Originally published on Friday August 10, 2012.
I’ve been reading a lot. A. Lot. I started a PhD last year and for quite a few months now, I’ve been in my literature review phase where the objective is to gain an awareness and understanding of the major themes in scholarship surrounding your chosen topic. One of the areas of literature I’ve been digging into is concerned with the demise of classical music, and I came across an article by Philip Hensher entitled, Will nobody mourn the death of classical music? It was, as death-of-classical-music articles go, standard fare: society is changing, declining audiences, nobody cares anymore, who will be listening in 100 years etc., etc. Whilst there is evidence that suggests that both society, and audiences for classical music, are changing, I wanted to point out something that was absent from Hensher’s list of concerns about the health of classical music.
His article reveals some of the biases of classical music through what he doesn’t say. Especially the biases that get in our way, the biggest of these perhaps being the language we choose to frame our challenges and our opportunities. I’m tired of reading about people who are mourning the death of classical music, or talking about declining standards when they could be writing constructively about the issue from another angle. A more illuminating angle that would make classical music sound like less of a hard luck case, headed for extinction. What about an article, for example, from the perspective of the generation of musicians who are caught up in the middle of what amounts to a major paradigm shift, as disruptive and influential as the industrial revolution, and of the creative ways they are responding to the changing priorities of our society? When you consider the magnitude of the shift we are experiencing, Hensher doesn’t even begin to articulate what’s really going on. Nor does he mention the people who will really make a difference to the classical music equation. I love the BBC Proms, but a big classical music festival isn’t going to ‘save’ the art form. It will be the vast body of unrecognised talent that is largely unfunded (see the recent Australia Council review for an estimate of the dollar value of this unfunded talent in the independent sector – and that’s just the people who apply for grants). In that sense I find Hensher’s article highly disrespectful to all the artists I know who do brilliant work, are often underpaid for it, and whose contribution to the artistic life of their communities goes largely unremarked. Maybe the problem isn’t one of declining interest in classical music. Maybe it’s more about the limited interest we show, through our broader discourse, in the people who are quietly saving classical music one person at a time.