The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

Classical Music: The Endgame?

  10th April 2024

10th April 2024

A recent visit to the London Coliseum brought home the scale of the challenge facing opera, not just at the home of the troubled English National Opera, but more generally – and, indeed, classical music more widely. What seemed to be a fairly respectable attandance was revealed – on a glance upwards to the upper circle and balcony – to be only half a house: the upper levels were completely empty, having been effectively closed from sale. And this on a Saturday evening! There was a time (in the 1970s and 80s) when Janáček’s Jenůfa would have been a real draw for audiences. Now – presumably on the grounds that it's better to play to a near-full half-house than a sparsely populated whole house – it's relegated to a kind of operatic second division.

What I witnessed is just one symptom of a wider malaise: opera houses and concert halls are struggling to attract an increasingly ageing audience. Companies are closing or going part-time, while acoustically acclaimed venues like the Fairfield Hall in Croydon, south London, are now used more often as a recording venue than for classical concerts, or ruinously transformed to accommodate more popular genres. Even in mainland Europe, where levels of state subsidy are typically much higher than in Britain (let alone the US), once unthinkable questions are being asked about society’s support for art forms often perceived to be elitist. The numerous German broadcasters and opera houses are under scrutiny as never before, from an electorate far more diverse (and, very often, polarised) than in the past.

Collegiate and church choirs face new challenges: funds are being diverted away from music, with some ensembles facing disbandment, loss of professional status, and recruitment difficulties. In Britain and elsewhere, the status of arts and humanities courses in higher education is being questioned by those who pull the purse strings; academic music departments face loss of funding and even closure, meaning far fewer opportunities for those who wish to study the subject but don’t necessarily want to pursue a performing career. (Funding for music colleges is, for now, holding up.)

At the same time, as reported here recently, successful independent record labels are being acquired by larger companies, where they may or may not retain a level of independence and distinctive identity. Fewer new serious classical recordings are being issued by the big hitters like Universal, Warner Classics and Sony, which increasingly rely on bumper box sets and crossover genres (soft-focus soundtracks and concept albums with less and less classical content). Even the release schedules of many smaller independents seem to be shrinking, although the quality and variety is as high as ever. Staples of the airwaves like BBC Radio 4’s ‘Desert Island Discs’, where celebrities’ castaway choices were once chiefly classical, now overwhelmingly feature more popular types of music – rock, pop, hip-hop, musicals, etc.

Is this, then, the endgame for classical music predicted (some decades ago now) by some of the business’s more sensationalist commentators? There are those who think it is. Certainly this is an unusually challenging time for those who work in or simply love music. We have written before about the need for articulate champions of the classics, and many performers have become ardent and eloquent advocates in recent years. But something more is needed: a concerted push by those who make up music’s audiences to save it: not preserved in aspic, harking back to some ‘golden age’, but urging the powers that be not to make the cuts from which the genre may never recover. Politicians tend to listen to older voters of the sort that form classical music’s most committed supporteers. They are more likely to turn out and vote in the many worldwide elections that take place this year. We can make those votes count if we question and challenge political candidates on their plans for the arts. Last year’s campaign to save the BBC Singers demonstrated that the voices of the many can save those of the few.

Beyond that, however, we can communicate our love of music to others: to family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. If every music lover made it their task to introduce just a few people to the joys of classical music, to its infinite delights and possibilities, then the potential audience for broadcasts, recordings and performances could easily more than double. Younger listeners will be the audiences of tomorrow. At the same time, we need to embrace the fact that music is a dynamic artform, one that has changed over the decades and centuries and will (hopefully) continue to do so. Instead of always going misty-eyed over the composers, performers and recordings of the past, we need to support those who are bringing change and new opportunities to the genre, whether in community opera, car park performances or more conventional venues. Performance formats may change, audience behaviour may become more relaxed, but as long as good music is performed to a high standard and with commitment, there’s a cause for optimism.

So go forth and spread the word! Or, as the slogan goes, ‘give the gift of music’! For those who value music in our lives, it’s a cause worth actively championing with a positive attitude. Spring has sprung: let’s make it count.

Illustration: Frans Francken II - Der geigende Tod (Death Playing the Violin, c.1625)

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