In June 2020, the Guardian’s chief culture writer, Charlotte Higgins, wrote an impassionate piece entitled: “We could go to the wall in 12 weeks – are we just going to let classical music die?” From the impact of Covid to the crisis in funding, from the drop in provision of GCSE Music to the ageing audience, Higgins wrote about the severe challenges facing the sector.
But by October, the industry was beginning to show more healthy signs of life, with the Telegraph’s Ivan Hewett writing that “while the pandemic has been a disaster for live concerts it’s been a boon for the recording business.” He pointed to a surge in sales of classical music and the steady opening-up of the recording industry, albeit with smaller ensembles and with social distancing measures in place. Hewett also noted the extraordinary success of the Virtual Scratch Orchestra where musicians from anywhere in the world were invited to take part in Jess Gillam’s arrangement of Bowie’s ‘Where Are We Now?’. The project saw 1,000 participants from 26 countries take part in a hugely ambitious creative endeavour.
But surviving the Covid crisis doesn’t mean long-term sustainability and the future for the genre is uncertain. With its emphasis on complexity of orchestration, texture and form, classical musicians require years of training and constant practice and performance to keep their skills fresh. Furthermore, large-scale performances of operas and symphonies are expensive to produce and to tour. Compared to Germany where classical music receives 80% of its funding from state support, the UK’s classical music venues receive only 20% of their support from the public purse.
Many in the classical world feel embattled, as they see the status of the genre ever more questioned, even decried, for being elitist. Voices within the cultural sector itself often accuse classical music as being out of touch with the social mores of the 21st Century, as they prioritise accessibility and encourage the arts to diversify.
At one time, classical music was rigorously defended – both by the sector and within wider society – because of its unique stature as the epitome of the European music tradition and its alignment with Enlightenment ideals.
But who defends classical music today? Should it be defended? Is it time to shake up the genre, make it more accessible, and embrace the sentiment of John Gilhooly, director of Wigmore Hall who says, “In many ways all this is a purification, a chance to start again.” Or is there something intrinsic to the genre that we should seek to preserve? Do we still believe in the transcendental qualities of high art and the concept of art for arts’ sake? Should we defend our traditions or embrace the new normal and move with the times?
Dolan Cummings, writer, associate fellow of Academy of Ideas
Ivan Hewett, classical music critic, Telegraph
Stephen Johnson, composer, writer and and broadcaster
Gabriella Swallow, cellist and broadcaster
With thanks to Ambrose Miller (Artistic Director: King’s Lynn Festival) for his help in planning this event.