I wonder when I became stuffy and elitist. I’m sure I wasn’t born that way, but given how frequently that which I love so dearly is described in such terms, I have little option but to accept that, as a lover of classical music, I am, indeed, stuffy and elitist, and that there’s little I can do about it.
I wasn’t always stuffy and elitist, of course. Coming into my early teenage years, I remember jumping up and down to stuff like this. And this. And this. You get the idea. Then, from my friends at school, I realised that I shouldn’t be enjoying this kind of thing: I should be listening instead to the bands that really mattered – bands such as Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. And King Crimson. (Yes, I remember them too: I even bought one of their albums.) And so on. Desperate to be an individual who could think for himself, I did as I was told and liked it. As the years went by, new names took over from the old – the Stranglers, the Ramones, the Clash, the Jam. ( I may have got my chronology a bit mixed up here – it was all a very long time ago.) And all the while, like, I imagine, many others, I secretly enjoyed more the tunes of Abba. This was at the time so shameful a secret that I had to keep it hidden even from myself. It would never have occurred to any of us that, only a few decades afterwards, those bands that were so timeless for a while would only be listened to – if at all – for reasons of nostalgia by those who had grown up with them, while new generations will be discovering for themselves and enjoying those same Abba tunes that embarrassed us so. It would never have occurred to us that youngsters in days to come, appearing on University Challenge, would look at each other in blank bemusement when asked to identify a well-known (to my generation, at least) track by John Lennon: I’d be happy to bet that the same students would have recognised any number of Abba tunes from a mere few bars. And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.
But if Abba was deeply uncool, classical music was, and remains, off the scale. Unlike literature, say, or the visual arts, or even, perhaps, cinema, people tend to regard music as a signifier of one’s lifestyle, an indicator of one’s very identity. Under such circumstances, classical music doesn’t stand a chance. Indeed, these days, music is rock & pop unless otherwise specified: one has to search very hard in, say, the music pages even of broadsheet newspapers to find anything relating to classical music. And what there is is either vapid, or, given the very restricted column inches, terse to the point of being meaningless.
But I digress. The question remains: how did I become so elitist and stuffy? I certainly did not grow up with classical music at home, and, educated as I was in a comprehensive school near Glasgow, followed by years at redbrick universities, it formed no part of my formal education. And yet, when, as a student, I found myself heading to City Halls in Glasgow to hear the Scottish National Orchestra or the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, I honestly do not recall anyone standing at the door barring my way and telling me “I’m sorry sir, you can’t come in – this event is reserved for an elite”. I even went to the Theatre Royal in Glasgow to attend performances by Scottish Opera: going to see Scottish Opera was actually cheaper than the average rock concert at the Glasgow Apollo – and cheaper still with a students’ discount. (Looking at various prices on the net these days, things don’t appear to have changed in this respect: classical concerts still seem to me no dearer than the average rock concert, and, quite often, far cheaper.) And even in opera, that bastion of elitism and stuffiness, I was allowed entry. I don’t remember ever dressing up for these events: I wore the clothes I normally wore. But no-one ever batted an eyelid. Or, if they did, I can’t honestly say I noticed. And neither was there any problem mastering the esoteric codes of expected behaviour at such events: I showed my ticket to the usher, put my arse down on the designated seat, and kept quiet while the music was playing so I could try to take it in. And even if I couldn’t take it in, I kept quiet out of consideration for those other paying customers who could. And once the musicians had stopped playing, I could, if I felt like it, applaud. And then, I was free to walk out. Hardly the quasi-Masonic rituals that, we keep getting told, put off ordinary people (of whom, presumably, I am not one, since I am so stuffy and elitist) from attending classical concerts.
Keen to find out a bit about this music that I found to my surprise was holding me increasingly in its spell, I took to checking out books on music from the local lending library, and trying to learn at least the rudiments of such mysterious matters as harmony and counterpoint . I even took to checking out classical music records from the very well-stocked record library. (Of course, record libraries tend not to stock classical music these days, as it is clearly elitist and stuffy to make this music easily accessible to the public: but I grew up in less enlightened times.) Once again, to my surprise, I wasn’t prevented in any way from doing this.
And so my taste, such as it is, developed. It wasn’t all plain sailing, of course: works such as Dvořák’s New World Symphony or Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker could more than hold my attention by their extraordinary melodic flair, and their kaleidoscopic orchestral colours; but Beethoven’s string quartets, say, or Bach’s fugues, tended to present tougher challenges. But I can’t say I was too put off by that: in my ignorance, I reasoned that if I was prepared to apply myself to absorb the plays of Shakespeare, say, or the novels of Dostoyevsky, then there was no reason why I should not similarly apply myself to take in music of Bach or of Beethoven. Admittedly, this went against the grain somewhat, as, having grown up with rock and pop music, I hadn’t trained myself to listen to music carefully, and to concentrate on what I was hearing: music for me was merely something to tap my feet to, or to hum along to, while I was doing something else. The very idea of actually concentrating on music was novel, and, given my lack of a musical background, far from easy. But – and I suppose this is when I really started to become stuffy and elitist – I did put in some effort, and am continuing to this day to do so; and – who knows? – maybe some day, I actually will come to an adequate understanding of the fugues of Bach, or of the string quartets of Beethoven. But even if I never do, there are, it seems to me, certain journeys that are perhaps doomed to remain unfinished, but which are, nonetheless, worth embarking upon.
However, for all that, the fact remains that classical music is, indeed, stuffy and elitist, and, try as one might, incapable of attracting new audiences who are, quite rightly, put off by the stuffiness and the elitism; who are put off by the stringent and mysterious codes of behaviour expected of audiences, and by the exorbitantly high prices designed to keep out the riff-raff. I’m afraid I really don’t know what one can do about all that.