Joridan Barash is an Economics/Mathematics major with a minor in Musical Studies. Joridan is a student worker at USC Law School and a research assistant at the Los Angeles Behavioral Economics Laboratory.
Withstanding Ovation: Elitism in the American Orchestra
By Joridan Barash
Something is wrong in classical music. At least that is what the critics say. Many considered Beethoven’s Eroica the death of humble Baroque music at the time. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused a literal riot at its premier, in part because the bassoon played unusually high. Few could believe it when Strauss wrote Ein Heldenleben about himself. Still, the arts go on. Contemporary composers debut thousands of pieces every year, and the major symphonies fill concert halls. The music itself usually finds a way. Instead, what is of greater concern is the commentary from outside the music world. Pierre Bourdieu, a pre-eminent cultural sociologist, created a model for tastes and preferences which predicted that participation in classical music, among other highbrow arts, would face dramatic declines in the future (1984). His arguments catalyzed an academic frenzy around the question of the arts’ relationship with society’s most powerful citizens, and that debate formalized the stereotype that classical music is elitist. By tracing this stereotype through the sociological and psychological literature of the last few decades, I conclude that the elitist stigma is a primary factor – and a reversible one – behind the dissolution of classical music in America.
In the field of musicology, the term ‘classical music’ strictly refers to only one hundred years in western music history, but in its colloquial form, the phrase describes all music performed on Western instruments (think bassoon, timpani, and violin), and usually in a concert setting. Although classical music includes choral and operatic works, this paper will focus on orchestral music. An examination of the history of this genre provides insight into the elitist stigma surrounding classical music in the United States, and why so many people think that classical music is for someone else.
To start, classical music is not American. Beginning with the religious tradition of the Renaissance, this musical style developed in Western Europe. Thus, before there was any American classical music to speak of, European musicians had defined the art. Performances of classical music began in America in the early 19th century, just as the German-dominated classical period gave way to the French-dominated romantic era. Until fairly recently, there were few popular American composers. Joseph Horowitz argues that besides Gershwin, Ives, and Copland, there is not an American ‘sound’ (2000). While some Americans developed a unique voice in the classical context, European influence overwhelmed the musical culture. The country’s great conductors mostly programmed works by Beethoven and Brahms well into the twentieth century. Today, it is no longer expected that all American composers study music at the Paris conservatory, and there is a flourishing, diverse contemporary music scene in America–but concert programming barely reflects this change. American-composed music is generally classified as ‘new music’ that is distinct from the classical repertoire, which leads Americans to associate classical music (consciously or unconsciously) with a different culture due to its European roots.
Of course, America does have its own music tradition outside of classical music: Jazz, Bluegrass, and Rock are all uniquely American, but classical music is distinctly pretentious. Until recently, it was the only style where musicians train in a conservatory to perform with sheet music for an audience of well-dressed elites. In contrast, many American styles integrate improvisation and reject formal education, appealing to the masses through their ease of accessibility (Glevaric 2009). Conversely, classical music was developed in European courts for royalty with a history of arts patronage. As a highbrow art, classical music caters to an elite audience, and classism appears to be inherent in the culture. A music article from the early twentieth century demonstrates this trend by admonishing “emotionalist” contemporary composers for attempting to bridge the gap between classical music and the “plain man’s musical taste” (Calvocoressi, 1920, 25). This throwaway line reflects the attitude of the cultural elite of the early twentieth century: that classical music should have a limited, sophisticated audience and that it was not meant for the ears of the uncultured masses. Most Americans had no place in the genre; instead, they were meant to enjoy the “commonplaces” and emotionalism of folk music. Use of such rhetoric only served to further contribute to the elitist label placed on classical music.
Sociology explains the trends and stereotypes of classical music through models of choice in arts participation. Pierce Bourdieu introduced two pivotal concepts to the discourse: cultural capital and taste as rejection. Bourdieu suggests that members of the elite class transfer status to their children through participation in the arts. Parents and their children involve themselves in ‘high art,’ like classical music, to develop robust appreciation and ability, which serves as cultural capital. By investing in markers of refined taste, members of the elite accrue cultural capital, thus increasing their value in social circles. Educational institutions also play a role in perpetuating the elitist stereotype of classical music by rewarding the ‘gifted’ children of elite families for their sophistication in the arts by opening the door to the best educational opportunities. Ultimately this cycle provides for reentrance into the elite class and preserves the stereotype of classical music only being meant for a specific group of people (Dimaggio and Mukhtar, 2004, 169-194).
Bourdieu’s other claim, that taste preferences are exclusive, supports the idea that musical genres are antagonistic. Therefore, exclusivity is necessitated in order for classical music to be useful as cultural capital, meaning that an appreciation for Brahms is not authentic without a rejection of the Beatles. If the elite participate in classical music to self-identify with sophistication, and its value is dependent on the low value of other art forms, then classical music’s audience will largely abandon it when other art rises in relative cultural value. The elitist stereotype places classical music in a difficult situation since on one side ‘plain’ people reject high arts as pretentious and inaccessible, while on the other side the elite begin to leave when substitutes become more suitable. Stereotypes are culturally ingrained and this one in particular has deep roots, so even if the elite abandoned classical music, it is not likely that others will pick it up in their stead due to all the negative stereotypes associated with classical music.
More contemporary sociologists tend to verify parts of Bourdieu’s model – and thus the pervasive nature of the elitist stereotype – but reach more tempered conclusions about the future of music. Dimaggio and Mukhtar examine Bourdieu’s broad questions of taste in America by tracking the National Endowment for the Arts’ Survey for Public Participation in the Arts. From 1982 to 2002, involvement in classical music steadily declined to 11.6% for the general population (173), and much more quickly among youth, with a 22.5% decline among university students and 40% decline among high-school graduates (180-3). The relatively significant drop among youth suggests classical music appreciation is less necessary today as culture capital. According to the model, youth participated in the highest proportions in the past in order to develop an air of sophistication, whereas now they can accomplish this same goal via other arts forms. Peterson examined arts participation amongst professionals and found that while only a small portion of each professional segment attends concerts, professional prestige correlates to classical music preference (1988, 152-186). Lawyers, doctors, and academics attend classical music at much higher rates than plumbers and salespersons. Studies indicate that arts participation continues to segment by class. One possible explanation for this is that elite professionals respond to behavioral expectations set by musical stereotypes. However, Hennion suggests that fewer elites actually attend concerts now because of a backwards stigma, or a “sociology of taste” (2001, 6). In interviews with self-declared aficionados, Hennion found these individuals to be apologetic and embarrassed about how class advantage led them to their passion. These mixed findings lead to a balanced approach to taste, sometimes called omnivorism.
While cultural capital is still relevant, the nature of arts participation is changing. New technologies and cultural norms allow, or perhaps reinforce, personal choice that blends several art forms. No longer is high art exclusive. Rather than strictly rejecting popular music for classical or vice versa, people are more commonly opting for the practice of musical omnivorism, which allows them to consume a variety of musical genres and to strike a balance that’s culturally appropriate and personally satisfying. For example, while classical music might have once been the only ‘intellectually serious music,’ university classes now critically address the influence of popular icons like Beyoncé. Technology also mobilizes changing tastes by impacting patterns of consumption. Streaming services like Spotify advance the effect that records had in the twentieth century, allowing people to ‘participate’ in the arts without ever going to a concert. As private consumption of music becomes more prevalent and culturally accepted, people feel less pressure to enjoy high arts through live cultural events like concerts. Omnivorism might limit the impact of stereotypical thinking on why historically loyal audiences are now leaving classical music, but it does not preclude the old stigmas from deterring new listeners. Unfortunately, classical music still faces other problems, such as a lack of participants willing to financially supporting the art form in the way that the industry has historically required.
While sociology creates a broad framework for understanding perceptions of the genre, psychology explains how elitist stereotypes influence what people outside of classical music think of listeners, what musicians think of themselves, and what professional musicians think of each other. Findings in the psychological literature warrant qualified optimism about the future of classical music. The elitist stigma both benefits and burdens participants of the genre, ingraining itself as a core factor of individual identity. In general, participation breeds strong but unhealthy attachment due to the personal validation gained from classical music’s air of sophistication. Rentfrow and Gosling (2007) found that classical music fans are more likely to be associated with positive descriptors like artistic, intelligent, openness, intellect, and wisdom, than fans of other genres. Also, subjects attributed the terms to classical fans more consistently than most other genres, indicating that the stereotypes of classical music participants are particularly well defined (2007, 306-326). For music listener and musician alike, elitism branches into positive stereotypes, but also into unobtainable ideals of the cultured artist and critic.
Erik Erikson’s model of identity formation frames how musicians shape and maintain their identities (1980). In the psychoanalytical tradition of Freud, Erikson breaks the life cycle into seven stages, with seven corresponding ‘crises’ of identity. This paper will focus on late childhood, as this is the time when most musicians begin their studies, up until early adulthood, “where sophisticated engagement with music peaks for large parts of the population” (Mullensiefen, 2014, 21).
In the third crisis, which Erikson refers to as the crisis of ‘industry versus inferiority,’ elementary school-age children begin to distinguish themselves through their abilities, staying on track for healthy identity formation by competing with other children and seeking validation. Participation in classical music allows talented children to achieve types of praise that are unique from other activities, such as athletics. While both sports and music both teach skills such as self-mastery, musical education connotes a level of sophistication on its pupils that is more impressive to adults. In addition, classical music garners more respect from adults because of the association between high art and power (Bensman, 1967, 55). The star 12-year-old soccer player gets a pat on the back, but the talented child pianist gets adult-like respect and admiration. After discovering music, some children experience so much adoration that they rarely struggle with inferiority at this stage, and are not yet able to question if they deserve the praise. In a way, early success in music indicates early entry into adulthood, and this begins to solidify identity before the child has the chance to explore much else. According to Erikson, healthy individuals should embrace both extremes of each crisis. However, in the case of budding classical musicians, the gratification of the elitist stigma tends to reject one extreme in favor of the other, denying children the important lesson of coping with inferiority.
Many adults expect the star musician to be someone special, with more talent than anyone else, and this leads to the emergence of conflicting and unrealistic stereotypes about what musicians are actually like. Even positive stereotypes, such as being intellectual or talented, place a burden upon individuals who are still trying to define their own identity. This issue of expectations becomes more problematic during the next crisis, referred to as ‘identity versus role confusion.’ At this stage, adolescents experiment with various niches in society, eventually finding a community and a unique sense of self. Erikson warns against parents over-regulating this process; if too restricted, adolescents might suffer from identity diffusion, which occurs when adolescents do not make the personal choices that would lead to solidifying their identity. Unfortunately, the parenting culture surrounding classical music education is not conducive to adolescents exploring their identities.
Parents take pride in their children with music ability, and the child’s talent and its air of sophistication reflects well on the parents. Such positive reinforcement can lead parents to encourage adolescents to participate increasingly more in music and develop their talents further. According to one sub-stereotype, young musicians are locked (or lock themselves) inside, practicing hours a day with few other outlets. Stereotypes such as this might actually encourage parents to push their children in classical music, and pressure their children to meet an unattainable ideal. Returning to the sports comparison, athletes have the opportunity to both win and lose as a team, and generally manage their ego. With auditions, awards, and chairs tests in classical music, the success or failure of a musician is hers alone. The musician cannot “reconcile his conception of himself and his community’s recognition of him” (Erikson, 120) because classical music’s conception of the child musician idealizes the sophisticated virtuoso. Addicted to the validation, sense of purpose, and community, the young musician will aspire to be the ideal artist, while never fully identifying as it or being given the opportunity to explore other identities.
Identity problems do not plague musicians only during their formative years. Professional musicians create stereotypes about each other as a result of their identity conflict. Bensman describes rivalries in classical music, like how other orchestras perceive the Boston Symphony Orchestra as both well balanced and dull (57). Members of an orchestra will take pride in the positive stereotype, while others perpetuate the negative one. Lipton expands on perceptions of instrument sections within the orchestra, finding that brass, woodwinds, and strings each rate themselves with lower levels of negative qualities than how others rate them. For example, the brass players think that the sound they produce is attractive, but the woodwinds and strings think that the brass instruments are mostly just loud. Both researchers’ findings support the idea that musicians maintain a positive personal identity at the expense of finding fault in other members of their community, mismanaging their egos, and projecting feelings of adequacy. Writing about the professional identity, Erikson suggests that healthy adult egos seek out “psychosocial equilibrium” and “conflict-free energy” (166). It seems that professional musicians express their diffused identities through further stereotyping after failing to meet the expectations of the primary elitist stigma.
The classical music industry cannot survive with only a passive approach to elitism. The cultural perception of the genre no longer attracts its historical audience, limits the introduction of new listeners, and places psychologically harmful burdens on its musicians. The only solution is for both public perception of classical music, and the way in which the art form itself is practiced, to change. Public arts participation will continue to decline until a new incentive replaces the old force of cultural capital. Since concert performance is the lifeblood of orchestral art, music directors and educators must sell live music to the American public. They must actively destroy elitism instead of merely demonstrating occasional counterexamples to it. Tear down the barriers with other genres. Introduce symphonic orchestration’s depth of emotion and color to new facets of society. Encourage a recognizable American sound. Play concerts outside–maybe even lose the tuxes. End the mandatory encores. Tear down the invisible curtain between performers and audience. Update education from the bottom up. Let the shy instruments play a concerto. Give every child an instrument or a good pair of headphones and prioritize self-expression over technical improvement. Ask a teenager how they feel today and pair that angst with a Schoenberg. Thin the stock of unemployed professionals and admit fewer musicians to conservatory. For the students accepted, ask them how they felt the first time they heard Tchaikovsky rather than hearing the same excerpt for the 153rd time. Don’t beat the love out of them with history, theory, and juries. Pay professionals to work on their own projects and let them pick some of the repertoire. Cut the ropes that bind a diverse, humanistic, and timeless art form to the stuffy European courts of centuries past. It does not matter where change begins, but it must happen now.
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