Elitism in Classical Music



Imagine, for a moment, that it is 1787 and you are getting dressed to go see the premiere of Don Giovanni, a new opera by Mozart. You pause to think and ponder what you are going to wear - your biggest ball gown, your most expensive tuxedo, or something a little more simple? Particularly in the 18th century, the opera was a place to see and be seen, so you decide to wear your biggest ball gown or most expensive tuxedo and spend hours powdering your wig, having someone tighten your corset, buttoning your stockings in preparation to attend the premiere.


Although this is just one example from a long time ago, elitism in classical music is not hard to find when you dedicate just a few minutes to reflecting upon how our profession is viewed, the unspoken rules within it, and even how we “insiders” can treat those with little or no musical knowledge. If you ask someone who is not a classical musician what they think of classical music they’ll most likely give you an answer along the lines of “it’s elevator music,” “super boring,” or “who even listens to that stuff?” However, this is not their fault for thinking this. If we’re going to be honest with ourselves, we can admit there’s probably some merit to what they’re saying.


Why is it elevator music?

Why is it boring?

Who does listen to that stuff?


If we recall our earlier example and delve a little deeper into 18th-century music history (very exciting stuff, I know) we discover that there is truth in the statement of “the opera is a place to see and be seen.” Oftentimes the richest people or royalty would attend operas because they wanted to flaunt their wealth or the newest, biggest ball gown they could get shipped from Paris. They would have their own private musicians they hired as well so they could listen to musical entertainment any time they pleased, and it was common knowledge that if you wanted to make a name for yourself as a musician in this time period, you needed to get hired by royalty in order to get paid for your work.


This elitism surrounding classical music has only grown and developed as the years have gone on.


 

Think about the difference between the venue for a Harry Styles concert and a New York Philharmonic concert.


If it’s in the warmer months the Harry Styles concert is most likely going to be outside, and depending on where the concert is at they may or may not have seats for the audience members. People bring posters, sing loudly to their favorite songs, and clap at random times throughout the set. The audience members generally have a great time and leave with minutes of footage on their phones of Harry to post on their snapchat stories or reminisce over later.


Now think about a New York Philharmonic concert - the orchestra members and your fellow audience members would be appalled if you brought a poster, loudly sang along with the solo cellist’s rendition of The Swan, stood the entire time, and Mozart help you if you clap at random times throughout the performance. Very different atmospheres right?


 

We can even see elitism at the collegiate level and it is honestly very blatant.


When you examine the different repertoire required for undergraduate school of music auditions more often than not you will see music required from the "canon". A vivacious young musician might bring in a non-standard piece of solo repertoire, but this is not for the faint of heart or weak of guts. If you’re going to play something out of the box you had better be sure to play it well. But why?


Why should we have to constantly confine ourselves to such a small box?

Who decided this set of repertoire is the standard of excellence that must be met?

What happens if a talented young musician is less familiar with Bach but has a gift with production software such as GarageBand?


All of these questions are those we must ask ourselves as we move towards the dusk of 2020 and the dawn of 2021.

 


Elitism in classical music has existed for far too long and extended its tidily gloved hands into too many corners of the music world.


This may seem sacrilegious to say, but perhaps Haydn isn’t the end-all-be-all of music. Perhaps there are other artists out there who are just as talented, but in rapping or bluegrass (and we can find the YouTube videos to back that statement up). Although this elitism has been in practice for so many years this is not to say it is unbreakable, insurmountable. Every step that is taken toward bringing other genres and other types of musicians to life is not a slap in the face to classical music - on the contrary, it is respecting the long-standing career of classical music while allowing a new name or piece to stand in the spotlight. To become comfortable with “other” music, we must first make ourselves uncomfortable by taking the time to explore things we have not listened to before.


We must take down the barrier between our concert hall stages and the lives of “everyday people” and make ticket prices accessible, diversify our concert programs, ask ourselves who are the gatekeepers to classical music, and think outside of the cozy box we have called home for so long to make classical music more accessible to more people.


Our work began yesterday, and it’s time to get going.

 

Ways to get started:

  1. Go to jazz, hip hop, Latin, or other types of concerts! In the time of COVID, many artists livestream their performances.

  2. Share BIPOC/Womxn/LGBTQIA+ composers, songwriters, and other performers’ content that you enjoy on your social media.

  3. Try this: for every classical piece you listen to, find a song or piece by a BIPOC/Womxn/LGBTQIA+ composer/artist to listen to.

  4. https://www.composerdiversity.com/

  5. https://chamber-music.org/pdf/2019-CCP/Composers-Equity-Project.pdf

  6. https://guides.library.cmu.edu/music/home


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