Classical Music and the Working Class

In my last post on Iannis Xenakis I wrote,

the city of Toronto should continue to spend tax payer dollars on subsidizing the TSO’s activities and should in fact increase their support to reduce the need for corporate sponsorship. I do not agree with those on the Left who would argue that classical music was not, is not and cannot be working class music, and think that the increasing level of alienation that some sections of the working class feels towards classical music has partly been due to the deliberate production of class differences within the sphere of cultural production through the dismantling of rigorous arts education in public schools, the pricing of tickets because of corporate sponsorship and lack of government patronage etc, but this is a topic for another post.

I would like to pursue this topic and discuss it more thoroughly and why I think that a revolutionary politics should be interested in contemporary avant-garde classical music,  although of course this is not a final word on any of these matters. I would like to start by agreeing that there indeed exists a snobbishness that often pervades Euro-American classical, contemporary or otherwise, music audiences and venues in North America (I will not repeat this term again in this post but I would like my audience to note that all of my comments are simply supposed to reflect generalized trends applicable only to North America as I am sure that other places in the world have very different relations to Euro-American classical music and their own national classical musics and am not familiar with these relationships). Also, I agree that any distinction between “high” and “low” culture is unnecessary and elitist, although I think that we need to still distinguish between “art” and “entertainment” (more on this later, but for now I would like to make it clear that “art” and “entertainment” do not simply map onto “high” and “low” culture and are thus not synonyms). Furthermore, it is not controversial to argue that classical music audiences tend to be older and more affluent people. Additionally, concerts do tend to be predominately white, although a large section of the audience are also racialized. However, I do not think that this means that classical music can be simply dismissed as being the music of “dead white rich men”. I offer one last prefatory comment in which I would like to remind my audience that many notable works of classical music have entered into general musical circulation such as Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, Pachelberl’s “Canon in D Major” (American seniors probably best know it as the “graduation song”), and a wide variety of other compositions by Beethoven, Mozart etc. This cross-genre influence has continued into the 20th and 21st century with famous directors like Stanley Kubrick using compositions by Ligeti, Bartok and Penderecki in their films. People may not know the names of either the composer or the composition, but are more than happy and capable to hum a few bars.

It has become commonplace by many in the culture industry to establish a firm boundary between “high” and “low” culture, and “art” and “entertainment”. Furthermore, all of these terms are heavily loaded as “high” culture and “art” have become synonymous with one another and signify to potential audiences that what is forthcoming will likely be boring, dull and upper-class (economic category), whereas “low” culture and “entertainment” is fun, exciting and “working class” (economic category). I would like to suggest that there is little necessarily in common between “high” culture and “art”, and “low” culture and “entertainment”. Indeed, music like hip-hop can easily straddle both categories, “art” and “entertainment” (and in the hands of rappers like 2Pac able to effectively bridge the divide between “art” and “entertainment”, a binary that is by no means stable) regardless of its supposed categorization as “low” culture, as can classical music (how can we forget Bartok’s use of themes from popular folk melodies in his own compositions. It is indeed interesting how the distinction between “art” and “entertainment” is not sustained in most layperson discussions of classical music and there exists the basic assumption that classical music and “art” themselves were synonymous terms, and that there did not exist classical music that is simply entertaining and would not be considered art, which of course is not true).

Now I know that there may be some who bristle at the argument that classical music is also working class music from both left-wing and right-wing perspectives. Those on the right try to use the reified notions of “high” culture as a means by which to disparage any working class influence or input into classical music and would likely argue that the working classes need to emerge from their gutters and understand classical music if to better themselves (a typical Fabian argument) or that the working classes simply were incapable of understanding/interpreting working class muci. Whereas, the left-wing argument either pivots on a similar distancing of classical music from working class culture (a way by which to allow for the insidious valorization of “entertainment” as being the entirety of working class culture, which is in fact a great disservice to the working classes as it attempts to hide and disown their own historical accomplishments. Indeed, I would suggest such leftists are actually in fact doing the work of the ruling classes by reifying certain elitist stereotypes of the working class and its capacity for “mental” labor) or argue that classical music may have been working class, but no longer remains so. I do not wish to provide little historical biographies of composers throughout the ages who have been from the working classes, nor do I want to provide historical statistics of the attendance of the working classes at concert halls for classical music as both are not controversial facts and can be easily verified by a cursory wikipedia search. Rather, I wish to address the second aspect of the leftist argument that classical music may have been working class culture in the past, but since the 20th century has ceased to be working class music.

It cannot be denied that the working classes have slowly ceased to be the large sections of classical music audiences. This has to do in part with changes in tastes, which itself is the result of a changing social formations (including as I mentioned earlier the active dismantling of rigorous arts education in public schools due to smaller school budgets which thus robs children a system of reference by which to enjoy classical music unless their parents provide it for them, many of whom have similarly been stripped of such an education) and the time and attention one has to listen to a given piece (this of course has to do with the relationship between the pressures of the working day and the need to fill ‘downtime’ with mindless ‘entertainment’), but also due to the elitism that has pervaded classical music in the 20th century. Greater experimentation to the form and content of classical music itself has engendered an elitism, especially due to the fact that for many the system of reference has been destroyed for most due to a sub-par arts education curriculum thus rendering any such experimentation completely alien (it must be noted that large sections of the ruling classes, who engage in much of the snobbery, themselves have attacked these developments and have decried contemporary classical music as not “music” and would prefer to simply listen to romantic music till the end of time). The most famous case of course has been the alienation caused by atonal, twelve-tone, aleatory etc. music, although again one cannot but deny the crossover, for example the influence of Steve Reich’s minimalist compositions on popular post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Furthermore, we must ask whether simply being experimental and avant-garde (which is simply the French phrase for vanguard – something that all Leftists, consciously or unconsciously, are trying to build) is anti-working class, or is it like Marxism, something that has been maligned, misunderstood etc and that requires a rebuilding of “capacity” in the working class and a rebuilding of the working class itself (both in their own systems of reference, but also the reconstruction of a working class life that gives one time to actually listen to 15 minute movements etc. In the last few years the “slow food” movement has tried to do something similar with food production and consumption). I answer a loud and resounding “NO!” to the first question, and “YES!” to the latter. We must remember that the role of any revolutionary project is to break down the division between “mental” and “manual” labor and thus, the working classes must be allowed the opportunities to actually engage in “mental” labor. The conventional Marxist argument has been that the “mental” labor of the working classes must be in the factories, so workers should be allowed greater input in the production process, however, I think that the working classes should also be given the capacity and time to “mentally” labor over art itself and that includes contemporary classical music. Does that mean that the working classes have to love aleatory contemporary classical music? No. But the reason for their dislike cannot, and should not, simply be that they have been told by the ruling classes that this music is not for them and that they should leave such art criticism to some stuffy old man with a PhD.


4 thoughts on “Classical Music and the Working Class

  1. Great post… Although I find watching the performance of classical music rather tedious, that has to do with my own tastes which I would never ascribe (as some do) to a political position that favours “low” over “high” art, thus aping a distinction foisted upon us by elite cultural gatekeepers. (Then again, maybe because I’m getting lazy, I’m starting to find all live performances tedious.) And it’s these gatekeepers, along with the corporate music industry that controls popular radio, that are responsible for this distinction.

    Sometimes I think the logic that causes some well-meaning comrades to favour “low” over “high” art, thus simply reversing the polarity of the distinction made by the gatekeepers, is the same logic used by culturalists surrounding the question of Eurocentrism: rather than realize that the whole Europe/Other distinction is itself a bloody ruling class joke (because Europe was constructed after modern colonialism and foisted backwards unto an imaginary past), they simply accept the already value-laden distinction but reverse the evaluation.

    Generally the issue, as you seem to be suggesting, has to do with the left’s inability to understand cultural production from the point of production itself… we often make our political questions about consumption – who likes this right now, who doesn’t like this right now – rather than examining the concrete forces that produce our very context of consumption. The fact that so-called “high” art is kept “high” because it is accessible to only those with privilege is telling.

  2. Wonderful post! I can’t add very much to what JMP said, except that I enjoy Classical performances and recordings very much.

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