Is Classical Music Elitist? Part One

I have been very happy to see articles about classical music show up recently in publications that appeal to more readers than the small subculture of arts aficionados. A couple of months ago, I responded to news reports about the controversy regarding music theory and analysis covered by news outlets such as the Dallas Observer, National Review, and NPR. (See “Is Music Theory Racist?”) In this series of posts, I am responding to articles I have seen show up in such diverse publications as Slate, Vox, and The Bulwark which make the claim that classical music is, or is not, elitist. (Links are to articles relevant to this discussion.)

I want to point out that all the links above are to opinion pieces. And, likewise, what I present below is my personal opinion, based on my first-hand experience. However, I believe that my personal experience provides a unique perspective. Unlike many classical musicians, I am not purely trained in classical music. My training spans classical, jazz, and musical theater, and my professional work does not primarily involve other classical musicians; I mainly work in a community setting, with music-loving amateurs. My perspective comes from both my education and my work.

In short, my answer to the question, “Is classical music elitist?” is: yes and no. Elitism has to do with restricting access to certain people. Classical music is not inherently elitist, but the culture surrounding it has been. Does it have to be? Absolutely not!

Part 1

I’ve been playing the piano since I was three years old, which now brings me to over forty years of playing. Until I was thirteen, I had a strictly classical training; at that point, I got sick of it and switched over to jazz. At the point that I “quit” classical piano, I was playing advanced high-school/early college-level Beethoven and Mozart sonatas, as well as some of the more challenging Chopin waltzes. The first time I played a classical piano solo written by a woman was, oh, about two weeks ago.

I’ve been working on an educational project about musical form, for which I’ve been selecting some public-domain piano pieces to prepare and perform. The upcoming video is on the minuet and trio/scherzo and trio form. As I began to prepare this project, I pulled my handy collections of piano sonatas off the shelf, leafed through and found a few pieces. I quickly chose something by Haydn and something by Beethoven. As I prepared them, I began to feel that these two pieces were not enough. I needed something newer. As I began to seriously look for something unfamiliar to me, I hoped to be able to find a suitable piece written by a woman or a person of color. It also had to be in the public domain!

That’s hard to find, and part of the reason is that website searches are not set up for such criteria. Of course, I made use of the International Music Score Library Project. However, while I could search “Minuet” and “Scherzo” for solo piano, all I got for search results was a list of pieces with the last names of the composers. The listings did not include the composer’s date of birth, gender, or race. It would take me a very long time to research each composer in the list to find out that information! The best I could do was scan the list and see if there was any last name I recognized as belonging to a female. I found a piece: a Minuet by Cecile Chaminade. I was lucky I knew who she was, and that was only because I have attended a performance of her flute concertino. Otherwise, her name would also have been unknown to me.

When I printed out the piece and started practicing it, I started asking myself why I hadn’t been introduced to this piece earlier in my life. Why, as a young, relatively accomplished pianist – a female pianist at that – was I not introduced to the piano works of female composers? This piece by Chaminade is no more or less challenging or interesting than the Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin I was learning at age thirteen! It’s a super fun piece! (See this link for a description of the unfair criticism she faced as a female composer.) How much more motivation would I have had to continue in classical piano studies if I had had access to this work?

The author of the opinion piece in The Bulwark claims that classical music is not elitist because anyone, regardless of background, can be moved by classical music. Listening to and appreciating classical music does not require a certain education or cultural sensitivity. I do believe that is true; I think anyone with an open mind can appreciate classical music. But elitism is not about the music itself; it is about access. And access to classical music, and within the realm of classical music, has been cut-off to certain groups for quite some time, intentionally or not.

In high school, when I chose pieces to prepare for the state Solo-Ensemble Competition, I looked through the big, blue New York State School Music Association book of graded repertoire, listed according to instrumentation and difficulty. When I turned to the piano section, I came across the same standard last names: Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, even Gershwin. To my knowledge, no female composer was listed there. Back in those days, before the internet, it wasn’t easy to search uncommon names. The local library didn’t have it’s own copy of the New Grove Dictionary of Music.

Do musical girls need role models of female composers? Do students of color need role models of composers of color? That’s a resounding YES!

The fact that female composers (as well as composers of color) have been historically left out of the educational repertoire IS elitist. Those lists communicate who is, and is not, considered part of the club of legitimate composers. These things are beginning to change, thankfully, as more of the committees who design these repertoire lists actively attempt to include minority composers. But people like me, who grew up before this was considered important, have to work extra hard to intensively search for such material.

Let’s change things.

Let’s publish more music written by female composers and composers of color (I’m assigning myself a project here.) Let’s increase the amount of information provided about composers in searches (are you listening, IMSLP?) Let’s add more pieces composed by females and persons of color in the repertoire lists (and, yes, include the first names so we have a better idea of gender and race!) Let’s start appreciating the different qualities these unique perspectives bring to classical music. All these things increase the flow and accessibility of classical music, from composer to performer to audience.

Has classical music been elitist? YES. Does it have to be? NO!

(By the way, as I was creating the links for this post, the capitals I put on Cecile Chaminade’s name were automatically undone and when leaving out the capitals for Mozart and Beethoven, they were automatically put in!)

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