Not just for snobs: defending classical music

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 28 October, Church House, London


When it was announced earlier this year that the BBC Singers were to be axed, there was a huge backlash. Musicians called the move ‘devastating’ and ‘cultural vandalism’. There was a broader public outcry that forced the BBC to suspend the closure proposal while it ‘actively explores’ alternative funding models.

The BBC Singers victory was especially important because many in the classical world feel embattled, as they see the status of the genre increasingly questioned. The BBC has also cut salaried posts in three orchestras; the Arts Council England has controversially introduced cuts to English National Opera and the Britten Sinfonia in the name of ‘levelling up’. There is a perception that school music is in jeopardy, with a significant drop in provision of GCSE Music, and that Brexit has damaged UK’s classical touring internationally.

The backlash against the move to close the BBC Singers no doubt took the Beeb’s bean counters by surprise.  After all, in recent years, classical music has borne the brunt of accusations of elitism and inaccessibility. Even voices within the cultural sector have accused classical music of being out of touch with the social mores of the twenty-first century, instead prioritising relevance and inclusion. More recently, classical composers have been dragged into the culture wars, denounced as representative of white supremacy and colonial attitudes.

Many classical music supporters have attempted to defend the tradition by emphasising its utilitarian worth, claiming it is important for improving numeracy, mental health, anti-social behaviour and economic growth. It is rare to hear anyone rigorously defending the intrinsic value of classical music for its aesthetic virtues or the stature of the European music tradition as the epitome of Enlightenment ideals.

Ironically, it seems that it’s Big Tech rather than conservatoires or musicologists which is more optimistic about the genre’s popular potential. Apple made classical music its flagship project of 2023 and its Apple Classical Music project delivers 115,000 works by 20,000 composers in any number of interpretations, touting the size of its library and quality of its sound. Could new technology replace live performance, creating a new normal?

In a period of economic stagflation, is it reasonable for the state to subsidise often expensive orchestras, opera productions and music traditions from eras long gone? What arguments should be used to ensure the long-term sustainability of the classical-music genre? Do we even know how best to argue for the transcendental qualities of high art and the concept of art for art’s sake?

Dolan Cummings
author, Taking Conscience Seriously and The Pictish Princess.. and other stories from before there was a Scotland

Jack Hues
musician; member, Wang Chung; creator, Primitif

Professor Ian Pace
pianist and professor of music at City, University of London

Dr Lola Salem
lecturer in French and music, University of Oxford; author; professional singer, Maîtrise de Radio France; critic

Elisabetta Gasparoni
linguist; teacher; founder, Aesthetic Study Group