Classical music is identified with elitism, and with some justification. It is no small endeavor to bring together 100 or more highly skilled musicians; it must be financially supported by wealthy patrons, powerful institutions, or a well-heeled middle class. Only a tiny percentage of the population is musically gifted and driven enough to achieve the high artistic competence necessary to be a professional orchestra member, and they must be intensely trained by equally gifted teachers. Even appreciation of classical music does not come as easily as it does with other, more accessible forms. That it requires more from both artist and audience is a great part of its appeal; it “excludes” naturally because it draws only those who strive to go higher and deeper artistically.But there is a troubling tendency to conflate the “privileged class” with our traditional, musical institutions, such as orchestras—or even with the small group of elite students who will eventually find positions in them. This tendency implies an injustice. Our resentment and our egalitarian ideals convince us that those in the small, privileged group wielding all the influence and power somehow don’t deserve their position, as if they came by it dishonestly or by lucky accident.
But we do a great disservice to high culture when we treat it this way. One isn’t born into an orchestra or a canon. None of the world’s great musicians or history’s great composers were destined to be so by birth. Membership in either is a long-term project and must be earned at every step of the way. In fact, music has remained one of those few pursuits in which success has been possible for the talented in any class throughout the course of European history’s most rigidly hierarchical societies.
And so, misguided but often well-meaning castigates are left to search for the things which classical music can be and do in order to ameliorate the elitism that they are now convinced has caused all the problems of the world. Classical music—and the schools which perpetuate it—must now be about setting aright the injustices of our troubled age. Our music schools now promise, as one of the nation’s most prominent conservatories does, that their “gifted students will not only be trained as musicians but also as catalysts who will inspire creativity and spark positive change in their communities.”Please follow the links and read the whole thing as it is difficult to excerpt and it is certainly worth your time. Andrew gives a salutary critique of all those who, under the guise of making needed reforms in the classical music world, are very likely hacking away at its very foundations.
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I've been saying this for years. In "What’s wrong with the classical concert experience in the 21st century?" Philip Clark says,
I think I have said exactly this here a dozen times at least. But this is the first time that I have read it anywhere else. Shouldn't every classical musician be saying something like this instead of "we need to turn concerts of classical music into pseudo 'happenings' with light shows." Read the whole thing!classical music’s alleged image problem has become the mainstream media narrative – a misinformed opinion continually reported as fact. Classical music is elitist, stuffy, obscure and lacks relevance. But if classical music does indeed have an image problem, what image ought it adopt? What must classical music now pretend to be?For a moment, I want you to suspend your disbelief as I flip the argument on its head. Try it this way round: there is absolutely nothing wrong with classical music. It cannot pretend to be anything other than it is. And perhaps it’s the wider cultural environment which surrounds classical music that has a problem.
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Bob Dylan is still on that never-ending tour and just played Royal Albert Hall in London where he revived a number of old Frank Sinatra standards. Reuters has the story:
This is an excellent example of what I call a racinative strategy. There are two basic ways to approach composition: you can strike out into entirely new territory (if you can find some) or you can uncover connections to the deep roots of music. The first is the avant-garde method of modernism and over the last hundred years it has been claimed to the the only true ideology. The second is actually quite common, but has been propagandized as something bad--only in terms of modernism, however. It is just as Bob says, as a musician it is an entirely valid act to uncover something that has been lost. When the composers associated with the Florentine Camerata invented opera around 1600, what they were trying to do was uncover the traditions of music drama of the ancient Greeks that had been lost. Beethoven, in his late works, was not striking out into the musical future, instead he was tapping into the most fundamental roots of the classical tradition. There are other examples as well. I posted about this here. The term "racinative" as in an artistic strategy in which you return to or uncover a tradition or fundamental that has been lost or neglected is one that I have invented.A year ago, fans had greeted the news that Dylan was planning an album of songs made famous by Sinatra with some trepidation. Dylan himself explained when it was released in May that he was not recording a Sinatra tribute."I don't see myself as covering these songs in any way. They've been covered enough. Buried, as a matter a fact. What me and my band are basically doing is uncovering them. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day," he said at the time.
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Thanks to Norman Lebrecht, we discover this article about new research into the production of violin virtuosos:
For Izabela Wagner’s study Producing Excellence: The Making of Virtuosos she interviewed nearly 100 prodigies, and what she found is best put by one former soloist, “For every ten students, one will attempt suicide, one will become mentally ill, two will become alcoholics, two will slam doors and jettison the violin out the window, three will work as violinists, and perhaps one will become a soloist.” For aspiring violinists and their parents—including Wagner herself—those are not good chances. Why would anyone choose that kind of life?I immediately think of Jean Sibelius who wanted more than anything to be a great violinist, but started a bit too late so had to be content with being a great composer instead:
My tragedy was that I wanted to be a celebrated violinist at any price. Since the age of 15 I played my violin practically from morning to night. I hated pen and ink—unfortunately I preferred an elegant violin bow. My love for the violin lasted quite long and it was a very painful awakening when I had to admit that I had begun my training for the exacting career of a virtuoso too late.
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Have you noticed how there are hoards of people out there ready at the drop of hat to tell us all about what's wrong with classical music? How it is sexist, elitist, stuffy, obsolete, dry, boring and privileges the cis-normative patriarchal hegemony? And often these people make the claim that they are friends of classical music and just want it to become better? Here is one analysis of what's wrong with classical music:
This is from Colin Eatock at 3 Quarks Daily. This is a summary of the thoughts and attitudes of a group of students in his music appreciation class in Toronto. Now Colin is no dummy and he tries to offer some subtle ideas as to how to reform the image of classical music. But at the end of the day, I'm afraid that he is just giving in to those mistaken attitudes. Look at what the criticisms are: they are all based on placing pop music as the norm. Any deviation from how pop music operates is counted as a wrong thing. This is an Overton window problem, which you have when you allow one side to define all the terms of debate. I like to take a cue from a popular political leader who counsels that, when you run into resistance or criticism, you should "punch back twice as hard." That would be President Barack Obama, of course. The Music Salon tends to follow that advice. We think that it is pop music that is all messed up with its formulaic, industrial thumping, accompanying the most appalling of lyrics and videos. If pop music is your aesthetic standard, then of course you are going to condemn classical music as cerebral, complicated and unnatural. But, dude, that's your problem!Classical music is dryly cerebral, lacking visceral or emotional appeal. The pieces are often far too long. Rhythmically, the music is weak, with almost no beat, and the tempos can be funereal. The melodies are insipid – and often there’s no real melody at all, just stretches of complicated sounding stuff. The sound of a symphony orchestra is bland and over-refined, and even a big orchestra can’t pack the punch of a four-piece rock group in a stadium. A lot of classical music is purely instrumental, so there’s no text to give the music meaning. And when there are singers, in concerts and opera, their vocal style is contrived and unnatural: so much shrieking and bellowing. The words are unintelligible, even if they’re not in a foreign language.Culturally speaking, classical music is insignificant, with record sales that would be considered a joke in the pop music industry. Indeed, classical music is so un-popular that it can’t survive in the free market, and requires government subsidy just to exist. Yet even with public support, tickets to classical concerts are prohibitively expensive. The concerts themselves are stuffy and convention-bound – and the small, aging audience that attends them is an uncool mixture of snobs, eggheads and poseurs pretending to appreciate something they don’t. In a word, classical music is “elitist”: originally intended for rich Europeans who thought they were better than everyone else, and composed by a bunch of dead white males. It has nothing to do with the contemporary world – and its oldness appeals only to people who cling to obsolete values. You say there are living composers who still write classical music? Never heard of them.
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For our musical envoi today we are going to listen to the very fine, non-pop, Violin Concerto by Jean Sibelius. This is Sarah Chang, solo violin with Jaap van Zweden conducting the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest: