Musical Elitism?

In Music of the Nineteenth Century, Richard Taruskin, one of the preeminent musicologists alive today, writes this on the notion of ‘elitist’ music:

“But there is also the self-satisfaction of belonging to a self-defined elite –an emotion that is gratified through exclusion. And that is where esoteric, “difficult” art inevitably becomes controversial in a postaristocratic, “democratic” age. The question is generally posed in terms of means and ends. Is the difficulty inherent in the message and essential to it — the price, so to speak, of full communication? Or is it, rather, a difficulty that is mandated for the sake of the exclusions that it affords, or what might be termed “elite solidarity”? If the latter, does it foster social division? Is that social division a threat to social harmony? Is the protection of social harmony something societies, and their institutions of enforcement and control (from critics all the way, in extreme cases, to censors and police), have an obligation to promote?”

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My two cents on this notion:

I believe that any artist, musical or otherwise, strives to achieve something greater than his or herself in their art. This is essentially a double edged sword, and perhaps the great paradox of humanity and the humanities.

As we strive to achieve greater results, greater variety, master existing techniques in innovative ways, art becomes more insular and less populist. There is a transition point at which art no longer becomes about connecting with others, but about the edification of the artist’s spirit. There is a transition point, however vague, between the artist intentionally creating to connect with audiences, and the artist creating in hopes that an audience will connect with the work. It’s a delicate distinction, but one that holds so much weight in the discussion of art music and the notion of musical elitism.

Certainly in the realm of music, as music becomes more complex, the universal simplicity that is embedded within our cultural (or archetypal?) standards becomes distorted. While Mahler ranks as one of my favorite composers, I am fully aware that someone without any musical training, any concept of historical context, etc., might be overwhelmed. This is again a reflection on the inherent problem in art music. For me, a musician who has studied music for tens of thousands of hours, I find the most profound questions the greatest conflict of emotions, and the greater story of humanity, through music that is highly complex. While I appreciate music that is fundamentally simplistic (and intentionally so, in order to appeal to a more populist audience), I am wont to criticize a lack of depth. There are certainly exceptions, of course, particularly when simplicity is used as a profound moment of contrast to an overwhelming complexity. For me, contrast is everything. But, therein lies the problem.

Those who train, study, and create, are in such a niche level of information. A formal musician’s knowledge of counterpoint, polyphony, orchestration, techniques of motivic development, aural skills, etc., are quite sophisticated (at least they SHOULD be….) – and the implementation of these into great works of musical art can go straight over an audience member’s head. The end result of this divide, which seemingly began in the nineteenth century and continues today, separates art music from popular music. In other words, the implication suggests that art music CAN’T be popular music, and vice versa. A great divide. And that only the more sophisticated music listeners can understand/appreciate more complex music. Musical elitism. The reliance of “academic” standards, without realizing that academic knowledge is essentially an extension or affirmation of the subconscious.

It is my belief that once upon a time, “art” music and “popular” music were the same thing. Certainly through the Classical Era this was the case. The Renaissance Era’s music was either used in religious or secular in scope, but always intended to be appreciated by the mainstream. Somewhere along the line, this changed. And, the great paradox of art: it had to change. Nothing can remain stagnant.

The question I simply do not know, is whether we can change/evolve to a point where art music can be greatly championed by the masses. Is this a cultural shift away from happening? Is it contemporary composers who must lead the way? It is the burden of the performers and conductors of today? I simply don’t know. But I do agree with Taruskin’s prompt that the notion (whether true or not) of elitist music does create a social divide, and that I think the entire essence of elitism is self-satisfaction in belonging to such a category.

With all of that said, I profoundly believe that art music has the capacity to remain relevant in society today. I really do believe that people can connect with music in a profound and abstract way, regardless of their level of musical training or study. To you reading this, you are likely in the top 35% (if not higher) of the musically educated individuals in the U.S. Imagine someone in the lowest 1%. And I believe that Mahler, Beethoven, Brahms, et. al, can resonate with those individuals JUST as much as it resonates with me.

In many ways, I feel we trivialize art music (i.e. Beethoven’s ninth symphony being used for dog food commercials – I mean, REALLY?). Perhaps it’s a cultural shift away from expressing emotions. We are, in a historical context, a society very intent on covering up blemishes, including emotional extremes, through laughter, cynicism, sarcasm, and brushing emotions under the table. Perhaps this is the greater issue, and it has nothing to do with the idea of elitism and music. Perhaps I’m just an out of touch musical elitist. :).

Thanks for indulging my thoughts. This is the great dilemma of our musical generation. And I really want to know what you, our future musical patrons, think, unabashed. If you completely disagree with me, I welcome fresh perspectives. That’s what discussion is all about.