Classical music for the masses

Classical music, or so the story goes, is elitist, esoteric and unfathomably complex. This is of course absolute nonsense

Photo: Wikipedia/Derek Gleeson

Photo: Wikipedia/Derek Gleeson

“Modern classical music is like paedophilia. No matter how persistently its champions urge their cause, it will never be accepted by the public at large, who will continue to regard it with incomprehension, outrage and repugnance” – Kingsley Amis

It’s fair to say that classical music is not exactly on a hot streak. Gone are the days when Handel’s water music debuted on George I’s royal barge, to rapturous acclaim from the packed banks of the Thames, or the opening night of a Shostakovich ballet warranted a public review from the Politburo. Now our musical icons are Mark Ronson and Jessie J, while the classical brand is declining as quickly as the decrepit pensioners that make up its fanbase. MP3 sales are through the floor, two of the world’s most successful symphony orchestras declared bankruptcy in 2013, and so did the New York City Opera. A sombre requiem has been growing louder for decades, and the fat lady is now warming up her vocal chords.

Several theories have been put forward to explain this decline. Perhaps concertos and sonatas are too technically challenging?

Several theories have been put forward to explain this decline. Perhaps concertos and sonatas are too technically challenging? Anyone with fingers can now pick up a guitar and whack out some Green Day in a month or two, but a fledgling violinist is a dozen years hard practice and a 50-man orchestra away from their first concerto. Perhaps it’s simply run its course, becoming part of cultural heritage rather than cultural reality? Political sitcom Yes, Prime Minister tackled this notion as early as the 70s; ‘Do you want Radio 3 to be pumping out pop music 24 hours a day?’ asks Sir Humphrey. ‘I don’t know I never listen to it’ replies Bernard. ‘Well neither do I’ retorts Humph haughtily, ‘but it’s vital to know that its there!’ Perhaps this is now the role of Vaughan-Williams and Elgar; to be a cultural comfort blanket for the British intelligentsia, always present but rarely experienced.

There are nuggets of truth in both of these, but the most common perception of the classical cull is that it’s due to ‘inaccessibility’. Classical music, or so the story goes, is elitist, esoteric and unfathomably complex. The ‘democratisation of pop culture’ (the internet tells me that this is a thing) has apparently torn down the musical hegemony of the aristocracy and is finally giving the people what they want. Many would now place England’s concert halls and philharmonic orchestras into the dreaded category of ‘high art’: a one-way ticket to public irrelevance. Perhaps the ‘common man’ had best stick to Stormzy.

This is of course absolute nonsense. Fundamentally, most classical music is supposed to be emotive not intellectual. Anyone who’s heard the thudding opening chords of Beethoven’s fifth, or the unrepentant triumphalism of the 1812 overture can tell you that it’s rarely impenetrably subtle. You need no more ‘understanding’ to enjoy a Beethoven sonata than you do a Dairy Milk chocolate bar: if you like listening to it and/or it evokes an emotional response in you, then you’ve pretty much got the picture. For me Beethoven satisfies both of these criteria. So too does Guns N’ Roses.

There’s nothing wrong with the classical product; it is the packaging that is woefully unfit for the modern age

The point here is that there’s nothing wrong with the classical product; it is the packaging that is woefully unfit for the modern age. This is partly due to the culture described above – the image of old white men in dinner suits discussing the merits of Sibelius vs. Stravinsky (though Radiohead fans can be just as insufferable). Much more important though, is the way in which individual pieces of music are marketed. If I hear a piece of pop music I can ascertain very quickly what it’s called and who it’s by, whereupon I can YouTube it, Spotify it, download it, or shove it on a playlist which other people can look at and have instant name recognition. This is a far cry from the bizarre classical system of ‘opuses’ and key signatures.

To take just one example, one of my favourite classical pieces is ‘Prelude in G Minor op. 23/5’ by Rachmaninoff (seriously google it, it’s great). This is not to be confused with: Prelude in G op.28/3 (Chopin); Prelude in E Minor op. 28/4 (Pivka); Prelude in C# Minor op. 3/2 (also Rachmaninoff); or Prelude in C Major (Bach). And those are just the ones on my iTunes.

You can probably see where the problem lies. Not only does this make the classical catalogue extremely difficult to navigate (which of the hundreds of ‘Symphony No.1’s is this again?) but perhaps more importantly it’s mind-numbingly unsexy. It’s like referring to a book purely by its place in the Dewey Decimal system; there’s barely a hint of what the work actually contains, and you have to trawl through an ocean of letters and numbers just to find it in the first place. If you look at Beethoven’s piano sonatas it’s noticeable that his most enduring works have taken on informal names, clawing back just an ounce of brand recognition. Everyone has heard of the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ (#14) and ‘Sonata Pathetique’ (#8) but are you familiar with the otherwise unnamed Sonata #27, critically considered ‘one of Beethoven’s most accomplished melodies’? My personal favourite is ‘Piano Sonata #3 in C, Op. 2/3 Movement I. – Allegro Con Brio’. Still reading?

My favourite piece when I was younger was ‘String Quartet No. 1’ attributed on my iPod to ‘the Shostakovich Quartet’. I only found out last week that it’s actually by Tchaikovsky.

With all this in mind CDs represent a bit of a lottery, while listening to new stuff on YouTube is akin to high-intensity speed dating; it’s all perfectly lovely, but unless you have a very good memory there’s no guarantee you’ll meet again. MP3 style devices are particularly problematic: not unreasonably the ‘artist’ status for classical pieces is generally attributed to the performer, often an indistinct list of barely recognisable names which sometimes changes between movements. The composer category exists on iTunes but is rarely used, whilst titles are often so long they don’t fit on portable screens. My favourite piece when I was younger was the gorgeously lyrical ‘String Quartet No. 1’ attributed on my iPod to ‘the Shostakovich Quartet’. I only found out last week that it’s actually by Tchaikovsky.

Each piece wears its musical complexity proudly on its sleeve. For those who don’t know the musical difference between a prelude and a sonata, aren’t familiar with the effects of C# major and never did Italian at school, this can be profoundly alienating. It doesn’t translate well socially either: try saying the phrase ‘I really love Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 2 Op. 11 – II Andante Cantabile’ (not until the last word have you specified which piece you actually mean) without sounding like a pretentious prick. It’s nigh on impossible.

So, overall classical music can be pretty impenetrable, but only because it’s really, really badly marketed. People have proven perfectly willing to invest time in left-turn music – ultra-alternative bands like Sonic Youth; instrumentals such as Apache and Eruption; revolutionary new styles from post-grunge to hard D&B – so there’s no reason why classical shouldn’t make a sudden return to form, but it will only do so if it shakes off its unapproachable reputation and oppressive filing system. The music itself isn’t archaic in the least, but the framework surrounding it can take years to get to grips with. Radio 3’s listeners will doubtless be outraged at my efforts to ‘sex up’ the classical catalogue. Thankfully neither of them are likely to read this.

It’s looking pretty grim for classical music at the moment, but with just a little modernisation reports of its death may have been greatly exaggerated. Just watch. It’ll be Bach.

One comment

  1. Thanks for writing and posting this Luke. I think it’s worth pointing out that instrumental music like sonatas or even jazz have lost out to songs and celebrity singers. Generally speaking, people prefer character, vocals and visual drama to relying on their own imaginations. The standards of classical presentation help maximize the potential impact of music, but they don’t welcome or inform new listeners. New classical events specifically for newcomers could change all that, esp. with new music that adapts the musical dialect of Schubert and Brahms with urban pop grooves. I’ve composed several works that prove this works, and call the style Classical Soul. Here are two samples, although these track were recorded before I began adding drums:

    Playing them often in clubs, homes, schools and restaurants, I believe we can open many to the enviable power of classical expression.

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