“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 So much of the industry is relying on hopelessly outdated concepts and archaic views.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Recordings of the Year aren’t just about being good or amazing. Everything I play on the show is brilliant. Plus I’ve showcased over 40 new releases on the show this year, all fantastic. Recordings of the Year have to be really special. We’re talking new trailblazing recordings, long lost marginalised music finally recorded, innovative and socially conscious pieces, recordings with a great story behind them. In short, they have to be remarkable in every way.
Of course it’s always difficult to pick just 10. I spent a long time thinking about which recordings to choose, My perfectionism and indecision threatened to blow the whole operation halfway through but I persevered and I’m thrilled to announce the 10 Recordings of the Year 2019! Not specific rankings, just 10 of the best.
First on the list is the long overdue world premiere recording of The Ballad of the Brown King, Margaret Bonds’ extraordinary crowning glory. The stunning Christmas cantata details the story of the 3rd king, Balthazar. Margaret Bonds was a major figure in the Chicago Renaissance and one of the 1st black composers and performers to gain notoriety. The Ballad of the Brown King was premiered in 1954 and combines jazz, blues and calypso music into traditional European classical music. The result is one of the most stunning works in existence and needs to be in every choir Christmas repertoire. The album was spearheaded by conductor Malcolm J Merriweather and harpist Ashley Jackson, the leading authority on Margaret Bonds. The recording features The Dessoff Choirs and Orchestra along with soloists Laquita Mitchell, Noah Stewart and Lucia Bradford, all amazing international stars. Along with The Ballad of the Brown King the album is rounded off wonderfully by several songs by Margaret Bonds.
As well as the long overdue world premiere, the stunning orchestration and amazing story in this album, the recording is also a fantastic showcase of black people in classical music. This album was composed and directed entirely by black people which is really cool. Margaret Bonds set the cantata to words by her good friend Langston Hughes, leader of the Harlem Renaissance. In addition the conductor, harpist and soloists all happen to be black.
This stunning album received almost no press attention and searching for information about it on Google is a nightmare, despite it being one of the most groundbreaking albums ever made. The Lost Women of Music is the first ever album to feature a completely all-female team. Everyone front and back of house: conductor, performers, engineers, producers, all women. It’s truly remarkable.
Everything about this album is trailblazing. The Lost Women of Music, released on International Women’s Day, is a celebration of women’s suffrage, featuring instrumental music and songs by some of the radical and revolutionary suffragettes.The album was directed by the brilliant Alice Farnham who conducted the appropriately named Suffrage Sinfonia in this landmark recording. Along with the more well known Ethel Smyth, the album features music from Alicia Needham, 1st woman to conduct at the Royal Albert Hall, Susan Spain Dunk and many more brilliant and brave women who fought discrimination head on. Interestingly the album also showcases several pieces of spoken word poetry, brought to life by some of the most extraordinary women today including broadcaster Clare Balding and actress Dame Penelope Keith.
Much of this music was indeed ‘lost’, kept in dusty archives around the UK. This music, now found, needs to stay this way. In this day when women are still tackling discrimination and sexism in the classical music industry and elsewhere, it’s comforting to know we stand on the shoulders of all these phenomenal women.
This extraordinary 10 album collection is actually a re-release from the 1970s. CBS Masterworks released a 9 album set on vinyl, it’s finally been remastered from the original analogue and released by Sony Classical in stunning digital quality for the 21st century along with a bonus tenth disc.
The collection features a wide range of black male composers: historical composers like 18th century Chevalier de Saint-Georges and Jose Garcia, turn of the century Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, 20th century Fela Sowande and several contemporary composers including Adolphus Hailstork (best composer name ever right), George Walker and David Baker. The composers don’t just span the centuries, they almost span the globe with music from the US, Panama, Nigeria, France, Brazil, Britain and more. As well as featuring black composers all original nine LP’s featured the trailblazing black conductor Paul Freeman.
Just to warn you, this is a gateway to a serious internet music rabbit hole, you could spend hours discovering all the other music written by these guys, although that’s the whole point, right? My only issue with this collection is the complete lack of black female composers, not even Florence Price or Margaret Bonds. That being said it’s a phenomenal achievement and 40 odd years on all of these composers are still marginalised because of their skin colour and should be performed way more than they currently are.
This incredible album is a compilation of some of the 1st recordings ever made by black classical music performers, dating from 1917 -1922. An extraordinary labour of love by producer Leslie Gerber of Parnassus Records, Gerber tracked down all these recordings, transferred them from 78 rpm records, sound engineer Steve Smolian conducted digital cleanup on the audio, spending several hours on each piece. Most of the recordings on this album have never been re-issued before and haven’t been heard in a century.
This album is a reminder that black people have actually always been performing classical music. As we work to create a more inclusive present we need to give the performers on this album their proper place in music history as well.
Music for wind instruments constantly gets shoved aside in favour of the vast swathes of violin and piano repertoire saturating the classical music landscape but there is hope. Hope in this case is Sean Fredenburg and Javier Rodriguez, together they are The Post Haste Reed Duo, a dream team combo of bassoon and sax that are shaking up the contemporary classical scene. Donut Robot features all new, all amazing music written for bassoon and sax, 6 pieces by 6 composers including 2 women which make up 32% of performance time, not too bad. The album brilliantly showcases the entire emotional range of the two wind instruments and the vast sound worlds available. There’s bold and bright tones, folk influences, introspective parts and experiments with microtonality. It’s really a brilliantly well conceived collection of music, also this album has the coolest classical music album artwork of all time, courtesy of Adam T Davis.
The world premiere recording of an eco-feminist salon opera holed up in a private collection for 150 years? Yes, it is as badass as it sounds, actually even more so when the opera is brought to life by the amazing Camilla Zamora who assembled some of the coolest classical music stars around including the incredible Jamie Barton, Eric Owens and world class accompanist Myra Huang. Truly an incredible work of vision to give us this stunning chamber opera by 19th century composer and singer Pauline Viardot, a completely unjustly unsung heroine of Romantic classical music. The opera is just beautiful, a complete Romantic gem.
A very exciting debut album from Pan Pacific Ensemble, a wind quintet dedicated to performing music by Asian composers and composers of Asian descent. Feng features classical music from across South East Asia including Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. The album has 4 pieces commissioned by the ensemble as well as the title piece written by the always extraordinary Chinese composer Chen Yi. In total there are 8 composers including 3 women, women making up nearly 40% of performance time which is pretty good going. Lots of incredible music on here and a wide range of different styles.
Erika Fox – A chance mention of her name led to one of the most exciting musical events this year: 82 year old composer gets debut album. Erika Fox was once well known in the 70’s but her music fell off the map until Kate Romano and her Goldfield Ensemble brought it back from oblivion, releasing this incredible collection of Erika Fox’s chamber music, the collection spans 25 years of composition and is nothing short of breathtaking. An extraordinary debut and hopefully the start of resurgence in popularity for the octagenarian.
The world premiere recording of the extraordinary groundbreaking opera features just two singers: Hannah before (baritone Kelly Markgraf) and Hannah after (Sasha Cooke), sharing the part of a sole transgender protagonist, they are accompanied by the Fry Street Quartet. Laura Kaminsky wrote the music, the libretto was written by Mark Campbell and Kimberley Reed, the accompanying film was also written by Kimberley Reed.
It’s not about being deliberately sensationalist, making money from the experiences of a marginalised group of people. It’s not a transgender opera or the story of every trans person. The whole concept is done with sensitivity and care, the resulting recording is a powerful portrayal of one person’s journey and the struggle with identity. The music is incredible, reflecting the protagonist’s journey and emotional struggles they encounter with a similarly vast range of sounds. Soaring and expansive lines with fraught and tortured sections.
This stunning recording is a part of this unique opera, the production needs to be mentioned here. It’s not just the content which is trailblazing, the creative team specifically encourage the hiring and training of transgender people for the roles and backstage work, they’ve also produced comprehensive marketing and production guidelines to ensure their work is interpreted correctly and handled appropriately, including costumes, gender free bathrooms and community resources. On the As One website they also provide a list of organisations that support the transgender community.
Laura Kaminsky, Mark Campbell and Kimberley Reed created a wonderfully inclusive and insightful piece of opera for the world we live in now. As One is a socially conscious opera which tackles important issues head on, supports the experiences of transgender people and encourages us all to be a little kinder.
What can be communicated in a single breath? The answer? Quite a lot. This extraordinary album is a reaction against centuries of thoughtless composers writing mean parts for wind players that appear not to require breathing. Sadly wind players do need to breathe on occasion. Flautist Kathryn Williams explores the vitality of the breath on this album, featuring 40 compositions from a huge range of contemporary composers including Chaya Czernowin, Brian Ferneyhough, Angela Slater and Oliver Coates. These compositions all span just a single breath and give us the entire musical spectrum from the most traditionally melodic to the most experimental. In addition the gender balance on the album is to be applauded – 23 female composers, 19 male composers and 1 non binary composer.
That is it, the 10 Recordings of the Year 2019 as chosen by The Daffodil Perspective.
And just to reiterate, these are not specific rankings, just 10 of the best classical albums in 2019.
These 10 recordings are all truly outstanding and remarkable. Here in the UK this week and around the world we’re going through some dark times. These 10 albums are wonderful lighthouses, guiding us safely to a better, more diverse and inclusive world.
Here’s to a more gender balanced and diverse classical music industry!
If you enjoy The Daffodil Perspective, please consider supporting it with a donation so it can continue championing women, celebrating diversity and creating a more inclusive classical music industry. All funds going towards setting up The Daffodil Perspective Awards, celebrating recordings of marginalised music and musicians.
Elizabeth de Brito, Creator and Producer
The 1st gender balanced show needs your help to continue. The Daffodil Perspective is the 1st of its kind, championing female composers and diversity in classical music. In the 1st year each show featured 4 times more pieces by women than the BBC and overall twice as much music than all the greatest orchestras in the world combined. Full stats available here
The Daffodil Perspective is a one-woman show. I do in-depth research, script write, curate the content, source recordings, produce and present every episode. This is a lot of work and is done voluntarily.
If you enjoy the show and the site please consider donating today. It will do so much to help champion the huge number of female composers and create more diversity in classical music.
Money raised will be used for setting up the new Daffodil Perspective Awards which will celebrate recordings of marginalised music and musicians. The funds will also go towards a new website and setting up other resources to help others create diversity.
All donations will be much appreciated.
Elizabeth de Brito
Creator and producer of The Daffodil Perspective