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The normalisation of classical music


OPINION: Far from its reputation as exclusive, classical music is often itself excluded from mainstream culture. As more young people come to it through digital paths, is this starting to change?


A classical music concert at a rock music festival – according to AI (!)

The BBC Proms programme is out and there have been the usual backlashes and backlashes to the backlashes. Why? Because there is quite a lot of music that isn’t classical: disco, pop, lounge, jazz, Dr Who. Do I care? Not one bit. There’s still a huge array of top-notch classical highlights, whether from young social-media-savvy stars or old blue-chip greats. I may not like Sam Smith particularly, but then I don’t think much of Bruckner, either (don’t @ me).


If anything, it’s the paucity of world and folk music this year that is egregious – some of my favourite Proms have been late-night sessions. Generally, though, the range is impressive and the satellite concerts outside London quite proper for a national public service broadcaster. The Proms team are doing everything they can to narrow the gap between audiences for classical music and other types of music and to explore the intersections in the grand Venn diagram that is music.


‘Classical music has long been more sinned against than sinning in this regard. Most classical festivals and venues have for a long time incorporated at least some element of folk, jazz or world music, but the same cannot be said vice versa’

Now, I believe, it’s time for other festivals and promoters to step up and do the same. Classical music has long been more sinned against than sinning in this regard. Most classical festivals and venues have for a long time incorporated at least some element of folk, jazz or world music, but the same cannot be said vice versa. I pointed this out on Twitter and people reminded me of when English National Opera performed the third act from Wagner’s Die Walküre at Glastonbury – it turns out that was 20 years ago. A scan of the festival’s line-ups offers all sorts of pop, rock, folk, world music, but only National Youth Orchestra in 2007 by way of further classical invitations. Latitude festival defines itself a music and arts festival, featuring comedy, literature and poetry alongside every type of music, but over the years, its lineup has had no classical music at all as far as I can see.


I already hear some say, ‘But why should any festival include anything they don’t want?’ And sure, it’s their festival, their audience, their budget. But in the examples of Glastonbury and Latitude, these are festivals who pride themselves on their diversity and eclecticism (within boundaries, of course) so the logic of their own mission entails that they should be at least open to classical music.


My festival experience started relatively late in life, in 2008, with a visit to the Big Chill to see Leonard Cohen, and I was already banging on about this subject back then, for The Strad. I have both visited and played at Womad, and used to go regularly to Cambridge Folk Festival. These events, and I surmise most festivals, have plenty of low-key, random events in tents somewhere on the periphery on a Sunday morning. Why wouldn’t they experiment with chamber music or solo instrumentalists?


‘Boundaries between genres are being broken down thanks to streaming services, playlists and social media. People are coming to classical music through these new digital paths and finding interest in it as part of a mix’

Perhaps the strongest argument, though, is a commercial one. Young people are listening to more classical music, as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra research showed in 2020. Boundaries between genres are being broken down thanks to streaming services, playlists and social media. People are coming to classical music through these new digital paths and finding interest in it as part of a mix. If festivals were truly catering to their audiences, they would recognise that there is a market for classical music among their people.


I would also put the same arguments to multi-arts organisations, many of whom seem to market their cool, youth-aimed events on their social media feeds, but save the more hardcore classical events to market directly and privately to their classical email lists. As a result, you rarely see top-quality core classical events on Instagram feeds (I’m talking to you, Barbican and Southbank Centre, although this is quite common in European venues). I understand the reasoning behind this, but although I don’t know the digital metrics of traffic and sales, I disagree with it. It’s as if classical music doesn’t even exist, pushed out of any public consciousness, which is exclusionary and most likely self-fulfilling, not to mention a double standard.  


‘Marketing departments of multi-arts venues hide classical music from sight, pre-empting the idea that people will be turned off coming to the venue if they so much as glimpse an Instagram post of an old man playing the piano’

But that is the asymmetry here. The classical music world is expected to do everything to include young audiences and people from diverse backgrounds, while marketing departments of multi-arts venues hide classical music from sight, pre-empting the idea that people will be turned off coming to the venue if they so much as glimpse an Instagram post of an old man playing the piano. They are the ones who are behind the times, and it’s time for them to catch up.


Apart from the encouraging signs from digital streaming, there are other causes for hope, though. When it comes to the BBC, it certainly feels as if classical music subjects have broken into mainstream conversations – the Radio 4 Today programme, for example, picks up on classical news stories now. There’s even a fabulous In Our Time on the history of the waltz – a rare occurrence of Melvyn Bragg and his experts covering a classical music subject. I may be attributing too much power to Sam Jackson, new Controller at BBC Radio 3, in thinking he might have something to do with this, but if he does, long may it continue and grow.


Elsewhere, the wildly popular history podcast The Rest is History is doing a special broadcast featuring Mozart and Beethoven in October. The BST Hyde Park rock festival is including All Things Orchestral, with Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, alongside events featuring Kylie Minogue and Robbie Williams (although also proving my point, they seem to have segregated it from the rock gigs on the website). And which classical music nerd wouldn’t warm to The Piano, a series entirely focused on classical music skills, whatever their objections to the format.


These are exactly the sorts of signs of life we need to show that classical music really isn’t special at all – it’s just a normal part of life and deserves its place alongside every other form of art that makes people feel better, or just feel something. Yes, we need to do more to make the experience of classical music better for more people. Yes, there are major structural issues that must be solved. But not all of them are our fault or responsibility. We have the right to expect more from other people. And if aesthetic and moral arguments don’t convince them, let’s hope commercial ones do.


Yorumlar


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