Elitism, Populism, and Classical Music (2)

Orpheus and Eurydice
Orpheus fails to charm Eurydice in Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers.

Elitism

Classical music has been considered the mainstay of ‘western’ musical culture from around 1770 till 1970. Its institutions – orchestras, opera houses, choirs, conservatoires – were mainly supported, albeit often poorly, by a culturally ambitious upper middle class, which since the late 18th century increasingly took over the role of cultural patronage from the aristocracy. The peak of this classical music culture in terms of status and productivity should probably be dated to the 1880s–1920s. For the lower middle class, emulation of the wealthy included its musical culture. A piano and a stack of C.F. Peters editions were standard household items, like silver plated cutlery, mahogany furniture, and other things that make life more chic, but on the whole less comfortable.

As an upper and middle class phenomenon, classical music is historically not ‘elitist’, though obviously, members of the working class hardly had a share in it. Nowadays, the education level among classical music audiences may be above average, but it is doubtful that higher education itself breeds a taste for classical. Greater wealth certainly doesn’t.

The culture of classical music has typically been one of aspiration. It implied an appreciation of ‘higher’ values, rather than mere enjoyment, even if music was and is (or should be) above all a source of joy. There are, however, more pleasurable experiences than practicing etudes or stifling your coughs and sneezes for two hours on a tip-up seat. For some, going to a concert may still be partly a matter of ostentation, a display of snobbery.

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