Classical music doesn’t deserve its reputation

Classical music has seen better days. As a proud lover of this genre, I have had to defend it against some criticism here at Swarthmore. Students have remarked to me that classical music is “elitist” and, accordingly, not worth their time. I’m going to discuss the origins of this unfair characterization and push back against it. Let’s confront a false stereotype about classical music: that it is elitist, exclusive and, worst of all, snobbish. I’ve identified five main sources for this misconception, two of them aspects of music history, two of them missteps of modern times and one of them a mistaken thought process.

The best-known source of the elitist label is probably that classical music did have an aristocratic period in its history. In the 18th century, most composers wrote music for an upper-class audience, because this was the only group that had the resources to commission work. The sole reliable way a composer could achieve financial stability was through the graces of a noble or prince. It was common for musicians to earn most of their money tutoring nobles and their children. There were some opera houses and concert halls for “common folk,” but these produced little revenue and seldom could a composer depend on them for income.  There is a reasonable argument to be made that prior to the 19th century, classical music was mostly an aristocratic taste.

But the French Revolution and the waves of change that swept through Europe in the following years robbed the aristocracy of a monopoly on the arts. Romanticism, which championed individualism and love of life, exploded onto the music scene. Composers sought to break away from the platitudes of court culture, which bored and constrained them. These transformations are best embodied in the thunderous person of Beethoven, who flourished during the Napoleonic years and after.

Despite the fact that Beethoven spent most of his career living off of upper-class stipends, he did not hide his contempt for this system and the gentry.  Beethoven avidly read Enlightenment texts and was an enthusiastic advocate of the ideals of the French Revolution. The composer was personally wounded by Napoleon’s decision to crown himself Emperor of the French in 1804. Beethoven refused to be hampered by the musical standards that came with patronage. He was not intimidated by elites and cared little for refined etiquette; after several clashes, his longtime patron exempted him from the normal formalities of court.  Beethoven sought to “emancipate” music, to break its classist chains. His famous Ninth Symphony is addressed to the entire world, lifting its listeners to a cosmic equality: “All men shall become brothers … every creature drinks in joy at nature’s breast.” These are not the words of an elitist snob. Indeed, as the nineteenth century progressed, fewer composers depended on noble patronage as their primary source of income, and following the collapse of European monarchies in the early 20th century, such patronage ceased to be a factor in composers’ lives.

The second source of the misconception comes from some composers themselves, particularly those of the 20th century. Atonality, twelve-tone technique and serialism alienated listeners, who found the strange modulations and dissonant chords unsavory. Much of the music’s popularity in the 19th century rested on the continual flow of new works from energetic composers. After World War I — at least in Western Europe and the United States — fewer and fewer new pieces achieved the kind of appeal that romantic pieces had. Many composers stopped trying to engage the public; some came to view “populism” as a betrayal of artistic integrity. In a controversial 1958 article titled “Who Cares If You Listen?” the American composer Milton Babbitt declares that writers of “serious music” should completely ignore audiences, targeting instead “fellow professionals” or even just writing for themselves. It’s not hard to see why people lost interest in contemporary music.

This is still reflected in today’s concert programs. For the past 15 years, the League of American Orchestras has compiled lists of the most frequently performed composers and compositions in American concert halls. The information is striking: in the 2010-2011 season, only two of the top 10 most-performed composers were modernists, and nine of the top 10 most-performed pieces were written in the nineteenth century. That most modernists aren’t popular doesn’t mean that their work is of poor quality, but rather that the public views it as opaque, academic and unapproachable. This manifests in “popular” film scores — the most exposure many people get to orchestral music — which usually derive from a late-romantic, Wagnerian style. On the whole, the 20th century did not help classical music keep up a positive image.

The third origin of the elitist illusion is the etiquette of modern concertgoers. These days, audiences are expected to sit in complete silence, wordlessly enthralled in intellectual rapture. But it hasn’t always been this uptight: in the 19th century, concerts were more animated. People would clap in between movements or even in between passages of movements, something frowned upon by today’s audiences. The premiere of a new work or an exciting rendition of an existing one could be a very rambunctious affair. Some performers were veritable rock stars, like Liszt or Rubinstein, whose recitals would be met with swoons and wild cheers; people would ask for five, six or seven encores, and sometimes crowded around the performer to watch in awe. The music itself does not demand the silence of contemporary audiences.

A fourth issue lies in the way music classes are taught. At least from what I’ve seen, people who might otherwise enjoy classical music are distanced from it by being lectured that “you must learn how to listen” to the music. A trained ear is necessary to understand the technical complexity of a piece. But a person does not need a trained ear to enjoy the piece for its emotional quality or spiritual depth. A person who can’t read any notes can still be lifted by Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony or moved by Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos. All too often, classes portray the music as only being enjoyable if it’s somehow “unlocked” through a new way to listen. Turning “music appreciation” into a discipline with exams makes the music intimidating and remote, a chore rather than a pleasure. There is nothing wrong with exploring the structure of music or teaching music history, but these classes must also be clear that the music has a life beyond its technical architecture.

Finally, let’s examine the refrain I’ve encountered at Swarthmore that classical music is by “dead white men.” I’ll take this word by word.

I don’t see how an artist being dead should dampen interest. Most artists in the repertoire are dead, because people die.  Shakespeare is also dead, but this hasn’t been a problem for his reputation.

Next, the fact that classical music is supposedly “white.” Yes, most composers have been white, because theirs is a European art form. But this is a lazy and simplistic way of thinking about musicians and their work. The whiteness stereotype can be traced in part to Hitler’s affinity for Wagner, but the tastes of one violent racist for another should not taint the genre as a whole. Moreover, I don’t understand how orchestral or chamber music can be assigned a race. Unless there are words or the piece is programmatic, classical music is inherently abstract. And this abstract music appeals to deep emotional streams that run within us regardless of race. Orchestras worldwide play Beethoven and Brahms, from Japan to China to India to Brazil. That Beethoven and Brahms were white Germans doesn’t seem to get in the way. Their music is universal. Lumping composers together because they had white skin is missing the point.

That most composers were men is similarly moot. Mahler’s symphonies don’t distinguish between male and female listeners. That aside, music history is not a black-and-white story of repressive misogynies. Many male composers and teachers have championed women; Shostakovich trained a good number of the female composers active in Russia today. And although most popular composers were men, classical music has still enjoyed the talents of gifted women. Clara Schumann is perhaps the most famous of these, but Fanny Mendelssohn, Nadia Boulanger, Imogen Holst, Sofia Gubaidulina, Augusta Read Thomas and many others have made substantial contributions to the repertoire. Female performers are among the best alive today, especially the violinist Anne Sophie-Mutter, the pianist Cécile Ousset and the conductor Marin Alsop. Attaching a gender to music accomplishes little and is a distraction from the common appeal of beauty and emotion.

I have loved and always will love classical music. I understand if you don’t like the genre because it doesn’t appeal to you stylistically. But if you don’t like it because you think it’s elitist or snobbish, I urge you to reconsider this assumption. It’s a wealth of beauty there for you to explore. It’s music for everybody — look at it Beethoven’s way: “Be embraced, you millions! This kiss is for the whole world!”


  1. Classical music is not appreciated today because it is real art, as opposed to the empty aural calories of pop/country/rock music. It takes skill to learn to read music and play it accurately and sensitively. Most rock/country/pop entertainers can’t read music. They can play three chords on a guitar; and if another key is required for their mediocre singing, they just use a capo. Much of the time, someone else throws together something they think the entertainer can participate in while gyrating his/her hips.

    Schubert, Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven: they had genius. They found a way to make harmonies, melodies, and combinations thereof that elicit deep feelings from the listener. That is why we return to them again and again in our personal listening and in public performances.

    Anything that is truly great usually requires some work. You’ll love opera if you take time to read the libretto, read a little about opera itself, and learn just how difficult it is to really sing at the level modern opera performers sing. It’s the same thing about a Beethoven piano sonata. There are many layers of appreciating such a work. Those who don’t know a lot about music can really enjoy it. The more one understands, the deeper one’s appreciation goes.

    With Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift, the music is simple, stupid, and insipid. A real musician hears it one time and can predict where the 2-1/2 minute song is going. They lyrics are unbearably stupid when compared with Schiller’s poem referenced in the above editorial. The words to their songs are about 6th-grade level (and that’s insulting to some 6th graders).

    It’s dumb music for children; and unfortunately, that’s the level where most Americans feel comfortable.

    • The whole purpose of the article was to dispel the myth of classical music being elitist – and yet there you go, denigrating all of its non-listeners in the most supercilious way possible.

  2. “Atonality, twelve-tone technique and serialism alienated listeners, who found the strange modulations and dissonant chords unsavory.”

    What “modulations”, strange or otherwise, are you talking about?

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