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Is Classical Music Really Guilty of Snobbery?

by Olin Chism 4 Jun 2009 3:12 PM

The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is now mostly a night affair, at least until the weekend’s afternoon sessions. This leaves more time to take in some of the extracurricular activities surrounding the competition. Two recent events tied in to each other, though this was entirely by coincidence. One was the showing on Wednesday afternoon […]


The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is now mostly a night affair, at least until the weekend’s afternoon sessions. This leaves more time to take in some of the extracurricular activities surrounding the competition.

Two recent events tied in to each other, though this was entirely by coincidence. One was the showing on Wednesday afternoon of Peter Rosen’s documentary The Golden Age of the Piano. The other was the press symposium on Thursday morning.

At the symposium a viewer’s e-mail brought up the subject of snobbery and its effect on the acceptance of classical music by the masses.

Is there snobbery in classical music? I know that there is a widespread belief among non-concert-goers that there is. I once had a reader tell me that he never went to concerts because he refused to conform to the dress code.

I wasn’t aware that there was a dress code, though it is true that evening concert-goers tend to dress up a little. I’ve been to performances of organizations as internationally prominent as the Berlin Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera in which a significant portion of the audience was casually dressed, and no one gave it a thought.

Probably the most amusing contrast of formal and casual dress occurs at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. The audience is mostly black-tie, but members of the orchestra, because they are completely hidden from the audience, dress comfortably and casually. While the formally dressed audience is shedding a tear over Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde, deep underneath the stage the violinists and horn players are playing in T-shirts, blue jeans, jogging shoes and other un-Wagnerian attire. A Bayreuth staff member told me that the conductor dresses that way, too. But as soon as the performance is over, he rushes to his dressing room to change into something a little less shocking to the audience before he goes upstairs to take his bows.

The behavior of prominent artists tends to belie the idea that they are snobs. Over a long career I have interviewed hundreds of musicians, and it’s hard to think of anyone who seemed a snob. One of the few exceptions I can think of was the British editor of an international scholarly publication. But he was so extreme it was like a caricature, and it was more amusing than annoying.

So where does the charge of snobbery come from? Maybe it’s the fact that symphony orchestras tend to dress formally for evening concerts. But I think there are other reasons.

This is where Peter Rosen’s The Golden Age of the Piano comes in. In the documentary he shows film clips of famous pianists from the early part of the 20th century. The audiences shown were distinctly upper class, all bejeweled and dressed to the nines (or is it the eights?). The artists themselves were godlike figures, one of them elevated on a platform, in a Busby Berkeley-like scene, while everybody listened in adoration. The truth is that in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, great artists had an elevated status and the movies and marketing departments played to that and one can see why ordinary people would think there was something hoity-toity about high art.

Speaking of hoity-toity, the traditional Cliburn Competition party on Tuesday night was anything but. In the past these have been at a ranch near Fort Worth (no one who saw it can forget that old cowhand Menahem Pressler astride a longhorn steer).

This time it was in the Texas section of the Fort Worth zoo, with a horny toad and a pet armadillo and other live creatures providing Texas atmosphere while a country-and-western band played, dancers danced, and barbecue and beans were served.

Pressler, one of the Cliburn judges and an internationally renowned musician, was there, though he suppressed his cowboy instincts this time. Many of the other judges as well as contestants were there, obviously having a good time.

This is one of the things Fort Worth does so well. Is there any wonder that Cliburn contestants tend to go away loving the city?

  • Alan

    I don’t think the music is inherently snobby, although it often requires a bit more attention to absorb. But I agree that the scene around the music can often get a bit over the top, and it doesn’t help that concerts, recitals and other events are still marketed in some circles as being elite, upper-crust types of affairs.

    The Dallas Symphony and FW Opera seem to be among groups nationwide who have done a lot to try and shatter that myth, the DSO through its casual and parks concerts and the FW Opera through its overall marketing strategy.

  • Stephen Becker

    Sometimes I wonder if the problem is more that people who are unfamiliar with classical are kind of scared of it? I’ve definitely talked to people before who have been worried when going to the symphony that they will some how “mess up” by not knowing the lay of the land – clapping at the wrong time, etc. I don’t think they mind the fancy dress, per se, but it can be sort of intimidating if you don’t feel that you are already of that culture.
    The irony, I think, is that as the price of big arena rock shows rises ($150 for Clapton at the AAC anyone?), classical is becoming MORE accessible than pop.

  • Rawlins Gilliland

    People in this century who decry the ‘snobery ‘ of any ‘dress code’ in a venue are showing one of two things; their own snobbery, …reverse or otherwise…. and/or their own insecurity. This kind of ‘protest’ is about as modern as a Nixon-Agnew campaign button considering that dress codes…. even ‘black tie’ ….has become so subjective that anything short of nudity is commonly seen, whatever the venue. Bottom line, if anyone in 2009 feels that any event’s perceived or actual ‘dress code’ is their cause de resistance, he or she doth protest too much.

  • Bill Marvel

    Beneath the charge of snobbery is that ancient American disdain for anything “intellectual’ or smacking of “elitism.” While a lot of classical music was composed for the salon and drawing room, a lot of it was performed in coffee houses and the equivalent of piano bars and auditoriums. It was middle-class music.

  • Erk

    This is a topic that has been on my mind quite a bit. I have learned to appreciate classical music almost independent of any outside influence or “scene”. Consequently, I have very little knowledge of the correct forms and etiquette. On YouTube I find a lot of snobbery. Watch what happens when some uncultured barbarian says “I love that song, he plays with such emotion!!”, when speaking of Clair De Lune, the William Tell Overture, or a performance by Evgeny Kissin. The elite immediately jump on that person, calling them an idiot etc for not knowing the correct term. Then they proceed to say why the “playing with emotion” is not necessary, is all for show and anyway he missed a note at 3:09 as well as three bars from the end. As if it matters. In general, its an understandable urge to get a little frustrated with newbies but this does a lot of damage and fuels the elitist stereotype. So folks, please refrain from looking down on those with less of a background in classical music and instead offer helpful suggestions and encouragement. Thanks!