8. The New Republic: The Stubborn Classism of Classical Music
I love classical music. I went to art camp beginning at age 10, and then attended a fine art boarding school for the last two years of high school, and that is where my love for the genre began. While the camp and high school are elitist and expensive (and very white), the relationship they fostered between their students in classical music is not. Almost half of all the students there study music, with the majority of those focusing on classical music.
My interest in classical music began with supporting my friends. I would leave my visual arts studio classes covered in plaster and go to my friends’ chamber music recitals or operettas. I got bored doing my homework and would watch the final round of auditions for the concerto competition. One summer, when teaching at the camp, I got out of class early and happened to run into some friends on their way to a Nathan and Julie Gunn master class and joined. I continued to consume classical music in this way when I lived in Baltimore. At MICA, I got an internship at Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and would frequently attend concerts. I used to live a block away from the Peabody Conservatory and would stumble into those performances as well—often running into friends I went to summer camp or high school with.
My relationship to classical music is casual. I was fortunate enough to have access to elite institutions from a young age to develop this kind of relationship with classical music. But I also sense a lot of confusion from people for my relationship with classical music. When (mostly white) people hear me listening to or speaking about classical music, they are often shocked and amazed at my knowledge of the subject matter (especially because I don’t play an instrument) or at my presence in what they perceive as their space. When this happens, when I get almost belligerent questions on how I know what I know and why I am where I am, I hold off on saying the magic phrase for as long as possible, knowing that only after I say it will their hostility be subdued. After they have exhausted themselves with their own frustration and biases I finally say it: “I went to Interlochen.” I can see the tension leave their bodies, but this only happens after they learn I attended prestigious institutions for young musicians and artists in the country.
It is well known that classical music, as with many cultural sectors, has a racial and gender diversity problem, but what is less frequently discussed is how this intersects with class. Historically, western classical music “has relied on monarchs, aristocrats, and wealthy patrons even to exist. We have Haydn because of a prince, Mozart and Beethoven because of a baron, Stravinsky and Copland because of an heiress, and Wagner because of a king… Philanthropists, corporations, and trusts have displaced the kings and barons of yore, but as givers of grants and commissions, they might as well wear a crown,” explains Robert Jackson Wood. He goes on to discuss the history of classical music, particularly in the United States, writing that “prior to the Gilded Age, classical music in this country enjoyed a comparatively democratic existence, performed alongside jugglers and vaudeville tunes in raucous theaters filled with every stratum of society. Italian opera was performed in accessible English. Sex workers solicited business in the balconies. Beer was served.” Many of the rituals around classical music—“formal dress codes and arcane concert rituals—no clapping between movements, no shifting in your seat”—were developed in the mid-19th century as a way of “seeking heightened status by associating with the Continental elite, [as] New York’s newly wealthy industrialists began to prefer their operas in their original and ‘sophisticated’ European languages and with fewer interruptions from the lower-class rabble.”
The beauty of this article is that it is a critique of the whole ecosystem of classical music: the composers, the musicians, the musical directors, the institutions, and maybe most critically its critics. Wood not only goes over the history of classism in classical music, but also how many of its critics today do not treat class as central to the field’s reckoning with race and diversity. Thus, Wood argues that “The issue, then, isn’t anti-racism and diversity per se so much as what happens when those frameworks are sloppily conflated with other issues and allowed to dominate our critical interventions—to say nothing of our politics—at the expense of more comprehensive and structurally rooted visions of equality.” Although Wood’s analysis is in an intersectional lens, in critiquing a critique, the primary metric of diversity here is race—which is major—but other forms of diversity, such as gender, must also be addressed.