My letter in today’s Guardian

21st May 2016 | Daily Life, Inspirations, Musings, Teaching | 6 comments

In today’s Guardian I have a letter which aroused quite a lot of interest when it appeared online yesterday. Please share it if you agree.

Here’s what I said:

‘Much of the recent discourse around classical music and its troubles has contained a subtext of glee at the notion that a privileged class is getting its comeuppance. The perception of classical music as a posh activity is outdated and wrong, as the success of the brilliant BBC Young Musician Sheku Kanneh-Mason (a pupil at a comprehensive school in Nottingham) illustrates (Letters, 18 May). Love of classical music is not dependent on class, but as music education focuses more and more on having a go rather than mastering a skill, it is less and less likely that young people will even have the chance to fall in love with it.

Trumped-up issues of class and accessibility are distracting us from the real possibility that if classical music continues to be sidelined we may lose something very precious. It’s misleading to say that as long as people are involved in some sort of music-making, it does not matter what sort it is. All music-making is certainly beneficial, but western art music demonstrates a complexity and depth which few other musical genres have attained. To play it and appreciate it requires skill, devotion and understanding, which is why such long training is necessary. There is no shortage of gifted young musicians wishing to undertake this training, but they must wonder why their achievements are largely ignored or even sneered at.

It is hard to understand why classical music is such a scapegoat when other heritage art forms continue to be widely supported. Letting classical music dwindle away for the sake of “democracy” is the equivalent of throwing out traditional literature and filling our bookshops with comics, axing traditional drawing and painting courses, or instructing the RSC to abandon Shakespeare and just improvise plays instead because everyone would understand the language straight away. Lovers of art and literature wouldn’t stand for such nonsense, so why should lovers of classical music?’

6 Comments

  1. mary cohen

    Absolutely spot on!

    Reply
  2. Doug S

    I like your letter a great deal. But I think there is a trend to democratization in classical music which is wonderful. Although classical musicians have been bringing music to the people for a long time. Here in New York many classical musicians were associated with the settlement house music schools. Myra Hess played benefits for these schools in the 1930s and later, of course, he national gallery concerts were a model for bringing this music to all. That’s a tradition worth celebrating. Keep up the good work – your log is wonderful!

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      Doug, you are absolutely right and indeed many of us have been involved for a long time in bringing classical music to all sorts of audiences (as my first book, Beyond the Notes, illustrates). My letter, which had to be short for reasons of space, was more concerned with the wider problem of how classical music/musicians are perceived by the press, media and society in general. I don’t think I know a single professional classical musician who isn’t worried by a sense of marginalisation. I don’t know how it is in the US, but here in the UK it is increasingly hard to get classical concerts reviewed or previewed, especially outside London. The lack of media interest in turn makes it hard to gather decent-sized audiences. I recently conducted an informal survey of post-grads and young professional musicians about whether they felt they enjoyed respect in society, and they all responded with different shades of ‘no’ or ‘not really’. I can’t feel that this is a healthy state of affairs for classical music.

      Reply
  3. Rikky Rooksby

    Fantastic, Susan. I think about this all the time. Trumpets from the rooftops …

    Reply
  4. peterv

    I think the disdain our society exhibits towards classical music training is part of a wider contempt for any activity or skill requiring sustained and concentrated effort. Language learning and mathematics are similarly disparaged. This is a great shame.

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      As a friend of mine says, ‘De-skilling is all around us’.

      Reply

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