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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

Class Acts

The sort of music that is broadly called 'classical' -- the sort of music to which this magazine's content is dedicated -- is generally assumed to be of interest mainly to what in Britain (where we still use social and cultural pigeon holes for things like this) we call the middle and upper class. But it is not entirely surprising, even with the huge increase and broadening of populations, that what was once the preserve of the aristocracy should still retain something of that prestigious fragrance.

Since the time when lowly but highly talented troubadours carried their lutes up the gravel paths to palace or castle trade entrances, there has been a clear message that those who require their meals to be accompanied by such music, and those who later were able to appreciate the finer attributes of orchestral and chamber music were those who could afford to maintain the sort of homes in which an opera, orchestra or ensemble would perform. Their wealth brought with it a deep understanding of the arts which, very largely, only the wealthy could afford in the first place.

It is clear from so much literature of the 18th and 19th centuries that this view was flawed, and that 'understanding' was not among the greatest attributes of many who could afford the trappings. Artists and composers were not slow to perceive this shortfall and often to exploit it when, as in the old 20th century Soviet Union, the ignorance of wealthy and powerful bureaucrats, though sinister and dangerous, could also be flaunted quietly. But today's cultural climate is still influenced by these social divides. Arts organisations are still trying to take string quartets to factories and prisons and workers' clubs while knowing that it is as likely to succeed as requiring all university music professors to spend their Saturdays at a football or boxing match, a Lloyd Webber musical and a late night disco in an east end pub.

The attempts to arrange a meeting of popular culture and so called high art may occasionally succeed, but more often turn out to be both pretentious and embarrassing because neither group of performers can do it as well as the other. The sort of opera that is put on open-air in a street in a run-down area of town will never attract the same audience that enjoys an impeccable production of Così fan tutte or Parsifal, nor is it likely the street audience will want to go to Covent Garden or the Met.

Does it matter? Classical music always was elitist and most probably always will be -- until not even the elite can afford it. The kind of thinking that makes it doesn't make it for everyone.

Copyright © 27 October 2005 Patric Standford, Wakefield, UK





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