Snobbery in classical music.

Snobbery seems to run rampant in classical music. Classical music has long been seen as a product of those living in ivory towers and often out of touch with the so-called common man; snobbishness seems to be cultivated by those who make this music part of their lives. Yes, both concert-goers and musicians are often practitioners of this affected behavior, often aloof to the real dangers it poses to the art itself. Whether in major concert halls or intimate chamber spaces, the air of refinement in which this music lives and breathes is too often stifled by the attitudes of those who see it only as an elite and mysterious craft.

I will admit that I am not free from this sin (though I’ve made a conscious effort to abstain in recent years.) As a young musician, I was afforded some rare opportunities: I got to play in major concert halls in the USA and Europe; I’d had the chance to tour Europe as an 18 year old; I worked with (and received positive attention from) world-class symphony musicians. Before my 19th birthday I had composed three symphonies, studied all the symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler, could easily tell the difference between the styles of, say, Haydn and Mozart–things that seemed to impress people, to be sure, and fed my ego. Of course it seemed ‘cool’ to tilt up my nose a bit, to snicker privately at those mere mortals who simply couldn’t understand this incredible world.

But after a while, I started to realize that this snobbery was entirely unimpressive. And then something else hit me: it didn’t make the music better. Yes, it was wonderful, in some ways, to know and understand things that many other people didn’t. However, as I grew older (and grew up!), I began to understand that it was much more fulfilling–not to mention productive–to share this knowledge and passion with others rather to inflict it upon them. I noticed a change–I was able to talk to people about it and share this passion rather than merely show it off. It was a fundamental change, and quite an enjoyable one. 

One of the major complaints I hear is about how stuffy the concert hall is. It is often referred to as antiquated, out of touch, a museum. It is often called a 19th Century product (ironic, as it happens, given the atmosphere of joy, excitement and sometimes outright bad behavior of the 19th century concert hall!) But above all, it is seen as a hobby of the elite, with all the trappings of the upper crust–including the stereotypical snobbery. All that is missing, it seems, is a top hat, cane and monocle.

As I’ve evolved from a slightly precocious know-it-all to a (hopefully) more complete musician and man, I’ve begun to reflect on the nature of this attitude and what it means. My conclusion is something of a paradox–but interesting enough, I hope, to share.

On Snobbery

Ah, a night at the symphony! Here we have the moneyed, the educated–the elite, in all their evening finery, in all their social splendor and glory. This is their element. And why should it not be? Everyone knows that classical music is only for rich people. Yes, to enjoy it, one must be in the know; it can only appeal to those intellectually gifted and refined enough to understand. Symphonies are complex, after all! The riff raff simply couldn’t comprehend.

In a word…no. In a few more words…no, no, no, and NO! Why oh why has the music world come to this? It wasn’t always so. Opera, emerging in the 17th century, was a social affair for all classes. The poor sat on the floor, the rich above them (okay, so I won’t go into all the details–but hey, at least the lower classes showed up!) Opera was for everyone. In fact, it was a way for music to break free of the authority of the day: that ultimate Institution of Restraint, the Roman Catholic Church. Opera (and, throughout the baroque and rococo, the orchestral and dance suites) gave the masses a chance to hear popular (and bawdy) dance tunes dressed up a bit. Despite the orchestra’s birth as an institution of the royal court, the sonata form, songs and symphonies because forms for the people. By the time the orchestra (and the symphony as a form) entered maturity, finally moving across the pond as the great American orchestras were established, going to the symphony was, for lack of a better term, a thing. That is, a thing to do, rather than the thing to do. Not everyone attended, of course, but middle class families were extremely likely to attend–and it was seen as a measure of success. 

Some time around the 1960s or ’70’s, it was decided that classical music should be only for the sophisticated. I’m told that this has something to do with marketing. I can’t imagine Beethoven, for example, seeing his 9th Symphony held in the regard that, if you had to have it explained, it wasn’t for you. The 9th symphony is literally for everyone; its central message is a hope for universal brotherhood.

How does snobbery make it better? This music is exciting! It is living, breathing, timeless, tradition filled but always new! From time to time, I hear a remark from a long time subscriber-type that ‘Well, I don’t like the way the orchestra sounds, so I’d rather stay home and listen to my recordings.’ This is the type of thing that really misses the mark: recordings are great, of course. They are literal records of a certain orchestra, soloist or conductor. Some recordings are truly transcendent. But there are a few things missing. For one thing, you lose out on the sound of the concert hall. No matter how good your recording and playback equipment, you’ll never get the feel and sound of actually being there. For another, you miss out on the social aspect: the thrill of being this close to the musicians, of feeling the energy of the audience, of hearing the music reborn. And recordings are somewhat artificial, especially studio recordings. They’ve been engineered to sound perfect, to be as consistent from start to finish as possible. Knowing a recording is not the same as knowing and loving a work itself; it is only loving the idea of a performance of that work. 

And, sadly, some musicians are not exempt from this attitude. I’ve heard musicians say ‘Ah, Beethoven 9…yes, no big deal, I’ve played that a hundred times. I don’t even need to come to rehearsal.’ Beethoven 9 is always a big deal. Being nonchalant about such matters is horrid! It is wonderful to have a frame of reference for a work and experience with it–but none of us can afford to be anything less than completely excited and committed to this music. Ever. Adding snobbery to that is…well…a good way to kill classical music. 

So…snobbery: Not good. On the other hand….

 

The Paradox

Why is snobbery in classical music held to a double standard? In our society, snobbery is worn as some sort of perverse badge of honor. People love being snobs! And they’ll be snobs about some pretty silly things: their phone, the number of friends their dog has at his birthday party, what email provider they use…silly things. But allow me to give two examples that seem outright ridiculous: clothing and food.

Now perhaps it is a sign of evolutionary success that we are able to be snobs about these two basic staples of human existence…but I’m not so sure. For the purpose of this exercise, I’m willing to expound a bit.

Clothing. I’m sorry: fashion. Yes, sartorial splendor. It’s a big deal. Full disclosure: anyone who knows me is aware of this irony, as I’ve been accused of being extremely well dressed. Yes, I enjoy dressing well. And I appreciate fashion as an art form. But as Twain wrote, naked people have little to no influence on society. I’ll ignore the recent spate of celebrity whatever it is and just agree with good old Sam. Clothes are essential to wear. Without them, we’d be arrested…and very cold. And, to be fair, there’d probably be a fair amount of pointing and laughing from time to time. So, clothing is good. But in many ways, we’ve gone too far. Clothes are clothes. They should be well made. They should make us feel good when we are in them. They should reflect a certain respect for decorum for our particular social customs. But, again, we often go too far. Certain people take clothes…more seriously than others. And they’ll pay! Oh, will they pay. They’ll also take great delight in being absolutely insufferable snobs about it. Rather than simply saying ‘I like this style and will enjoy wearing it,’ they seem to make it their mission to consider inferior any who do not join them in their particular sartorial sensibilities. And often, they’re rewarded for this. Oh, are they rewarded. 

Snobbery. Which brings us to…

Food.

Ah, the foodies. Where to begin? For the uninitiated, food is organic matter which is consumed orally by carbon based life forms–including homo sapiens–in order to provide energy for physical and mental activity and continued biological survival. In other words, if you do not eat it, you will die.

Again, it is probably a good thing that we’ve evolved from trying to hunt while not getting run over by a wolly mammoth to being able to choose between Beef bourguignon and beef stroganoff. But anyone who has been to a Whole Foods lately (or to Brooklyn) is aware that perhaps we’ve become a bit more picky than nature intended. 

We all love a good meal. Who doesn’t? Besides allowing us to, you know, keep living, food comforts us, makes us feel safe, secure and generally happy. But the foodies…ah, the foodies…the foodies have decided that, no, eating well is not enough. For a foodie, you must eat correctly. They’ve managed to take something which is a basic part of human survival and make it exclusive. 

And you know something? Again, they’ve been rewarded! Yes, this incredible snobbery has been awarded social recognition in the form of media exposure, financial gain and varying degrees of social ascent. 

So, we can see that snobbery is not all bad–at least not in certain eyes.

Why, then, is the snobbery of classical music considered a mortal sin? Why is it one of the main reasons cited for the death of this great art (which, by the way, provides to the soul as much warmth as fine clothing and the sustenance of nourishing food?) It is a double standard, and yet this presents another paradox: the need to eliminate snobbery while defending its honor. 

 

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17 thoughts on “Snobbery in classical music.

  1. Personally I believe a lot of the blame goes to the artists/symphonies/groups how many free events do we have for the public how many schools would bring their students to the shows if they were offered a daytime event. I used to attend these shows with the Louisville orchestra in grade school. We may have had to pay a minor amount but this is how you grow appreciation for the art, not by limiting the participation! just my 2 cents worth.

    • I just want to say that I can get an unlimited student pass for all concerts in the ’13-’14 season for $25 to the NJ Symphony. I can get a ticket to the MET Orchestra for $25. I attend at least two free events annually with the National Symphony Orhestra. I cannot, however, get a ticket to Katy Perry, or Justin Bieber (God forbid), or Beyoncé for less than–oh, I don’t know–eighty-odd dollars for the nosebleeds, without even the suggestion of a student discount.

      My confession, as a member of today’s teen-to-twenty-something generation (which is largely responsible for the “snobbish” accusations and unappreciative forgetfulness of the classical arts) is that my culture is decaying. We are on a downward spiral and have been in so many ways. I don’t know who/what is at fault, but the instant gratification mentality that MUST satisfy kids today in the most primitive form is, like a Big Mac, deteriorating our health–our artistic health.
      I know of so many administrators of orchestras who work tirelessly to make these arts MORE accessible to the general population. It is precisely this mentality of inaccessibility, or unrelatability that feeds the illusion of snobbishness in the classical arts. It is precisely these two cents (which you’re entitled to) that make it seem something only for the transcendent tier of rich dieties. It’s such a sad miscommunication on the part of our decayed culture that it nearly causes me physical duress.

  2. Where I live, I do not think it is somuch of snobbery, but a complete lack of interest, to
    listen to music which at best requires a ceryain amount of concentration, and time to
    absorb the Work, symphony- overture or other forms of classical music. So many
    people want a quick thrill , jump about, or get sexually excited. here and now without
    too much effort to use the brain faculties, like eating fast food, easy come and easy go.

  3. Well said. As a classical musician married to a non-musician who did not grow up with Classical music and who hates the snobbery and is completely turned off by it, the topic heading caught my eye. Glad I stopped by to read your blog. Mozart understood the need to appeal to the rabble as well as the high brow. I think concert managers ARE trying to tone down the snob appeal and make concerts more appealing to the general public. A good move.

  4. Very interesting read. I have experienced this snobbery first hand with my children who have now won bursaries to attend a world class music boarding school in England due in part to their varied musical background.The snobbery was no, not from the excellent music school they now attend as boarders, but from their classical music teachers back home here in N.Ireland.(In the case of my girls the classical harp teachers).
    Whilst at primary school and being taught classical music they had to conceal the fact they also had private traditional teachers and attended traditional festivals here in N.Ireland. The reason for this being that when a classical teacher heard my daughter playing traditional tunes on her harp she was told that if she continued to play traditional music she would no longer teach her classical music! (The theory being it would spoil her technique.) However, I knew my child and indeed all my children had the ability and talent to play more than one style of music. They also enjoyed playing different types of music. On the contrary each style in some way seemed to help the other genre of music out. One of my daughters upon winning a classical musical feis (competition) when about aged 9, was told by the adjudicator that it was her sense of rythmn that was so good on top of the bonus point that she had easily memorised her piece (for which she was under no obligation to do so). The adjudicator then recommended other competitors to go out and dance to learn a sense of rythmn! My children all did Irish dancing from a very young age as well as all being involved in traditional music which of course is passed down through the aural tradition (which of course enhances the memory!) Conversely when one of my sons won a traditional feis at age 11 (Best Fiddler) against up to 18 year olds it was his beautiful classical tone of playing that won him the trophy. (He was studying classical violin but also enjoyed playing traditional music , and why not?!!)
    Now I must say that my girls won awards to attend Chethams School of Music in Manchester,England both playing the concert/pedal harp firstly and piano as 2cnd instrument; one at age 12 and the other at age only 10. The reason they wanted my girls at the school was the fact that aside from their talent they also offered something different- the traditional music background. The school even took trad pieces my girls had learned back in Ireland on the harp and had them perform them in concerts. So Chethams school of music doesnt seem to suffer from the classical snobbery that our classical tutors back home do! The ironic thing is that that is one of the reasons my children have excelled in music due to playing different styles of music! To think that I had to get my children to CONCEAL the fact they also played traditional music when they were at primary school so their classical teachers would continue to teach them is beyond me! As a musician myself I KNEW what my children were capable of!

  5. At least the “snobs” are turning up to classical performances. They are subsidising the continuation of the art form. Don’t forget that it is purely uneconomical to pay for a whole classical orchestra when a small rock band can get more people in the door. Music, like sport, is financial only when the masses are catered for. If you want to put on a choral concert of Renaissance polyphony on the other side of the world you won’t be flying there business class. And if the ticket prices are reduced you won’t be doing the concert at all. People will be playing Beatles and Abba songs in 100 years on “traditional instruments” (but unlikely Pink or Lady Gaga) and hopefully still playing Mozart and Beethoven (probably on carbon fibre violins) only while there are philanthropists and idealists wanting to keep good music alive. And if these people are “snobs” for doing this then good luck to them. They can even dictate the mood and rules of the listening experience (including fashion). Classical music may yet become “cool” again in the natural cycle of things – dumbing it down just results in disasters like “Hooked on Classics”!!

    • Hi, when you mentioned a “small rock band”, the idea came to my head, Why not amplified chamber music? Now, just find a repertoire that will get people through the door.

  6. From where I live in Denmark, there is one function where there is no snobbery, and that is at a jazz concert, or as one might say “a jazz get together”. People come in their everyday clothing, , and just have a good experience. Perhaps the one drawback is that about 80% of them tend to talk all the time the music is being played. However,
    many of the same people turn up at the annual New Year`s concert in our Music and Theater Building, in their Sunday best. Here it is a different story. Everyone stares at each other with a very critical eye. Snobbery 1st class
    is so obvious. “Nobody is better dressed than me today”!! The understanding and appreciation of the music to be , or being played, shines out of their eyes. I think it is a great shame that it has come to this
    .

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