Classical Music and Mr Hole

Yet again the notion that classical music is elitist is in the papers, this time it’s The Independent (  The wonderfully named ‘Mr Hole’—or to use his even more outrageous real name ‘Max Hole’—assures the British public that classical music suffers commercially because of its elitism. He’s dead right, but he argues that this is a bad thing. Great things are elitist by their very nature. While the word ‘elite’ may seem to connote some kind of self-selecting and privileged group, in music it ought evoke a truer meaning of ‘choice’ or ‘excellent’; from the Latin ‘eligere’, to elect. In other words, something has been assessed and deemed to be excellent. In Aristotelean philosophy this is seen as a good thing. However, Aristotle clarifies that knowledge of something presupposes analysis of it, not merely a casual encounter. In short, in order for something to be assessed and set aside as excellent, it must first be understood. Understanding music, particularly art music (which is what I take Mr Hole to mean when he says ‘Classical music’) takes specialist knowledge, just as performing it takes specialised skills. In order to fulfil the dreams of commercial success that Mr Hole deems to be the ultimate goal of music, the ‘excellence’ of these important aspects of music making must be removed—or so we are told.

In making this fuss, Mr Hole, rather handily, creates a straw man to serve as a warning to his audience. The straw man is the ‘traditionalist’. Here, Mr Hole can present any person who wishes to foster, teach and maintain standards of excellence as some kind of old-fashioned fuddy-duddy who is stuck in the past and uninterested in all glittering glories of modern life. It’s nonsense, of course, but logic and honesty will never get in the way of ambitious businessmen like Mr Hole (or hacks at The Indy, it seems). The great worry, the article further warns, is that these ‘traditionalists’ will ‘hinder growth’.  As Roger Scruton wrote a few years ago, [I’m paraphrasing] ‘music is no longer something you do, it’s now something you consume’; and this emphasis on consumer culture is at the centre of Mr Hole’s apocalyptic warnings and also of his vision of an Arcadian paradise, nearly within our grasp, where ‘music will be consumed on a scale unthinkable only a few years ago’.

The next bit in the article reflects one of the real shames of the current situation and of the article; that is the assumption that the reason for the decline of classical music sales and audience figures is that it is presented (or presents itself) as ‘elitist’. This is precisely what is good about so much of it—we are keen to hear the best, the select who have achieved a special mastery of their craft. Classical music, Mr Hole urges, needs to attract “people like me who would engage in classical music if they didn’t feel it was elitist or forbidding”. It hadn’t occurred to him that the reason that some people cannot or will not engage in classical music is because they don’t understand it. Imagine, for a moment, that Mr Hole was speaking to a society or club devoted to French literature. Imagine that he warned them that both their interest in older works and their devotion to writing new works in the French language was excluding those poor souls who—for some inexplicable reason—couldn’t, for the life of them, understand French. The answer is actually easy. If you want to understand and enjoy French, you have to learn French. If you want to understand and enjoy music, you have to learn music. This brings us back to Aristotle. For him, in order for a gold assayer to know and recognise fake gold, he first needs to know real gold and compare the two—and that ‘knowing’ presupposes analysis of the materials in question.

In my work as a university lecturer I am lucky and amazed to see the work done at schools across the UK. When potential students arrive for interviews and auditions they often have rich and varied experiences of performing, composing, arranging and studying music. The people that make this happen are the teachers—and these teachers know real gold from fake.


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