Classical Music: Too Elitist or Not Enough?

I spend a good deal of time dreaming up bold and unconventional success solutions for the arts. While these proposals typically receive serious consideration from some corners, there are others who emotionally shoot them down immediately without any rational thought whatsoever. It seems the closer someone is to a position, the more threatening a fresh alternative can feel. Even if the current model is clearly not working.

All too aware of this human tendency, I pride myself on considering the merits of any and every proposal. Even if my gut reaction is “NO!” Especially when that’s the case.

And so it was last week, while witnessing a keynote presentation by Brittish novelist and music critic Norman Lebrecht at the Dutch Classical Music Meeting. Author of Who Killed Classical Music?, Lebrecht is renowned for thoughtful but provocative, controversial perspectives.

In a talk entitled Reframing the Classical Music Experience, Lebrecht declared that one word that has been taboo for decades in the classical music world. We shy away from it at all costs. But as organizations look for new solutions that enable vibrancy and sustainability, we no longer need to fear this concept. In fact, we should embrace it:

E – L – I – T – I – S – M

Why shouldn’t we be elitist, he asked? Classical musicians represent some of the finest talent on Earth. They spend a lifetime working tirelessly to perfect their craft. We should celebrate that phenomenon, making classical events a special, elite experience.

I cringed. Designing more accessible classical music experiences was core to the “Artistry and Relevance” chapter in my book The Savvy Musician. My message is one of adamant anti-elitism. Or better yet, resolute pro-people-ism.

Is Lebrecht completely wacky, I wondered? Or was my violent resistance simply caused by a closed mind, too attached to personal viewpoints to imagine new possibility? Could becoming more elitist actually help classical music?

Forcing myself to stay open and logical, I pondered whether a valuable lesson could be gleaned from his shocking contention. And after a week of working through this puzzle, here is my epiphany-in-progress.

Elite Access

Without a doubt, there are times where feeling elite motivates. For example, I fly a lot, and cherish my status. Elite Access. That’s what the airline calls it. Going in a special line, getting bumped to first class, raking in miles faster than the other guys. It just feels special, and encourages loyalty. As bizarre as it may sound to a non-frequent flyer, elite status helps define a part of my identity. “I am an elite world traveler.” Spectacular!

Lebrecht suggests that the classical music experience become more selective. More tuxedo…More long pieces…More expensive tickets…More sophisticated audiences…Would adopting that paradigm help build loyalty and, in turn, revenue?


Maybe the problem is that classical musicians today are too much in the middle.

“Anti-elitist” proponents make their concerts more friendly by featuring unusual venues, introducing pieces verbally, permitting the audience to clap between movements, and substituting business casual for wedding formal. But from an event perspective, these shows still pale in comparison to their popular music counterparts. The audiences still listen politely. Performers still hide behind music stands, sit respectfully center stage, and disappear during intermission. There are no light shows, mosh pits, dance competitions, Lady Gaga outfits, or sing-alongs. Such experiences may be profound, but not particularly populist.

On the other hand, consider more “serious” events such as traditional orchestra concerts. The hall is still breathtaking. The pieces are still long and glorious. The musicians still look as serious as brain surgeons. But these otherwise high society events are made slightly more accessible by the availability of cheaper tickets, pre-concert lectures (lectures?), and a conductor who shares some words from the stage. Slightly more approachable for the uninitiated, but also less exclusive.

Splitting the Difference

One gargantuan challenge for most classical organizations is expanding their fan base. The current audience consists primarily of seniors accustomed to time-tested conventions. But they hope to attract younger folks as well, who have different expectations about what a concert experience should deliver. So, in an attempt to be all things to all people, ensembles design some type of middleground that isn’t particularly elitist or populist. Said another way: In an age where many people seek extreme, niche experiences, these groups split the difference.

Two Classical Musics

Maybe we need two classical musics. Classical-A is exclusive, hardly available to the masses. For Elite Access, you must pony up, dress up, and pay up. Anyone who learns this club’s secret handshake is far above average. They are exceptional human beings with exceptional taste.

Classical-B provides hip, fun, interactive entertainment presented in user-friendly formats. The only audience these events discriminate against are ultra-snobby stuffed shirts, who eat caviar while wearing a monocle on their yacht. Of course, Classical-B still features extraordinary virtuosity, beauty, and many other unique dimensions its creators can access. But this is first and foremost an art of the people.

Cages & Rainbows

Norman Lebrecht may have rattled my cage, suggesting that expanded elitism might be good for classical music. It’s doubtful I’ll be joining that camp anytime soon. I’m too busy fighting for new audiences. For the opportunity to touch many more lives, not fewer.

But perhaps there’s a pot of gold on both ends of this rainbow.  The trick is committing to one side.

What do you think?

About the author

David Cutler

One Comment

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  • Great post. It touches on some important themes.

    I believe there is a trap in mixing all classical music institutions and their “experiences” in the same pot. Classical Music takes many forms and its institutions serve different masters. Since this is on Polyphonic, the elitism question is implicitly seen through an orchestra lens. So I think asking: “Is Classical Music too elitist or not,” is a different question than asking whether or not orchestras are.

    This is probably why your values clash with Lebrecht’s. He may have interesting ideas for some classical institutions, but certainly not all. As far as I can tell, Lebrecht is largely unconcerned with the entirety of what modern American orchestras do. His opinions, while informed and articulate, are about only the music and the people that make the particular slice of it that he is concerned with. And for many orchestras, non-classical performances make up much of the pie.

    From my position, you and NL are speaking virtually two distinct dialects. Healthy orchestras vs healthy art. While both have rich vocabularies, his words don’t plausibly translate in any workplace I’ve known as an orchestra player.

    The idea that more elitism is what the orchestras need is laughable. But the idea that there are audiences willing to pay higher prices for an even more exclusive experience is almost certainly is true.

    It is a reflection of the divergent mandates of different ensembles.

    On one hand, orchestras are multi-million dollar community institutions, that inhabit landmark halls with thousands of seats and downtown addresses. They have their city or state right in the name. Added elitism is antithetical to their public-driven mission.

    On the other hand, there are groups like the Arditti String Quartet (albeit an extreme example) who serve a very different purpose. Their audience is probably willing to pay an astronomical price to hear them live or buy their recordings.

    However, there is little overlap in the audiences and I doubt that there is much that one group can learn from the other.

    The problem comes when personal artistic agendas, no matter how passionate, wash up on an orchestra’s shore as solutions. On the classical music map, orchestras have the biggest landmass. Their large audiences and budgets are magnets for more cultural/civic attention than their smaller cousins; and they attract more interest and opinions from classical music insiders.

    But rarely do they speak directly to orchestra-centric audience/revenue questions that don’t explicitly or implicitly have retraction at their core. Some want to re-enforce the classical castle walls while others want to replace one inadequately sized audience with another. These and the variations in between more or less ignore the programming and “experience” issues that apparently matter to the largest orchestra audiences: pops and parking.

    Maybe orchestras haven’t embraced the “middle” enough?

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