Classical music must beware of its new elitism

A disturbing strand of elitism and snobbery is creeping into classical music, particularly in the UK. Country house opera is the new big thing and an increasingly condescending attitude is prevalent towards rock and other non-classical genres. Leading the charge with a recent online polemic is composer James MacMillan. In this he uses the term 'Left-wing' (his capitalisation) as a pejorative, a distasteful use overlooked by classical music's champagne activists who happily tweeted their approval of his views - "Well said Sir James".

James MacMillan is dismissive of the emblematic Glastonbury Festival and in the same sentence denounces popular music for "the elevation of the decidedly mediocre and banal to iconic genius status". He then goes on to plead the case for classical music as "a struggling, hard-pressed cottage industry", which conveniently ignores the fact that the top five music directors of American orchestras earned a total of US$11.6 million in 2018. He also denounces how the "pop-dominated, mass-produced culture industry and big business are inherently bound together to make a large-scale system of control and exploitation". Which overlooks the fact that the industry leading classical labels of Decca and Deutsche Grammophon are owned by pop-dominated Universal Music. In this very big business - 2018 turnover of US$ 7.1 billion - classical musicians of the moment such as Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla sit, presumably comfortably, alongside the non-classical artists dismissed by MacMillan as "decidedly mediocre and banal".

The reality is that the output of those artists denounced as mediocre and banal fund admirable recording projects such as Gražinytė-Tyla's Weinberg Symphonies. And also conveniently overlooked is that what Sir James describes as corporate music's "large-scale system of control and exploitation" facilitated the recording of his almost certainly loss-making The Lost Songs of St Kilda for Decca, and that he took the proverbial thirty pieces of silver from Universal Music's Deutsche Grammophon when he conducted a recording of violin concertos for them.

To adapt to the changing cultural environment classical music needs to rejuvenate itself, which means attracting a new young audience. The first step towards attracting that audience is understanding the target market, not pouring scorn on it. That header montage shows the Tomorrowland electronic dance music (EDM) festival, the 2019 edition of which takes place this and next weekend (19,20,21 & 26, 27, 28 July) at Boom in Belgium. 400,000 people - mainly young - will attend over the two weekends, and the festival has also been staged in Brazil and America*.

There is much that classical music can learn from events such as Tomorrowland. That montage illustrated an article about a Tomorrowland Afterparty radio program in which world famous EDM djs talked about dance and classical music. This explained how certain dance tracks have roots in classical music and discussed the great composers who inspire leading figures in the EDM movement.

Tomorrowland's Afterparty radio program linking classical and electronic dance music was an intelligent and constructive step towards bridging the two genres, thereby connecting with a new young audience for the venerable classical tradition. Reactionary rants such as James MacMillan's - the click baiting Guardian piece which he responded to was equally ill-informed and misguided - are not only putting up barriers to connecting with that important new classical audience. They are also alienating old and long term classical aficionados like me.

* To learn more about Tomorrowland watch the blatantly promotional but nevertheless informative documentary 'This was tomorrow' which is available on Netflix.

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Unknown said…
For a long time I wanted to give James Macmillan the benefit of the doubt. I am roughly of the same generation and, like him, grew up in Ayrshire. I even saw him once about thirty years ago in Glasgow’s Tower Records although I was too shy to approach him. (This must have been during his – ahem! – “communist” phase)

Then the warning signs began. He approvingly quoted Roger Scruton and started to write for the neoconservative Standpoint magazine. Still I shrugged my shoulders. Then I accessed a Telegraph interview where, amongst other idiocies, he spoke in the most crass general terms about “Evil people”, revealed his fear of the “Corbynistas” and told us that Hitler was a disciple of Marx. Everything I have read from him since has confirmed my worst fears that he has turned into the most ferociously ignorant, medievally minded, increasingly paranoid useful idiot for the Right. The Telegraph interview has a photo of him playing on his organ by the sea. Oh the aptness of the image!

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