Is classical music really for everyone?

Listen to a 45-minute debate on Radio 3, by clicking —–> HERE

It’s chaired by Tom Service and features Zoë Martlew, Paul Morley, Kathryn Tickell and Graham Vick. (I can’t help wondering why they didn’t get an actual composer on the panel…)

Needless to say, perhaps, it’s hardly a penetrating deconstruction of the matter at hand, but then the whole discussion revolves around an almost totally unparsable question…


Is this not utterly meaningless? I’m so confused by it. What does the ‘for’ mean? Is anything for anything?

The women’s toilets are for women. This birthday card is for you. Chairs are for sitting on. The Tories are for public spending cuts and greater privatisation of the public sector.

In which of these senses ‘is’ classical music for or not for everyone? Do any of the above have any claims to essential truth, or aren’t they all arbitrarily fixed in the process of definition or subjectivation?

Maybe we’re trying to find out whether classical music was designed for everyone like chairs were designed for sitting on? Because, believe me, when a lot of this stuff was written (not just Schoenberg/Milton Babbitt but pretty much all of Radio 3’s core programming), it was certainly not written for ‘everyone’.

So is the question really: should classical music really ‘be’ for everyone? I’m sure that can’t be anything more than a matter of opinion. Classical music, after all, is a cultural construct – a network of historical artifacts, events, discourses and concepts which we group together for ease of communication. Who has the authority to say for what or for whom it should ‘be’? (Unless (as in the case of this blog) one invokes some kind of wider social or political agenda to which it could be committed, which must then be stated, if only because in our capitalist-realist society, such agendas are assumed no longer to exist…)*

Maybe the question is then, should the opinion of state cultural policy (and by extension cultural hegemony) be that classical music should really ‘be’ for everyone?

I think this is closer to the question that they’re answering. But, for me, the real question at the centre of the debate was actually more like: Does every person in the world have the capacity to be ‘touched’ or ‘spoken to’ by classical music as it currently exists?

And the answer, from everyone, seemed to be: Yes of course.


The problem at the centre of this question is trying to understand what is meant by those terrible terrible terms – ‘touch’ and ‘speak to’ – which were used so often in the debate, and seemed to be understood but never investigated. I kind of understand the necessity for such terms when thinking about music in a structuralist manner, where communication (of affect or idea) is either successful or unsuccessful. In this way, it’s about learning (or intuiting) a language, and I think in this debate in particular, we should understand ‘to be touched’ and ‘to be spoken to’ as meaning ‘to feel the same way as we feel’ about the music (i.e. to be communicated to ‘successfully’).

That is always what comes across from these debates; feeling the need to share the power of the music, not just for the selfish reasons of keeping the audiences well-stocked and the money flowing (and thereby ‘keeping the tradition alive’) but also because of the genuine guilt that we feel when we recognise ourselves as an ‘elite’ in an ‘elitist’ tradition, and the strong desire to do our liberal duty and trickle down our privilege to the young and the alienated. Just as our blossoming ‘Aspiration Nation’ wants to give everyone the chance to share in the spoils of our free economy, so we culturally-privileged want to give everyone the chance to share in our own economy of transcendent beauty and spiritual ecstasy. ‘Everyone has the potential to enjoy classical music’, just like ‘everyone has the potential, given enough hard work and dedication (and “dreaming big”) to be a CEO or a pop star or prime minister’.

It shouldn’t be surprising if I say now, after all those scare quotes, that the terms of these arguments always make me uneasy. Often it’s something I can’t quite place, but it always seems that 1) everyone’s totally missed the point, 2) nothing they say really sounds like it would ‘solve’ anything, and 3) that the way they talk about their music just feels so different to the way I think about the other music that I enjoy – alternative pop music, and experimental pop music, and mainstream pop music. It feels like a whole different modality of art. And it isn’t just the private industry thing – the entrepreneurship of pop compared to the cultural policy involved in classical funding. Classical music discourse feels different to visual art as well, and to film and theatre and dance. I know they’re all very different ‘ball games’, but there’s just something irresolvably wrong about the way classical music is being ‘tackled’ these days.

And maybe it is all down to those paternalistic-yet-neoliberal political resonances that I’ve indicated above. Zoë Martlew sums up her argument thusly:

The music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven has managed to survive huge social upheavals. And I also – along with Paul – like to feel optimistic that this greatest of all art forms which transcends the material world – it’s the closest thing we have to God, goddammit, it’s the thing that tells us ‘I’ve been there before, I’ve suffered, I feel what you have too’, it’s the thing that takes us beyond the suffering universe – I like to think that this can somehow survive. And yes: education, we have to start with letting people know that this amazing thing exists.

It is very telling that this is still the kind of sentiment which closes these sorts of debates. Taking this train of thought literally, the cultural elite of classical cognoscenti are more than just a little lucky that they can sit through The Ring Cycle without getting bored, or weep a bit at the end of a Mahler symphony. They are the CLOSEST TO GODLINESS!!! 

Does Zoë Martlew really believe that her hobby/profession makes her automatically spiritually superior to all those people who prefer rock or reggae or Peking opera or origami or hockey or praying? I won’t go too far into the ugly bourgeois notion that the poor and marginalised (non-educated, non-cultured, non-ROH members) should be taught to understand ‘suffering’ and how it can be ‘transcended’, as if the classical audiences have the international monopoly on suffering and its alleviation. She succinctly manages to call up connotations that run the gamut from irritating Christian evangelism to violent Western colonialism. It is an extreme view to express, especially on a platform like this where surely all Romantic-yet-eccentric personal views should be rationally curtailed in the interest of a constructive discussion. But it is the kind of view that real, otherwise rational people make endlessly in the classical music sphere, and no-one protests and everyone just nods along and admires their passion. If someone had said a similar thing in pretty much any other domain then it would be seen as a little controversial. But here, from the way that Tom Service affectionately laughs it off, it’s clearly something of a party line.


To sum up, the title of the debate already indicates its dangerous implicit assumptions and its inevitable pointlessness. Without deconstructing these assumptions, the same arguments, the same examples, the same hardly revolutionary ideas can be trotted out ad nauseam without any progress being made.

The theory is flawed, because there are no theorists on the panel (besides perhaps Paul Morley, who’s a theorist but in another field). It’s all marketeers and journalists and cultural ‘Politicians’ (capital ‘P’). Nothing is said about the music itself or the actual politics behind the music. Like everything on the BBC, every question is posed from the standpoint of the mainstream of the mainstream, which means pure liberal-capitalist ideology, the good of the ‘Economy’ and the most uncontroversially hegemonic conception of what classical music ‘is’. And I know I shouldn’t expect anything else from Radio 3, but still, no-one’s listening to this except the supposed ‘intellectual-cultural’ elite who self-identify by deigning to listen to a 45-minute debate on classical music on Radio 3, so you could try and get some radical thinkers on, some philosopher, some actual composer, someone who departs just a little from the conclusion that everyone has already drawn.

Paul Morley astutely comments on the bourgeoisie’s ‘containment’ of classical music as a protection against its ‘revolutionary’ potential. For me, the banality and (dare I say it?) ‘dumming down’ of these debates, on what is supposed to be a national, cultural institution (Radio 3), is but another way of containing the revolutionary potential of the question at hand.

Some other thoughts:

  • Paul Morley remains a pretty interesting voice on these subjects, although it’s always irritating that he’s the most radical despite (no, because of) the fact that he’s the least involved in the actual classical world. However, he has this wide-eyed modernist streak, linking the very non-pop-ness of contemporary classical music to some transgressive power which is automatically revolutionary, kinda like a latter-day Adorno. He seems to believe in the continuing logic of the avant garde, that new experimental music will ineluctably move in exciting directions and that this ‘progressiveness’ translates to something which is socially ‘progressive’, if let loose from its ivory tower. I like that he keeps returning the debate to the musicians themselves, but I think his rosy-eyed view about the limitless potential of musical experimentation shows a narrow modernist perspective on musical teleology.
  • Morley dismisses Nonclassical in a manner that strongly suggests that he has never been. The way he says ‘club’ and warns of the danger of ‘hipness’ in new music really makes me think that he has a strange, mistaken impression of what the night involves, and what the audience actually looks like. It’s a shame but not surprising that none of these people are anything other than wary of this most exciting and genuinely revolutionary of new developments in music.
  • Graham Vick makes some good points about his site-specific, immersive opera productions, and holds his own against the braying for better ‘education’, ‘knowledge’, ‘information’, etc. His idea that the performers/producers have the responsibility of presenting music in a way that it can be immediately comprehended and engaged with, not presupposing prior experience or knowledge, is one that I totally agree with.
  • I enjoyed Morley’s criticisms of Radio 3, along with Tom Service’s pretty lame rejoinders (‘… but what about Late Junction…’ etc).


* Currently, all my thoughts on this kind of debate, and perhaps even this whole blog, seem to come down to this idea of stating political/social agendas. For me, the question is always ‘what is classical music for?’ rather than ‘who is classical music for?’. Even if you’re a modernist who believes that classical music maintains a space outside of society for escape, reflection, contemplation – an ‘autonomous’ space – then that is still a statement of what it is for. And that need – for an autonomous space – comes before classical music, so that classical music can be seen to fulfil a pre-existing purpose (even if that purpose is not to have a purpose).

So, if one says: ‘1) I think there should be more cohesion and community in society at grassroots level, 2) classical music is a way of creating cohesion and community between a group of people, 3) therefore we can use classical music for this social purpose’, that is fine. We must interrogate, of course, why there needs to be more cohesion and community, and if classical music can actually create that real cohesion, and not just somehow stand in as a symbol of it, not to mention whether leaving (or ‘outsourcing’) this task to classical music is enabling other institutions (e.g. a democratically-elected government) to shirk its own social responsibilities. But yes, the aim is stated and we can then write/produce music to best satisfy that aim.

If one says: ‘1) I think people need to develop sharper critical faculties to criticise the media, the political system and the ruling cultural hegemony, 2) classical music can combine form and content in sophisticated ways, with one ‘commenting on’ or ‘reframing’ the other, 3) therefore we can use classical music to demonstrate concisely, memorably and entertainingly the exercise of these faculties, make particular critiques of specific concepts and encourage the active composition of similarly critical works by other potential composers’, then that is also fine.

Even if one says: ‘1) I think we should make everyone feel really strongly and irrationally about a certain person, institution or nation, 2) classical music can communicate very strong but totally abstract emotional responses from large and heterogenous groups of people, through learned affective devices, 3) therefore we can use classical music to make people attach these arbitrary but intense emotions to this particular person, institution or nation’. At least that’s honest.

‘Is classical music really for everyone?’ – What?/huh?/who cares?


This entry was posted in theory. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Is classical music really for everyone?

  1. eidelyn says:

    ..and if you were at all interested in reading another long rant on this debate, from a slightly different perspective, with a lot more Youtube links and swearing, may I recommend the following:

    >> <<

    (hope to hear more from this mystery person o yes…) x

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