Our Narrow Repertoire is Holding Classical Music Back

Arnold Bax.

holsthousezoom     By Simon Brackenborough.

It’s safe to say that I was never a conventional teenager. Some time around the age of 15 or 16, while my peers were obsessed with Radiohead, I discovered a profound affinity with the music of half-forgotten British composer Arnold Bax (1883-1953). I became absorbed in his epic symphonies, chamber music and tone poems. So In 2003, aged 18, I wrote to the then director of the BBC Proms to ask why a Bax symphony hadn’t been programmed for the 50th anniversary of his death. His reply was that the last time one had had a Proms performance, the attendance had been one of the lowest in memory. His memory, that is: the fateful Prom was in 1984, a few months before I was born.

Many classical fans have their own favourite neglected composers, or works of music that haven’t received their fair due. In most cases we rarely, if ever, get chances to hear them performed live. And yet at the same time, we live in a golden age for access to recorded music. Thanks to YouTube, there is now more classical music available to hear than you could listen to in a lifetime, much of it by composers you’ve never heard of, and all for free.

But taking time to explore this amazing resource can be a daunting prospect, and that’s why last year I started a blog specifically to share some of this rarely-performed music with a wider audience, and explain why it means something to me. But I don’t want to argue that Bax or anyone else join an elite canon of great composers. Mostly I avoid the whole concept: the words ‘great’ and ‘masterpiece’, while fine as expressions of admiration, are actually some of the least informative descriptions you can give. In fact, they are often a way of not exploring what the music means.

The idea of timeless ‘greatness’ is also ahistorical. Even Bach’s music needed a revival in the nineteenth century. However proud we may be of our discerning ears, we all underestimate the role that expectations play in our perceptions, and studies have shown this to be the case from art to wine tasting. That isn’t to deny that some works have a wide and enduring appeal, but it is to acknowledge that music can be different things to different people at different times, and for different reasons. And this is no bad thing: in fact, I argue, it opens up a much more interesting conversation to have with new listeners.

Because – crucially – we need to look at the current marginalisation of so many brilliant and individual composers as a microcosm of the bigger marginalisation of classical music within society. Both are symptoms of a failure to fully realise, and adequately express, the basic relevance of the music. That’s why I believe that if we can invite the public to hear a Bax symphony, by finding ways to engage them in who he was and what makes his music distinctive, we will increase the pool of listeners who come to hear Beethoven too.

It’s not about whether enough people will like Bax. But by confidently confronting the question of why he produces both obsessive fans and sniffy detractors, you have exactly the opportunity to engage people that the Proms should have seized with both hands. Disagreement, after all, is a sign that an art form matters: a repertoire of limited risk is a repertoire of limited relevance. The industry will be in a healthier place when concert-goers are less sure that they will enjoy the experience, but are willing to pay to find out.

There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a huge untapped curiosity about classical music in the wider population, but with busy lives, listeners need to be given a route in. The success of the TED movement shows a popular hunger for learning which can be met with a smart, co-ordinated effort to feed that curiosity. Similarly encouraging is that my two most recent blog posts, looking at music through the theme of St. George’s Day and natural wildness, both had a great response from people who are not classical fans, but for whom I offered a musical connection to subjects they were already interested in. And in these contexts, an obscure composer can be just as relevant and revealing as any other.

A lateral, interdisciplinary, magpie approach surely holds more fruitful opportunities for classical music than what I call the ‘connoisseur culture’– that rather cosy preoccupation with the finer points of interpretations of core repertoire which too often seems to be the default setting in parts of the music media. Even as a music graduate I find this cliquey and uninspiring, so goodness knows how new listeners must feel. Just look at the average concert brochure today, and how little information is given on why you might want to hear anything on offer. The assumed knowledge of the repertoire suggests an industry content with preaching to the converted.

Of course, I understand that there are commercial calculations in programming pieces that are proven to sell tickets and that performers are already familiar with. But the canon, like any hierarchy, is also a way of preserving the status quo, and the status quo always benefits those with power. For people at the top of the classical industry, unfamiliar repertoire challenges the expertise on which they have built their authority. Yet as the comic writer and lifelong classical listener Armando Iannucci observed in this fantastic speech to the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2006, new listeners are blessed by not knowing what is deemed to be worthy. I sometimes think we would be better off with people running the show who know nothing about the music at all.

If it were up to me, finding ways to connect people to the ideas and themes of the music would have a much bigger role in how performances are conceived and marketed; an over-priced concert programme that you have to read in a hurry just doesn’t cut it. A good example of a step in the right direction was the heavily-conceptualised The Rest Is Noise festival at London’s South Bank Centre. Discussion of themes can even form part of the event itself, as with the Orpheus Sinfonia’s ‘Beneath the Score’ concerts, which combine biography and analysis with performance. But these forward-thinking examples are still too rare.

Steve Jobs once said of his rival Bill Gates that ‘he’d be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.’ Now I’m no Apple-worshipper, but it’s clear that their phenomenal success is not just down to computer science, but understanding aesthetics, intuitive design, and consumer psychology. In contrast, we have a classical music industry that produces incredible musicians but is pretty woeful at telling the world why all their years of training, and all the amazing music they play, actually has anything to say. Even worse, it often doesn’t seem to care.

Of course I’m not the first person to make these sorts of arguments, and I won’t be the last. I particularly recommend this typically insightful post from the excellent On An Overgrown Path blog,contrasting the growth of Mahler’s popularity with that of ever-neglected Malcolm Arnold. But the arguments need continual revisiting, reconsidering, and refreshing. Because too often, classical music looks like it’s stuck in a dead-end job: one of comfortable routine that just about pays the bills, but whose narrow scope and dull repetition prevents any hope of reaching something greater.

Perhaps, in fact, the classical music world is sometimes guilty of forgetting just what an amazing resource a musical score is. Each one is a repository of years of learning, soul-searching and toil, and yet look at how we treat them – the majority gather dust while a select few grow dog-eared through overuse. This is nothing short of an artistic tragedy. The fact that scores are the starting point for classical music is what makes the art form so special, and it’s vital that they are at the heart of where it goes next.

That does not mean that all pieces offer something equally compelling. But, to borrow from George Orwell, it is to remind us that each reflects a composer seeing, feeling, hearing, and understanding the world. Quite simply, for every artist who lies forgotten we miss a unique perspective of what it means to be human; our culture carries one mind less, one world less. That is the essential truth that classical music needs to remember in order to thrive. We’re all here just trying to make sense of being alive. And through the incredible richness and diversity of our music, that’s all we should be trying to do.

This post originally appeared on Frances Wilson’s blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist.

Simon Brackenborough is the founder and editor of Corymbus.