I recently finished Julian Johnson’s 2002 book Who Needs Classical Music? It sets out to question relativism in our attitudes to musical taste, and makes a case against the marginalisation of classical music in modern life. Johnson wants to emphasise the objective aspects of music, against what he sees as modern culture’s overly marketised, individualist assumptions about how we should engage with the arts.
He writes insightfully, at times inspiringly, about how classical music works, what makes it distinctive, and why the arts and intellectual life matter. But he is on less firm ground when writing about the contemporary culture within which classical music sits.
There is little quotation or citation in this book. Johnson constructs his own targets to strike, with broad-brush summaries of ‘so the argument runs’, and a lot of cosy analogies – ‘we wouldn’t treat x in this way, so why music?’ His evidently deep academic understanding of classical music sits in marked relief to his breezy approach outside of it. He shows little curiosity about what popular culture actually does for people, and at times adopts rather dismissive language – despite writing from a country that has made an incredibly rich and vibrant contribution to Western popular music in the decades since the Beatles, a fact which surely has some bearing on public attitudes towards music generally.
This casual manner is unfortunately summed up by a quoted paragraph on the book’s back cover, which begins: ‘To talk of art as cultural capital recalls the attitude that made the slave trade possible’ – an unworthy attempt to borrow gravity from historic suffering.
That said, there’s no doubt that Who needs classical music? mostly does what it intends to do: make an intelligent and galvanising case for classical music – for those already wanting to hear it, at least. Today, twenty years on, a book like this would be written by a Brylcreemed Telegraph columnist scoring culture-war points about classical music and the decline of The West. So we should be grateful that it’s better than that. But it nonetheless remains rather limited in its purview.
Who Needs Classical Music? is available from OUP.