Marginalized Elitism: The “Place” of Classical and Opera
With another year winding to a close, we look back on what transpired over the past 366 days. The events that caught our attention (or at least what the media saw fit to cover), as well as the passings of people from many realms of endeavour, such as politics, television, film, and music.
For music, I’ve noticed over the years a tendency to ignore classical musicians in such tributes, as well as in mainstream news coverage in general. Some names are too big to ignore, of course. Individuals like Leonard Bernstein and Luciano Pavarotti were too widely known to have been overlooked when they passed, in 1990 and 2007, respectively. At the very least, they act within a broader cultural context as symbols of the classical/opera world. However, most other major names from those genres tend to slip away with little or no notice, at least compared to musicians from other genres.
One example is conductor Sir Georg Solti, born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1912. He still holds a record for winning the highest number of Grammy awards, and he recorded many albums between the early days of long-play records and the arrival of compact discs (including the first studio recording of Richard Wagner’s operatic epic Der Ring des Nibelungen). For what it’s worth, he passed away in early September 1997, around the same time as both Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. I didn’t find out until a few weeks later, while I happened to be perusing an issue of Time.
A similar shock happened when I found out about Giuseppe Sinopoli, whom I consider one of my top five favourite conductors. At the very young age of 54, he had a heart attack in April 2001 while conducting a rehearsal of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida. This time, a month or so had passed when I stumbled upon an obituary, while I was looking up information about Sinopoli online.
While my concerns might seem highly idiosyncratic, they’re no more so than anyone else who believes that their pet issues and/or perspectives aren’t being addressed by the mainstream media. I’m also not the only one who’s noticed this gap. In a very recent posting that inspired this one, Alex Ross in the oft-mentioned-here blog The Rest Is Noise calls out a New York Times Magazine tribute to musicians who had passed in the previous year. He cites a posting by Lisa Hirsch on the blog Iron Tongue of Midnight, which has tracked the yearly tributes’ tendency to ignore classical musicians in favour of those from other genres.
I’m at least familiar with probably half the names from this year’s tribute, or some of the musical excerpts if nothing else. No one can know everything about all genres, of course. But even a quick Google search (classical music deaths 2012), especially followed up by just asking someone who knows about classical music to pick out “the big names,” would help someone compiling such a list. When you’re associated with a magazine whose title alone oozes cultural clout, the obligation is heavier. Even if a compiler for any such publication knows practically nothing about classical music, it would demonstrate some effort to balance coverage across many genres.
At a broader level, this tendency to ignore and/or stereotype Western art music (with the exception of a few towering tokens) symbolizes a deeper problem. The very “elite” sheen attached to it, both by detractors and more or less well-meaning fans, has paradoxically contributed to its marginalization. This notion gets hammered into our heads in any number of ways. Here are a few examples of commercials that do just that, and which share similar structures and tropes.
In terms of gender-based associations and expectations, classical music can occupy two contradictory realms. On the one hand, it is the music of “wussies,” which I personally heard often as an adolescent in a small rural town. Basically, “real men” don’t listen to classical music. On the other hand, it can represent White [Mostly] Straight Male machismo and oppression of women as well. This is most infamously exemplified by critical musicologist Susan McClary’s assessment of a section from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which (according to an article she wrote for a 1987 issue of the Minnesota Composers Forum Newsletter), “explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.” I’ve always wondered how someone who has actually experienced rape would feel about that statement…
Others have written quite eloquently on the stereotyping of “classical music” and the way that it has been marginalized. Once again, I defer to Alex Ross. His 2004 piece Listen to This (also the title of a 2010 compilation of essays) resonates with many of my thoughts on the subject. Ross advocates on behalf of classical music with an opening statement that might shock some initially, but which makes sense if one really thinks about the genre-based associations and expectations attached to the term. Much of what he writes is quotable, but the following sentence especially gives one pause in considering classical’s “elitism” and popular’s “proletarianism”:
If you want to see an in-your-face, Swiss-bank-account display of wealth, go look at the millionaires sitting in the skyboxes at a Billy Joel show, if security lets you.
I would add comparisons between tickets to primo seats at the Metropolitan Opera and cheap seats at the Super Bowl. Neither is cheap, but I always thought that football was supposed to be more “accessible” than opera. Certainly, the prices don’t seem to jibe with that.
Admittedly, this posting has wandered a bit away from the original topic: classical musicians remaining invisible from year-end tributes of those who have passed. Nonetheless, it’s important to consider the marginalization of classical music and opera, or “Western art music” if you prefer (for want of a better label), in relation to this trend. More specifically, how the “elevation” of such music as a signifier of cultural capital actually works against it. How it may be superficially admired for so-called “greatness,” while recordings of [Big Name Canonical Composer]’s Greatest Hits sit unloved in music collections of people desperate to show some level of “class” or “sophistication.” If one really thinks about it, it’s not much different from what happens in other genres. Similar to the example provided in the previously-linked definition of cultural capital, people might want to show diligent “hipness” by claiming they like an indie band; the more local and arcane, the better to demonstrate so-called “authenticity.”
With it being the new year, it sounds like a resolution is in order. To be honest with ourselves about what kind of music we like, but to be open as well to other kinds of music without regard to its sociocultural weight, whatever the context. It might not improve the balance of year-end coverage of musician deaths, but maybe it’s a start in liberating all kinds of music genres from the expectations we place on them.