The debate about whether classical music is elitist has raged on for a long time. Like most long-running debates, it has largely lost momentum and has been settled along these lines: that classical music isn’t elitist in and of itself. So what is it about classical music that runs against the grain for a lot of people? Especially young people. Is it the gray heads that predominate the audience? I’ve always thought they were just young people that kept enjoying classical music?
The debate has widened now to the very relevance of classical music in the modern world. Recently, Stephen Fry debated that relevance – Fry argued that is was relevant debating against a younger radio DJ and others. What place does it have in the modern world? There are estimate that anywhere from 20 to 40 million young pianists in China (and 10 million young violinists). But classical music doesn’t work on sheer numbers – it never has. There is something about classical music that demands attention. The music starts and it turns to you and says “I’m here and you must listen”. In a world where so many things also demand our attention it is becoming increasingly hard to focus. Where does classical music sit in a multi-tasking context? Sitting down and reading the program before a concert, you know immediately that Mahler’s Third Symphony is going to last 90-100 minutes. These concerts also usually takes place in ‘hallowed halls’: concert halls, opera houses, recital spaces and cathedrals. Try and get a young(ish) person to sit still for 100 minutes for anything let alone a new and challenging medium demanding attention from beginning to end.
In another interview, Fry states that the over-categorisation of pieces scares people off – opus numbers, KV, Hob. etc. But I think this is like saying you won’t go to the library because you are afraid of the Dewey Decimal system. I think that, like a library, when you look into things more closely (like Op., KV and Hob.) you become exposed to new things; another langauge and history of music all at once (even before the piece has begun).
As for young people coming to classical music (and staying there), Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” do seem a little stuffy these days, with their black and white and formally-clad kids. But there is something there. The children light up in miniature ‘Eureka’ moments – and children aren’t that different these days (aside from the suits). There are always going to be children wriggling in their seats thinking, “if this is supposed to fun then why am I in this musty concert hall?” but changing hearts and minds is always hard work.
Because classical music demands our attention, it demands much more of us. “Listen to me” it says but it also says “think, learn about and question me.” A quick example is Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. Does it change when you know that Tchaikovsky died nine days after its premiere? When you know about Tchaikovsky’s life? The music doesn’t. But the questions continue to come: into the past and onward into what could be. Is there a more broad education than a musical one? Perhaps not.
As for the past, there’s a thought that classical music is from some other time – from ‘way back there’. But this is only true in its actual writing. As Henri Rabaud noted “musical compositions, it should be remembered, do not inhabit certain countries, certain museums, like paintings and statues. The Mozart Quintet is not shut up in Salzburg: I have it in my pocket”. And it is what you can do with that score that brings classical music from ‘back there’ to the present every time. Let’s me play the devil’s advocate for a moment. Maybe something that needs so much attention, so much coaxing and initiation isn’t worth it. Maybe it is like beating your head against a wall. But maybe it’s the complete opposite. Maybe it’s worth looking into Tchaikovsky or Mahler or Bach and thinking, learning and questioning.
I hope that as time goes by classical music can continue to be what it has always been to me and to many others, to continue to do what it has always done: demand our attention and put those questions in in front of us so that running times in programs are irrelevant. I hope that the gray heads continue to sprout onward and onward, ready to be tolerant and tolerated by a surging mass of young people: waiting, listening and saving for a subscription.