‘Dear Mr Obama, What you got against classical music?’

‘Dear Mr Obama, What you got against classical music?’


norman lebrecht

October 16, 2015

Stimulated by a Slipped Disc post yesterday, the Milwaukee conductor Viswa Subbaraman has written to the President, asking why classical music was left out of the White House celebration of American music.


As an Indian American who grew up listening to Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Pearl Jam, Indian Carnatic music, and Garth Brooks but now conducts opera and orchestral music, I wanted to write to you about my sincere disappointment that no American classical musicians were invited to the White House for the Celebration of American Creativity. As someone currently living in the classical music world, I find myself constantly defending rap, hip-hop, country, rock and roll, etc. against the snobbery of some of my peers. I find it unfortunate that one of the oldest art forms, and one that has been material in diplomacy would not get the same focus from the White House.

Wonder if he’ll get a reply. Full letter here.

obama nea


  • Daniel F. says:

    The letter may be responded to but will have no impact. Mr. Obama evidently thinks classical music is elitist or else his inclusion of classical music would be seen that way. It’s all of a piece with decreased and/or less competent classical music coverage in American newspapers and magazines. The President also eschewed examples of classic American musical comedy. I could be wrong about this and would appreciate being corrected, but I believe the last time an American classical musician performed at the White House was when President Reagan invited Rudolf Serkin.

    • Brian from Washington says:

      President Obama hosted a day of classical music at the White House early in his first term. He may not be a regular classical music listener. But he surely has nothing against it.


      • Olassus says:

        Next to Putin, he’s hopeless.

        • jaypee says:

          I’ve head that Putin can walk on water, heal blind persons and change water into wine… do you think it’s true?

          • Olassus says:

            As you well know, Jaypee, he handsomely funds the arts and attends performances, which is more than can be said of most political leaders these days.

          • Tom Gossard says:

            Russians have always revered the fine arts. And funding the arts was standard USSR policy – part of their “we’re the best” propaganda.

    • Beckmesser says:

      Jimmy Carter – not Ronald Reagan – invited Rudolph Serkin to perform at the White House. The program featured a young violinist, Ida Levin, whom Serkin partnered in the rarely-done Schubert Rondo in B Minor.

      • PaulD says:

        Beckmesser, Rudolph Serkin played at the Reagan White House. Here he is, with Beverly Sills watching: http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/photographs/large/C5239-18A.jpg

      • Daniel F. says:

        Beckmesser: President Carter invited Vladimir Horowitz to play at the White House. Serkin, Horowitz…….it’s an easy mistake to make! In any case, both of these Presidents, in spite of their faults, did better by so-called “classical music” than the incumbent has. In fact, Reagan’s track record for good performers of all kinds was pretty tremendous. Punch up on google “Entertainers at the White House 1981-1989”

  • Alvaro says:

    Arrogant, pretentious, despotic and racist comments from people who claim to be torchbearers of intelligence and enlightenment, yet dont even bother to check the fats that Obama has hosted more classical musicians than most previous administrations in 3….2….1……

    • Doug says:

      Any proof? Didn’t think so. How do you make a sycophant cry “racism”? Criticise Obama for anything.

      • Alvaro says:

        I hold Obama accountable for 100’s of things, from failing to do something about guns to a terrible healthcare reform. But if your argument is “he’s black = he likes rap/hip hop/ and thats’ wrong” then you are a F@#$ Racist. PERIOD.

    • Tom Varley says:

      Is it possible to say anything that isn’t praise of Obama w/o being called a racist by his acolytes?

      • William Safford says:

        Is it possible for people opposed to Obama to express their disagreement with him in ways that aren’t racist?

  • Holger H. says:

    Maybe classical music should think about alternative terminology for the word “classical”.
    No music is capable in the same level to be so enlightening, so tender and evoking so deep of emotions, than classical music is. Yet what does the word “classical” evoke in those we are trying to reach, but who are not listening?

    Shall we call it non-commercial music? Or human music? Or music that appeals to your brain and your heart, not your wallet? Or sincere music?

    • Stephen says:

      I think we call it Art Music. But maybe that’s as bad as “Classical”.

    • Prewartreasure says:

      No, serious music.

      • John Borstlap says:

        ‘Serious music’ should do. Or ‘art music’.

        • Holger H. says:

          Are you serious? “Serious” music would be worse than “classical”, when it comes to climbing over the perceptional bias wall in the younger generations.
          In Leipzig Gewandhaus they have a great motto written on the organ for the dedication of the concert hall: “Res severa verum gaudium”. “A serious matter is truthful entertainment.”

          • John Borstlap says:

            … which demonstrates that it is serious after all.

            Concerning the instinctive resistance barrier in the cavernous depth of the young subconsciousness against ‘serious music’: there are lots of young people who are serious by nature. There is no need for football hooligans in the concert hall…. For building new audiences, only some serious education as part of the normal, regular cirruculum would work, that at least the young are informed that such thing exists. As we know, many people do not want to experience the better things of life, and also some of them much enjoy to contribute to its destruction.

    • pooroperaman says:

      Just ‘music’. As opposed to all the other crap.

      • jaypee says:

        I don’t know what’s more pathetic: that you truly believe that everything else than classical music is “crap” or that you don’t feel ashamed to send such moronic nonsense.

        As for “serious music”… I consider John Coltrane, Bob Dylan or Björk infinitely more “serious” than a lot of what would pass for “serious” in your world.

        • MacroV says:

          Anyone remember the wonderful radio program “Schikele Mix?” Described by the host, the irreplaceable Peter Schikele, as “A program dedicated to the proposition that all musics are created equal…or as Duke Ellington put it: ‘If it sounds good, it IS good.'”

          • Holger H. says:

            Egalitarism, the ideology that everything is the same than anything else, was in fashion for some time. But anybody who thinks it through realizes that that is nonsense. Now, thinking through is another asset we are about to loose in the wider sense.
            Only “elitists” today think things through.
            Everybody else has just an opinion instead.

          • jaypee says:

            Nobody says that “everything is the same than anything else”. But anyone who thinks that Puccini, Mascagni or Donizetti operas are examples of “serious art” while for example John Coltrane or Miles Davis aren’t, is either ignorant or delusional.

  • Eric says:

    Okay…. just because there was not classical music in THIS event does not mean that he does not like classical music. Or that his administration has not embraced it. We need to not look at every one example as the end-all-be-all of the argument. This was an event about American music – yes – and in it, they presented art forms that are more closely associated with origins in America. And we’re blaming him/the administration for that? Really?

  • Cynthia Katsarelis says:

    Does anyone know if the girls still take cello lessons?

  • Holger H. says:

    Actually it is correct, that classical music is not “American music”. It was imported from Europe. Most of the American proponents of it are either of foreign birth or educated by foreigners or foreign immigrants.
    The only music that is originally American is Jazz and its wider predecessors. Also Rap.
    Which doesn’t mean that classical music is most sophisticated and valuable music. But value is in our pre-fascist times not of interest. Nationalism overrides global human achievements.

    • Fred Plotkin says:

      Holger, that is rather old thinking about Americans who love and perform classical music only being foreigners or educated by foreigners. The New York Philharmonic was founded in 1842, the same year as the Vienna Philharmonic. The Metropolitan Opera was founded in 1883. This country has an old, long and diverse tradition of opera and classical music. Some of our presidents are more open in their embrace of these art forms than others. The same in Europe. Angela Merkel genuinely loves opera, but does David Cameron? I don’t think so. Let us not use old stereotypes. Most of the Europeans who tell me Americans have no culture tend to not know America.

      • Holger H. says:

        Fred, generalizations are never true for all, of course. I didn’t imply anything like “being uncultured”. I simply stated that classical music has been imported to America, and thus might not be rooted that deeply in the tradition as it is in some parts of Europe.
        Of course tradition is not everything, and every new generation can conquer classical music for themselves. But that’s not happening either. Many reasons for that, mostly due to a loss of sensitivity and loss of attention span in modern western humans, which again is due to overstimulation both visually and acoustically for commercial reasons, where the potential consumers are “under attack” nonstop.

      • Jevgeniy says:

        Fred, I’d go a step further and say that most of the Europeans who tell me America has no culture are themselves completely ignorant about European art and culture.

      • Halldor says:

        *Sigh* Once again:
        Cameron is actually Patron of an opera company and two of his senior cabinet ministers are passionate Wagnerites, and regulars at Covent Garden and Longborough.

    • Jevgeniy says:

      Your statement would be true were it 1915 instead of 2015.

  • Grace-notes says:

    What makes everyone think that Obama himself curated this event??? The White House event planners are the ones at fault here, not Obama. FYI, many classical artists have performed at the White House during Obama’s administration — and interestingly, the young pianist George Li (American silver medalist at this year’s Tchaikovsky Competition) performed at the White House a few years ago at an event honoring Angela Merkel — so to their credit, the White House knew about George Li way before the rest of the world had discovered him. Also, a recent bio-film of classical guitarist Sharon Isbin features her performance for the Obamas at the White House.

  • herrera says:

    It was a concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts, thus it was meant to showcase the best of American music in the last 50 years, and nothing worthy was written in American classical music in the last 50 years, so none was included in the program.

    Just because something is “classical” doesn’t means it gets a free pass.

    • Ravi Narasimhan says:

      Nicely said!

      If the President did get a message entitled “What you got against claasical music? ” I hope he or his handlers send it back with grammatical corrections.

    • Nick says:

      And what, I wonder, did Guy, Usher, James Taylor, Queen Latifah, Smokey Robinson, Esperanza Spalding, MC Lyte, Audra McDonald, Trombone Shorty, Keb’ Mo’ and Brian Stokes Mitchell have to do with the National Endowment of the Arts? Did they all benefit from grants made by the NEA? I doubt it!

      A celebration for such an anniversary should surely have included only those directly benefitting from the creation of the NEA.

      • Pacer1 says:

        Spot on!

      • Alvaro says:

        OH, OH….you mean all those mediocre Midwest orchestras in the middle of Frogballs, AR that present more crossover than classical music ? They should’ve invited the Texas Tenors then. Or THE PIANO GUYS. There’s classical music for you these days.

  • Shalom Rackovsky says:

    Classical music is dying. It has always been dying, and probably always will be dying. It is in particularly dire straits in _________ [fill in your favorite location], where everyone- EVERYONE- is a philistine who only listens to music with a boom-boom drum line. This conviction, religiously held and fiercely defended, keeps legions of “music professionals” occupied and paid. I just returned from the bookstore of one of the world’s great conservatories, where a book on the death of classical music in America was for sale on the remainder shelf for a couple of dollars. The school is bursting at the seams with young people being trained in this dying art. [I can already see the answers this statement will provoke, about the irresponsibility of allowing schools like this to exist when the music they teach is listened to by nobody, anywhere, ever, and none of them will ever find a job…..]

    • John Borstlap says:

      Serious, classical / art music is booming and shrivelling at different times and different places. And once it hardly existed, say in 1400 in Fulda or in 1500 in Shropshire. What is now happening, is something different: in society, there is still extensive awareness of its existence but a resistance is building-up against its ‘elevated status’, a fruit of increasing populism, egalitarian views of society, and commercial exploitation (of which musicians like Bang Bang greatly contribute). The period of the French revolution, when the masses decapitated their elite, saw decennia of emptiness in terms of serious music while the art form was florishing in oldfashioned Vienna. And that while France had been an important and very creative musical territory. At present, this quiet revolution of the masses, trying to destroy anything that is ‘too difficult’ for them, or that requires some effort of understanding, is heralding a similar period.

      An accompanying problem is, that the art form will be driven into the camp of right-wing, capitalist elitism and autocratic regimes (Putin & Co) for survival reasons, after which it will be accused of ‘elitism’.

      • Alvaro says:

        The inalienable fact that Classical Music comes from a European, monarchic and autocratic elite is too evident. The very conception that this music is somehow “better” (its not), or that it has intrinsic benefits (health, mentally, academically, prenatally, et al) simply screams European elitism.

        So….your solution is: lets do away with democracy and egalitarianism to preserve music? No sir. F your music. Let the 10 rich people who appreciate it pay the real value (not subsidized) of this supposedly highly sophisticated form of art. The government doesn’t subsidize Ferrari or Bugatti, why the F@#$ should they subsidize the Berlin Philharmoniker or London Symphony? Because of your arrogance?

        The kings of the past used to have their own orchestras, just imagine. The Arab super-rich, or hedge fund managers would have more than enough to fund their own orchestras – if it were marketed to them. But classical musicians are too pretentious to actually think rationally. They would rather sell the idea that classical music is a basic need like water to go teach poor kids in developing countries, while their traditional consumer base (kings, queens, and the rest of the elite) adopt Electronica.

        For people who are supposedly the embodiment of the ‘intelligence’ that this artform claims to promote, THE ENTIRE INDUSTRY IS ABSOLUTELY RETARDED.

        • Holger H. says:

          “The inalienable fact that Classical Music comes from a European, monarchic and autocratic elite is too evident. The very conception that this music is somehow “better” (its not), or that it has intrinsic benefits (health, mentally, academically, prenatally, et al) simply screams European elitism.”

          That’s obviously nonsense in every aspect. Just think about it.

        • Anne says:

          Beethoven is “monarchic”? If he were still around I think he’d find that very curious.

          In fact just another foul, hysterical rant from Alvaro.

          • Alvaro says:

            So you think you are so intelligent because you know Beethoven scratched te name of napoleon from the Eroica? Well, look at the dedicatees of ALL of his other compositions. Were they dedicated to the common man? To Joey the Plumber? Or to the rich, elite counts of europe? There.

          • Holger H. says:

            Look, you have an opinion, but you obviously know nothing. That’s typical for our times, particularly in countries that are the inventors of the concept of self entitlement, like the US.
            Maybe it’s the typical symptom of the endgame of democracy. Average people getting so encouraged about everybody being equal, that in the end they skip the effort to enlighten themselves, to study, to think, and instead have a repertoire of convenient opinions…

          • Holger H. says:

            I was talking to Alvaro if that’s not clear.

          • Anne says:


            “So you think you are so intelligent”

            Didn’t say anything of the sort. Your chip is showing again.

            Composers and musicians, then and now, go where the money is; they have to eat. Applies to all genres. Even Mozart derived income from a variety of sources. Unfortunately, you seem to have an obsession rooted in a very rancid form of inverted snobbery.

            Simplistic arguments based on Joey the Plumber on one side and the rich, elite counts (sic) of europe on the other, with nobody in between, add nothing to the debate.

          • Alvaro says:

            @holger: so the best argument your can bring forth is: “you obviously don’t know anything”??? BRAVO! it really shows the supposed intelligence and creativity that listening to classical music supposedly promotes (sic). And for the record, I am pretty sure I have heard more classical music, and know more about it, than 99% of the ‘culturally savvy’ people who comment here. For many its just a way to appear sophisticated in their social circles.

            @Anne: “Inverted Snobbery” and “Inverted Racisim” are terms used by snobs and racist who wish to preserve political correctness. Hopefully it is not your case, although by some of your appreciation for Obama, I am not completely sure.

            What is truly insane is to day in and day out purport the idea that 1) classical music has ‘magical powers’ (makes babies more intelligent, makes you study better, makes you a better/well rounded human being, cures cancer, solves the middle east conflict, cures poverty). 2) that because of #1 it is intrinsically ‘better’ than the rest, and 3) if you don’t know it, you are somehow less intelligent and ignorant. All of these arguments are provable BS in a multiplicity of levels, but the religious sheep of god Beethoven and Mozart – for all the intelligence they claim to have – can’t accept to face reality.

            Some of the most intelligent people alive are now in Silicon Valley and collectively do not give 1/2 a S@#$ about classical music, yet they bring in innovations that change the world every day. There..

          • Anne says:


            “…..purport the idea that 1) classical music has ‘magical powers’ (makes babies more intelligent….”

            I don’t know anyone who seriously believes that and, in any case, I suspect it originated in some university department with too much time on its hands rather than any organisation concerned with classical music. I’m not sure it originated in wicked old Europe, either.

            I don’t recall seeing so many straw man arguments in one place before.

        • John Borstlap says:

          That’s is exactly what I mean. Thank you for your apt demonstration of my point.

          A circulating misunderstanding of democracy seems to advocate the idea that democracy means that there are no standards of quality in any cultural profession, while no single egalitarian democrat would fire similar accusations to his or her dentist. There are things in life that are better than other things, which does not mean that many things do not have their own value. But not every value is the same.

          • John Borstlap says:

            PS: Actually, to come back to Mr Alvaro’s ‘arguments’: Beethoven’s Sonata opus 57 (Appassionata) was initially dedicated to Joey the Plumber after he had repaired some particularly unpleasant leakages (which can be heard at the beginning of the 1st mvt: amazement in bar 1 – 11, quickly rising irritation in b 12 – 13 and flow of water in b 14, with a burst of anger in b 17). But he scratched-out the dedication when he found-out that the plumber had a secret affair with Thérèse von Brunswick, on whom Beethoven had set eyes himself. He quickly informed her husband and dedicated the sonata to Count von Brunswick instead.

          • Alvaro says:

            I agree that not every value is the same, but then why not embrace the inalienable link between elitism and classical music and drop the bogus arguments of its ‘benefit for mankind’. Classical music has always been, and will always be, for a small elite – so make it a high end product, not a commodity that tries to play catchup with a generation.

            For decades organizations have tried to push the art to people, by either bogus arguments, or by making it more “accesible”. The results speak for themselves: complete failure – so why keep doing the same?

            Maybe what a teenager needs to actually get interested in opera is to realize that a ticket to the Met costs $5000 and that only the coolest people get to attend. Its an aspirational goal now….Same for Carnegie Hall, same for NY Phil.
            People want what they cant have: Ferraris, Diamonds, Gold, Top models…….classical music?

            The problem is: what happens to all those organizations who have done the opposite? Well, they have to disappear. I would rather have 3 orchestras that actually play classical music than 300 that play pops and the regurgitated Beethoven symphonies, the Rachmaninov Concertos and the such.

            Many people will dismay: “but we need more orchestras, not less” – technology already took care of that. People who want to listen to the best versions of pretty much any classical music piece need only to look for it in YouTube. Everything is there – except the motivation to look, unless you are a musician yourself.

            A complex situation, which certainly wont change with simplistic strategies like “education” or “government funding”.

        • Eddie Mars says:

          Dear Mr Lebrecht,

          Is it surely not time that postings full of obscenity, raging baseless accusations aimed at other posters, and clickbait trolling were removed from this messageboard…along with their persistent posters?

          Thank you in advance for your timely intervention.

        • Mark Henriksen says:

          The LA Phil, for example, gets less than 10% of its income from fundraising and much less than 1% from the government. Typically, over 11,000 people give 1000 bucks or more in a given year. So the facts are very different than the opinions you have voiced.

          • Alvaro says:

            First, lets get facts straight: The LA Phil has a cash cow that attracts both revenue dollars as well as donor dollars – the Hollywood bowl. That within itself subsidizes the operations of the Symphony. Ms.Borda is doing an incredible job with the organization, but the model is difficult to replicate – how many orchestras can have a venue where you can present Santana without impacting your core audience?

  • Fred Plotkin says:

    I would note too that President Obama honored opera singer (tenor) George Shirley in September at the White House for his contributions to art, culture and education.

    • Anne says:

      If he was selected because of his contribution to opera, fine, but if he was selected because he is black, it tends to support the criticism of Obama, doesn’t it?

      • Alvaro says:

        Just the fact that you are insinuating that the Tenor was honored because of his skin color and not because of their talent SCREAMS racism. There’s a wise saying in Spanish: “El ladron piensa que todos son de su misma condicion”.

  • Marc says:

    The whole subject of what is “classical” music has been dragged around enough. There are hundreds of talented American composers writing music for concert and recital halls, and for opera productions. They are probably some right in your neighborhood! As for the Obama White House ignoring “classical” music, there’s a long tradition of that (although I remember Jimmy Carter standing next to the Cleveland Quartet with a big smile on his face. As for our current president, check out these photos from Nov. 4, 2009: https://www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-video/photogallery/white-house-classical-music-series-workshop-1

    • Petros LInardos says:

      This particular thread has way more than its fair share of uninformed rants, but I have a hard time finding evidence of White House classical music events during Obama’s second term. There were quite a few, however, during his first.

  • RW2013 says:


  • Milka says:

    The letter was an exercise in stupidity as are most of the comments based on the letter .

  • May says:

    Every commenter took and ate the bait. An average conductor with an addiction to social media gets Norman to link his goofy letter and you all get way to worked up. It’s all just self publicity for this chap.