Classical music as a sign of social distinction?

Do you think that the classical music can be viewed as a sign of social distinction? The opening question will be left unseen by many people; the blog statistics might give me an answer by itself. This question might irritate the real classical music fans as for many people classical music is passion; it is a part of life style and for some even their purpose in life. However, let us think about it with a clear mind.

I would like to give you an introductory example. End of 2015 there was a heated debate in Munich about building a new concert hall to replace Gasteig, a relatively new (1985) cultural center with a philharmonic hall with an interesting wood seashell form but apparently poor acoustics. The government has been ruminating about the building plans for over decade. The classical music enthusiasts started their own initiative of collecting the “pro new music hall” signatures and got an approval from the government. The total investment costs for a new concert would be around 300 Mio Euro according to a leading German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. (A newly built Hamburg Elbe Philharmonic Hall is nearly 800 Mio Euro) A big victory for Munich concertgoers.

You do not need to study sociology to see that the audience of the philharmonic halls is mostly 65 plus. The journalist Christian Krügel describes the Munich cultural audience as very spoilt and highly demanding. They are expecting the best and hoping to see the innovations but there are hardly any experiments. According to him, the reason for this attitude is that there is more behind the real value of the art. There are personal interests of the small group of people who dominate the classical music landscape. Can you imagine all teenagers of Munich collecting signatures for a new arena for their pop and rock concerts? I am sure the reaction would be immediate: How can these young people expect that so much money be spent on their music! Perhaps we could express it in the language of Brexit. Similar to the results of “no to Brexit” of politically active population with 38% of votes in the age group 65 plus and 66% for “no” in the group 18 to 24 years, the small group of older generation overvoted the younger one.

How can it be possible? 300 Mio Euro is a huge amount of money. The alternative use of this amount of money might sound very idealistic: new schools with the new music instruments for everybody, highly trained educational specialists, new smaller concert venues, innovative locations, bigger budget for the cultural sponsoring, support for creative innovation projects. You name it. The arguments “pro” a new concert hall would be to build a new attraction in Munich city that would bring new tourists and new visitors and would surely be a point of distinction for Munich. This reasoning comes from a thought that classical music often serves as a sign for status and privilege. Julian Johnson writes in his book “Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Value” that the classical music has a very long and entrenched tradition of social distinction that it is very rooted in our society. The tradition of classical music comes from the Enlightment philosophical debates where it was a humanistic aspiration that the classical music would understand itself. It was seen as a way of self-expression and knowledge. I remember from my school years that our teachers were telling that Sergey Rachmaninov’s etude tableau in E-Flat minor was the depiction of the humanity and the composer was trying to show the human race in the noble light. Definitely very ambitious goal – surely the reason why it is fiendishly difficult to play too.

When one studies the history of classical music, one sees clearly that the classical music was searching for the distinction itself and it got it back from the small group whose goal is to find a social distinction through the classical music. A famous French philosopher Didier Eribon who comes from a poor family and faces hard times because of his homosexuality writes in his autobiography “Comeback to Reims” some thought-provoking lines about social distinction. “Interest in art is a question of upbringing. I had to learn it first. It was a part of my “re-upbringing” that I had to do for myself so that I could enter into a new social class and leave the old one behind. Interest in music, art or literature always lies in the revaluation of “self”, consciously or subconsciously. This revaluation leaves behind others who do not have access to it. It is a so-called social distinction, a difference between oneself and others whom one sees as not “belonging to the class” and lower in social standing. This superior feeling speaks from the subtle smile, body language, expert jargon, ostentatious wellbeing…This posturing has intimidated me but I did everything possible to become like these people who behaved with ease and to show them that I was born like this.”

The example of China is extremely eloquent. Millions of Chinese kids are learning piano to move along a social ladder. India has a musical education for the kids from rich families. The opposite was true in the Soviet culture where the government wanted to bring the excellent musical performance to all workers in factories. Svjatoslav Richter could tell many stories of his experiences playing literally everywhere. Surely, his refusal to play in the chosen venues would have put a stop to his career. But it is not the point I would like to make. Svjatoslav Richter played because he truly loved playing and it did not matter for him where to play and for whom to play. He played for the beauty of music.

The beauty of music cannot be measured in terms of social status or prestige. The true art has an ability to truly transcend itself where the music would transgress the borders and free itself from inhibitions put by the classical music managers, career-minded performers and prestige-seeking audience. Bach, Berlioz and Beethoven will continue being played and stay alive despite the age of the works and the number of times they were performed. The high ideals of romantic aesthetics will live on….