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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Classical music’s illusions

Lauren Hill discusses the captivating, and yet illusory effects of performing music at a point where music education is under threat

I still remember my first experience of hearing classical music live. Amongst other local schools, my class was invited to a summer music festival at Hellens Manor in rural Herefordshire. The Schubert Ensemble performed Dvorak ’s ‘Piano Quartet in E flat’ that evening, and I remember being transfixed. The music was beautiful, and they seemed to play so effortlessly, as though it was something natural within them.

Around me, the audience was immovable, attentive, and lost deep within their own memories and fantasy, as we shared this dream-like, collective experience of live music. Amongst many other moments, I recall that evening as one which affirmed my love of music and, before the onset of the harsher realities of growing up, I used to dream of becoming a concert pianist – a dream which has long since been abandoned at the realisation of sheer impossibility…especially given my aversion to practicing.

On the surface, it is easy to see the allure of classical music performance: the concert hall, the dazzling soloists, and the incredible talent, passion and enjoyment of those who have ‘made it’ – who have succeeded to make a career out of something they love. What we perhaps don’t see, beneath the surface of a polished performance, is the mundane, or even darker side to this: the gruelling hours spent alone in a practice room, the frequent auditions and rejections, perfectionism, self-criticism, crippling performance anxiety, and the intense competition of the industry.

As with many other things in life, we prefer to focus on illusory, surface-level beauty, and ignore what lurks beneath.

It will come as no surprise that classical music has an access problem. Learning an instrument costs a great deal of money and with current cuts to government funding, many state schools are sadly forced to remove music from the curriculum. Despite numerous benefits to the wellbeing and education of children, it just isn’t seen as a priority. Of course, there are many admirable efforts to widen access to classical music. Many outreach initiatives of major orchestras and charities have worked tirelessly to make classical music available to those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to engage with it. There is still a long way to go. To many people, concert hall culture is perceived as an elitist tradition, restricted to wealthy (usually elderly) people who might sneer at you if you say something wrong or fail to sit in complete silence during the performance – heaven forbid you should clap between movements!

The way we think about classical music still very much subscribes to the romantic cult-like idea of an isolated creative genius (think of Beethoven as he gradually became deaf), driven relentlessly forward by the conviction that their artistry must be heard. The idea of a classical ‘canon’ that encompasses a list of unquestionable ‘masterworks’ (by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and so on) and the concept of ‘high art’ itself is problematic and hegemonic; it pushes women, minorities, non-Western cultures, and other genres to the margins, while pretending its values are universal and that ‘pure’ music is not connected to issues of gender, sexuality, politics, and privilege. These ideas have all been challenged in recent music scholarship, but it will take a long time to see change. For example, even today, although there are many talented, living female composers, they are frequently ignored when it comes to programming concerts.

Of course, classical music isn’t all negative. Despite what some may think, it’s still a dynamic, living tradition with exciting works being premiered all the time. While it’s true that careers in classical music are notoriously precarious, this is surely true of all artistic pursuits; worthwhile things in life are rarely easy to attain. This is no reason to give up. Seen from a different perspective, disillusionment with classical music is actually a good thing! Like enlightenment, disillusionment means being set free from untruth, it means seeing through a façade of pretence. Illusions hide the truth, but the truth brings to light all the things which need to be changed, and from that we can move forward. Just please, whatever you do, try not to clap between movements.

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