How I became so stuffy and elitist

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 stuffy and elitist 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.

22 responses to this post.

  1. As a postscript to my article above, here is an article from 5 years ago by Murig Bowen, head of programming at Aldeburgh, on the perceptions of classical music:

    I wish I could say things have improved since then. Here’s amore recentarticle, yet again on the issue of perceptions of classical music:


  2. Posted by obviouscritique on November 1, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    An obvious critique of your piece is that you set up the straw man ‘stuffy and elitiist’ which you then proceed to satirise without providing evidence of the attitudes that you claim exist.
    I can do the same. It occurs to me that the British believe that education and the appreciation of art is something for foreigners and homosexuals. Starting from this evidence free but sincerely believed statement I could argue that you (the argumentative old git) can get away with the appreciation of the arts because despite having lived in the U.K. for the last 44 years and despite (like Othello) having become integrated and recognised for your utility, you are still the foreigner.
    Alternatively I could set up a different straw man (and I mean this most sincerely folks) that most people don’t think about this matter at all, and that it rarely if ever impinges upon their uncollected conciousness, except for perhaps an occasional but little, and unstated unease that there is something going on that they don’t understand and would require a great deal of study to understand.
    In these circumstances it would be quite reasonable for people to assume that someone who said that they liked classical music but otherwise showed no evidence of being able to play a musical instrument, of being a little pretentious, of pretending to qualities that they did not have.
    In this straw man it is the fear of being seen to be pretentious that is the dominant factor.
    Me, I’m happy to admit my ignorance but attend the occasional concert, but I don’t feel the need to defend myself.


    • Good heavens, Alan, what an onslaught to my self-deprecating little piece! And of course you don’t need see the need to defend yourself! Why should you? Did I ever suggest that you should? What a curious thought!

      And yes, it is true that I didn’t provide references. I am not a full-time journalist, you see. It’s well past ten o’clock at night now, and for the first time in the whole day, I‘ve had a bit of time to myself, to sit in front of my PC screen. Not that I can write much: I am knackered after a hard day, and just want to go to bed now. If I had to research everything on top of it all, I wouldn’t have time even to write a single post! But “straw man”? Sadly, no. Orchestras and classical music ensembles are desperately trying to attract new audiences, and failing miserably: every poll they conduct about public perceptions of classical music reveals it is perceived to be “stuffy” and “elitist”.

      I myself am on the organizing committee of a local music club, and we arrange classical music concerts regularly in the locality: we have the same problem – we can’t attract anyone under 75. (OK – that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the picture.) Anecdotal evidence suggests that we are seen as … yes, you’ve guessed it. (Yes, I know this is only anecdotal evidence: I do realise that, ideally, I should be doing a survey of a stratified sample, and then analysing the data to try to disprove the null hypothesis, and give you some confidence intervals. But since I do that sort of thing during office hours to earn my pennies, I really can’t be arsed doing it in my spare time as well. Sorry!)

      “Where’s the evidence?” you ask. What – you really want me to go hunting round the net for evidence? I’m too tired. I’m not, as I say, a full-time journalist, whose job it is to provide full, well-researched evidence. I’m just a blogger who reacts when he gets annoyed by certain things, and likes to let off some steam on his blog.

      But it’s certainly no straw man that classical music is barely covered in what claim to be “quality broadsheets”. Some don’t cover it at all. Why don’t you click on those two links in my comment above and see what they have to say? It may not be the hard, watertight evidence you’re looking for, but it’s a start.

      And, if you really can be bothered (because I can’t – I’m far too tired) you could try to find some pieces on funding for classical music that allows comments from the public. (The Guardian “Comments is Free” Culture (sic) section is quite a good place to look). You can’t even mention “classical music” or “opera” without the words “stuffy” and “elitist” coming up repeatedly.

      There are a number of points in your comments that puzzle me. For instance:

      “…you (the argumentative old git) can get away with the appreciation of the arts…”

      One can “get away” with doing things that are illegal, or are morally reprehensible. I hadn’t realised that appreciation of the arts quite comes under that category. What *can* you mean, I wonder?

      Let’s consider the full sentence:

      “Starting from this evidence free but sincerely believed statement I could argue that you (the argumentative old git) can get away with the appreciation of the arts because despite having lived in the U.K. for the last 44 years and despite (like Othello) having become integrated and recognised for your utility, you are still the foreigner.”

      Even if we *were* to accept that stated premise – evidence-free, as you say, sincerely believed though it may be – the conclusion doesn’t follow.

      Or this bit:

      “… it would be quite reasonable for people to assume that someone who said that they liked classical music but otherwise showed no evidence of being able to play a musical instrument, of being a little pretentious, of pretending to qualities that they did not have …”

      If a person who cannot play an instrument pretended to be able to do so, then the charge of pretentiousness would certainly hold. But why it should be “reasonable” to view as pretentious the appreciation on the part of those who cannot play instruments of those who can, I really cannot imagine. By the same token, it would be pretentious for those who cannot kick a ball to appreciate the skills of good footballers; or for those who cannot act to appreciate good acting. It seems a very strange argument to make, and stranger still, it seems to me, to label it as “reasonable”. Once again, what *can* you mean?

      Well, it’s time for bed now. I’m sorry I failed you in the research department, but I really do get very tired at the end of the day, I’m afraid. But you may be interested to know that I am considering a post in the near future with the title “In Praise of Elitism”. I’m being quite serious: I do believe that The Preservation of the Good is a laudable aim (it’s a Burkean concept, but I am happy to subscribe to it nonetheless); and that, to realise this aim, there needs to be elites: it is as unreasonable to expect Bach’s Art of Fugue, say, to have a mass following as it is to expect a sizeable proportion of the population to have a grasp of quantum mechanics. Not enjoying Bach, or not understanding quantum mechanics, does not make you an unworthy person, or a bad person, or even, for that matter, an unintelligent person: it just makes you a person who doesn’t get Bach, or who doesn’t get quantum mechanics. That’s all. So, if the music of Bach is to be preserved; or if the concepts of quantum mechanics are to be passed on to the next generation; then we need to ensure elites who are capable of doing so. But we do, I think, need to ensure is that these elites are not defined in terms of wealth or of social status, but, rather, by the ability to appreciate or to understand.

      Good night!


  3. Posted by Chris on November 1, 2010 at 11:39 pm

    Interesting rant.

    You’re assuming that people can somehow approach music in a cultural vacuum – sadly, this is in general not the case. Like a lot of other social interactions, music tastes can be used to establish a pecking order, which in my experience starts at an very formative age: who at school has heard the latest album by such and such, then who at Uni had heard about the latest big thing obscure Indie band long before they became popular and that dread word “mainstream” (In fact, I think that I heard of the Latest Big Thing before anyone else, and they’d begun to sell out to Big Business even then) Then move onto classical – because it is most often heard selling expensive things on the TV, it must be for the Rich, Powerful and Well Educated. Overlay all of the above with a thick dollop of inverse snobbery, and there you are, opinins made up by age 18, ROH is fo the poshos, X factor for the plebs.

    I love the Abba admission. At my age, cheesy music has eaten itself – peers of otherwsie rational mindset are spending hours on the internet buying tickets at enoumous personal expense, on a kitch journey back to their schooldays as a group of media created 30 somethings relieve their boy band days. In going to Hamden for the concert, they’re not Families With Responsibilities any more, they’re still the Young Rebels . Naomi Klein was right.

    I think you are being naive or delierately provocative to suggest that there is no code of behaviour at classical concerts. Clapping midway through? OK at the opera, not OK at the Festival Hall. A friend once memorably and hilariously described how seeing Carmen at the Arena in verona was “ruined” because an Ozzie backpacker -only there because “she read that it was “a good thing to do in a guidebook” hummed quietly along to Toreador, and other arias that she realised she’d heard before . Also, sadly, for every group trying to get young people into classical music, thete is another group who will throw you out of the club if you miss a rehersal ( A number of choirs I have come across )

    Finally, to break down the stuffy and emitist tag, we need more of the following types of programme: :


    • Hello Chris, first of all, regardless of what impression I might have given, I agree fully that our musical tastes are not moulded in a cultural vacuum. Indeed, you give a very good summary of the way social pressures conspire with inverted snobbery to mould musical tastes.

      Our tastes – musical or otherwise – are very powerfully moulded by our cultural environment. And this is why, it seems to me, it is so important to create an environment in which enjoying something such as classical music is not seen as something undesirable. But we are currently very far from such an environment, and this is, for me, a very deep concern. I know, for instance, that our teenage daughter loves Mozart’s operas: she even takes CDs up to her room to listen to. But this is not something she is prepared to reveal to her friends. Not only is she not encouraged to explore more deeply – everything around her *discourages* her from doing so. To coin a phrase, a taste for classical music is a taste that dare not speak its name.

      And it’s not just classical music: if you look around the net, you’ll see interviews & articles in which Wynton Marsalis laments that the rich heritage of traditional jazz music – in many ways, the national music of America – is vanishing because it is failing to attract new listeners in sufficient numbers. I have heard similar laments from aficionados of Indian classical music: the all-pervasive influence of Bollywood is driving out that which is more valuable and more enriching – although, admittedly, more difficult. It seems that any kind of music that requires more than the most basic response is a threatened species. This has not, as you say, happened in a cultural vacuum: so it surely makes sense at least to examine the cultural environment in which this is happening.

      On the question of behaviour codes, my point is that it is nowhere near as stringent or as intricate as is popularly imagined; and that what codes there are dictated not by snobbery, nor y a sadistic desire to wrong-foot the newbie, but, rather, by the nature of the music itself, which often requires a high degree of concentration. If I am trying to focus on the music, the last thing I would want is some person next to me humming along to it. As for applause, the only thing to remember is to applaud when the performers are taking a bow, and not at any other time. I have been to performances of “The Magic Flute”, for instance, where people have applauded raucously towards the end of Pamina’s second act aria before the whole thing had finished. In the aria, after the singer has sung her last phrase, there is a short orchestral postlude of breathtaking beauty, but you rarely get to hear it in performance because of people thinking that their right to applaud when they feel like it overrides my right to listen to the music. Letting other members of the audience hear the music they have paid to hear seems to me not stuffiness, but mere politeness.

      And sometimes, in classical music, the pauses are important, and have been written into the music. Or consider song-cycles. Among of my favourite works are the song cycles of Schubert, and I have heard these performed at the Wigmore Hall, where there is pindrop silence between the songs. That’s not stuffiness: that’s politeness. These works are not series of highlights, but unified pieces in which there is a continuity from one song and the next; and applauding between songs would disrupt this continuity. (After all, when you’re watching a film, you wouldn’t want to break it up into 5 minute chunks, would you?) The programmes in these recitals of song cycles included the full texts and translations of the songs; and a little note requested that we do not turn the page until the entire song (including the piano postlude) is finished. Once again, some may say this is stuffy, but for me, it’s simply to ensure that enjoyment of quiet passages isn’t disturbed by the rustle of hundreds of pages turning at the same time.

      The rules, as such, aren’t hard to master: applaud only when the performers are taking a bow; and in between, stay quiet so as not to disturb anyone’s concentration. What’s so difficult (or stuffy) about that?

      I do like Bill Bailey, and will play that clip when I get back home (I am writing this in my lunch break).But there have been attempts before to encourage listening of classical music in a manner that does not intimidate, but the tags of “stuffiness” and “elitist” persist: it seems we just can’t get rid of them. Myths of classical music being prohibitively expensive persist, even though you only need to check some prices on the internet to see how inexpensive seats to the Royal Festival Hall, say, or to the Barbican Hall are compared to prices for even the average rock concert. Opera, admittedly, is more expensive, but even here, tickets for the English national opera, say, or for Welsh National Opera or Scottish Opera, compare very favourably with prices for West End musicals: and no-one ever complains about “Oliver” or “Phantom of the Opera” (or Premiership football matches – which I certainly couldn’t afford!) being “elitist”. And even Covent Garden prices don’t seem that exorbitant when you hear of the hundreds of pounds people pay to see the big hitters of rock music (I won’t name any, since I am not sure who the big hitters are these days). But no matter what evidence you may present, myths persist: the tags of “stuffiness” and “elitism” won’t go away, no matter what.

      This is why I am resigned to being described in such terms: given my taste in music (and, indeed, in other things), I am going to be called these things no matter what. But I continue to object most strongly to the social pressures that you describe so well that prevent (or at least discourage) so many people from coming to that which can be so deeply enriching.


    • I just watched that Bill Bailey clip. The man’s a headcase, isn’t he? Brilliant!


  4. Posted by alan on November 2, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    OK- perhaps that comment was a little more annoying than I intended – nevertheless I still think that most people are not antagonistic towards ‘classical music’ but are just uneasy about their ignorance and find it easier to approach other things.
    In order to match your Abba confession, I am prepared to admit that the other day I sat down to watch ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. I chose this musical because my parents were visiting and I had my son with me, so I thought a bit of Hollywood musical ‘fluff’ would fit the circumstance.
    I had previously sat through this movie in the 1970’s and although I found that it was dramatically poorer than I remembered, it was musically more appealing. To my surprise it was also 3 hours and 20 minutes long – something unheard of these days in film.
    Why I found it dramatically more limited is not relevant to a post about music, but why I liked the music more, is relevant.
    The trouble is that I don’t have the vocabulary to describe why I liked the music. Could it be age? Could my declining hearing prevent the penetration of the wall of sound that a lot of a lot of popular music seems to consist of, and so I find more traditional forms comforting? Or, was there something worth listening to? I tried to speak to my son about this because he’s had a small amount of musical training. He said he liked it as well and said something about the voice of the character ‘Tevya’ sounding like a violin part. As for me, I remain confused.


    • I don’t know that any of us need be embarrassed by liking what we do. We went through all that when we were teenagers. Surely in middle age we are entitled to like whatever we damn well want to like, and to say so! As Chris says in his comments, there is much social pressure on us as we’re growing up to like certain things, and not like others. On the list of things not to like, there was, of course, the cheesier elements of pop (although I do maintain that as tunesmiths, Bjorn and Benny were as fine as popular music has produced! :-)); classical music; and midde-of-the-road music – what was at the time Radio 2 fodder. And this included traditional musicals. But quite a bit of talent went into these musicals. It has been many, many years since I last saw “Fiddler on the Roof”, but I bet I’d be able to recognise most of the tunes. To achieve this does require a talent.

      The songs of “Fiddler on the Roof” are, as I remember, base don “klezmer” – traditional East European Jewish folk music. Those who know klezmer will tell you that the “Fiddler on the Roof” songs are very much “Klezmer-lite” – watered down versions for an international goy audience. This may well be so, but for those of us who don’t know the real thing, the songs of “Fiddler on the Roof” provide very enjoyable foot-tapping, hummable stuff. I don’t know that we need be embarrassed for enjoying it. As I say, getting embarrassed about what we like should be something we’ve left behind in our teenage years.

      Of course, if you want to follow this up a bit, you could try some real klezmer music, and see how that sonds!


  5. Posted by Caro on November 3, 2010 at 8:52 am

    Hello Himadri,

    I haven’t read all the comments fully, but have read your first post. And naturally I wish to disagree with some aspects of it. First of all it isn’t just classical music that people (maybe) frown at or find you odd for liking. At least there’s some respect for that. You try liking, as I do, drivelly country music (I sometime don’t pick up hitchhikers purely because I want to listen to this sort of music and know I can’t inflict that on fellow travellers, even ones keen to have a free lift). Or mentioning to someone who has rather alternative tastes in popular music (or even fairly mainstream ones) that you like Celine Dion – that takes real courage! Much more than liking classical music, which actually lots of people do. At least where I live – a little town full of people who play the piano or violin or sing opera. My own son, when we took him to learn the piano, thinking he would like to be able to play popular songs at parties or something, just preferred to learn Chopin and Mozart and similar.

    I could say, too, that not all those bands from the 70s are forgotten. After reading what you said I noticed someone saying that for the past four decades as a teacher some young budding 15-year-old guitarist has asked him if he knows Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven and are amazed when he tells them he heard it live in New Zealand before it was recorded.

    The music goes on too long for me at classical concerts and I just don’t like opera music. To my ears it tends to be screechy, not all of it, but enough to put me off. So I don’t want a whole evening of opera. My mind wanders at classical concerts or at pieces of classical music (unless they are very short of course), and I miss it all. Or I don’t miss it, because it is repetitive. I don’t think there is anything about the performances in themselves that puts me off. I would be much more uncertain about attending a play where there is audience participation than going to an opera or concert. It’s just that I don’t like the music. And nor does my husband, so there is no one to take me and teach me. (Though I did learn the piano for ten years. Somehow musical appreciation wasn’t a real part of this. I recall going to the odd piano recital when I was a teenager but it didn’t really appeal. I won a competition once when I was 13, though, playing a piece of Bach. I can still play the opening bars, and I still find it a fairly bland sort of piece of music.)

    Well, most of that’s not anything of great worth, but I think it is not really true that the thought of the elitism of music puts people off. Not being with your age peers might, but that is at least somewhat different. What puts me off modern pop concerts now is the volume they are played at. I went to a Jimmy Barnes concert a few years ago and it was so loud I couldn’t tell if I knew the songs or not! It is mystifying to me why it has to be so loud; didn’t used to be when I was young, and we all seemed to hear it in the audience. Of course Peter, Paul and Mary didn’t lend themselves to raucous renditions.

    Cheers, Caro.
    PS: Lord of the Rings was a very good three hours in length. Perhaps four. I’d drifted away (not literally, in my mind) long before that, though, and one battle faded into another.


    • Hello Caro,

      I am a bit confused, I must admit, about which aspects of my post you are disagreeing with. I quite specifically referred to other forms of music which people often feel embarrassed to admit to liking: I mentioned this both in my initial post (when I spoke of the embarrassment inherent in confessing to enjoying Abba), and later, more specifically, in the reply to Chris’ comments. I focussed on classical music partly because that, on a personal level, is the music that concerns me most; and partly because what is commonly known as “classical music” (it isn’t by any means a single genre), whether or not one personally cares for it, contains some of the most important treasures of Western civilisation; and, if we are to believe (as I do) that it is important to preserve what is valuable, then we should be concerned about the generally negative perceptions of classical music in our society.

      I do appreciate that the Western classical tradition is not the only one that contains defining works of our civilisation. As I said, people like Wynton Marsalis lament the lack of appreciation of jazz; aficionados of Indian classical music lament the sidelining of Indian classical traditions; and so on. These are all legitimate concerns. I have focussed on Western classical music (which covers the entire “art music” – for want of a better phrase – of the entire western world for some eight centuries or so) because that’s the music interests me most personally. And it’s my blog. So there. 🙂

      Of course, one is free to like or not like classical music. One is free to make the effort (for it *does* require effort) or not, as one chooses. That is not the issue. I have never berated anyone for their tastes; neither have I said, nor implied, that anyone is in any way lesser as a person for having certain tastes. Quite the contrary. (Indeed, given my own personal liking for Hammer horror and Carry On films, I am hardly in a position to look down on anyone else’s taste!) My issue here is what I see as the sidelining in our society of what we may refer to as “high culture”; and, in particular, the mindless derision (one can barely mention classical music on any public forum without the epithets “stuffy” and “elitist” coming up) and sidelining of classical music.

      And classical music *has* been sidelined in our modern society. Back in the 60s and 70s, the music criticism in quality broadsheet papers was almost exclusively that of classical music. Somewhere around the late 70s and early 80s, they started taking popular music seriously. That in itself is no bad thing: the popular arts, as I have argued in the context of literature, *do* deserve to be taken seriously. But, instead of a critical engagement, all we’ve really seen is a celebration of the popular simply because it *is* popular. And soon, like the cuckoo in the nest, what was once the outsider pushed aside the original inhabitants: the arts pages of many broadsheets don’t cover classical music at all nowadays; or, if they do, hide the coverage away so it’s difficult to find, and allot it such little space that there isn’t enough room to discuss it adequately. Discourse on classical music in the mainstream, even where it exists, is of a very low quality. Rock and pop have taken over, and command all the column inches, even though they are genres of such little substance that there is little to say about them. The various attempts to find depth and significance where neither exists end up producing pieces as risibly pretentious as this:

      There are other areas as well where one may see evidence of the sidelining of classical music. As I have said often enough, I educated myself on the Western classical tradition thanks to a very well-stocked record library: most libraries now have removed the classical sections, or, at best, restrict them to a small handful of the more popular classics. The option to educate oneself in classical music through the local record library is not now open to someone now thirty years younger than myself.

      And then, there is education: our teenage boy wanted to study classical music for his AS Levels at school, but of all the sixth form colleges in our locality (i.e. within a 30 mile radius of our house), two – only two – offered music courses that encompassed classical music: the music courses in the others were about performing and recording rock music. I really was quite shocked.

      Discourse on classical music – as with much else that is valuable – is disappearing fast from the mainstream. One generally educates oneself on these matters through osmosis, but you can’t really absorb what isn’t around you. I could, of course, hunt out recordings of Bach cantatas or Stravinsky ballets if I wanted to, but to do that, I need in the first place to have some idea of what to search out. What I picked up through osmosis in my childhood years, my own children can’t. And that is because these things are not available in the mainstream as they used to be.

      As Chris says, there are very strong pressures in society that determine what sort of music it is “OK” to like, and what isn’t. Given the very high levels of inverted snobbery in our society, children are nowadays actively discouraged from exploring anything deemed “highbrow”. Our teenage daughter would never, for instance, admit to her friends to enjoying Mozart: that is a secret (and one I wouldn’t dream of divulging were I not certain that none of her friends read this blog!) Now, as someone who loves classical music (or, at least, some aspects of it: it is too vast to get to know completely!), and who feels they contain some of the most indispensable creations of our civilisation, I do not think this is a healthy situation; and I do feel justified in being concerned.


  6. Posted by Kirsty on November 4, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    What I can’t stand is not classical music being sidelined, it’s the inverse snobbery. People actually feel it’s ok, maybe even self-righteous to snub it for some mysterious association with “elitism”. It has nothing to do with the merit of the music itself! It’s most childish, and it’s not just some teenagers who want to appear to be cool, even stuffy old folks whom you’d expect to be comfortable with the idea of appearing stuffy and old-fashioned.

    Loads of people listen to lady Gaga or buy a iPad to look hip and cool. Blissfully unaware of their pretentiousness and they make you feel YOU are the one who’s pretentious for….. genuinely enjoying classical music.

    I disagree with Alan about people not wanting to appear to be pretentious as they don’t play a instrument. Not everyone plays in a band but most people would be happy to tell you the list of bands they admire in their teen years. If you tell people you like classical music and play the piano, people would think “what a showoff!”

    Society nowadays celebrate the ordinary, the average, the populist, the trivial, the superficial. If something is labeled “elitist”, it’s to be avoided.

    While I don’t like the elitist label, I don’t expect everyone to like classical music. It does demand more from the audience than popular music. It’s not background music, you need to pay attention. You can’t dance to Bach, you can’t sing Schubert in Karaoke. There’s no lyrics, it’s harder to understand and make a instant connection.


    • Hello Kirsty,

      Yes, I agree with you about the inverted snobbery: it’s everywhere. Perhaps not surprisingly, people who aren’t that interested in classical music tend not to notice; but for those of us who *do* take an interest – or who are, indeed, passionate about it – it’s hard *not* to notice. How can one pretend not to notice when something one holds so dear is so frequently derided? As parents of two teenage children, we do try to communicate something of our values to our children, but given the way things are, it is difficult. As I have said, our daughter, especially, has to hide her taste for classical music from her friends.

      Of course, what we term “classical music” encompasses the entire range of “art music” for something like 8 centuries – from Hildegarde of Bingen & Josquin Desprez to Hans Werner Henze & Elliott Carter. Sometimes I am asked if “classical music” is “all” I listen to, and I have to explain that I am only really acquainted with a few bits & pieces of it. Astonishigly, it’s all thought of as a single genre.

      Since one of the main reasons for starting this blog is to share my enthusiasms, I’d like to write more about music here, but I am a layman in these matters, and can’t really delve too deeply. Perhaps I can’t really say anything much more profound than “I really like Handel” or “I think Debussy is really nice” – but how can you share your enthusiasms if you don’t mention them in the first place? Well, I suppose one has to try!

      Cheers for now,


  7. Himadri,

    You get paid by the word, don’t you? I love reading your stuff.

    Have fun!



    • Hello Eric,

      Well, you remember me from the old Dusty Shelf days … never use one word when one hundred will do! And what’s wrong with using lots of words! I like words, I do! 🙂

      See you around,


  8. Posted by Neil Shepherd on December 26, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    This is a well-written, touchingly self-deprecating article which debunks nicely some of the myths surrounding classical music. I’d like to add two points of my own:

    I listen to classical music and opera (favourite composer Wagner) simply I respond to it. Without wishing to sound pretentious, I actually find it far easier to listen to than pop/rock. I do not listen to this music (and never have) because it is the “right” thing to do or because it is “challenging”, “deep” or “intellectual”. I listen purely for pleasure – and I can’t get that pleasure from listening to pop/rock, with the exception of a few old prog rock bands like Pink Floyd and Yes. I suspect most serious classical music listeners feel the same.

    When I was a teacher back in the Nineties, one of my sixth-form students came up and asked if she could miss the next Friday afternoon lesson. When I asked for the reason she clammed up with embarrassment and waited until the rest of the class was well out of earshot, and I started to wonder if she’d got herself pregnant or something. Evetually she admitted that she was the leader of a local youth orchestra and that they were rehearsing all weekend for a concert, starting Friday afternoon. This was a kid who had more self-confidence at 17 than I had at 17 or have at 48 – and yet she was too embarrassed to admit to her friends (who seemed a decent lot) that she was involved in classical music.

    Articles like this do help redress the balance and deserve to be be more widely read.


    • Hello Neil, and thank you for that. I’m sorry I took so long to reply: I had been away over Christmas and New Year, and only drove back home today with the family, listening to (coincidentally) Wagner’s Die Meistersinger on the car stereo. That has been a favourite work ever since I heard a wonderful performance of it at the Edinburgh Festival a few years ago, featuring a then little-known tenor named Jonas Kaufmann as Walther.

      My own favourite composer remains Mozart: those three operas composed to libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte remain a bit special for me.

      I quite agree with you that the reason we aficionados of this music listen to it is because … well, because we love it! Like yourself, I can’t really get much from pop & rock music these days – except, perhaps, a bit of nostalgia when I hear something I used to enjoy as a teenager: but even there, I can’t say I go out of my way to hear it. But something such as, say, one of those majestic preludes from Bach’s cello suites, or that hypnotic closing passage of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, never fails to send shivers down my spine, and make me wonder afresh how it is that mere arrangements of sounds can have so powerful an effect on one.

      I do feel it important to introduce this music to our children: we cannot assume that anything will continue without our making the effort to help ensure that it does. The children may not take to it now; or, like our own teenage children, or like the pupil of yours you mentioned, they may take to it in secret. But when they are older and more mature, and less concerned with what others may think, they may well come back to this.

      I would like to write more on music on this blog, but not having had a musical education, feel somewhat diffident about it. I am certainly planning to go and see Parsifal when it plays at the English National Opera this February, and maybe I could pluck up the courage to put up here a few thoughts on it. However badly educated I am in this area, music means so much to me that I can’t very well not post about it!

      All the best for now, and thanks once again for your comments.


  9. Posted by Neil Shepherd on January 5, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    Happy New Year, Himadri, and thanks for your reply. I hope you enjoy the Parsifal – that happens to be my favourite of the Wagner operas. I saw it at Bayreuth in 2004 and it was an unusual experience: my pleasure at seeing it in its natural home with the wonderful Bayreuth orchestra and decent singers was somewhat marred by the most perverse production of this (or indeed any) opera I have seen.

    I’ve read most of your pages now and have every confidence that you would be able to write some very illuminating pieces about the world of music. Not about the music itself – words can’t describe music with any degree of adequacy, and attempts to do so usually end up as pretentious rubbish. I’m thinking if programme notes and CD liner notes here – how many people have these ever helped? Newspaper reviews too sometimes fall into this trap – I remember a Times review of a performance of Bruckner 9 which went on about how the performance was more Apollonian than Dionysian, and it was impossible to tell if the reviewer thought it was any good or not!

    Music should speak for itself, and these days, when people ask me to explain what I “see” in Wagner (for example), I suggest they listen to him for themselves rather than listen to me.

    However, this is the most intelligent blog (on any subject) I have ever come across, and I think there are many music related subjects that would benefit from your analysis. Apart from the topic of so-called elitism and the general downplaying of classical music by the media, here are a few suggestions:

    Opera synopses, in the style of the literary ones here
    A look at producer opera versus composer opera – the ENO Don Giovanni being an obvious case in point
    Period instruments – is this now the only way to play Mozart or can we enjoy the VPO without feeling guilty?
    A look at some composers in the light of their historical context – Shostakovich being a good example
    Perhaps a discussion of whether crossover music – Bond, Bocelli etc helps or hinders the classical music industry

    I have strong opinions on all of these but have a feeling your insights and writing would be far superior to mine.

    Again thanks for an excellent blog and apologies for going on at such length!


    • Hello Neil, and thank you for your kind comments. And please don’t apologise about going on at length: I am hardly the most terse of writers myself! I generally tend to follow the advice given me by my supervisor at university: “When you want to say something, first say you’re going to say it; then say it; and then say you’ve said it.”

      I shall most certainly write more posts on music, as it’s too important for me not to write about. Opera is relatively easy to write about, as one can talk about its dramatic aspect: however, music that is more abstract presents problems, but I’d like to tackle that also some time. It would be a challenge to write about a Beethoven piano sonata, say, without coming up with the sort of thing that gets into Private Eye’s “Pseuds’ Corner”.

      The problem is – as ever – pressure of work: I have a few posts planned out, but they really make you work hard for your pennies these days! But I’ll try to get a couple of new posts up this weekend.

      I take it, by the way, you were referring to the Callixto Bieito production of Don Giovanni at the ENO. I was unfortunate enough to be in the audience for that one. When, say, Donna Anna and Don Ottavio sing about Donna Elvira “che aspetto nobile, che dolce maesta”, then presenting Donna Elvira merely as a pathetic drunken floozie doesn’t quite fit the bill. I don’t object to unorthodox productions, but I do object to unintelligent ones.

      I believe the forthcoming production of Parsifal is the one by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, which ignores Wagner’s directions to set the first and last acts in a green, leafy glade, and places them instead in a scenery of war-torn rubble. Well, be that as it may – John Tomlinson as Guernemanz is too good a prospect to miss. But yes, a post on opera productions (and productions of classic drama) would be interesting.

      I’d love to be able to hear Wagner at Bayreuth, but I have seen some good stuff over the years (especially at the Edinburgh Festival over the years), and can’t really complain.

      All the best for now,

      PS Since you mentioned Bruckner’s 9th symphony, the best performance I’ve heard was one with Gunter Wand conductiong the North German Radio Symphony orchestra. I’m not sure whether it was Apollonoian or Dionysian – but it was bloody good!


  10. Posted by Neil Shepherd on January 7, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    I’m glad you don’t object too much to my mauderings! I shall follow this site with interest and would certainly be interested to see a review of the Parsifal. Wagner set in an ugly modern context eh – yawn, been there, done that, kept my eyes closed. As you say Tomlinson should be excellent, he is one of the finest Wagner singers of our generation.

    I was indeed refering to Bieito’s Don – I haven’t seen it myself as I no longer live in the UK but by all accounts it was pretty dire.

    I agree too that Gunter Wand had a special way with Bruckner, rather in the way that Goodall did with Wagner.

    Keep up the good work!


  11. Posted by alan on May 12, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    On the ‘relevance’ of music:
    Come to think of it, ‘relevance’ might make a good subject for discussion in itself.


    • There are all sorts of things with which one may fruitfully occupy one’s mind. Sadly, most of us have a living to earn, and have, in addition, various other commitments that take up our time.

      But even if I had world enough and time, I can’t say that too much of either would be spent on pondering the wit and wisdom of (and I’m copying and pasting here, since I can’t remember his name) “BBC Radio 1 DJ Kissy Sell Out”. In the words of Stan Laurel, “life is not short enough”.


  12. I looove your blog, identity so much with it


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