Should Classical Music Be More Elitist?

Is the ivory tower the only place for elitism? What about classical music?(Photo: rbrwr (Flickr))
Is the ivory tower the only place for elitism? What about classical music?(Photo: rbrwr (Flickr))

David Cutler, author of The Savvy Musician and the voice behind the Savvy Musician blog, recently posted a think piece wrestling with a question that I, for one, never thought would resurface in the classical music world: should classical music be more elitist?

Cutler’s post was a response to Norman Lebrecht’s speech Reframing the Classical Music Experience, in which, Cutler writes, Lebrecht argued that classical musicians and music appreciators should actually consider embracing elitism. Cutler writes:

Why shouldn’t we be elitist, (Lebrecht) asked? Classical musicians represent some of the finest talent on Earth. They spend a lifetime working tirelessly to perfect their craft. We should celebrate that phenomenon, making classical events a special, elite experience.

Indeed we should celebrate the phenomenal gifts of classical musicians, just as we should celebrate the gifts of writers, doctors, teachers, lawyers, scientists, mathematicians, athletes, dancers – you get the idea. The world is full of talented people, some amazingly so. But at the end of the day, they’re people, just like everyone else. We should feel lucky to be able to enjoy the products of their gifts, and as human beings they deserve healthy respect. But I’m not sure they or anyone is necessarily entitled to the kind of idol worship that tends to go hand-in-hand with elitism.

Another thing about elitism, and it seems one of the main reasons we’ve been trying so hard for so long to get away from it, is that the air of exclusiveness it tends to generate is off-putting to some and simply frightening to others. Consider the person who, for the first time, attends a classical music concert expecting to enjoy a nice evening of music only to get sidelong glances from those sitting near him when he claps in the “wrong” place. In a passive-aggressive way, the crowd has turned, if only for a moment, against him only to serve convention. Is that really a way to show a guy a good time, much less build audience loyalty? Is it convention or people the arts should serve?

Of course, elitism does work for some people. Those who are accepted without question into the club (any club) for any number of factors are almost certain not to have qualms about their insider status. But should an art form require a pedigree of those who seek to experience and enjoy it?

These are some of my thoughts. Now I’d like to hear from you. Do you think classical music as an art form can benefit from embracing elitism?

  • Operacraig

    Locally, the CSO is doing a  great job in attracting a younger audience, and, at the same time, helping to educate them (as well as the “elite”) about serious music — particularly at the Southern concerts. The musicians are seriously elite, but not elitist — they want to share their music as widely as possible.