Classical music has a big problem: its image is seriously at odds with its identity. Most people involved agree that classical music exists for all, and that everybody is equally capable, or at least entitled, to appreciate it. Yet the image classical music cultivates suggests the exact opposite. From the ethnic make-up of London orchestras to the dress code at Glyndebourne, a clear message is projected, that this is music for white affluent people, whose monopoly the rest of us are impinging just by our presence.
Last month, Andrew Mellor wrote a piece for the New Statesman arguing this point, albeit from a different angle. In his view, the problem boils down to the snobbery of classical audiences. From the huge number of responses to the post, it is clear that most disagree with this judgement, and it certainly doesn't square with my own experiences as a concert-goer. But Mellor supports his argument with some examples of the institutionalised snobbery that contributes to this attitude, and some of these are more difficult to dismiss.
'...if you turn up and buy a programme' at the Proms, Mellor writes, ' – which will cost marginally less than a £5 arena ticket – you’ll find it stuffed full with adverts for private schools. The subtext is as clear as it is nonsensical: we’ve all got money, that’s why we like this sort of music.'
This, like almost every other point in Mellor's article, has been contested. The seemingly watertight response was that public schools provide music scholarships, and so classical concert programmes are a natural place for them to advertise.
But this leads to further questions. Scholarships to otherwise fee-paying schools are offered, at least in part, to protect the charitable status of those institutions. And proficiency on a musical instrument in a classical context is deemed an appropriate criteria for selecting those upon whom the resulting privilege will be bestowed. But why only musical proficiency in a classical context? Why don't public schools also support projects like the BRIT School to produce a new generation of Amy Winehouses, or Paul McCartney's Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts to train the next Beatles? Then they could advertise at rock gigs and nightclubs, significantly reducing the implied social engineering of both the art form and the education system.
Instrumental scholarships allow public schools to maintain a paradox, in which the social background of pupils is deemed irrelevant, while the values the school instils are distinctly aristocratic. Classical music lays itself open to this appropriation because its identity rests on a similar paradox, one that its advocates are unwilling to address.
Those of us who love classical music tend to ascribe values to it that we don't extend to other genres. We see it as a power for good, both for the individual and for society. How and why it has this status is a question usually ignored. Kant's conception of the sublime absolves even the most rational of us of the obligation to examine that core belief in depth.
Why aren't other musical genres considered sublime? Why do so many parents cling to the concept of a 'Mozart Effect', long after the science has been discredited? And why, most crucially, is classical music considered such an elevated art form that it qualifies for almost the entire state funding to reach the musical world?
That last point suggests a defensive attitude to these questions is appropriate. But in these straitened times, financial imperatives are beginning to force an examination of accepted truths. Improvised music is providing an interesting fault line here. The Norwegian Ensemble Supersilent has been touring the UK recently, and Norman Lebrecht has taken issue with their Arts Council funding on the grounds that they don't rehearse. That seems like an arbitrary complaint in some ways, and it has certainly roused the ire of improvised music's champions, most notably Philip Clark. But it does at least suggest one criteria that we might look for when assessing music's qualification to be part of the funded/classical/sublime nexus. However, the fact that no agreement was reached, even on this small criterion, demonstrates just how deep the problem is.
As a classical fan myself, I am willing to ascribe classical music values that I'm unlikely to extend to other forms of music. But that's not the problem, the problem is the wilful disinterest (and I'm sure I am as guilty as any here) in pinning down what those values are. Even our continued use of the term 'classical music' demonstrates the problem. The word 'classical' is wholly inappropriate to the living reality of the classical music world. But the myth that the music propagates values that go back to the Graeco-Roman tradition is in everybody's interests (not least the public schools'). Internet chat rooms often debate the possibility of an alternative term. They always fail, not just because of the lack of other viable options, but because of the complex of values that the term 'classical' ascribes to the music, and upon which it depends, whether it lives up to them or not.As long as we maintain vague notions about classical music as a virtuous and bettering art form, it is always going to be seen as a tool for social mobility too. That's where the perceived snobbishness of classical audiences stems from: everyone else here is going up in the world as a result of listening to this music, so you better be too. It is also the cause of classical music's curiously aristocratic image, which bares no relation to the social make-up of either the audience or the participants. Classical music isn't intrinsically exclusive, but it relies on the myth that it is as a key aspect of its identity. There aren't any easy solutions to this one, but getting those damned public school adverts out of concert programmes would be a great start.