Classical Music/Youth Culture: Post-Match Analysis (Round 1)

It’s been a little while, but I don’t want to pass up the opportunity of commenting on the recent debate at the Cambridge Union, discussing the motion: ‘This House believes that classical music is irrelevant to today’s youth’. It might seem a little presumptuous to wade into a debate in retrospect, but I feel it’s still very important because – as the first speaker made clear – such discussions on classical music and its place in contemporary society are very few and far between, and moreover there has been a lot of enduring web interest in this particular one.


I have watched it several times on the Union Society website, and I think it throws up a lot of very powerful issues to do with this ongoing argument. I will attempt to outline each argument as objectively as possible, before giving my critique and highlighting some of the bigger issues or assumptions that might go unaddressed. I will say right now though that I genuinely believe that the arguments of the opposition, led by Stephen Fry, were totally devoid of any actual substance, but instead can be used in many cases perfectly to illustrate some of the deepest and most disturbing problems with why this issue has gone for so long without being addressed. I was even more disturbed by the fact that, despite what I believe was a far strong argument in proposition, Fry’s team won by a very large proportion…

*** The overwhelming irony of debating an issue pertaining to ‘today’s youth’ and ‘relevance’ in black tie in a centuries-old institution cannot and should not go unnoted. It almost renders the whole event obsolete by its near-offensive ridiculousness, although in the end youth culture itself hardly really came into discussion. Even so, these awkward circumstances require more than a little contextual salt to be added to pretty much every one of the arguments presented.***

R O U N D    1

Proposition speaker 1: Joe Bates (student)

  • Classical music has always been irrelevant to most people – the domain of a social elite
  • Classical music defines itself by exclusivity – by what it isn’t (i.e. folk or pop music)
  • It paradoxically tries to claim universality and objective ‘greatness’ whilst remaining simultaneously exclusive
  • During the twentieth century, classical music has shifted into complete obsolescence, replaced by pop music as the dominant cultural art-form
  • The era of recording was a leveller, allowing music to cross social boundaries and leading to the intellectualising of pop musics and their associated classes
  • As a reaction to this, new music retreated away from any real audience towards claims of unsubstantiated objective, universal value
  • Modern classical music which refers to contemporary culture does it condescendingly, from a distance
  • New composers have to choose between an alliance with the isolationist culture and teleological heritage of the ‘classical’ tag, or any real engagement with the actual world around them. This often requires the rejection of the labels of ‘classical’ or ‘composer’

Obviously, the proposition side of this debate is very much in line with the kind of thing I have written in our manifesto. Bates’s argument covers a lot of the key issues of this kind of viewpoint – particularly the dangers of defining yourself in contrast to another culture (pop music) which actively seeks to represent the reality of present society. His focus on new music is very much in line with what I would say is the fundamental crux of what this debate should have been about, namely why classical music doesn’t function as a real, living, growing art-form rather than a museum tradition. However:

  • the huge problem with this particular argument is that he fails early on to clarify why a culture which isn’t focused on new music, and which aims to isolate itself from the rest of contemporary culture and society (especially other musical cultures) is specifically destructive in relation to potential young listeners. The fact, of course, is that young people will never ever feel involved in a culture which is focused hugely on very old art, and moreover old art which staunchly exempts itself from the kinds of meaning, and the modes of meaning-creation, which have become the common currency of pretty much all other twentieth-century art-forms (not just pop music but art and film and books and theatre). Bates, in not defining ‘relevance’ and not specifically bringing youth culture into the discourse, misses out on a little bit of clarification which could have turned his excellent points into something that a potentially pedantic audience might have appreciated more easily.
  • WHAT IS HE ARGUING FOR? I think that this is the kind of debate in which many (though not all) the speakers would have practical solutions to the issues that they raise, in order to fulfil a shift in how music is now. Bates argues towards a phasing out of the limitations and associations which specifically ‘classical’ music puts in place, particularly on the meanings and topics of the music, on its value systems, and on how it relates to its audience and to other concurrent cultural disciplines. Thereby, new art music can feel confident about reaching out to engage with contemporary society and its denizens.

Opposition speaker 2: Hugo Hickson (student)

  • ‘Relevance’ could never be claimed of the entire body of classical music as a theoretical concept – it comes from the actions which link it to real experience. These actions are listening and performing
  • Although numbers of young listeners might seem to be in decline, people are surrounded by classical music in films and on TV – making it ‘relevant in the most general sense’ – ‘connected’
  • We should be aware of the dangers of condescending/moralising arguments, suggesting any classical appreciation requires specific technical expertise
  • Instead, we should listen because it’s ‘enjoyable and engaging’
  • Classical music is complex/subtle, requires concentration
  • The skills that it encourages – deep thinking/self-reflection/patience – make it a ‘very pertinent hobby’ in today’s society
  • Even more relevance can be seen in performance – as evidenced in Venezuela’s El Sistema, which has transformed the lives of thousands of young people
  • This proposition could only be ‘based on blinkered or misconceived views as to what classical music is’

This is a horrendously hypocritical argument, which shoots itself in the crotch as soon as Hickson warns against ‘moralising and condescending’ classical advocates giving the culture a bad rep. The way that he prescribes listening to classical music ‘as a pertinent hobby’, and the example of a government initiative which ‘transforms the lives’ of young people through music is both deeply condescending and moralistic in this context. A few other major issues:

  • Hickson has a very shallow and reductive view of the scope of classical music. It offers the chance to ‘escape from life’s burdens and focus on your emotions and something beautiful’. This is as blinkered a view of ‘what classical music is’ as any that I could conceive of. Such a definition basically automatically exempts itself from any engagement with reality, as something wholly escapist and isolationist, yet equally capable of a very narrow aesthetic and semiological field of representation.
  • He displays one of the most terrible tendencies of such apologists, which is a total lack of imagination for what engagement with an art-form could and should entail. That he cites the mass audience’s familiarity of one football anthem, and a few film score selections, as an example that people still listen to (and relate to) classical music is just so depressing. Could anyone think that’s really enough for an entire art-form? Relevance can be defined in many different ways, but it was a trend amongst the opposition team to define it in the most shallow and unimaginative manner, as ‘in any way affecting anything to do with any member of the demographic in question’.
  • The other terrible crime that he commits, as Greg Sandow quickly redresses, is suggesting that amateur performance can be a stand-in for an entire cultural tradition. It’s the equivalent of saying that football as a culture is really all about kids playing in parks. Amateur performance is a TINY part of what it means to participate in a musical culture. Much more important should be a living culture of new music production which seeks to engage with a contemporary audience, to explore their own lived experience, point to truths and illuminate their existence etc etc. ‘Lack of imagination’ is a phrase that the opposition group seem to throw out quite a lot, but it is completely misplaced, because arguments like Hickson’s are the biggest and most desperate examples of a genuine lack of imagination, in favour of desperately apologising for an accidental status quo.
  • WHAT IS HE ARGUING FOR? He seems to be arguing that things are fine pretty much as they are, as evidenced by El Sistema and movie soundtracks, and that we should be doing more to encourage young people to listen to music, because as a hobby it would be greatly improving, whether they like it or not.

A few final thoughts from the first round:

  • JUST TO SHOW how deep the insidiousness of classical music exclusivity runs, Hickson illustrates it beautifully before he even begins to talk, with his introduction, that describes him as a ‘self-proclaimed failed musician’. The chair then states that he will give ‘opinions on tonight’s debate anyway’. The implication of course is that DESPITE his ‘failure’ at being a musician, on this occasion he requests permission to have opinions on music, as if it might be considered that opinions on music should be reserved for musicians. I would say that, reading the proposition, the authority on this debate is clearly with ‘today’s youth’, and not with musicians. It is the youth for whom classical music is or is not relevant. Whether the speakers are musicians or not should surely, for this proposal at least, be far less important than whether they are young or not. The fact that this seemingly logical conclusion is hardly ever alluded to, or brought into play, shows how skewed the debate really is. But it also links in with, in my experience, the most embarrassing aspect of being involved with classical music, which is the mixture of humility and defensiveness which always accompanies, as a disclaimer, the opinion of anyone who isn’t ‘a musician’. The same thing is even true of many classical music fans, who find out that I might have studied the subject for longer or at a higher level than them. Anyone with any interest should feel totally entitled to comment on any art-form, without apology. If anything, the opinion of an interested non-musician is far far more valuable. An art-form that rejects opinion from all but the most seasoned of insiders (or that appears to in any way) would be totally absurd and repugnant, and without doubt irrelevant.
  • For my ideal debate, I would have rephrased the proposition to something like:
‘This House believes that classical music is irrelevant to contemporary youth culture.’

I believe that then we would have had a valuable weighing up of real ideas as to how classical music can change itself to have a more active role in contemporary culture, instead of just raising the hackles of the dewy-eyed apologists. However, as we shall see, it was not to be…


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2 Responses to Classical Music/Youth Culture: Post-Match Analysis (Round 1)

  1. JB says:

    It does look odd having the debaters all in black tie, with three people on thrones behind them.

    —-“Whether the speakers are musicians or not should surely, for this proposal at least, be far less important than whether they are young or not.”

    Yes, exactly. By the way thanks for your argument summaries, it means I can only half-listen to the dull bits and just check the summary to see what they were actually talking about.

  2. Pingback: Debate: “This House believes that classical music is irrelevant to today’s youth” |

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