Dayton Hare: Music as a members only club

Thursday, September 14, 2017 - 6:00pm

It’s really not controversial to say that classical music has a PR problem. As one might imagine to be the case for a genre several centuries old, it’s managed to acquire quite a reputation over the years, baggage generally having something to do with its perceived elitism and general snobbery. Some of which is valid, of course, but mostly it’s wildly overblown in the popular imagination: At least in today’s classical world, for every tuxedo-toting, nose-thumbing type there’s an equal number of open and laid-back individuals who just want to relax and enjoy making music. Naturally the two groups are locked in a sort of eternal battle for the soul of the genre, and invariably the demographics of the latter group tend to skew younger and the former older (though obviously with exceptions). Much of this isn’t readily visible to large segments of the public — the days of classical music’s skirmishes being fought across the culture pages of your local newspaper are largely over — and honestly it isn’t nearly as dramatic as I make it sound, but nevertheless this vague ideological conflict is important, because while the genre is nowhere near death (no matter what the histrionics of the would-be horsemen of the cultural apocalypse might lead you to believe), its growth and appeal are both limited by the way it’s perceived.

Sometime in the past (I don’t remember where) I referred to the programing practices of most major orchestras as being demonstrative of a sort of “antiquated museum culture” with a stranglehold on the art form — which I largely still believe — but that’s only part of the problem. Of course it’s an issue that most orchestras overwhelmingly program music by mostly male, mostly white and mostly dead composers. And of course this has a lot to do with the culture in which the genre developed, and it’s been said many times before (at this point as almost a sort of mantra among the woke of the classical community), but it remains almost as relevant as upon its first utterance. This programing disparity is a problem in-and-of-itself, but one of the other issues involved has to do with the appearance this reality projects. 

Classical music, perhaps more than most genres, suffers from being a kind of members-only club. Or, at least it suffers from those who would make it so. There is a particular demographic who would pick up my column, read “classical music is elitist,” and respond “good.” For a variety of reasons — its long history of patronage by European aristocracy, the expense involved with large-scale musical presentations, dependence on wealthy donors, etc. — classical music has a strong association with the economic and societal elite, and for those who might seek to somehow differentiate themselves from everybody else, it can serve as a useful, class-marked area of interest. Consequently, concert production can often take on a character of conservatism and passive exclusion. Usually it’s small things, like dirty looks directed at someone who claps between movements, a mild distaste for the neophytes who haven’t learned the rituals, but cumulatively it creates an atmosphere that isolates the art form from the world at large and stifles its engagement with contemporary society. More often than not it seems that the musicians themselves (at least in my experience) are discontent with this state of affairs, and it’s more a product of the patrons and/or donors, but the developments in this war of ideas will likely provide the future direction of the genre.

Part of this ideological combat broke out into the foreground of a few very particular and niche online communities last weekend. Two Facebook groups, one the much older "Pretentious Classical Music Elitists" and the other the younger "Prelude, Fugue, and Shitpost," got into a little scuffle over the stuffiness of classical music. Doubtless you can sort out where the battle lines were drawn. But these two groups are fascinating because they serve as almost perfect archetypes of the two schools of thought. The former’s name was originally meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but over the years it seems as if many of its members didn’t quite pick that up. There is plenty of valuable musical discussion to be had there, and there are lots of subsections within it of interest, but on the whole its tastes tend to constitute a staid and conventional veneration of the Classical and Romantic eras, coupled with an embrace of the “elitist” title and a certain looking-down on other musical genres. This rubbed the vaguely anarchistic members of PFS the wrong way, and they began a campaign inside PCME to shitpost in exaggerated, imitation PCME manner in order to knock the other group down a peg. 

PFS is a curious bunch: Mostly students at university or conservatory, they constitute a kind of anti-elite elite, that is to say, they’re not not elitists, but their elitism is directed towards the breaking down of old systems of thought, and their musical tastes tend to be an aesthetic free-for-all. In a certain sense they remind me of some of the American and British communists of the ’30s, the anti-bourgeois bourgeois intellectuals common at literary cafés and universities before everyone realized that Stalin was a homicidal maniac who only cared about his own power.

The meme war was brief, and retribution was swift: deletions, bannings, the lot. It was mostly over in a weekend. Ridiculous as it was, though, the event says something interesting about the place that classical music culture (particularly among the young) is in today. If the young in PFS are any indication, the genre is due for its own Glasnost and Perestroika, and perhaps this will lead to a wider appeal. In certain modes of thinking, there is a conflation of seriousness of the self with seriousness of the art. If you hold yourself too cheaply, the thinking goes, then the art you make will come out cheap as well. And perhaps there’s a certain truth in that, but at the same time, if you take yourself too seriously in any art form there’s a very real danger that it will implode in on itself and become directionless. And that’s the quickest path to irrelevancy.