Thursday, August 28, 2008

Great classical music post - what is "elitism?"

I just read this post by Anthony McCarthy on the blog Echidne of the Snakes - a (lefty) political blog in general, but with some occasional fascinating bits of cultural commentary as well. I love what he has to say about the worst part of being a classical musician:

... there is, in fact, a snob audience for classical music who consider it their property, or at least their exclusive franchise. Anyone who has worked in classical music will have run into them. Some who aren’t musicians imagine that one of the greatest pleasures of being a musician, practicing, is the worst part of it. Actually, speaking for myself, it is the after concert reception that is the most brutal form of torture inflicted on musicians. The snobs who frequent and often are the reason for those events can be some of the most trying and obnoxious people in the world and you have to experience them at a time you are absolutely demolished by the experience of performance.

I have often experienced a similar sensation myself at various receptions. The difficult truth that musicians need to always deal with is that many classical music snobs in fact are the reason for the performance - at least financially. When you work in a business that is in perpetual financial crisis and is fueled by the donations of the (mostly) well-to-do, you literally can't afford to in any way alienate anyone who might be in a position to support your performances. And sometimes you get the feeling that what those supporters really enjoy, even more than the performance itself, is the chance to make you listen to how much better than others they are for having attended it. This is by no means the norm for me - most classical music supporters are sincere fans who love and support the art form in many ways, and they usually aren't snobs at all - on the contrary, some of the biggest financial supporters of my orchestra are some of the most down-to-earth and non-elitist people I know. But there are certainly snobs in the mix as well, amongst both donors and listeners to classical music.

Anyone who works in classical music, or who wants to, has to deal with the perception of many that our art form and our work is "elitist." By this they usually seem to mean that we (classical musicians and music lovers) feel that our music is inherently better than other forms, and that by listening to it we place ourselves in a superior cultural position over others. The mistake they make is in conflating complexity and elitism. Classical music is, generally speaking, more complex than most other forms of Western music, harmonically, rhythmically, and structurally. The only other Western musical genre that can equal it is jazz, another art form that is sometimes considered an "elite" taste. But far more important to refuting the elitist charge is to look at a crucial aspect of classical music that is absolutely equal to other forms of music: it can provide the listener or performer with intense emotional and/or even spiritual experiences. I think that the difference between a classical music snob and a classical music fan is that the fan doesn't imply that the emotions one experiences when listening to a Mahler song are any more or less valid than the emotions that one feels when listening to a Bob Dylan song, or a Madonna song for that matter. The fan may argue that the emotional world that the Schubert song can reveal is more rich and complex than the Madonna song, precisely because the musical materials being used are so much more rich and complex. But all music can transmit emotion and express ideas - I have had profound musical experiences while listening to pop songs, jazz sets, and operas. The snob tends to feel that the emotional experience of the Mahler is by definition better than the emotional experience of Madonna because the emotions produced by the Madonna song are "lesser" than the more "refined" emotions of the Mahler. By defining the music as base and common, they make the emotions it produces base and common. But emotions aren't high- or low-class. The experience I have while hearing a pop song I like is just as valid as the experience I have hearing Mahler 5th Symphony, even if one is very different from the other. Classical music elitism, like all elitism, is relativistic; it is obsessed with ensuring that classical music is defined by how much better it is than other types of music. I'm a fan; I just really, really love the stuff, think it reveals unique and important truths, and I want everyone else to have the chance to experience it.

So next time you find yourself at a post-concert reception with a musical elitist, try to respond with some fan spirit! Maybe you'll turn 'em into a fan. It's happened before....

No comments: