A common topic, and one that I follow quite a bit, is how to save classical msuic. There are blogs, such as Greg Sandow’s, that talk about nothing but this. What I’ve noticed is that the vast majority of these conversations contain language that directly demonstrate one of the largest problems that the genre has: elitism. I don’t mean to slam people who seem to be honestly trying to find solutions to things such as an aging audience and dwindling funding but perpetuating a rather large issue, even while trying to figure out solutions, really needs to be addressed. I recently read a post over at Seated Ovation that contrasts the German classical scene with the American scene; in particular, their ability to attract young audiences. The article contained this gem:

And, generally, young people turn out for the Berlin Philharmonic. There’s an especially large surplus of the 25-35 crowd who dress well and seem culturally refined, more like the breakdown of the Met Opera than the New York Phil (the Staatsoper audience, based on the two performances I attended in their main theater, seems to skew older).

We’ll ignore the anecdotal evidence, especially since the writer claims it’s anecdotal himself, and focus on the language he’s using. Namely, why would one feel the need to point out that this 25-35 crowd is culturally refined and well dressed? Maybe they are, but who cares? Statements like this imply that one is not cultured if they’re not attending symphony performances. I would argue that most orchestras are so far removed from modern culture that they can’t be used as a measure of how “refined” someone’s sense of culture is at all. At best, it’s a measure of how aware one is of the culture that our modern world sprang from, especially since the majority of what you will hear programmed is over 100 years old, even in Berlin (judging by the current season at the Philharmonic).

This simple sentence also implies that those who go to orchestral concerts have the desire and finances necessary to get all dazzled up. There’s something to be said for wearing your best clothes to a performance; it makes the show something special and allows you to escape your routine. That said, it also carries connotations of superiority, as if you would not be welcome if you couldn’t fit this mold. Maybe that’s not the case, maybe it is, maybe this is a very small implication anyway. Regardless, it helps to preserve the damaging image that classical music has of being elitist which can keep even adventurous listeners out of the concert halls.

I’ve come across this sort of thing reading posts at On An Overgrown Path as well. For instance, not in this post but in the author’s comments, he writes:

This path raises all sorts of interesting questions. Have the ears and brains of the young people – the MP3 generation – lost the ability, like their audio systems, to decode more complex musical sounds? Does this explain the increasing popularity of world music, the sound of which is largely percussive and light in complex overtones? Does it also explain the decline in popularity among young listeners of classical music? Do we need to spend more time thinking about the auditory capabilities of audiences and the limitations of audio reproduction systems? Do we need to think more about the lost art of listening?

The implication here being that young people simply can’t hear the greatness that is classical music. The music is simply too complex for their dumbed down ears. This sort of statement doesn’t seem to phase the classical audience that will likely be reading it but anyone who’s not already in that circle is probably going to feel, as I did, that this is a bit of a shot at those who listen to popular music.

The intentions in all of this are great. We need more people asking questions about why the classical audience is aging and trying to find out what will keep this tradition vibrant but it’s at least a little ironic to me that the very people doing this tend to perpetuate some really bad PR. It’s all seems to add up to people asking, “How can we get people to step up to our level?” As opposed to asking, “How can we make ourselves relevant to a world that doesn’t even know we’re here anymore?”

Josh

I'm currently working on an MA at the University of Quebec in Montreal. I received BA in linguistics with a minor in music from Tulane University in New Orleans. I also have a background in audio engineering.

Je suis actuellement après travailler sur une maîtrise en linguistique à l'Université du Québec à Montréal. J'ai obtenu un bac à l'Université Tulane à la Nouvelle-Orléans avec une mineure en musique. J'ai également de l'expérience en ingénierie audio.