists. The surprising thing about music in schools in those days was that while there was regular class singing, there was virtually no instrumental teaching whatsoever. Only the most privileged and expensive private schools might boast a school orchestra. Ordinary schools did not have either the resources or the interest to promote instrumental teaching. So what persuaded young people to go to concerts ?

After the Second World War peripatetic music teaching took off in a big way; all local authorities - if the pun can be excused - ‘climbed on the band wagon" and there was a furious promotion of music, albeit at the expense of choral singing. Paradoxically the formal school concerts by big professional orchestras tended to go down-market. In place of the full evening concerts (white tie and tails) schools-authority concerts took place during school hours: short concerts with the orchestra in more casual dress, much watered-down programmes, and audiences comprised of children who were bussed to the concerts whether they liked it or not. There seemed almost to be an apology for performing music in front of them: "élitism" seemed to be an embarrassment and so the insidious seeds of a decline perhaps could be said to have set in.

The situation is a puzzling paradox: there are more young people making music to an incredibly high technical standard; yet it is true that in many schools music is either badly taught or not appreciated at all: pop reigns (but in a sense it always did, even in Edwardian and Victorian days). It is said that audiences for serious (so-called ‘classical’ music) is now only patronised by an ageing audience. This, however, is not really different than in former times.

Music in a classical style - from whatever period - is not just for casual entertainment: it demands careful attention from the listener. It is not primarily, if at all, for sensual physical stimulation, but is a phenomenon of stimulating the intellect and the more subtle emotions; thus it requires a degree of mental maturity for its fullest appreciation. This is one reason why audiences generally tend to be older: it takes time for the individual to acquire the kind of intellectual insight that brings the fullest appreciation of the classics. Younger people, for the most part, have not reached this stage; they need something physically exciting; the older audiences of today were once young and they did not attend concerts in the way they now do; tomorrow’s audiences are the young of today, but they will quite assuredly, come to classical music as they themselves mature.

As for élitism this is by definition, the essential of all classical thought and creativity. It is the difference between the common-place and vulgar, the everyday and often cheaply ephemeral; élitism reaches for the highest in human endeavour. Far from being despised we should treasure élitism more than ever. The present-day attitude to élitism is a sign of a decline in general culture: poor taste in things: manners, casual dress, lazy mental pursuits, passive attitudes, pop arts, inarticulateness, neuroses of many kinds, and not least an inverted snobbery which is displayed in an ignorance of classical music.

Arthur Butterworth

 



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