Is Classical Music Elitist? Part Two

This post is a continuation of “Is Classical Music Elitist?”. To see my introduction and read Part 1, click here.

Part Two

Let’s talk about names.

One of the recent controversies to hit the news regarding classical music is in regard to how we name composers in concert programs and wherever else classical composers are discussed. In this article in Slate, Chris White, an assistant professor of Music Theory at UMass Amherst, makes the claim that leaving out the first names of well-known composers while providing the full names of lesser-known composers is racist and sexist, and thus elitist. Daniel Lelchuck, Assistant Principal Cellist in the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and host of the Talking Beats podcast, says “insisting on full names for everyone seem a little pretentious, annoying, tedious, and dare I say . . . elitist?” You can read his comments in The Bulwark here and in Quillete here.

As I said in my previous post regarding the elitism associated with classical music, I do not believe the music itself is elitist. However, I do think the culture surrounding classical music has been. On this particular point regarding composers’ names, I’m going to have to agree with Chris White. In concert programs, reviews, and other public discussions of discussions, full names should be used for all composers. However, I do not come to this conclusion for the same reasons.

I don’t believe that incorporating first names is an issue of racism or sexism towards lesser-known composers. While all the “big name” composers of the past were, as far as I know, white men, using their surnames alone does not preclude other composers from being part of the program. Yes, many lesser-known composers now performed are women or persons of color, but those “full names” listed on the program do also sometimes belong to white men. The issue of full-naming is not one of racism or sexism.

However, I believe it is one of elitism. When we provide only the surname of well-known composers, we are indirectly communicating that these composers are the “pillars” of classical music. They are the ones that deserve the most attention. They are big, they are powerful, they are the models to be emulated and provide the framework on which everything else is hung. All other composers are “lesser” – not just lesser-known, but lesser quality, lesser value, an afterthought. (This is further communicated when the work of the “big names”, so big as to only need a last name, takes up most of a concert program.)

Using only the surname of some composers makes classical music appear elitist to the general public. As I said before, my work brings me mostly into contact with music-loving amateurs who participate in community music. Some of them are classical-music aficionados, but many are not. My parents, who obviously raised a classically-trained musician, may know the first names of Beethoven and Mozart* (and that’s a stretch.) They certainly don’t know the first names of Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bartok*, or a host of other composers who may have only a surname provided in a concert program. I know people who love to sing who likely do not even know that the sole name provided is a surname!

What does providing only a surname for the “well-known” composers communicate to the general public? Does it communicate that only people who already know these names belong at the concert? Elitist. Does it communicate that if audience members do not know all these names already that they are uncouth, uncultured ignoramuses? Elitist.

I’ve experienced “elitism” from the other end of the spectrum. In elementary school, I was “quizzed” everyday by my classmates who teased me for not being able to name more than one or two popular bands or hit songs of the time. They let me know I was weird and didn’t belong. I am still not up-to-date with popular music. Sure, I know a few famous names, but my knowledge has a limit.

Elitism is about being in an exclusive club. Too often, classical music concerts require that audience members already have a baseline level of knowledge in order to attend and get the most out of a concert. Even program notes are often obnoxiously heady.

In a day when knowledge and appreciation of classical music is waning and audience size is diminishing, it behooves performance ensembles, and anyone who writes or speaks about classical music, to make the connection to the music and the composers who wrote it easier for audience members, especially those who are new to classical music. No, the music itself is not elitist. It can move anyone. But, yes, the culture surrounding it has been elitist. It’s time that classical music was more accessible to more people. I find it very sad that the Filipino hotel worker Daniel Lelchuk mentions in his article had never previously had the opportunity to hear classical music. Could that be because of the elitist culture surrounding it?

Starting with using full names for every composer is an easy first step. Frankly, there is no good reason not to take this step. Dates and country of origin should also be given for every composer in the program notes. I understand that some performance ensembles are already doing these things – and kudos to them if they are.

There is one danger, however. In providing full names, dates, and country of origin for every composer in a program, the audience will quickly catch on that, in concert after concert, especially for orchestral music, 75% or more of each program is music written by long-dead, European, white males. The audience may tire of this and start demanding something else.

*Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang (how he is commonly known) Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn (as opposed to Fanny, his sister, who must be given a full name), Johannes Brahms, Bela Bartok

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.