Classical music must stay relevant to survive

Emilee Geist

We also have an opportunity to reconceive otherwise long-established relationships that have tended to distort the mission of publicly funded arts companies and festivals and instead advance the interests of the international arts market and the agencies that support it. Critical silence One of the broader lessons the public health […]

We also have an opportunity to reconceive otherwise long-established relationships that have tended to distort the mission of publicly funded arts companies and festivals and instead advance the interests of the international arts market and the agencies that support it.

Critical silence

One of the broader lessons the public health response to COVID-19 is teaching us is the overriding importance of public institutions being able to understand and articulate the needs of the people they are ultimately meant to serve.

The threat now facing Australia’s classical music culture has been magnified, however, by a lack of sustained public advocacy. Long before the impact of COVID-19, the symptoms of a gradual but decisive shift away from any broadly held consensus in its favour were painfully obvious.

As the public conversation about classical music has faded, so have the audiences.

With only a few exceptions, newspapers right across the Anglosphere have jettisoned specialist classical music critics. Reviews of classical music concerts or opera that still appear in our daily newspapers are now – if we are brutally honest – usually little more than “court reports”, given just enough column space to enable the critic to let us know who performed what, where, and how, but no longer able to engage us in the more important question of why.

As the public conversation about classical music has faded, so have the audiences. There is a common notion (indeed, it is again doing the rounds on social media) that people generally grow into appreciating classical music; that house-music ravers in their 20s and 30s become connoisseurs of symphonies and string quartets in their 50s and 60s. The hard statistics tell us otherwise. People do not, by and large, “convert” to classical music as they age; our children and grandchildren are only to feel further and further estranged from the sounds of an orchestra or an opera.

Scattered applause: a socially distanced audience for the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra in July 2020, in the middle of the pandemic.  AP

A frequently proffered reason for this demographic shift is the decrease over the past few decades in public investment in broadly accessible music education and the corresponding listening and performing sensibilities it fosters. This has occurred despite the wealth of empirical evidence that supports the extrinsic (let alone intrinsic) benefits of music education.

Separately, our leading tertiary-level conservatories, forced under the so-called “Dawkins Reforms” of the late 1980s into arranged marriages with their local universities, discovered that the trappings of cap and gown were in fact a poor substitute for institutional and educational autonomy. As a result, their wider influence has also declined.

Public arts broadcasting, too, is a mere shadow of its former self. Despite the proliferation of available air time, it seems now inconceivable that our national broadcaster might choose to dedicate 10 Sunday evenings of prime-time television to broadcast a production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen from Bayreuth, as the ABC did in 1986.

For myself, at least, stumbling over those broadcasts as a young teenager proved to be life-changing. While subsequent technological revolutions make access so much easier, I suspect that such moments of cultural discovery are now less, not more, likely to occur.

Federal government funding of the arts is massively biased in favour of an ‘upper tier’ of classical-music-focused organisations.

The major music platforms on the internet are driven by business models that require them to push content based on what their repositories of “big data” have already adduced about our musical tastes. Online musical commerce is thus prone to replicate a problem we also now recognise in other types of internet-driven exchange: the self-reinforcing echo chamber.

Unlike public broadcasting, such modes of music distribution are largely immune to the possibility that less commercially driven motivations can serve to shape our musical interests.

Colonialism and elitism

Nevertheless, for all who might mourn the passing of the old established forms of cultural transmission, there are others who find it a cause for celebration.

For them, the aesthetic value we might ascribe to all forms of aspirational culture was really just a cover for its true function – as a marker of class status and power. In our new age of self-consciously “decolonised” curricula, the growing ubiquity of more commercially driven forms of music merely consigns classical music to a fate that we would wish for it anyway.

Cultural fusion: William Barton plays “Down Under” with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra during the state memorial service Bob Hawke at the Opera House.  Alex Ellinghausen

Those of us who would nevertheless wish to claim that classical music’s value transcends social and cultural divides should at least acknowledge that the old canard that “music is a universal language” has always hidden a darker truth.

Wrapped up in any such claim to music’s universal value (here underlined by the very fact that we give this music the name “classical”) is also an implied lack of concern for local, popular, and – not least in Australia – Indigenous musical traditions.

This helps explain why there is now a chorus of well-meaning educators, policymakers and cultural critics eager to see resources historically dedicated to supporting classical music institutions, such as orchestras and opera houses, redirected towards hitherto marginalised or minority cultural interests.

They note, in particular, that federal government funding of the arts is massively biased in favour of an “upper tier” of classical-music-focused major performing arts (MPA) organisations that get guaranteed multi-year funding, with Opera Australia taking the largest share (currently about $18 million per annum).

Ideally, in a self-confident pluralist society, any reform of these arrangements would not instantly reduce to an either/or argument, but arts funding is, alas, typically characterised by such centralised, zero-sum-game policy calculations.

To the extent that the MPA system continues to insulate this upper tier from any realistic threat of defunding, it has also discouraged them from proffering or refreshing a compelling artistic rationale for the support they receive.

This only fuels widespread resentment from those musicians and organisations who are less fortunate. Without such a rationale, critics of the status quo are understandably continuing to press for reform.

Unfamiliarity ‘breeds contempt’

We should be careful, however, not to replace one set of unexamined assumptions about classical music with another. If advancing social equity and inclusivity is our aim, what kinds of music are actually helping to serve entrenched privilege these days?

It’s been a long while, for instance, since I have been buttonholed by traditional classical music in my local supermarket, café, or sporting arena. It seems perverse logic to suggest, say, that because our elite private schools often brand themselves with glossy pictures of classical musicians performing in swanky new concert halls we should actively deprive those who are less fortunate of similar educational opportunities.

Is it not possible to determine what musical performance cultures we wish to support in musical terms alone?

As The Times music critic Richard Morrison recently observed, the idea that classical music somehow embodies class does not stand up to even cursory analysis. “Are the symphonies of Elgar, the son of a Worcester shopkeeper, more middle class than the pop songs of Jess Glynne, the daughter of a Muswell Hill estate agent?” he asked.

The mesmerising intricacy of Beethoven’s music invites us to partake of a heightened kind of listening. 

Is it not possible to determine what musical performance cultures we wish to support at least partially in musical terms alone – that is, with reference to the music’s actual, material, musical substance?

Let us consider one example. This year, but for the pandemic, we would have been celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. In advancing programs of his music, there was an opportunity to draw wider public attention to the mesmerising intricacy of Beethoven’s musical constructions, his way of building large-scale sonic structures from the obsessive development of curt musical motifs. This is music, surely, that invites us to think musically, to partake of a heightened kind of listening.

Instead, our public arts discourse is increasingly characterised by an outright aversion to the promotion of this kind of musical engagement. At its most extreme, we encounter instead a manifestation of our so-called “post-truth” culture where any appeal to personal taste is enough to trump an attempt at pursuing a more objective, reflective, basis for our aesthetic choices.

As pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, one of Beethoven’s greatest living interpreters, recently stated in an interview for The Guardian, we are “getting further and further away from being societies that recognise the importance of music”. Rather, he concluded, “our unfamiliarity seems to breed contempt”.

Even in elevated academic arenas, debates about musical value are now routinely deflected from engagements with the inner workings of music and how we might interpret them, and are more commonly redirected towards explorations of how music might help project aspects of our, or another’s, social identity, sexual preference, economic status, educational achievement, and so on.

Of course music can – and does – serve such functions, but contemplating music’s own internal logic can also expose us to a separate, sonically inscribed, imaginative realm that is radically removed from the limits of our, or the composer’s, “revealed” self. In the words of Thomas Merton, such art “enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time”.

Genius and identity politics

To be sure, the fact that the repertoire of classical music is nevertheless dominated by deceased white European male composers remains a matter of historical interest and concern. Among other reasons, according to Peggy McIntosh’s now-famous 1988 essay on “white privilege”, to be able to say “that people of my colour made it what it is” when being introduced to civilisation’s supposed greatest achievements is a foundational aspect of “white privilege”.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: “If you reject the very premise of racism – the idea skin colour directly contributes to genius – then all of humanity becomes ‘native’ to you.” AP

But neither should the veracity of such observations become the determining criterion of this music’s value or be used to justify preventing us from providing easy or affordable access to it to anyone who is not also white, European or male. As the American author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates observed in relation to his own encounters with the European literary canon:

“When you are a young intellectual black kid, you often find yourself in this desperate search for some sort of anti-Western tradition. That Saul Bellow quote – ‘Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?’ – really captures a lot of the dilemma for those of us looking for a ‘native’ tradition. That search ends all kinds of ways for different people. But for us, I think it ended in the rejection of the premise, in the great Ralph Wiley riposte, that ‘ Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus’.

“That line was sorcery for me. It found me a black pathologist, and set me free by revealing that my own search for something ‘native’ was an implicit acceptance of the very racism that I sought to counter. The way out was not to find my own, but to reject the notion of anyone’s ‘own’.

“If you reject the very premise of racism – the idea skin colour directly contributes to genius or sloth – then all of humanity becomes ‘native’ to you. And so empowered, I could – out of my own individual identity – create my own intellectual and artistic pedigree, and I was free to have it extend from Biggie [Smalls] to [Edith] Wharton to [Herman] Melville to [Robert] Hayden.”

The answer, then, to the question (were we to ask it) “Who is the Beethoven of Australia?” is, of course, “Beethoven”. Such music can, and should, be properly understood, as Edward Said once wrote, as “part of the possession of all … humankind”.

It is rare, however, to hear a director of one of our classical music institutions, let alone an arts minister (in those government arenas where such a portfolio still exists) stake out such a naked claim for this music’s value.

Such figures of influence are more likely to be focused principally on not upsetting either their many critics-in-waiting or the layers of sedimented institutional privilege that inevitably congregate on either side of government grant systems (as exemplified by the lack of substantive reform to the MPA system that has followed last year’s federal review).

But narrowly self-interested, institution-focused approaches to public advocacy are simply not going to cut it in the difficult months and years that now lie ahead for us all.

The case for classical music’s ongoing relevance to Australia, and thus the argument for ongoing support, must now be made, first and foremost, as a proposition of musical value. The COVID-19 crisis gives us both the opportunity, and necessity, to do so.

The underlying argument we should all be pressing is that great music in all its forms, in all its genres, wherever it is found, and however it is ultimately labelled by us, should be understood as belonging to, speaking for, and challenging each and every one of us.

This article appears in the September issue of Australian Book Review.

Professor Peter Tregear, OAM, is a conductor, singer and former head of the School of Music at the Australian National University.

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