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Class, Control, and Classical Music

‘Class? Oh God, who even talks in that way anymore?’ 

The above quote, from a young musician, appears in Anna Bull’s 2019 book Class, Control and Classical Music. I think it’s indicative of a certain squeamishness among the British middle classes at the prospect of talking about class in a meaningful way. We might joke that we’re middle class when we buy quinoa at Waitrose, but that serves to render it safely trivial, a matter of mere consumer choice.

The UK classical music world is certainly no stranger to discussions about accessibility and inclusion. Often, particularly in online spaces, such issues seem to generate more heat than light. So it’s therefore refreshing to come across a perspective as thorough, scholarly and considered as this book. 

Bull begins by telling her own story. As a talented middle-class child who studied cello and piano, classical music became a hugely meaningful part of her young identity and gave her deeply fulfilling experiences. But during higher education she began to feel that the art form was ‘trying to shut out the contemporary world’. Its culture seemed disengaged from social issues, and unhealthily focussed on authority and control. Eventually these concerns led her to give up playing for a career in academia.

So as well as being a scholarly study, this book has a personal dimension too. What makes it particularly compelling is that it takes the form of an ethnographic study. Bull (re)visits the youth music environment, and looks at how class and authority manifests itself in extra-curricula ensembles in an area of southern England. She joins in and observes rehearsals for two orchestras, a choir and an opera company, and interviews a selection of their young musicians and adult leaders, in groups and one-on-one (all names are changed to preserve anonymity).

Such organisations are an important part of the UK’s classical music infrastructure – future professional musicians will pass through them. Having grown up in New Zealand, Bull has some outsider perspective on our class norms, even as she neatly slots into the musical culture. And while the period of ethnographic research was 2012-13, it seems likely that many of her observations are still relevant a decade on.

Despite Bull’s personal history with classical music, she recognises much that is of value. Her placements remind her that these ensembles are an important site for young ‘sociable geeks’, in which music-making gives them deeply pleasurable community experiences and a sense of shared identity. Meanwhile, female opera singers confide in her that singing has helped them to overcome negative body image. 

But Bull is interested in the ‘boundary-drawing practices’ that protect classical music’s privileged spaces (and levels of public funding) using the rhetoric of ‘autonomous art’ that transcends everyday concerns while effectively excluding others. She notes that middle-class children are more likely to take up classical music not only for financial reasons, but also because its intensive, one-to-one tuition style ‘shares a logic’ with aspirational middle-class parenting – the future-oriented cultivation of the individual child. Group-based musical learning, she notes, is less popular with middle-class parents when it’s offered. 

Bull also describes the ‘curious centrality of strong authority’ in classical music: the focus on accuracy and precision through hard work, the musical ‘work concept’ that prioritises the score, the frequently authoritarian role of (usually male) conductors. She concedes that these forms of control can deliver successful artistic results, such as the effective performance of complex orchestral music. But throughout she points out alternative approaches to music-making, citing research on musical cultures that afford different means to learn, and where different power dynamics are at play. 

The question of classed boundary-drawing becomes particularly interesting when we learn that her choir had seceded from the county music service in an effort to keep its standards high, while an orchestra had been privately formed by those disaffected with the county’s ensemble. Such efforts, needless to say, do not end up having simple or class-neutral outcomes, and Bull likens them to exclusionary enclaving in education and housing. It feels revealing when a chorister describes the choir’s social scene as ‘everyone who’s sort of…’ before trailing off. It’s not the only time her interviewees struggle to articulate something that’s normally unspoken. It leads Bull to a crucial question: ‘at what point does musical excellence begin to detract from the wider social good?’

Subtler distinctions of class complicate the picture. The experiences of her musicians varied considerably depending on their familiarity with classical music’s social world – for example, a more precarious class position was a common factor for those who recounted harsh experiences with music teachers that were arguably bullying. Tellingly, however, each framed these stories as necessary criticism which drove them to improve, however upsetting it was at the time – the need to defer to authority was strongly felt. One young opera singer claimed to have enjoyed rehearsals even while admitting she had sometimes wanted to flee the room in tears. Bull wonders to what extent the emphasis on enjoyment is a ‘compulsory’ part of narrating such experiences. None of this is to say that those with lower class positions are less invested in classical music – in fact, one musician from a genuinely working-class background felt hugely validated by the upward class journey that classical music had given him.

Bull’s class analysis is alive to intersections with gender and race – though the latter is less well represented in a study of provincial England. One of the complexities arrives in the ‘imagined futures’ of her interviewees – would they take the uncertain road of a career in music? Many of the comfortably upper-middle-class musicians decided to pursue more lucrative professions, while making use of the connections they’d made through music. Of those determined to follow music, a pattern emerged: only men looked to attain the authoritative roles of composer or conductor, while those who settled on a life as a ‘humble and hardworking’ musician skewed more towards women. 

Bull contextualises British classical music culture in the history of its leading conservatoires and exam boards. The founding of these institutions was bound up in 19th-century ideas of the moral worth of ‘the great composers’ over working-class Music Hall. And here I learned a surprising fact: women once made up the majority of British conservatoire students in the early decades, especially for piano. Formal music tuition acted like a finishing school for respectable femininity within a cult of domesticity, in which women learned to sit demurely and play. At the same time, Bull notes the rise and fall of the Tonic Sol-fa movement – an alternative form of notation that, for a while, encouraged mass working-class involvement in choral festivals.

The boundaries of respectability within classical music, Bull argues, are now visible in questions of repertoire. Her choral singers disagree over the value of John Rutter’s music, and an orchestra conductor likens popular film scores to a low-nutrition McDonalds meal (even as he programmes them for a course!)…just another day in an art form with a superiority complex. Snobbery is alive and well among her musicians, though how many of them would now look back and cringe at their younger selves is another question. I shudder to think of some of the opinions I might have offered as an earnestly musical 16 year old.

Bull links classical music’s relatively strict attitude to bodily movement to Christian ideals of transcendence – and here, a fascinating connection to repertoire emerges. When her conductors decide to diversify their programming with a Latin-American orchestral piece and ‘African’ choral songs, they both suggest some basic choreography. This is met with embarrassment or hostility from some musicians, who detect a betrayal of seriousness. But that dynamic of ‘now we’ll let our hair down for something lighter’ is instantly recognisable – and it becomes especially problematic when the choir try out load-carrying actions for the African songs (a real head-in-hands moment). Bull’s conclusion that ‘this music requires bodily movement to maintain the distinction from more ‘serious’ repertoire’ feels particularly insightful about what’s going on here.

Given all the above, it’s perhaps no surprise that Bull’s concluding chapter argues for many changes in the way music education works in this country. The oft-touted paternalistic dream among classical types – of giving every child free instrumental lessons in the traditional model – is not, in her view, a route to true musical enfranchisement. To a UK classical music world that currently feels under-valued, and that even self-narrates being under attack, the slant of this book might not feel especially welcome. But it’s not to dismiss the very real challenges our sector faces to say that Bull’s study of awkward class issues is also highly valuable, precisely because it’s so rare to have them discussed in such unflinching length and depth. ‘Who even talks in that way anymore?’ Perhaps we should learn to talk way more often.

Class, Control and Classical Music is a highly impressive and thought-provoking piece of research – to anyone with an interested in music education in the UK, I strongly recommend reading it. 

Class, Control and Classical Music by Anna Bull is available from OUP.

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