Is Classical Music Marginalised in the Cultural Conversation?[This was written as a guest editorial in the January 2010 issue of 'London Harmony', the magazine of the London branch of Making Music, which is a charity representing and supporting over 2,800 voluntary and amateur music groups throughout the UK, including choirs, orchestras, music promoters, festivals and much more.]
I am not going to waste any space arguing that classical music is sidelined in the mainstream media. It is too obviously true, and no the less true for being over-familiar. Rather I want to make a more specific complaint about the way music is talked about (or not talked about) in the ‘cultural conversation’ in the media.
I feel that that music alone of mainstream art forms has, as result of some neglect, come to be seen as ‘out of bounds’ for non-musicians. Culturally literate people who will confidently assert an opinion on a new novel or art exhibition feel unable to say anything intelligent about music. But this nervousness sends the message that music is beyond the realm of the general audience.
I don’t want to get sidetracked into an argument musical education which leaves intelligent non-musicians apparently unequipped to talk about music. That is not the point. Well-educated and informed people I know would with no training in art appreciation feel able to express an opinion about a gallery exhibition but find music, for some reason, more forbidding.
The other side of this coin is the notable absence of musicians or music critics reviewing other art forms. This can be seen in the profile of guest reviewers on Radio 4’s Saturday Review. Between 12 September and 21 November 2009 the programme reviewed 43 items, including 10 books, 8 plays, 7 films, 6 gallery exhibitions and two operas. Of the 27 guest critics, 16 were writers: five historians, five novelists and six ‘others’. Of the 11 non-writer critics just one was a musician, Pat Kane, formerly of 80’s pop combo Hue and Cry.
Are there really so many more eloquent, perceptive novelists than musicians or music critics? Really?
Although some guests are clearly there for their specialism (comedian Danny Robins reported on Comedians) for the most part the point is that reviewers are non-specialists. So I am not complaining about opera being discussed by novelists and journalists – but I would also like to hear musicians talking about novels and plays. Their absence reinforces the idea of music as esoteric, ‘difficult’, beyond the ordinary Radio 4 listener.
Are there people who could fill this role? Yes, lots. Perhaps they are ex-directory. Here are some suggestions: how about music critic Ivan Hewitt, composer and presenter Howard Goodall, conductor Mark Elder, critic Edward Seckerson, Times critic Richard Morrison or Charlotte Higgins of the Guardian?
I am not someone who despairs about the future of classical music. Concert audiences have increased in the last 15 years. Yes, classical audiences are older, but that is perhaps because classical music is a mature art for mature people. I’m ok with that.
But I am disturbed by the marginalisation of serious music as a part of the cultural mix; disturbed that non-music critics feel unable to offer a opinion about music; and disturbed by the implication that those who know about classical music don’t know about anything else. These attitudes are insidious and damaging to the status of classical music in British cultural life.