The E-word

Right – time to have a serious talk about the E-word – elitism.

I’ve already talked about how you don’t have to be posh or rich to enjoy classical music – and you all know that my title is – ahem – assumed. But there’s another word that often comes up – that classical music is elitist.

What’s my response? I would say, well it is, and it isn’t – in exactly the same way that sport is and isn’t elitist. It depends what you mean by ‘elitist’.

Let’s take the example of sport a bit further. Everyone can have a go – you don’t have to be any good. From ping pong to marathon-running, there are all kinds of ways of taking part. Some are more expensive because of the equipment needed – show-jumping leaps to mind. Some are almost free – you need shoes to run in, or a ball to kick around, but basically access is unlimited.

However, if you want to be, say, a top tennis player, you have to commit years of your life and thousands of pounds to train and to travel and often to live in foreign countries while you train. It’s the same for top classical musicians – if the best teacher is at the Juilliard School in New York, that’s where you’ll want to go.

What I can’t bear is the way people say ‘elitist’ as if it were a bad thing. We all want all our musicians of all kinds to be the best. Elite sport and elite arts mean just that – attaining the best in important fields of human endeavour.

Of course, what a lot of people mean when they talk about classical music is snobbery, not elitism. Some people ARE classical music snobs – there’s no getting away from it. But it’s actually quite rare to find a classical musician who is a snob, as I hope the guest list at Classics from Scratch makes clear. Classical musicians want everyone to find out how wonderful their music is – just as jazzers want people to listen to jazz and Latin music enthusiasts such as our own DJ Escudero wants you to discover the joys of salsa.

Believe me, if you find someone who’s snobbish about classical music, they probably know almost nothing about it – they just like dressing up and drinking champagne in the interval. Well, all I can say is, mine’s a cup of tea.

So – my advice is – ignore the snobs, and aim for the best.

Hear episode 3 of Series 2 of Classics from Scratch by clicking here.

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Published in: on August 15, 2013 at 15:50  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Doesn’t the notion of snobbishness often stem from the level of intensity with which many people ‘experience’ (i.e. listen to) classical music? In that case, most of their irritation about applauding at the ‘wrong’ time, people whispering, fidgeting, checking their iPhones and so on relates to their concentration being interrupted. Some people react, others put up with it while still feeling irritated. Others just want to show they know what’s what.

    I agree that elitist has become a vague and convenient term of disapproval in certain contexts – even some people within the classical world think of themselves as ‘anti-elitists’.

  2. Good point Sarah. The conventions that have grown up around classical music do put people off – but as my previous post about fancy dress indicates, that can cut both ways as well!

  3. So true! Big difference between a snob and an enthusiast (who will enjoy all levels and types of music/wine or whatever their passion is)

  4. Of course, enthusiasts can in themselves be offputting to those who are just feeling their way around a new world.

    I must be the perfect classical hybrid: I get irritated but say nothing (I don’t want to be thought badly of); I’m not particularly knowledgeable, though seldom dress in anything anywhere other than jeans, T-shirt and trainers (and find others completely accepting and friendly, however well dressed they are). I think we did have a bottle of cava for somebody’s birthday in the family a couple of years back.

    As I see it there are two approaches: you either throw over your own conventions in order to be ‘accessible and welcoming’ or you gently try to get people to accept your conventions as normal in the way that their conventions are accepted as normal: the first seems much easier.


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