The Classical Effect


Rosie Davies asks some searching questions about how we view classical music in society.

6 January 2016

If you live in Glasgow, where the Scottish Ensemble office is based, it’s been hard not to follow the after-effects of The Glasgow Effect – an otherwise innocuous year-long artistic project conceived by Glasgow resident, artist and academic Ellie Harrison which takes its name from the nickname for the unexplained low life expectancy of people living in the Greater Glasgow area.

We won’t go into the details of the whole fiasco, mainly because you can find it documented on reputable news sites, but also because it’s not the details that have got us talking and thinking; it’s the basic premise behind it all. Whatever your response is or was to the idea, the fact that there was a response drums home the fact that artists are still seen as privileged, pretentious and out of touch with normal people, and art – especially more difficult, vague or conceptual art, the kind often interlinked with academia – is still seen as a plaything for privileged people. And – bold statement alert – we would argue that no art form suffers from this stigma so much as classical music.

Like the chips, but with violins. Clever, eh?

Scottish Ensemble is a classical music organisation which aims to bring music – specifically classical music – to as many people as possible who “might not otherwise get to experience it” (that’s from the first paragraph of our biography and we might sometimes put it in bold to really hammer it home, i.e. it’s very, very important that we’re not just playing classical music to people who’ve always been exposed to it and fallen in to listening to it with a graceful ease).

In theory this phrase could of course encapsulate an amateur cellist bringing their folk-loving husband to a concert in which we’re collaborating with a fiddler and introducing him that way – and, in practice, it does, which is great. But let’s be honest. Everyone knows what we mean by this, the groups of people we really want to reach – it’s the ones who are simply not able to access classical music from a young age, due to social and/or financial situation. I don’t know where people stand at the moment on the word class and whether we’re allowed to say that out loud, but we’re talking social class divisions here and the consequences that come from being lumped in one of them.

However, class immediately connotes money and this is where we start getting upset and confused. Can the stigma that classical music is only for people with fancy educations and lots of money – the completely undeniable stigma – be down to money alone?

I went to what anyone would call a ‘normal’ primary school and, for reasons I admittedly still do not understand (and should really research), got free violin lessons, on a school-lent violin, from the age of seven to about ten (again, memory is hazy). I happened to enjoy it, despite the neighbours regularly hammering on the shared wall in an aggressive plea for me to stop enjoying it. This meant I practised more than the other children in the class, who eventually dropped it in the same way I eventually dropped sports from my life altogether, and so I went on to choose music as a GCSE subject. Classical music became part of my life, because I was exposed to it, and I enjoyed it.

We can only imagine how delightful this must have sounded.

Of course, it was never going to become my whole life – like, becoming a professional violinist as a career choice – unless I somehow found the money for private lessons, music books, exams, new instruments and some sort of purchasable talent. To really dedicate yourself to an instrument costs a fortune. But isn’t this true of any hobby? Setting aside the fact that music lessons and instruments are both expensive, there must be something more than that; a perception that it’s not for you. If I’d been really keen on football (which, let’s face it, would have pleased my dad and neighbours more) I’d have needed money for new kit, a decent ball, the latest technologically-advanced boots that would set you apart from the others.

But with classical music, strangely, if you don’t go in to it 100% then it seems you kind of just… drop it. People who enjoyed football at school might still play with their friends at the weekend, get a season ticket for matches, the latest strip. They might meet their friends to watch the game. Their social life is based around it. So why doesn’t this happen – or, so less frequently – with classical music? Can it really only be that it’s perceived as elite?

When I was 14 I dragged my parents, not the other way round, to see Verdi’s Requiem at the Bridgewater Hall as my birthday present that year. A big, operatic, crowd-pleaser of a piece, granted, but I was a juicy tick-box in the audience analysis report of whatever orchestra was playing it at the time (I think it was the Halle, but it didn’t matter; I just really liked that piece of music) and, most likely, one of a handful of teenagers. I didn’t talk about it at school the next day, not only because none of my friends were interested, but also because I didn’t want to seem weird, or posh, or pretentious. When I went to a rock concert, to see some weird obscure band play in a dingy basement, I went with my friends and was happy with the implications. When I went to see a big band at an arena, I paid far more than my parents did for the Verdi tickets, and didn’t think twice.

Verdi: Requiem

Interestingly, European concert venues get a much higher number of young people attending classical concerts – and, properly attending, not being dragged by parents – because it’s more normal. Teenagers or children would be less likely to be picked on, less likely to be singled out as weirdly mature or snob by, for going to see a Mozart concerto, which they’ve learnt about at school in the same way they take P.E. lessons.

Of course, this is a highly simplified bit of rambling: I am well aware of the myriad other reasons that Mozart is not as popular amongst 15-year-old boys as Manchester United. But the accessibility thing? It’s not just about money. It’s about stigma and perception and it cuts people off from a whole form of music for the rest of their lives.

The nature of Ellie Harrison’s concept aside, the uproar about it shows that middle-class people are still embarrassed by ‘high art’ and what it symbolises. Until it becomes a normal thing, that people could and would plan their social lives around, we’re never going to get as many people as possible experiencing classical music, and that is sad, because it’s just music, and we need to do our absolute best to try to change this – even if that’s just one small step at a time.