Elitism, Populism, and Classical Music (2)

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


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.

According to the pianist-scholar Charles Rosen…

This snobbish social aspect has given rise to the sociological fantasy that serious music is tied to a structure of class distinctions, but that will not hold water. It is unfortunately true that the rich can better afford to go to concerts than the poor, but there is no reason to think that the possession of wealth gives one a deeper interest in, or understanding of, classical music. Appreciation of music, like a love of sport, is not tied to class. (Charles Rosen, Critical Entertainments: Music Old and New (2000), 301.)

That, however, is too simple. Appreciation of music is not the same as appreciating classical or ‘serious’ music, and classical music is still overwhelmingly a ‘white’ affair. Poor and relatively uneducated people have the least access to classical music, as to anything except mass culture.

Music, according to conventional wisdom, has the power to transcend boundaries of class and culture. Its mythical embodiment is Orpheus, whose music charmed even wild animals and called his beloved back from death. In the 18th century, along with the rise of classical music, it inspired the concept of music as a ‘universal language’.  With the proliferation nowadays of so many different ‘musics’ it is hard to maintain that music (which music?) has this quality of universality.

What is a (nearly) universal human trait is musicality: the complex cognitive ability to engage in music, actively or passively. So, perhaps the unifying potential that seeps away in the plurality of musics still lies in our common musicality?

… while music clearly has the ability to reinforce sectarian divisions, the same mechanisms used for this purpose can also be directed toward more broadly humanizing ends. […] Our shared musicality is a real ground for developing a sense of human commonality across cultural boundaries, while the range of music we might encounter encourages appreciation of cultural diversity. (Kathleen Higgins, The Music between Us: Is Music a Universal Language? (2012), 12.)

It would hardly occur to anyone to speak in the same manner about language: our linguistic capacity is universal; but it does not foster global brother- and sisterhood. The same may be said of any human universal, including our capacities for suffering and pleasure. Yet there is much suffering from other people’s pleasures, vice versa. What is left is the trite observation that any human creative capacity can be used for good or evil. Musicality is, according to Higgins, “a disposition to make and enjoy music” (ib. 13). It is also a disposition to dislike other people’s music.

Eurydice: It is high time that we understood each other, Maestro Orpheus, my chaste husband, who stands there blushing! You must know that I despise you!… Do you think I’ll waste my youth listening to you recite classical dreams and scrape that miserable fiddle?

Orpheus: My violin!… Do not touch that chord, Madame.

Eurydice: Your violin is as boring as your lyrics. Go ahead and use them to charm those lower class shepherdesses you’re so crazy about. I am the daughter of a nymph and a demigod. I want freedom and imagination!

Orpheus: I will, my darling, play for you right now a great master-piece: my last concerto… It’s the pinnacle of art, and it only lasts one hour and a quarter!

Eurydice: An hour and a quarter! Have pity, please!

(H. Crémieux and F. Halévy, Orphée aux enfers, music by J. Offenbach (1858), my transl.)

And yet, although classical music is historically a middle- and upper-class affair, as a form of human expression it cannot simply be identified with any social class. The values and experiences that feed into classical music are, by and large, but weakly and indirectly tied to the social and ideological context of bourgeois capitalism in which it has flourished. The rise of classical music coincided with that of aesthetics as a branch of philosophy. Its guiding principle was that art is an exchange between creative genius and a public of perceptive individuals, rather than a tool for social representation. Its playing field is individual appreciation and private experience. This is reinforced by the formalization of concerts. A concert hall is rather like a museum (as has often been noted, both institutions arose around the same time). As in a museum, each visitor ignores the crowd of others. Probably most concert goers enjoy being in a more or less like-minded crowd, but (I guess) it is the experience of being in the crowd rather than being part of it.

However, it would be a miracle if nothing of the ideological underpinning of society – bourgeois capitalism – had spilled over into music. Certain works and even genres hardly deserve revival for ideological as much as musical reasons. (One might think of the 19th century oratorio – the Protestant triumphalism of Mendelssohn’s oratorios as much as the Roman Catholic kitsch of Liszt’s.)


More typical of popular music genres is the affirmation of the collective. The authors of the GMO article on popular music speak of a “politics of community”, which forms “a continuous thread in the appeal of pop music” (it is not quite clear what they mean by ‘politics’). This thread “appears to be derived ideologically from the myth of a ‘folk community’ constructed by folk revivalists and folklorists (and before them by the Romantics)”. I don’t think this affirmation of the community is a romantic construction. It is likely that in the earliest societies, as their size exceeded a critical number, there arose a need to simplify patterns of relations that became too large and complex to comprehend. Collective dancing and making music is the most efficient way of defining your place in a crowd.

In more ‘advanced’ societies, making music is outsourced to specialists. With increasing crowd size, the performer can easily slip into the role of a leader, hero, and demagogue. The excesses that can occur under such ‘charismatic’ leadership are painfully evident in the 2021 ‘Astroworld’ calamity.

This slide from popular to populist is something classical music is not immune to. Conductors particularly often cast themselves in the role of demagogue, conducting the audience as much as the orchestra. Some music classified as ‘classical’ is clearly demagogic and populist in intent (Orff’s Carmina Burana is a notorious case in point). Other works are easily used or abused for such purposes. When an audience starts swaying collectively with Strauss waltzes, or waving flags during the Last Night of the Proms, ‘popular classical’ turns into ‘populist’.

Snobbery as Political Principle

One of the distinctive features of populism is its denunciation of a putative ‘elite’, a shrewd minority that seeks to enlarge its power at the expense of ‘the people’ – a majority, however defined. The people are pure; the elite is corrupt.

The world of classical music has its own particular populist opposition against a supposed elite. The elite are the modernists, who since the early 20th century have abandoned the traditional tonal-harmonic system and destroyed the unity of high and low art, the bond between culture and its source, the people. If the romantic myth of the community has any relevance today, it is in this brand of reactionary conservatism, which has surprisingly close connections with politics.

‘The people’, in this context, becomes ‘the nation’, a fictitious entity united by language and culture. In the Netherlands, two far-right parties combine such a populist view of national culture with a neo-liberal ideology. The largest (PVV, 17 seats in parliament) is proudly plebeian and philistine. What it calls ‘culture’ is defined solely in terms of national customs – the arts play no part in it.

More notable is the paradoxical mixture of elitism and populism of Forum voor Democratie, with five seats in parliament still a fringe party, although its growing membership has outpaced the declining numbers of the other parties. It seeks to restore a romantically idealized national culture, protected from alien influences, particularly, from extra-European immigration.

However, it cannot fail to recognize that cultural heritage in the Netherlands, as throughout Europe, is primarily European rather than national. Its election manifesto calls for more education in “European classical music and art, culture and knowledge” – a stance that curiously contradicts its strong anti-European political sentiments. That classical music is eminently unsuited to hold even the nation together is blithely ignored.

Modernism in music or architecture, by now a century-old tradition, has no place in its reactionary view of European cultural heritage. (“We will not allow the unsurpassed beauty of our European cities to be squandered by modernist architects and ideologies,” p. 57) One of its more whimsical demands is for governments buildings to be designed in the neoclassical style. (And why not neo-Gothic? Or neo-Dutch-Renaissance?)

There is plenty to object to in both music and architecture of the past seventy years or so (unfortunately, ugly buildings tend to last longer than ugly music). The problem is that what is reasonably objectionable can not simply be lumped under the label ‘modernist’, nor blamed on the machinations of a leftist ‘elite’. The eclipse of classical music is a consequence of complex changes in society. If one factor should be singled out as responsible for the proliferation of the mass culture, mass consumption, and mass taste that is so much despised by the cultural-political snob, it is the neoliberalism to which he himself subscribes.

Market Forces

The alliance between neoliberalism, cultural elitism, and populism is a contradictory one. But so is the bond between Christianity and capitalism, even that between democracy and capitalism – there is nothing democratic in the way corporations are organized. Consistency has never been critical to political success or social influence.

The logical ally of neoliberalism is not reactionary nationalism, but cultural relativism. In the Netherlands it has got a hand in shaping policy through the Culture Council (Raad voor Cultuur). It advocates the idea that all music is just music, in different flavours. You may well leave its fate to the market; but if you subsidize, all are entitled to an equal share. No music is inherently better than another.

One of the net results is that in the Netherlands the number of subsidized, professional orchestras has between 1971 and 2021 been reduced from 21 to 10 (not all of them ‘classical’). Taking into account population increase, there was one orchestra for every 625.000 inhabitants in 1971, as against 1.760.000 in 2021.

Even if we ignore the question of whether music A is better than music B (which should remain under debate), it is defensible that some musical practices and institutions need and deserve government support, because they happen to be non-profitable, but also are cultural heritage, or rather, a still vibrant and creative continuation of that heritage. To deny this duty means that present and future generations are not allowed to live in and with the musical wonders that have accumulated during centuries for the benefit of all.

Fast, Deep, and (Relatively) Easy

Classical music carries the burden and the riches of an accumulated past. Since the late 18th century, much of the repertoire has retained its place in concert practice, and also has been a source of inspiration and reference for new music. This has produced an increasing complexity, not necessarily in the structure of the notes, but in the wealth of associative meaning. One of the joys of classical music is a lifelong exploration of the unfamiliar, and a re-exploration of the familiar in the light of new experiences.

The greatest obstacle to such experiences is living in a narrow present. It is the paradox of today’s unprecedented information flow that despite its ever-increasing scope and quantity, it tends to breed tunnel vision and tunnel listening. For innumerable people, every approach to the internet passes through the filter of the narrowing, self-confirmatory algorithms of the so-called ‘social media’ (in fact, social platforms: the medium is the internet).

The internet algorithm is the superlative degree of the ‘plugging’ customary in the music industry, a practice that Adorno (a leftist snob) has criticized since the 1930s.

Entertainment music would hardly have its scope and impact without what is called plugging in America. The hits chosen to be bestsellers are hammered into the listeners until they cannot fail to recognize them, and therefore love them, as the psychologists of musical advertising correctly calculate. (Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Einleitung in die Musiksoziologie: II. Leichte Musik’. Gesammelte Schriften (1973), 214-5, my transl.)

The plugging of songs is only a part of a mechanism and obtains its proper meaning within the system as a whole. Basic to the system is the plugging of styles and personalities. (Idem, ‘On Popular Music’, in Essays on Music (2002), 451.)

Social media algorithms are biased, as are (to a lesser extent) search engines; the internet as a whole is much less so. Anyhow, it offers unprecedented chances to dive deep, rather than fishing for ready-made answers; to seek falsification as much as confirmation. It is a daily marvel to someone who (like me) has grown up with printed sources and typewriters. Faster can be deeper. Short term intensity can replace some of the long immersion of old-school study.

A nostalgic listener may find in classical music confirmation, consolation and homeliness. That is one of its lesser virtues. It is not what determines its social-cultural value, what deserves to be defended against market fetishism and relativism. This lies in the chances it gives us to escape from the tunnel.