Classical music - it's more than Led Zeppelin for the newly posh


Why are the public so ignorant about classical music? Well, perhaps it’s because of the bombastic substitutes they’ve been served up in recent years by radio stations, concert halls and recording companies that are determined not to be ‘elitist’, argues Enda O’Doherty

THE ENGLISH are an unmusical race, the Reader’s Digesthas confirmed. In a survey conducted by that venerable institution and published this week, one in three Britons admitted they had never listened to classical music (the survey’s sample size, it should be said, was a little over 1,500 people).

Nearly 70 per cent did not know that Tchaikovsky wrote the 1812 Overture, a fine patriotic Russian piece that ends with the booming of cannon shot. More shockingly still, 75 per cent of red-blooded Anglo-Saxons did not know that Edward Elgar wrote the Pomp and Circumstancemarches, the greatest musical expression of English patriotism and imperial bombast (and hugely enjoyable too, performed with great gusto each year on the “Last Night” by the Proms orchestra, attended by legions of strong-boned Henrys and Henriettas from the home counties).

What are we to make of all this not knowing?

Well first, we should never be too surprised at any survey that highlights ignorance. Such exercises regularly produce large numbers of Germans who don’t know the capital of Germany, Britons unable to name David Cameron, Irish who cannot quite place Mary McAleese and are not a bit sure either of their own name or the street they live in. The idea is presumably to give us smart and educated folk something to talk about and make us feel good about ourselves.

What is interesting, however, is the reaction to the survey of those in the business of promoting classical music, a group one might expect to be appalled or downcast (contemptuous would also do) at how little effect their strenuous educational efforts have had on the masses over decades of financially well-padded cultural promotion.

But no, it’s okay, they are not downhearted, it seems. The BBC’s classical music channel, Radio 3, once known for its fearsome seriousness and intellectual hauteur, now bends over backwards towards inclusivity, participation and, of course, audited listenership and reader feedback. Sara Mohr-Pietsch, presenting Monday’s breakfast programme, somehow found reasons to be cheerful in the survey findings: after all, if nine out of 10 people had never heard of, say, Beethoven, she seemed to imply, one in 10 had, which was jolly good. And furthermore, most people said they liked classical music when they heard it in ads on the telly – “Listeners, tell us what you think!”.

Gill Hudson, editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest, shares this upbeat view: “As our survey shows, there’s clearly an appetite for classical music. But I suspect a combination of uninspired teaching and the elitism that surrounds much of the genre has alienated many people.”

What is curious about this judgment (apart from the fact that classical music is not a genre) is its failure to acknowledge the reality that many public organisers and providers of classical, orchestral and concert music, whether recorded or live, have been running frantically away from “elitism” for at least 20 years now.

But to what effect?

The result is that the names of the great composers elicit from most members of the public little more than a baffled yawn, while a large part of that section of the middle class which fancies itself cultured thinks classical music is something which it certainly is not.

IN ITS GENERAL SENSE, the term “classical music” refers to that tradition of European “serious” music, sometimes called art music, choral and instrumental, sacred and secular, written almost always by people with long theoretical and practical training, which is based on complex traditional learning and can withstand serious academic study. In a more particular historical sense, it can mean the style of music that prevailed in Europe in the second half of the 18th century and at the beginning of the 19th, roughly speaking from Haydn, through Mozart and Beethoven and up to Schubert, even if the latter two were tilting towards the new mode of romanticism.

This definition thing can, it is true, be off-putting, particularly if one doesn’t bother to listen to the music.

But what is more generally understood by the term “classical”? Well, let us look at the September/October programme of the National Concert Hall, Dublin’s chief classical music venue. There is In the Mad Men Mood, an evening of lounge music with the RTÉ Concert orchestra and Big Band; and further concerts of big band and Frank Sinatra music. There is Songbirds of the Silver Screen, a homage to Hollywood singing stars. There is the wonderful Faryl Smith, from Britain’s Got Talent. There’s an evening with The Bachelors and there’s Joe Duffy’s Funny Friday. Delving deeper, there are also violinist Tasmin Little (very pretty), pianist Santa Ignace (very pretty) and soprano Helen Kearns (yes, again, I’m sorry).

And what if one checks out the bestselling “classical” albums on one of the major trading websites – who are our favourite performers and composers? Well, it seems they may well be Andrea Bocelli, André Rieu, Andrew Lloyd Webber (and so on through Four Tenors, Five Priests, Six Classical Babes, Seven Deadly Sins Against Culture). I am sorry, this is not music, though it may be performed by musicians; it is bombast with high production values, Led Zeppelin for the newly posh.

Many people think, and certainly they have been encouraged to think, that a classical music event is just a fancy night out, with tuxedos, frocks, candlelight and dark-haired, preferably Asian, lovelies coaxing sweet sounds from curvaceous constructions of polished maple and cat-gut.

But it is not.

It is actually not about style or class at all, but about sound. And there is nothing odd or difficult about those sounds. If everything else was lost but we could keep what was created between, say, 1720 and 1830, there might well be some regrets around the edges, but we could live with them, having 90 per cent of the best music ever written.

Bach, Scarlatti, Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert – forget the posh event, the monkey suit and the Asian babe, just close the windows, send the children round to your sister’s, ask the significant other to cut you a bit of slack and sit, with the volume turned just slightly up, between the speakers. Listen to a Haydn string quartet. Now listen again, pouring a glass of wine if necessary, until the underground manoeuvres of the cello and the viola begin to seize you with delight.

It is not difficult, and although it is a science, you do not need to be a scientist; it’s a beautiful noise.

5 ‘babe’ free pieces to get you started

Classical music it’s impossible not to like if you have even a shred of a soul. Here are five easy pieces to start with:

John Field: Nocturne No 1 in E flat major

Mozart: Adagio from Piano Concerto in A, KV 488

Mozart: Der Vogelgänger bin ich ja, from The Magic Flute

Scarlatti: Sonata in A, K 322

Schubert: Piano Trio in E flat,D 929, Op 100, second movement, Andante con moto

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