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8/12/09
Snobs and Classical Music
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That old stereotype of classical music and snobbism—it just won’t die, will it?

I got ruminating on this old question after seeing the scabrously funny Armando Iannucci political farce In the Loop, currently playing in theaters in New York (see theaters and showtimes). (Warning: Spoiler alerts ahead) Poking fun at the stuffed shirts who populate the British government ministries involves several classical-music bits in the film, most of them in the offices of a middle-aged foreign service minister who (naturally) blasts classical music. This first prompts his assistant to beg him to turn down the racket, and later, a tirade by Malcolm, a Scottish press officer with film’s funniest, most foul-mouthed lines. One of his tirades begins as the aria “Erbarme dich” (“Have mercy, my God”) from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion plays in the background. “It’s only vowels, subsidized f***ing foreign vowels!” he shouts. There’s a government report whose last-minute improvised fake “secret source” is Debussy, and the film ends with Bach’s peaceful, ruminative first Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier, following a misbegotten rush to an unnamed foreign war in the Middle East.

Of course, just like “people who like classical music are snobs,” class divisions never die in Great Britain, either. Classical music in this movie is a stand-in for the upper class, which gets many jabs as In the Loop takes aim at accents—most memorably one character with an especially plummy accent. When that character complains that she should have been kept in the loop about an issue because it was rightly “in her purview,” it prompts several side-splitting imitations of upper-class phrases with Rs (like theone in “purview”) pronounced like Ws. (Of course, the Americans don’t get it at all—James Gandolfini’s character’s blank stare after being told, “And don’t you EVER call me British again” … by a man he doesn’t even recognize as Scottish.)

Apart from this stereotype’s usefulness to writers of comedy, why does it persist? At concerts in places from Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, and Avery Fisher Hall to the Miller Theatre and Le Poisson Rouge, what I see are people who come because they want to hear the music. There are couples, and in many cases one half of the couple is dragged along by his or her more enthusiastic half. Sometimes there are concerts where every other audience member seems to be carrying a cane or a walker, and other times—less frequently—there are a lot of people between age 25 and 35. Overwhelmingly, audiences at classical concerts are white. And generally speaking, they are at the upper end of the age spectrum. But that is nothing new. I do not think that concert prices are what keeps the demographic at classical concerts so consistent; classical concerts given away at Town Hall FOR FREE don’t always fill all the seats. But young people, and nonwhites, do seem to stay away, spending their disposable income on other kinds of entertainment.

My gut feeling is that it is both the music and the milieu that make the audience for classical music remain so homogeneous. The root causes? My pet theories:

1. If you look around at a concert and see almost no-one your age or perceived social class, it doesn’t feel like a social event. If you have to sit quietly for long periods of time, that can also make it feel more like a classroom than a social event. If you don’t already like the music (see below), there is no reason to go if it doesn’t feel like a social event.

2.  If you are used to hearing nothing but rock music, much Western classical music is notable for its emphasis on melody and away from rhythm. I love Mozart, but for many people his long lyric phrases just wash over them, making the music one long undifferentiated sonic blur. (This is one reason I think Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is so popular now, by the way.) I am happy to add that this is something that seems to be changing recently, with so much new music that involves cross-pollination between indie rock and classical music.

3. Education. Most people experience music these days by listening (iPods, etc.), not playing. Instrumental music education has not been a regular feature of a public-school education for a long time. This is an old fuddy-duddy argument, but that doesn’t make it any less true. A whole generation has grown up without some kind of access to playing in an orchestra or band, to parents who also lacked that opportunity. Therefore: no piano-playing in the house, no classical records in the house—nothing to refute stereotypes reinforced in commercials and in the movies.

Any other theories out there?

  • Dan Baskin

    Hey, great blog…but I don’t understand how to add your site in my rss reader. Can you Help me, please :)

  • Brian Santalone

    Dan -

    Thanks for calling this to our attention. It appears that in some of the re-launch efforts for thirteen.org as a whole, some of our feeds were lost. Use this link for the time being:

    http://www.thirteen.org/sundayarts/blog/rss

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.