Classical Music and the New London Middle Class

Middle class feeding frenzy

One thing I’ve puzzled over in London is why classical music is losing out in the ‘new middle class cultural feeding frenzy.’ London’s a rich city and there’s been an explosion of wealth in the last twenty years: hence the term ‘new’ or ‘expanded’ middle class.

A large group of young, educated, new-media savvy people – the product of the expanded universities – live and work in London, have cash in their pockets, and want to spend some of it on art. They’re not experts but want more, in cultural terms, than Harry Potter and a night in the pub.

You see them, in huge numbers, in the London art galleries, particularly the cleverly branded Tate Modern. They join Facebook en masse and chatter about art on the internet. Many of my neighbours in the trendy district of London where I live (I went to live there before it became trendy) are very much part of this new, young, culturally hungry, wealthy, liberal, (small L) middle class.

Grey-haired, ageing, stuffy and snobby

Yet, except for the Proms, you seldom see them at classical music concerts. It’s not on their radar. They won’t buy tickets and dilute the grey-haired, traditional, ageing, rather stuffy and snobby, audience. Why?

If you study the cultural environment in which 18th century court music was performed it was obviously for the upper class alone. The middle class, and certainly the working class – God forbid! – didn’t get a look in except as composers, performers, technicians and servants. But it was very much less stuffy than a London concert today.

Chatting, flirting, drinking, laughing

People walked about, chatted, flirted, drank, gossiped, discussed politics; the women critically inspected each other’s clothing, jewels and lovers, and nipped in and out of the bathroom to tend their hair and make-up. Sure, the audience will have gone quiet during an exciting aria, or when a top dog aristocrat performed (e.g. Frederick the Great) or made clear he wanted silence, but the atmosphere was relaxed.

The music was the servant of the court, not the master. It was integrated into a zestful culture. It wasn’t this dead thing you expose yourself to while sitting silently in rows in a sterile hall, as in London today. It’s like going to the dentist!

Telemann – commercially astute

At the same time, the explosion of new money in the 18th century – similar to London now – made it possible for the commercially astute Telemann to publish Der getreue Musikmeister – a musical journal containing 70 small vocal and instrumental compositions – for the new middle class to buy and play at home with family and friends. New instrument makers manufactured instruments for the new 18th century middle class to play.

Sex and the middle class

One thing the expanded London middle class love about Tate Modern is sex. They go there with boyfriends and girlfriends, or alone to meet new people. There’s a framework of cheap, clean, fashionable bars and restaurants where they flirt, network and hangout. They wander the picture galleries, chatting and laughing, or sunbathe on the grass outside.

Non-music high art, in other words, has become embedded in their culture. It’s become part of who they are. They’re not alienated from it. They feel it belongs to them. Like all cultural integrations, I doubt they think about it much. It’s just something they do. And spend their money on.

Make the leap

How can classical music make the same leap? The audience is there, ready, waiting and willing to pay for high art. The composers are there, churning the stuff out. The musicians are there – British music colleges manufacture a fresh batch of fabulous musicians every twelve months. But the new audience won’t sit in a stuffy concert hall with a bunch of snobs and oldies. Why should they?

Queuing for a bus

First, it’s wrong to trap people in concert halls. Currently it happens all the time. People buy tickets to hear a particular piece and must sit through other items in the programme. Some dreadful noise (to them) starts up, they look at their watches and inwardly groan: ‘I’ve got to sit through this for fifteen minutes.’ It’s analogous to making someone queue for a bus next to road-works. It’s disrespectful, and commercial suicide, to inflict such an arrangement on those paying for a leisure activity. Concert venues should be designed, and programmes structured, to avoid holding audiences hostage.

Jazz nerds

Second, a lesson should be learned from jazz. Most cities contain jazz clubs where the 18th century ideal of culturally embedded live music is achieved. Jazz nerds sit at the front and listen in silence to every note, while people further back drink, eat and talk. The ‘attending church’ or ‘listening to a worthy vicar’ feel which pollutes the modern classical music auditorium has been banished, and a compromise struck between serious listeners and others.

Obscure religious cult

Finally, a re-organised and re-branded live classical music culture doesn’t need to be dumbed down. Current high standards of repertoire and performance can be maintained – just like Tate Modern – but the audience treated with respect. In a nutshell, the music should serve the audience, not the other way round. The modern concert audience should be excited, moved to tears, startled and educated. But not treated like slaves, or as members of an obscure religious cult.

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