Elitism and Art-Music’s Catch-22

Of all the things I would like most in this life (family and friends aside), it would be for more people to hear in Western Classical Music the same value that I hear in it. And not just more people but loads more . Enough to fill Wembly Stadium or Hyde Park put together, ten times over. However, after imagining what a concert of Beethoven and Rihm quartets might sound like in in such a large venue I’m torn between wishing that more people listened to Classical or art-music, and the fact that there are very few pieces of this kind that would benefit from being pumped through a huge PA in the open air.

The Wigmore Hall or Queen Elizabeth Hall are obviously much better venues, or one of London’s many church’s or art galleries. But there’s a catch; they are much better venues for Classical Music, but they only hold a handful of people. Even the Royal Albert Hall is still only 5,250 compared to Wembly’s 90,000. The second desk of Violas in the LSO may have more musical insight in their naval-hair than the acts that fill our largest stadiums, but the biggest audience they can play to is only 1/20th of the size of those at Wembly or Hyde Park.

I’m not naturally a pessimist, but these musings lead me to think that there is a problem in the kind of music that I love most,  or at least my aspirations for much wider appreciation of the art. It seems that even in its most basic characteristics; the places where it can be played, it is exclusive, even elitist. No matter how good a piece is, in its principle form of live performance it can only reach a small audience for no other reason than it would be lost in a larger venue. I feel that it is innevitable that Classical Music is usually special interest for ‘experts’ and ‘afficionados’, a bit like having a suit from Savile Row or only drinking wine from a particular Austrian vinyard. Of course, there have been attempts to ‘democratise’ Classical Music but these have rarely avoided the pitfall of making it seem cheap and insincere. One thinks of the TV programmes like Maestro or Classic Goldie which, although clearly well intentioned, did little to raise the profile of New Music or standard orchestral repertoire, and when composers are let loose on a mission to be ‘down with the kids’ I usually fear for the worst.

But, for all that, I do think there is one thing that Beethoven quartets and Ligeti Etudes, etc have that is very precious if also sometimes quite elusive, namely friendship. I believe that this is probably the most enduring value of Western Classical Music and something mass populism is unable to effect. The very fact that the musicians are on the platform in front of you, much like in the theatre, inevitably changes the nature of the art. It is not just a sequence of tones and effects that we’re hearing (exquisite as these are), but also a kind of expression directly from one person to another. In this I think there is both something truly wonderful and also truly ordinary, which are incidentally my two favourite qualities.



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