Forced to the fringes, the original musicianers await deeper understanding

Filippo Bonanni's Gabinetto armonico pieno d'istromenti sonori / indicati, e spiegati dal padre - 1723

We All Need to Admit the Intrinsic Snobbery of Classical Music

Yo-Yo Ma is fantastic, I really think that. I elaborate on that below.

But just now as I began to research the question of long-form instrumental composers versus the format of streaming platforms, I came across a recent press release for the new Apple Music Classical. In truth, this new classical-centric music streaming service is a great offering, I hope, and could be excellent on many levels, including for us artists and composers, not to mention for curious listeners of all ages who have always been intimidated by or lost in approaching the “world of classical music.”

Which brings me directly to my beef with Yo-Yo. The stereotype that classical is snobby, exclusive and intimidating is TRUE. I appreciate him trying to flip the script in the quote below — because it does need to become less true — but, this mischaracterization is not fooling me, and I don’t think it is a very helpful starting point for meaningful discussion or change.

Here’s what he said in the Apple Music Classical press release in March 2023:

“Classical music — and all of culture — is fundamentally about connection, about forging bonds of understanding across time and space,” said Yo-Yo Ma. “It’s innovations like this [Apple Classical] that make that connection possible, that give us space for our curiosity to run, to rediscover the familiar, and to rejoice in the unexpected.”

Is this, in fact, true? I think this is deeply aspirational and also not at all, unfortunately, in alignment with the reality of quote “classical music” unquote. Also, it is clever how he deftly wraps “all of culture” synonymously into “classical music.” This is another profoundly deceptive thought to express. It’s like saying “all of food” united in a phrase with “the most elite gourmet restaurant in Paris.”

Recently, many of my erstwhile clarinet and bass clarinet colleagues have been organizing and vocalizing around the issue of gender and racial discrimination within “classical music” spheres. While I wholeheartedly support the core of their stated mission — that no one feel judged or excluded for who they are — I am also thrown by this juxtaposition. Surely these intelligent colleagues of mine can see clearly, as I always have, that exclusivity is woven deeply into the classical fabric?

Surely, my mind says, there is a broad understanding that snobbery of the most refined and rarified type is baked into the very dough from which anything “classical” or orchestral can then be crafted?

In short: there is nothing and nowhere to look within the history or practice of classical music that suggests the idea of inclusivity or balance in any way, shape or form.

Yo-Yo Ma, bless his generous heart, lives in rare air, in a fantasy world of the celebrity of One and he deserves all the attention and accolades he can receive — I believe that. He is a devoted and gifted human being, and an artist of quality.  The big BUT is this: his assertion that classical music is primarily about connection is completely absurd.  What he means is, “I intend for classical music to now be shared globally as a connection-based initiative or project.” And, to his credit, he actually is doing this, he has done this for decades, and he is good at it.  But for God’s sake don’t pretend this ethos is at the core of this excellence-obsessed, brutally vindictive, staunchly close-minded, universally snobbish art form!! No sir, I say unto you: it simply is not the case.

And I know that because I, too, am a rarified, highly-trained music snob.  But I know that I am — and yet that has not been the limits of who I am at any point, if I’ve succeeded in my creative efforts at all.  Also, importantly, I hold most other substantial musical styles in equal or higher regard than I hold frickin’ violin-worshipping, piano-infected CLASSICAL MUSIC, for crying out loud.

To briefly support my position here, I will need to set aside the ever-increasing contamination of The Industry that began injecting its profit-seeking venom into the music (“and all culture”…!) scenario about 100 years ago (in concert with the miracle and wonder that is audio recording: the demons arriving with the angels, so to speak). This “Industry” thing is a diabolical impulse that deserves separate attention and unpacking.  So, here I am speaking broadly about a few styles as they arose organically within actual culture, not within the Industrial iteration of commerce, which is our dominant modality at this point, so no one really remembers what culture used to be.  Actually, commerce killed culture while we seemed to cheer it on — but that’s also a whole ‘nother topic…


As both a devout panstylist and a classically trained clarinetist — with years in top-level and professional orchestras including 3 years as the bass clarinet/3rd clarinetist in the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic — by way of contrast, here’s a few other styles that I engage with and hold in the highest regard:
Jazz – It was about connection at first, and for many years; extremely beneficial for instrumentalists specifically, and crossed many boundaries.
Folk music – Absolutely, this is about human community and expressiveness; often pointed to as the essence or embodiment of “culture,” going beyond specific stylistic parameters.
Blues, gospel, spirituals – All legitimately ABOUT connection, people with people, people with God, people with problems, people dancing, people drinking, people killing other people or being hurt by them — yes, that is all included.

All of these styles are, in fact, at their core INCLUSIVE.

Classical, orchestral, symphonic, operatic music — these are EXCLUSIVE.  They emerged from and still exist upon the premise that only elites can create them (or pay us peasant composers to create them, or pay us peasant performers to play them), only rarified royalty or aristocrats with “culture,” understanding and money can listen to, attend or understand them, and, most importantly, only snooty, name-dropping, encyclopedic scholars and “journalists” are qualified to even begin to think about speaking, researching, writing or philosophizing about it.  This does not contain traces of snobbery: it is the absolute picture of snobbery in the dictionary.  That’s just how it happened, let’s not deny that. I don’t see how denial could possibly help anyone.

Where does that leave our relationship to this music? In a very good state indeed: by recognizing the fraught, imperialist/colonialist genesis of how these things grew up we can intelligently retain the actual art, the music itself, and evolve and grow up a great deal in terms of our understanding about people, culture, art, and music.  Let me be clear: no music needs to be cancelled, no cultural art form can in-of-itself be blamed for the conditions which gave rise to it.  Period.  Music is invisible: it does deserve to be treated in a transcendent, illuminated way, which, in the old days, apparently meant you had to be a rich snob — or so they thought.  But nothing is stagnant.  Yes, we can “have it all” — excellence and pan-mutual respect — but not by feeding into dishonest appraisals and narrow views of narrow-mindedness.  This is not a “culture war.”  This is not a goddamn competition.

Embrace life, embrace the expression of life, seek the sounds and forms that feed your soul and let no one stop you from that pursuit for any reason.  But don’t pretend that balance, connection and benevolent intentions are present when they haven’t arrived yet.  A revolution of the heart and mind is underway, and the tessellated pavement will force new dimensions to arise.  Let’s help each other pay attention to what’s really happening, it might not be such a simple or familiar landscape anymore.