Last year the classical music world was going nuts over Beethoven’s 250th birthday and this year is no different, still Beethoven 250.
In 2019 there were a lot of other important birthdays to celebrate, these I highlighted in my blog from July. This year there are also a lot of composers with big milestones we should be celebrating. Check these out!
- Isabella Leonarda’s 400th birthday
Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704) was an extraordinary Baroque composer, spending most of her life in an Italian convent she wrote 20 books of music, composing more than 200 pieces. The first woman to write violin and basso continuo concertos plus she was a music teacher and singer. Her music is just gorgeous.
2. William Grant Still’s 125th birthday
W.G. Still (1895-1978) – the Dean of Afro-American composers, a trailblazing black man in the world of composition. His 1st symphony – Afro-American was the 1st symphony written by an African-American and performed by a major orchestra. When Still conducted the LA Philharmonic in 1936 he became the 1st African-American composer to conduct a major American orchestra in a concert of his own work plus Still was the 1st African-American to have an opera performed on national television. He wrote over 200 works including symphonies and 9 operas. His music combines Western symphonic structure with blues progressions and Afro-American spirituals.
3. Henriette Bosmans’ 125th birthday
Henriette Bosmans (1895-1952) was probably the most important Dutch composer of the 1st half of the 20th century. She wrote a ton of awesome music, particularly for the cello. Her Cello Sonata is easily one of the most powerhouse pieces of classical music I’ve ever heard. She also wrote concertos for piano, flute and cello as well as a string quartet.
4. Jacqueline Fontyn’s 90th birthday
This contemporary Belgian composer, pianist, educator and Prix de Rome winner celebrates her 90th birthday this year.
5. Dorothy Rudd Moore’s 80th birthday
The amazing American composer is 80 this year. She is a co-founder of the Society of Black composers, influential educator at Harlem School of the Arts and New York University. Her work includes an opera, chamber music, piano music and song cycles. Like most black female composers way too few recordings of her music exist.
6. Libby Larsen’s 70th birthday
Another amazing American composer, Libby Larsen turns 70 this year.
7. Elena Firsova’s 70th birthday
Incredible Russian composer, written tons of music of various genres, including several cantatas.
8. 150th anniversary of Alice Mary Smith’s Clarinet Sonata
This wonderfully lyrical Romantic piece was written in 1870 by English composer Alice Mary Smith.
9. Germaine Tailleferre’s Ballade for Piano and Orchestra turns 100!
This total masterpiece is one of Germaine Tailleferre’s earliest popular works. Germaine Taileferre was a French composer and member of Les Six. Tailleferre had one of the longest compositional careers ever, starting in 1909 and writing until her death in 1983.
10. 200th anniversary of Maria Szymanowska’s Fantaisie in F Major
Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831) was a Polish composer and one the 1st virtuoso pianists in the 19th century. She toured all over Europe and was the first to perform from memory. Her compositions are almost all for solo piano and influenced her compatriot Chopin. Fantaisie in F Major is a beautiful piece for piano and a necessary addition to the repertoire and canon.
The inaccessibility of classical music is quite a heated topic these days, however much of the literature and discussion comes from classical musicians themselves, people who work in classical music, who grew up studying it and surrounded by the privilege of indoctrination.
This means it can be a bit difficult to see the wood through the trees. There often seems to be a lack of empathy and understanding for those people who didn’t study classical music and don’t necessarily listen to it.
So, what do ‘lay people’ think about classical music?
Well, after my hotly debated article a few weeks ago I asked my ‘non-classical’ friends what they thought.
Anton, 27, white, British, lives in London – didn’t study classical music growing up, didn’t listen to it, wasn’t surrounded by it.
Nina, 27, white, German, now living in Sweden – didn’t study classical music, didn’t grow up listening to it apart from her grandfather’s ancient Beethoven collection.
What was your school music experience and education like?
Anton: Musical education at a comprehensive school was a joke. The teacher talking about music – no-one noticed, not one cared, then it was ‘go and muck about on the keyboards’ Music, art, is treated frivolously, not like Maths and English, it’s not seen as important, just have a tinker If music, art, P.E. was treated in the right way it would be teaching people there’s more to it than surface level.
Nina: I just remember really boring classes at school. We never got to listen to a piece properly, the teacher would immediately take a piece apart, putting labels on things, analyzing it, picking it to shreds. We never got the chance to just enjoy it, unlike with all other music which you can analyse later if you want, maybe if you’re really into it.
What do you think about the language used to describe classical music?
Anton: It feels like being back in school exams (in school asking about tempos, key signatures. It’s not simply the language itself but the fact that description is an intrinsic part of the music. It’s like there’s a prerequisite of knowledge. It’s not like it’s not possible to learn about the basics but having to do so is like putting a restriction on it.
Nina: It’s so different, seems like it’s splitting itself from other genres, using a different vocabulary, often to describe the same things, like songs are arias, lyrics are libretto. Needing to look something up all the time just puts a barrier to understanding the music.
Do you think the language could be changed to make it more accessible?
Anton: I wouldn’t suggest that classical music dumbs itself or the language it uses down, but that it gives potential listeners the option to enjoy it in a different way. If you present it maybe in a thematic or conceptual way, the language used wouldn’t be all that relevant to the discussion.
Nina: Technically yes, the question is if the people in classical music industry want to make it easier. Seems like it’s only in Italian to keep it apart. If they advertise a concert, using all these specialist terms, someone like me, someone who doesn’t know what they mean, wlll be repelled by having to learn all these new terms just to listen to some music.
What comes to mind when you think of classical music?
Anton: Orchestras and concert halls. It’s a high form of music enjoyed by the middle and upper classes. Images of men in cravats and collars spring to mind.
Nina: Until I listened to your show, I imagined a white man in a powdered wig.
What do you feel like listening to classical music?
Anton: Feels like you have to work, being tested. Classical music sounds like it’s encoded, like there is a code to crack, something to unlock.
Nina: I would say there is a kind of barrier, higher expectations of what I should think, feel and do as opposed to just putting on some music to enjoy.
Have you ever been to a classical concert?
Anton: I went on holiday to Vienna, heard it was famous for classical music and Mozart so went to a classical music concert. I felt I had to get dressed up in smart clothes and when I got there everyone was wearing jeans and casual clothes.
Nina: Once, I heard Mozart’s Requiem at a Goth Festival, didn’t buy a ticket specifically for it it though. Everyone there seemed to be new to classical music too because everyone started clapping every time the music stopped. It got so bad the people had to turn around not to tell people to clap until the end. Very funny.
Do you think you had the expectation that classical music is posh and upper class?
Anton: Classical music is posh, like a secret society. Often the expectation is informed by your experiences within your own community so as I didn’t know anyone growing up who listened to it, I assume it’s not designed for us.
Nina: Yes, it seems like it’s only enjoyed by white, wealthy people, seems kind of sad. I think snobby people listen to classical music, not classical music is snobby.
What do you think the classical music industry can do to change this image?
Anton: In order to make something more accessible to other people, those people need to feel they have a stake in it. People shouldn’t feel like they have no right to listen to it. Classical music feels like a private club. I don’t have a membership, why should I sit round listening to it? You need someone dynamic, big figure like Brian Cox in science, making it appealing to others.
Nina: Stop focusing so much on 19th century composers, lift up the composers now. It would be much more interesting, listening to someone who we can identify with more. Also give us more variety on what is available to listen. The more variety there is, the more people might find more of classical music that they like. It could be a lot more popular for a lot more people.
What do you think of the names – Symphony No 1, String quartet No 2
A: That annoys me, where are the titles? How can you tell them apart? I know some pieces have titles. I remember hearing that piece Jupiter from The Planets, that’s a cool piece and has a title, I really remember that one.
Nina: The names don’t really tell me anything about the piece. It comes back to accessibility, all these names, it feels like you have to study music to understand it.
Do you think this lack of titles means you can’t tell pieces apart?
Anton: Yes, most of it isn’t recognisable, I might not be able to recognise the same piece after an hour. If I listened to it 50/60 times I might recognise it.
Nina: Yes, It’s a bit easy to mix them up when they’re all called practically the same thing.
Any final thoughts?
Anton: Upper class people who want classical music to be highly prestigious don’t actively discourage other people, they put it in a position so people will turn themselves away. It would be good to open the platform to a broader range of composers to be fairer to talented individuals who aren’t usually showcased but also to change to perceptions about classical music.
Nina: Through the Daffodil Perspective I’ve discovered that classical music is so much more than I thought it was, so much more interesting, a much broader range of music. Just in general the industry should get more variety. I thought it was such a narrow genre before I listened to The Daffodil Perspective. If the classical music industry played much more diverse music more people would find something in it, more people would find a niche of what they like. If the classical music industry want to get more people interested they need to change the language and marketing, if people don’t understand what classical music is about the industry are failing in their marketing. If we understood what a concert was about we would go and the classical music industry would get a lot more customers.
Elizabeth de Brito
Producer of The Daffodil Perspective, 1st ever gender balanced classical music show.
Classical music is dying.
No really, it is.
The classical music industry has stagnated; 70 years of neglecting the music of the present in favour of championing historical music has left us in a coma, just about breathing through a tube but it’s on life support and sooner or later the plug needs to be pulled.
The latest classical news last week: Missy Mazzoli finishes her tenure as composer-in-residence at Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the culmination concert is billed as Muti Conducts Beethoven 4 & 7. Mazzoli’s piece is the opener to the concert, translation – not the main event.
One of today’s foremost classical composers doesn’t get top billing on a concert because a composer who died 200 years ago will sell more tickets. Seriously, that is a really messed up situation.
“No one in orchestral admin is deliberately trying to destroy contemporary music” tweet from Jo Johnson, Senior Marketing Manager for London Symphony Orchestra.
Whether or not anyone is deliberately trying is irrelevant, the fact is it is happening. It’s been happening at least since my 32 years on Earth and a lot longer.
Contemporary music gets destroyed every time a contemporary piece gets performed only once in favour of 10 performances by Mozart.
Contemporary music gets destroyed every time someone decides to record yet another album of Beethoven Piano Concertos instead of Magnus Lindberg.
“Headlining an unknown when you’ve got Yuja playing Tchaik on the same bill isn’t so much idealistic as irresponsible.” Tweet from Richard Bratby, Classical music writer and former concerts manager for CBSO.
Missy Mazzoli should not be an unknown at this point, in fact if she were a pop artist of similar stature she would be already a superstar with sold out stadiums, million pound record deals, played everywhere.
And why is programming today’s music be seen as irresponsible?
Classical Archives list The Greats, the 60 ‘great’ composers. Not one of them was born within the past century. What does this say about classical music?
Why have no composers in the past century been added to the list of greats? Is it because not enough good music has been written since then?
Hell no. It’s because not enough of the good music has been performed.
We’ve constructed an industry so obsessed with saturating us with music by the dead that music of the living is seen as a risk.
There are 94 performances of Beethoven’s 5th in the next 12 months (according to Bachtrack.)
Caroline Shaw’s Valencia on the other hand, one of the coolest and most popular contemporary pieces, is being performed twice in the next 12 months (again according to concerts listed on Bachtrack.)
That’s nearly 50 times more performances of a piece written in 1808 than a piece written in 2012!
Bachtrack lists 1547 upcoming performances of Beethoven.
Caroline Shaw has 15 upcoming concerts listed on Bachtrack. That’s over 100 times more performances than one of today’s most brilliant composers.
Even John Adams, arguably the most well known, popular living composer has only 45 concerts listed, compare that to Mozart’s 748. Mozart died over 200 years ago and is being performed now 6 times more than the most well known living composer.
Then you have recordings. Unsuk Chin has 14 recordings of her music on PrestoClassical. Tchaikovsky has 6,175 recordings listed. 56 of those recordings were in the past 3 months alone!
“Audiences are very skittish and can be easily put off by the unfamiliar.” Tweet by Jo Johnson, Senior Marketing Manager for London Symhony Orchestra.
The saying goes ‘People like what they know and and they know what they like”. People are so overwhelming overexposed to music by dead composers so that’s what they like. All contemporary music is unfamiliar and unknown because it’s they’re never exposed to it so they don’t like it. It’s a vicious cycle.
If we can’t get people to be interested in music that is being made now then we have a serious problem. We may as well just stop, call it all historical music and have done with it.
And if it is because all the best music was written over a century ago and nothing good enough’s been written since then some serious thought needs to go into why we’ve been continuing to teach composition for the past century? Why have we been training new brilliant composers? Nothing they ever create will compare, it mostly likely won’t be heard more than once or recorded so why bother?
How long can this continue? One does wonder how classical music can continue as a living genre when the living music is perceived as too risky.
The music we champion is getting older and older, further receding into the past whilst the music being written just keeps fading away, being forgotten because it’s not being kept alive. Ironically we’re keeping the dead alive and we’re killing off the living.
This is where we need to look at pop marketing.
Popular music has a much healthier relationship with its past.
The unfamiliar is scary. It’s true, but pop/rock music embraces this whereas classical music just reacts against it.
People are skittish when it comes to anything new. No-one likes change, not in music, not in life.
Pop music celebrates the new. There is new music coming out all the time and it gets played so much. All the new music coming out is unfamiliar but it gets played all the time, people get used to it and then suddenly we have a huge number of new hit songs. Some classics for the ages, some eventually fade for all but the hardcore fans.
Just look at Uptown Funk. A brand new unfamiliar song then suddenly it was played everywhere, radio stations, playlists, shops, clubs then everyone new it and it was top of the charts. Now it’s a classic 21st century song.
The pop/rock music industry constantly turns the terrifying risk into popular art.
Pop and rock music also constantly add to their canons of greatness. You can seen the line of amazing female singers from The Supremes, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Nicks, Madonna, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Adele. In 30 years time people will be just as likely to remember Amy Winehouse as they do Diana Ross.
And in rock you have The Rolling Stones, ELO, Queen, Bon Jovi, Oasis, Foo Fighters, Coldplay, Muse, Kings of Leon.
The music of the past is still played. It’s become comfort food, nice to have something warm and familiar to fall back on sometimes.
The classical music industry spends its life on the edge of the swimming pool of contemporary music, dipping its toes in every now and again then squealing and running back to the comfort of the past.
But we can’t stop listening to Beethoven!
The next argument for playing new music is that we can’t stop listening to Beethoven or Mozart or any of these dead composers.
I will bet anything that no-one has ever said that about ABBA, Queen or Aretha Franklin and no one ever will.
They’ve survived the enormous popularity of Whitney Houston, Oasis, Beyonce, Coldplay and the hundreds of other platinum selling artists that have succeeded them. No matter how many albums these more recent acts have sold. There have been so many famous, popular, amazing singers since Aretha Franklin but people still continue to listen to Aretha, as well as enjoying all the more recent artists.
No one will ever stop listening to Beethoven or Brahms. They’re still fantastic composers. We’ll just listen to them as well as Thomas Ades and Anna Meredith.
Luckly we have even more resources at our disposal. We have the 8th wonder of the world that is the internet. Youtube, Spotify, iTunes, embedding, streaming and more mean it is easier to access music and listen to it, engage in new ways before spending money and time on concerts.
Today’s generation of teenagers and 20 somethings are all computer fluent. Embracing these technologies and resourcess is going to be a key way of engaging the current generation of young musicians, composers and listeners. They are who will keep classical music alive.
Can you imagine what would happen if people performed Anna Thorvalsdottir as much as Beethoven?
The fact is this is not a quick fix. An entire lifetime of marginalising living music in favour of dead composers it’s not going to change overnight.
The only way out of this is through. The only way to make people comfortable with new music is to perform it regularly, record it a lot and play it on the radio regularly with the same obsession that we currently programme dead music.
What if music by the dead composers is like the one good cover version every band has in their repertoire? Mixed in with the band’s new and original music. The cover’s not why you bought the ticket to the gig but a delightful surprise when they play it, fun to hear, sing along and enjoy as well as their new stuff.
We just have to dive in to the pool, instead of dipping our toes in we need to dive headfirst. The water may be initially a bit cold but oh so lovely when we get acclimatised to it.
There is amazing music being composed all the time, amazing music written for the past 70 years. Let’s start celebrating it before it is too late.
Elizabeth de Brito
Producer, The Daffodil Perspective. 1st ever gender balanced classical radio show.
The Daffodil Perspective at the moment usually plays 3 contemporary composers on each show. That’s 3/12 composers.
From now on there will be 4 contemporary composers on each show. 2 male and 2 female to maintain gender parity. A third of composers will be living and as close as possible to 1/3 airtime as well.
Why not more? The show is actually of historical interest as it champions female composers, all of whom have been marginalised for centuries. The aim of the show is to rewrite classical music history. If gender parity already existed with composers like Louise Farrenc and Emilie Mayer just as well known and performed as Tchaikovsky or Mendelssohn then I’d be playing a lot more contemporary music.
Yet another derogatory meme is going round the internet comparing pop and classical music.
What’s wrong with this? Let me count the ways but in essence mainly two things:
- It’s reductive of pop music and shows an immense ignorance of an amazing, rich, varied and deep art form.
- It’s exalting classical music as superior and the pinnacle of artistic achievement when it’s not.
This isn’t the first meme comparing pop and classical in a similar fashion that’s done the social media rounds. The below meme spread like wildfire in September last year.
This is basically saying pop is all showy and superficial whilst classical music is nothing but depth.
Classical music groups on Facebook are full of people agreeing with these memes and I nearly got into an argument on Twitter with someone who said pop music is vacuous and stupid.
These memes are exactly the kind of thing that make people think classical music is posh, snobby and way too far up its own ass. Way to prove them right.
Before I go further let me say that I produce a classical music radio show. I spent hours every week listening to classical music and researching female composers, I adore classical music. I also listen to tons of pop music, jazz, Chinese electro, bossa nova, Afrobeat and basically every type of music created all across the world.
Just because music is only based around 3 chords doesn’t mean it’s inferior.
Pop music may be based mostly around comparatively few chords but surely it’s about what is done to those 3 chords? And the astonishing variety of music created around said 3 chords?
The I, V, vi, IV chord progression is very common and used in thousands of popular songs including Africa by Toto, The Rock Show by Blink 182, No-One by Alicia Keys, Apologize by One Republic, I Try by Macy Gray, Give Me Everything – Pitbull, Dragonstea Din Tei by O-Zone, With Or Without You by U2, No Scrubs by TLC. just to name a few.
These songs alone have a huge variety between them. The very fact that a 3 chord progression leads to this much variety of music shows how effective something apparently simple can be.
Complexity and depth seems to get confused a lot. Classical music may be more technically complex but that’s not the same thing as deep. Actual emotional depth cannot be achieved by technical complexity alone.
One of my favourite film lines ever is from 2007 romantic comedy Music and Lyrics. Hugh Grant’s ageing pop star character says:
“You can take all the novels in the world and not one of them will make you feel as good as fast as “I got sunshine, on a cloudy day, when it’s cold outside I got the month of May” That is real poetry, those are real poets – Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, The Beatles”
Pop music is accompanied by the most extraordinary words, words that excite, words that hurt, words that inspire, words that seduce.
Pop music deals with everything about the human experience from being in love (Your Song by Elton John) breakups (Without You – Harry Nilsson) empowerment (Good As Hell – Lizzo), sexism (U.N.I.T.Y – Queen Latifah), protesting war (99 Red Balloons – Nena), illness (Unwell – Matchbox Twenty), death (How To Save A Life – The Fray), substance addiction (The A-Team – Ed Sheeran), and of course, thousands of songs about sex. But hey, even those cover an infinite variety from the sweet to the perverse.
These songs and many thousands more have deep meanings and possess immense emotional resonance. Just take the chorus of The Show Must Go On by Queen.
“The show must go on, inside my heart is breaking, my makeup may be flaking but my smile, still, stays on”
I mean come on, that’s just exquisite poetry. The Show Must Go On was written about Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury and his struggle with AIDS. A beautiful song with great depth.
Then there’s all this so-called manufactured pop, pop acts created by music managers like Simon Cowell to make them lots of money. Sure they exist as a money-spinning machine but they wouldn’t exist if the music didn’t have some sort of draw. Take this line from S Club 7’s song Bring It All Back from 1999.
“Don’t stop, never give up, hold your head high and reach the top, let the world see what you have got, bring it all back to you”
Don’t tell me that isn’t inspiring, don’t tell me words like that, words that make people feel good about themselves, even if only for the 3 minute duration of a song, is vacuous and stupid.
Writing music for money was something those precious classical gods Haydn and Bach did a lot. Haydn worked as court composer for Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy for years and Haydn’s job was to write music that Nikolaus liked to hear. The prince liked symphonies so Haydn just churned them out for him, The 104 symphonies he wrote may resonate now for audiences which is great, it may be beautiful music but the original motivation was purely financial, it was his job to write them.
Bach spent much of his life being employed by either the church or German royalty, many of his compositions were just written for his various employers. Bach is basically worshipped as a god now in classical music and his music provides great joy for many people.
Now think about songwriters such as Diane Warren or Max Martin, who’ve written hundreds of hit songs apiece for other people to bring to life. Their ultimate motivations may be purely financial but it doesn’t mean the music that they create is soulless, repetitive junk.
Music of any genre can have nothing less than a potent effect. I cannot listen to Father and Son by Cat Stevens or The Voice Within by Christina Aguilera without breaking down into tears. The same applies to the 2nd movement of Florence Price Symphony in E Minor, I’m sobbing within 2 minutes every time I hear that. Likewise I can’t listen to more than 5 seconds of Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go by Wham or Shut Up and Dance by Walk The Moon without starting to dance.
Now you may want to sit down for this next sentence. Complex does not mean better.
I’m going to repeat that: COMPLEX DOES NOT MEAN BETTER!
Classical music is not better than pop music, it’s different.
Music that took a long time to write may not be better, it may not even be good. It just means longer, complex and time consuming. That’s it. Some complex music is very good but lots of classical music is not actually that good. Much of the literature markets classical music as the greatest music ever written, as if it’s some blanket standard and all classical music played in concerts is of similar value. It’s not. Even the classical music billed as such isn’t all that fantastic some of the time. All genres have bad music and good music. And all of it is subjective, it just comes down to taste.
Half the classical music fans reading this will burn me at the stake for this next sentence. I don’t like Mozart, he just does absolutely nothing for me. I find his music dull, repetitive and boring. Maybe some of that is because I wasn’t thrilled with him to begin with and it’s been shoved so far down my throat for 3 decades as being the best music ever. I’m ever more convinced it’s not, especially after spending 2 years researching and listening to hundreds of female composers.
In 2012 I worked as a music sales assistant at HMV. One interesting fact I noticed was so many hundreds of people say they don’t like classical music and yet they buy film soundtracks, particularly Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, in droves.
The music of Star Wars is remarkably ‘complex’, much of the score is written for 100 strong symphony orchestra and choir. Fanboys can trash Phantom Menace if they want but the score is extraordinary. Duel of the Fates is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written (in my opinion) and as for the evaded cadences going into the End Titles? Sends shivers down my spine every time, as do the cadences going into the end titles of every Star Wars film. Work of complete genius.
And the soundtrack to Star Wars: A Phantom Menace only sold a million copies or so, reaching No 3 in the Billboard Album Charts, No 8 in the UK Album charts. Now that is ‘complex’ music that people are lining up to hear.
People say classical music ticket sales are dwindling but more people than ever are buying movie soundtracks. In addition the movie screenings accompanied by live orchestras are very popular.
In conclusion, please continue to listen to whatever music you like, please continue to enjoy whatever music brings meaning to you. You don’t have to like pop music or musicals or jazz or classical music but no need to look down on those who do. The world is a scary enough place as it is, governments tearing us apart left and right, people divided on every major issue, Brexit. Do we really need to create more discord amongst ourselves over which awesome art form is better? Especially when all music education and arts funding is being cut across the board.
Why not start celebrating our similarities instead of fighting over differences?
Like “chills down your spine at a song’s blasting finale, or …the hair rise on the back of your neck at a rug-pulling key change.” Benjamin Carlson, The Atlantic, 2010.
These reactions are so universal no matter what type of music it is. Whether that’s the 1st four notes of Tchaikovsky’s 1st piano concerto, the breathtaking bass riff from Supermassive Black Hole by Muse or “how strange the change from major to minor” when Ella sings Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.
Music ultimately is written to bring joy. Bringing joy to the people who listen to it and the musicians who play it, it’s written to bring people together.
Let’s spread the joy.
Elizabeth de Brito
Producer and founder of The Daffodil Perspective
1st ever gender balanced classical music radio show.
“I’d like to get into it but I don’t know anything about classical music”
Every classical composer, musician, fan, conductor has heard those words or something similar dozens of times.
Recently cellist Steven Isserlis tweeted:
“It always frustrates me to hear people say that they don’t go to concerts because they don’t know enough about classical music.”
I posted a long thread response on Twitter which I’ll expand on here.
Instead of getting frustrated with people who think they need to understand classical music, we should be asking ourselves why do they think that in the 1st place? What is it about our industry which makes people feel excluded?
There is increased discussion about classical music myths but that is the wrong approach. It’s victim blaming, saying all people need to appreciate classical music is an open mind, open ears, open heart. What this dangerous idea implies is that classical music is already accessible and easily consumable, it’s the responsibility of the listener to bring themselves to classical music instead of the other way around.
The classical music industry is seriously at fault, blinded by centuries of pretentious, rich, privileged, white male superiority. So much of the industry is relying on hopelessly outdated concepts and archaic views. If we want to reach new audiences we need to change, not make the listener change. It’s not their responsibility to do the emotional and physical labour, it’s up to us. Luckily there are several easy ways to do this immediately, so here are 10 problems with classical music along with the instant solutions.
1. Stop using technical language in classical music literature
The program notes, articles, reviews are mostly written from an academic viewpoint for other academics and people that have studied classical music.
“Self revealing pathos…This work seems more to be about avoiding darkness by underplaying the tonic minor key as much as possible.” Quote from London Symphony Orchestra Programme Note December 2019
There is no way the average person on the street knows what any of that means, that is language only people who have studied classical music can understand. Anyone else, forget it.
Write using emotive language with no technical terms. It’s not hard. All music is about communicating emotions and feelings – heartbreak, anger, lust, magic, death, sadness, joy, sex. These are universal human experiences. It’s not difficult.
The Daffodil Perspective uses no technical language at all, every show is written for everyone to understand. It uses simple emotive language to talk about pieces, language that everyone knows and understands.
2. Stop using pretentious language
Not just technical language but so much of classical music writing is so pretentious and poncey.
“its broad sweeps of diatonic parallel chords…..Phrygian-inflected sighing motifs”
From Presto Music’s description of Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony 10th January 2020
So same goes for this, it just sounds like a lot of guff and fluff.
The Daffodil Perspective uses no pretentious, posh and complicated language. Just simple, expressive adjectives to describe the music.
3. Stop using the word libretto to mean lyrics
Every other genre of music on the planet uses the word ‘lyrics’ to describe the words that accompany music. Yet, classical music still insists on using the Italian word ‘libretto’ to mean opera lyrics. Operas are just sung through musicals. That’s it – just like Les Miserables and Rent. It makes no sense to use a separate word when all the words in opera are song lyrics. Using different words just compounds the idea of exclusivity and inaccessibility.
Also I’m just going to say it – arias are just songs, that’s it.
From now on The Daffodil Perspective will always use the word lyrics when talking about opera.
4. Stop using Italian in piece descriptions.
This one I’m prepared to admit is a bit more complicated and requires more effort to change.
The practise of using Italian is so archaic and outdated. The problem is some of it is useful to classical musicians but some of it is really quite pointless and completely unhelpful to non-classical musicians and makes classical music completely unfathomable.
Let’s start with the piece descriptions and speed markings (tempo). We use Italian words to describe the different speeds – Largo, Andante, Moderato, Allegro etc but they have equivalents in every other language. Large just means slowly, Allegro just means quickly. It makes no sense to learn specific language when we have perfectly good words in English (and French, Swahili, Hindi etc) to tell us how to play.
More problematic is when we use the descriptions in the piece titles themselves. These descriptions are what every listener sees when reading the titles on websites, books and in programme notes. When they see a bunch of incomprehensible words it makes them less likely to be interested. Who the hell knows or cares what Scherzo means? I certainly don’t and the average person on the street doesn’t either, To non academics and non seasoned classical fans it means nothing. But say playfully, jokey, we know what that means.
Also it doesn’t help us understand classical music. These words are saying whether the music is fast, slow, etc. It’s giving really important information, giving us a clue to what the piece might sound like and if we might want to listen. If we don’t understand what the clues say then we won’t know what it might sound like and don’t know whether we want to listen. Sometimes we want to listen to fast, frenetic music and sometimes we want some chilled vibes, if we scrapped this use of outdated language it would make it easier for us all.
Some contemporary composers are doing it differently. Eleanor Alberga’s String Quartet No 1, the 3rd movement is called Frantically Driven Yet Playful which is great. No complicated translation needed with this, anyone could see this on a programme and immediately get a sense of what the music is about. Same with Jonathan Dove – His Orchestral piece Gaia Theory – the 3 movements are called Lively, Very Spacious and Dancing. Anyone could read this and be interested.
And as for the thousands of dead composers. Just pointing out that they’re dead and don’t care what happens. Does it really matter if we translate all the Italian into English? The music stays the same.
Like I said this one requires more effort to correct but still it’s pretty simple to stop using Italian in piece descriptions and a lightning fast way to immediately make all classical music more comprehensible.
5. Stop disparaging other music genres
Classical music fans and musicians are more to blame for this than fans of every other genre. There’s so much trashing of pop music music all over the place, it comes from legitimate institutions as well as listeners. Just look at this meme that did the rounds in September last year.
There were a large number of people who supported this meme, this stupid idea that classical music is all depth and pop music is all showy and superficial. Lots of people disagreed with this meme but the fact that a statement like this can gain wide support today says more about the classical music industry. Even Classic FM got the wrong end of the carrot while trying to disprove the meme.
Why listen to classical music when the current classical listeners just disparage the other music genres you like?
6. Stop raising classical music further up by saying it’s the greatest music.
On the opposite end of the spectrum stop pretending classical music is the greatest music ever. Classical music is no better, no more important, no greater than any other genre of music. All music is wondrous and special to those who enjoy it. Classical music is awesome. It is, but so is jazz, pop, grime, calypso and pretty much everything else that’s ever been created. I know because I listen to all music (and I do mean all). Stop pretending classical music is somehow better. It isn’t and just makes you seem like a snobby idiot.
7. Stop disparaging people who do create accessible music
Still the same vein but separate point. Some musicians do make classical music more accessible and easy to listen. Andre Rieu is a brilliant example of this, his music is bought in the thousands by ordinary people, not usually classical fans and it’s fantastic, melodic, easy to listen to and just fun.
Yet just last week someone on a Facebook classical music group posted:
‘I think of all the thousands of people enjoying the music of Andre Rieu and think about how sad and deeply confused these people are.’
Some people will chalk this up to internet trolls but these are ordinary people on the internet saying these things. Their opinions are often supported by many others, ignore it at our peril.
Why trash Andre Rieu. He’s doing a brilliant job and actually more classical musicians should be following his lead. He makes classical, orchestral music fun and relatable.
If we want to make classical music more accessible we need to support people who actually do it.
8. Stop trashing classical music that uses melody.
Music that uses melody is the most accessible and easy to listen to. Just think of the popularity of Star Wars, Eliza Aria (that Lloyds advert), Also Sprach Zaruthstra (Theme from 2001 Space Odyssey). Most other genres of music are based on melody and we know ordinary people like melodic classical music. Think of the Nutcracker, Clair de Lune, Fur Elise, Ride of the Valkyries, all very popular.
So, play more melodic music, market it for non-classical audiences and stop disparaging music that uses melody a lot. No-one’s winning any favours by being mean about music that people actually like.
9. Stop only playing music by dead, white men.
Britain is made up of 50% men and 50% women plus 15% people are not white. In London the proportion of non-white people is much higher. The classical music industry on the other hand plays 98% men and maybe 0.1% music by black and minority ethnic composers.
The current music played by the classical music industry does not reflect the general population. Society isn’t just made up of old white men, why should classical music only be written by old white men?
The Daffodil Perspective plays 50% female composers on every show and between 8 and 16% music by black and minority ethnic composers on every show (this is going to be consistently 16% going forward). The proportion of composers is an accurate reflection of our society.
This is one of the most simple to do. There is so much amazing music by women and BME composers from throughout the history of classical music. And it’s really easy to find and incorporate. I know this because I’ve been doing it for over a year. (See the complete 1st year stats here
10. Get off your complacent high horse and do the work
This is the overriding reason why classical music is so inaccessible. Not enough people are actually doing the work needed to create change. The classical music industry is so completely stagnant and complacent on its ridiculous pedestal.
Just the fact that we talk about classical music novices and the uninitiated. It’s like a cult, worshipping at the altar of genius white male superiority. We need to knock classical music off its pedestal, bring it down to earth. I’ve not even expanded on the horrific sexism, racism, the slut shaming in practically all historical operas and so many other problems with the classical music industry today.
I’ve had numerous conversations with individuals and organisations over the past year who refuse to admit the problems and refuse to do the work needed.
So, there you have it. 10 of the reasons why classical music is inaccessible and the 10 easy ways to solve them immediately.
There is a lot of work to be done, The Daffodil Perspective is doing it, making the radical changes that need to be made.
Elizabeth de Brito
Producer and founder of The Daffodil Perspective, the 1st ever gender balanced classical music show, broadcasting every fortnight on Mixcloud.