Occasionally, we've received comments from listeners saying they don't feel that classical music is important in West Virginia and shouldn't be featured so prominently on West Virginia Public Radio. Some have called it elitist; others just don't feel it’s relevant to the lives of West Virginians. So, I've been going around asking people:
Do you think classical music is relevant to West Virginia? Why and how?
Paul Helfrich, Executive Director of the West Virginia Symphony, starts off the discussion with a thoughtful and well-written essay:
I was glad Mona asked me this question. There are short answers, and longer ones. I’ll begin with the short ones:
Is classical music relevant to West Virginia? Absolutely.
Why? Are there people in West Virginia? Yes? Then that’s why – because all music, including classical music, is relevant to people. Doesn’t matter what state, or what country. Music matters to people.
And how? Well, all music reflects, in some way, the human experience. It’s one of the amazing ways that human beings express themselves, and record, interpret, question, and celebrate their human experience. That’s equally true for folk songs, bluegrass, hip-hop, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 9.
Seems pretty obvious to me!
But trust me, as someone who’s spent over 20 years selling classical music events to the public, I know it’s not quite that simple. I’m well aware of some of the reasons people feel classical music either “isn’t for them,” on a personal level, or “isn’t relevant,” on a larger, society-wide scale.
Let’s start with the “E” word – elitist. This is one of those words people use without really thinking about what it means. Webster’s defines “elite” as “a socially superior group,” “elitism” as “leadership or rule by such an elite,” and an “elitist” as someone who advocates elitism.
So - is classical music elitist? If you think about it, there’s no way any music, including classical, can be elitist, not in and of itself.
Music is human expression. It’s not music that can be elitist – it’s people, people wanting to divide themselves from others as not only a separate group, but a superior one.
And classical music does have some unfortunate baggage, in that regard. Many American musical institutions (the Metropolitan Opera is a good example) were founded by wealthy individuals in the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who, indeed, did want to separate themselves apart from the public at large. They wanted an exclusive club, if you will, in which to enjoy musical performances. This history is, in large measure, responsible for the association classical music has, in the minds of many, with wealth and social elitism.
But after World War II, classical music became a much more populist venture. Symphonies, museums, dance and opera companies sprouted up in small communities that had never had such resources before. Corporate philanthropy came of age in the 1960s and helped these organizations grow, along with the birth of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Fast-forward to today, and you’ll find that most arts organizations are greatly concerned with accessibility and being open to the entire community. Do they still depend heavily on wealthy donors? Sure – as non-profit organizations, that goes with the territory. But the days of these organizations as exclusive clubs are gone.
At the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, we put a lot of time and effort into projects like providing scholarships (and even transportation subsidy) for our school concerts, so that economics do not prevent students from attending. We also offer low cost Saturday-morning family concerts, and “Symphony Sunday” as an annual performance that is completely free – that in addition to tickets to all our subscription concerts that begin at just $9 for adults, $5 for students and children. All these efforts grow out of a concern with being accessible to a broad spectrum of the public.
Classical music on public radio is certainly not elitist, because it’s available to everyone, free of charge, regardless of their ability or desire to pay. Of course, those with the means and the inclination are encouraged to contribute, but most do because they believe in what I just said – making great music available to everyone. So here in West Virginia, anyone with an FM radio, in their home, car, or workplace, can listen to classical music. Transmitters from Matewan to Martinsburg make it available. That is anything but elitist.
“OK, but is it relevant?” we are sometimes asked.
I think each person has their own definition of what is relevant to them, and for most of us, that is constantly changing, as we grow, learn, and add to our own life experiences. But there are certain things that seem to be universally relevant, at some time, to all of us, throughout human history. We all are born, have our growing pains, fall in love, and eventually die. Some of us are fortunate enough to experience life both as children, and as parents. We have our moments of celebration and of heartbreak, our triumphs and our tragedies. Anything that expresses human emotion and experience, and does it well, is going to continue to be relevant, as the years go by.
This is why Shakespeare is still relevant, even though we no longer speak English in quite the same way he did. For instance, what story of young love and sectarian hatred has ever been more relevant than Romeo and Juliet? What story of hubris and ill-fated machinations more perfectly stated and relevant than Macbeth?
In the same way, has anyone ever expressed a wish for universal peace more eloquently than Beethoven, in his 9th Symphony? Has a lonely, tormented soul ever spoken so plainly as in the music of Tchaikovsky?
The issues that moved these composers still face all of us as human beings today.
Music, of course, doesn’t have to be “about” anything, and thus we can still appreciate the awesome perfection and formal integrity of a Mozart Symphony or a Bach Fugue, even though these works have no extra-musical agenda at all. Even without a program, their music still speaks to the values and the humanity of its creators. It’s no surprise that music of Bach was sent beyond our solar system on the Voyager space probe, with the thought that someday, it might be heard by an alien civilization. I can think of nothing better to make a good first impression for the human race than this music.
To bring things back down to earth, anyone who thinks that classical music and classical music institutions are no longer relevant needs to consider the New York Philharmonic’s recent trip to North Korea. As the largest group of Americans to visit that country in over 50 years, the Philharmonic’s musicians made headlines around the world and showed once again how music can bridge serious divides between people and nations; divides of politics, ethnicity, and belief systems.
So what do people really mean, when they question the relevance of classical music and call it elitist? Snobbery on the part of some associated with classical music may be partially to blame. It seems human nature for folks to seize on one particular kind of music, decide it is for them, and to look down on all others. This goes on in all kinds of music, but classical musicians are often especially guilty of a certain intellectual snobbery when comparing classical music to other styles.
In my own view, there is nothing inherently “better” about classical music than rock, jazz, or Estonian folk music, for that matter. Compared to folk and popular music, which tend to be organized in a strophic way (the verse/chorus “song” structure we all know and love) classical music is certainly more formally complex, and in many cases more technically difficult to perform. But that doesn’t make it better – any more than heavy metal music that emphasizes really fast guitar playing and operatic singing (I really like that sort of thing, by the way!) is always “better” than simple folk music. Longer and harder to play does not necessarily make something better.
With that said, classical music represents an incredible tradition and some truly awesome expressions of the human spirit. A lot of it is really, really, good. There really is something to the cliché about music that “has stood the test of time.” There’s a reason we still play the works of Beethoven today, and in order to know it, you have to listen to the music. It would be a huge mistake for anyone to cut him or herself off from experiencing that, simply because they have been taken in by the unfortunate associations of classical music with wealthy snobs, or intellectual ones.
There is a form of populist snobbery, too, and I think those who criticize classical music on the radio are practicing it. If classical music makes you uncomfortable, by all means, don’t listen to it, but keep in mind that there are plenty of other outlets available, if your preference is for country or mainstream rock or other more commercially successful forms of music. Why would you want to deny people the one outlet on the radio dial that provides an alternative? Wouldn’t that represent a certain tyranny of the mass market – a cultural elitism, if you will?
I would caution anyone about making assumptions about what is valuable or relevant to others – certainly not about what is valuable or relevant to an entire state, like West Virginia. As I noted earlier, each person can and will define relevance for themselves. Having a wide range of programming available, in our concert halls, on our radio dials, on the internet, and on the television, allows each of us to explore and grow in our own way. That opportunity is not there if we let the less commercial arts get stamped out. Public broadcasting has always courageously stood in the path of mass market homogenization.
Together, symphony orchestras and public radio stations play an important role, by making classical music widely available so that everyone has the opportunity to participate. That’s not elitist – it’s populist, and humanist, in the best senses of both words.
West Virginia Symphony Orchestra