‘Classical music has been erased from the public space’

‘Classical music has been erased from the public space’


norman lebrecht

August 05, 2022

Niall Gooch in The Critic laments ‘the disappearance of classical music from the kind of cultural settings where it used to be common.’

It’s hard, for example, to imagine that the BBC will ever again use an operatic aria as the theme for their World Cup coverage, as they did with “Nessun Dorma” for Italia ’90. Opera is officially elitist, notwithstanding the fact that you can generally get a decent seat at ENO for rather less than you’d pay for a decent seat at one of London’s Premiership football grounds, or for an Adele concert — the cheapest tickets for her last London performance were £90. 

Similarly it’s hard to imagine an airline advertising itself with a lengthy extract of Delibes’ “Flower Duet”, as British Airways did in the eighties and nineties, or any company using the jazz-inflected version of Bach’s “Air On A G String” used by Benson & Hedges to advertise their Hamlet brand for thirty years up until 1997. Consider, too, the case of the Proms. Once a little enclave of high culture, they are now having to make room for breakdancing and popera. Apparently classical music — uniquely — is not to be allowed its own space on the BBC. 

It is highly unusual to find a mall or shop or pub or coffee house playing anything other than highly generic pop music…

Read on here.


  • Antwerp Smerle says:

    Times have certainly changed. In the 1980s I was asked by a BBC producer to suggest the theme music for a new TV programme about British politics. To my delight, my suggestion was adopted: Symphony no. 5 by William Boyce.

  • What, you noticed? says:

    See you have fight things before they are a done deal. The important battles were lost (if they were even fought) decades ago. People in their 30’s and 40’s now were not presented classical music as a valuable thing when they were at school for the most part. All this “wokism” that is talked about nowadays is the battle actually being contested in other areas. Eg: there are articles saying how terrible for Thomas Hardy to be taken off the school syllabus while needing to read music is being removed as a necessity to read music at Oxford University. That was already removed from GCSE music in the 90’s.

  • HH says:

    One can deplore it and one can not. What does it change if some randomly chosen three-minute classical “number” is being played “in the public space” or not? Classical music is elitist because deliberately was cut from ordinary people. Once, long, long time ago, it wasn’t meant to be listened to in pious reflection in concert halls and was utilitarian, composed for the needs of the church or for entertainment. Short piano pieces and songs people were expected to perform themselves at home, for their own pleasure. Now only professional musicians trained from childhood are allowed to perform classical music, once they get through all the competitions and prove that they are better than their colleagues. And no one who has not graduated from musicology actually has the right to have an opinion. So who still can enjoy performing or listening to classical music? I get tired as I watch these musicians trained like monkeys for the circus, visibly suffering. And the backstage atmosphere? is THAT “high culture”? nepotism, constant back-stabbing, bed-hopping, substance abuse – competition is such that you have to go all the way, over the dead bodies. So people rather go to pop / rock / whatever concert and have fun. Interestingly, when classical musicians play, for example, in the subway, people quite willingly stop and listen (and even give money)….

    • Henry williams says:

      Some classical music is morbid.
      That is why i prefer Haydn and Schubert.
      Mozart. It cheers me up

      • Mr Malcolm Chandler says:

        There is a superb performance of Haydn’s Symphony number 82, The Bear, on YouTube. It is played by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jean- Christophe Spinosi. I never expected to see a double bass player punch the air in excitement after a symphony, much less after a Haydn.

      • Richard Zencker says:

        Schubert found all music sad.

    • Gus says:

      I was going to make a point similar to yours but honestly you nailed it. As a classical violinists who is just starting to get into the semi pro/professional level, so much of it has to do with what you’re saying, and it’s hilarious typically older generations complain that it is due to “wokeism” and people having shorter attention spans. I’m a big fan of pop and contemporary music, and I probably know more about classical music than most people complaining in this comments section. Let me tell you, classical music will always remain dear to my heart, but it is a dead genre due to elitism, it’s divorce from pop culture, and the lack of opportunity given to young composers to pass the torch of music onto future generations.

      • Joel says:

        So depressingly sad

      • Warrick Snowball says:

        ‘Young composers’ do not have a natural right to succeed. They should compose rather than construct. Sit in front of a sheet of paper rather than a computer. Create something memorable.

  • Mecky Messer says:

    Classical Music is akin to the Latin Language: still there in academia but dead in the public space. Its time all funds that go to these inefficient institutions (orchestras/etc) be put to good use instead of keep ok feeding the cronysm and ineptitude of the 4 failed trombonists/violinists/pianists playing “manager” with public money.

    • TITUREL says:

      And at which instrument or music discipline did you fail , Ms Beckymesser? Have another warm ale. It might put a smile on that long face.

    • Bone says:

      Failed trombonists steadfastly resent your comment.
      (Btw no one ever really fails at trombone – making any old loud noise is sufficient to be considered successful).

    • Third Fiddle says:

      Classical music is alive and well in China, Japan and Korea and their respective communities in the U.S. as evidenced by the classical music competitions. Although there’s certainly room for improvement in the composition arena from Asians to put it mildly.

  • Concertgebouw79 says:

    I thinks that since the moment Youtube was created the blame about the fact the opera and classical are too much elistist is completly wrong and ineficient. Because now you can hear all the music you want for free it was not the case in the 80’s and the 90’s when you have to buy records. It’s our reponsability to be curious. Recently for exemple I have discovred the fantastic music of the not very famous Eduard Tubin; And you can have all his music on Youtube. Also I remember that in 90’s there were some peole who complained about the fact that Pavarotti sang in places where he don’t have to be.

    • HH says:

      Of course, you can find everything on youtube, including opera. But so what? if someone does not go to the opera it is not because he does not have the money for a ticket (tickets are at different prices, one can buy a cheap one), but because he is not interested in opera. And why should he be? very few people like opera, even classical music lovers who regularly go to concerts are rarely opera fans. So opera on youtube is watched only by opera aficionados just like hip-hop is watched by hip-hop fans. And what will a fan of hip-hop (or anything) do when he accidentally comes across an opera aria? he switches to something else, as fast as possible, just like you did when you came across hip-hop. Or do you listen to it, out of curiosity?

      • Concertgebouw79 says:

        I’am partly agree whith you.But don’t forget that the access to opera is not the same if you are in western Europe than for exemple in Asia where the tradition for opera is new. It’s true also that there’s no more universal music for everybody like in the 60’s with the Beatles. And to appreciate opera like for exemple the music of Mahler or a Beethoven sonata it takes a lot of time and there’s no mistery you have to hear it 10 or maybe 15 times. But don’t think that opera can’t have a future. Me I started to hear a lot of it like Mahler after 35 years old. When I was 25 I would never imagine that would like it.

      • Warrick Snowball says:

        As far as I can see opera has shot itself in the foot by outrageous staging. The magical world of opera has been hijacked by those who think they know better than the composer.

        • Elias says:

          Hard disagree. I’d argue the rise of the “composer-hero” is the fallacy here. Opera as well as most other classical styles originated as a collaborative production, with parts written for certain performers and conductors. The rise of nationalism in the 1800s contributed to the myth of the composer to highlight national interests in the arts and to establish a canon. As my opera teachers and many, many others have told me, the age of the “park and bark” is over. Opera was never meant to be an isolated experience (that would be oratorio), and the influx of more complex and engaging (read: entertaining) staging and direction is something the theatrical stage has been developing for years. The magical world of opera, as you put it, was ignored the moment critics and historians decided the composer DID know better. After all, the best operas still performed are remembered not only for their composition but for their librettos, for their popularity and theatrical effect. Opera is theatre and music, technicality and spectacle. The magic of opera lies in the fusion of all of it, and I’d posit that focusing only on the music and not the plots, the spectacles and experiences they offer, has and continues to alienate younger generations.

  • Rob Keeley says:

    Apropos: in Cafe Nero in Sutton. London this morning we had a whole lot of Mozart, as lovely as it was unexpected it was so unexpected. And not EKN!

  • Sean says:

    Be very careful what you wish for. Here in Australia we currently have a cough lolly commercial punctuated by a woman coughing the opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony; what price popularity?

  • Paul Dawson says:

    I rather feel two different issues are being conflated here.

    Elitism is despicable in itself and injurious to the well-being of the population. If the person-in-the-street is led to believe that “classical music is not for the likes of me”, then they are missing out on a potentially fulfilling experience.

    On the other hand, its absence from background music is probably just a cyclical matter. The use of Nessun Dorma in 1990 and Jacques Loussier in the Hamlet commercials was exceptional at the time.

    When innovations such as these became conventional, one can understand why the creatives looked for alternatives to secure attention.

    • Claire says:

      “person-in-the-street is led to believe that “classical music is not for the likes of me”,”

      Or chooses to believe. That happens too.

  • Sixtus Beckmesser says:

    “. . . we humans experience beauty as making demands on us, because beauty represents a realm of value and meaning above our normal everyday life.”

    I think the author of this piece gets it right. Rilke’s poem extolling the beauty of an archaic torso of Apollo ends with the words “You must change your life.” An encounter with beauty can compel you to change your life, but it’s easier just to avert your gaze.

    • Micaela Bonetti says:

      “Beauty will save the world.”
      Prince Mychkin, “Idiot”, Dostoïevsky.

      As a musician I’ll fight until my last day on earth to honor these sublime words.

  • J Barcelo says:

    In the Phoenix AZ metro area there is a movie theater chain run by Dan Harkins that plays nothing but classical in the public spaces, the foyer, restrooms. It’s great – he seems to really like Ravel. But that’s about it. The conquest by pop music has even taken over at my favorite summer sport: rodeo. They used to play country/western music but even that has given way to heavy metal and hip hop.

    • Robert Holmén says:

      It has been often reported that owners of public accommodations resort to playing classical music to run off teenage delinquents who might otherwise loiter on the premises.

  • Nik says:

    BA on its planes until recently played a snippet of Dvořak’s Serenade for Strings on constant loop, ad nauseam, during boarding and disembarking. I think they’ve stopped now or at least I haven’t noticed it recently. In any case it’s not a use of “classical music in the public space” I would applaud. It’s a trivialisation of it that is more likely to turn people off the piece than onto it, similar to the proverbial Vivaldi while your call is held in a queue.
    Speaking of which, I still remember having to change my booking during a BA strike circa 2003 when they used the Flower Duet as their call holding music, and I had to listen to it for about three hours solid before someone answered. The best piece of music in the world wouldn’t survive that kind of test.

    • Paul Dawson says:

      Given a suitable performance – Goodall with the Welsh would be my choice – the closing bars of Parsifal, from “Nur eine Waffe taugt”, would have me thinking ‘Take your time, BA’ even after three hours.

      Chacun a son gout.

    • ChrysanthemumFan says:

      And there’s American Airlines with “Rhapsody in Blue”.

      Which, actually, I find I don’t mind! But I haven’t needed to sit and listen to it for 3 hours as you did.

  • Lars says:

    I remember our village silver jubilee party in 1977. That was entirely pop music too. No change there and certainly no news flash.
    It’s all much simpler than stated. Classical music was never music for the masses. If it temporarily was, it was adopted as a mascot for aspiration much like the academic pretention of the masses that Moliere satirised in the 17c. It goes in and out of vogue. It’s easy for those who love classical music to be in denial about the natural order of things.

    • ChrysanthemumFan says:

      I grew up poor, but have noticed that being a classical musician definitely gives me an elevation in social status. Just being associated with an art form enjoyed by the rich educated classes is elevating. (Not why I got into the industry, though!)

  • Hunter Biden's Laptop says:

    Ha! You all have made classical music so exclusive, that the only people with any interest in it are other classical musicians; and don’t even try to cry that “pEoPLe ArEN’t inTeREstED iN LiVe MuSIc aNYMoRE” when Springsteen concert tickets are selling for hundreds of dollars. Congratulations. You played yourselves, people.

    • ChrysanthemumFan says:

      You used the word “you”, implying you’re not also a musician.

      Why are you here if it is only musicians who are interested in classical music anymore?

      Are you here because all of us are so enchanting, even though you don’t care for our music under discussion?

  • A Pianist says:

    “It is highly unusual to find a mall or shop or pub or coffee house playing anything other than highly generic pop music…” What a coincidence, people unfamiliar with classical music also believe it all sounds the same.

    A quote like this is fatally ignorant and does classical music no favors. If we want patrons of musical genres to appreciate classical we need to start by returning the favor and appreciate what they listen to.

  • Concerto says:

    You sometimes get Strauss walzes played on Austrian Airlines, most commonly “An der schönen, blauen Donau”.

    Coffee shops in fancy places in the USA play trumpet concertos by Neruda, clarinet concertos by Krommer, Boccherini string quintets, on a continuous. You can determine the money and wealth of these areas by the level of pretentiousness. But I suppose it’s a good thing they play Kozeluch, Clementi and Baldassari…

  • Minutewaltz says:

    ‘Opera is officially elitist’

    Not according to Angela Rayner……

    • Una says:

      No, not according to Angela Rayner, only Kier Starmer who ridiculed her in Parliament for going to Glyndebourne with her working class background and a Stockport accent. Good for her. Hope she enjoyed herself.

    • Adrienne says:

      What does ‘officially’ mean in this context?

      A lot of people defended Rayner, and not just on the Left. Not a huge fan to be honest but, to her credit, she didn’t make a big thing out of her visit.

  • amazonian says:

    Let’s get to the heart of the matter: who sang the Flower Duet in the BA ad?
    That faux-pop drumming they added to the music is quite annoying.
    The parody Waitresses’ Duet, on the other hand, is wickedly funny.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    I peg the beginning of the decline in reverence for classical music as a civilizing influence to the 60s and 70s when Holocaust awareness when mainstream and people began to realize, “hmmm… all that classical music didn’t do much to civilize the Germans…”

  • Mark says:

    What a pathetic, immature county we have become.

  • Harry Collier says:

    Das Land ohne Musik.

  • Shark says:

    Angela Rayner, a working class girl and Labour Party Deputy, gets told she’s sold out for attending opera. Great.

    Let’s dumb it down so some rich, me me me darling, warbling on badly about self-inflicted marital BS can buy more of LA. Chuck in some ‘Einaudi’ piano junk and boom, 1 billion clicks.

    The issue is not whether classical and opera are elitist, they rightly are, and elite music is good for the masses on many levels, it’s the PC pejorative of elite as ‘wrong’. All decided by private schoolies at the BBC etc who attended Oxford.

    As someone who grew up as a working class kid, I can’t even afford piano lessons for my self-taught daughter, who taught herself to grade 7 piano distinction in 18mths from scratch, I say this, shove that BS up your ass, it will stop the ‘elite’ drivel leaking out.

    Nowt wrong with common elite, whether it be fine music, learning Latin or Classic Greek. You can appreciate the finer things in life without being a stuck up donut. Tickets on sale at the Proms for less than a pub band. Lunch tickets at the CBSO for a fiver. Elite? Nah, priced for the working class mate.

  • Vadim says:

    Once you’ve lost the capitalists, it’s all over (eye roll)

  • Enrique Sanchez says:

    Let’s all humbly thank Mrs.Thatcher and Mr. Reagan and their diligent efforts to undermine culture and for the significant advancement in our cultural landscapes. Their legacies are intact.

  • Monique McCullum says:

    Classical music is too elitist so we must all be subjected to low class “booty, bitches, bass be bumpin” and out right cursing. Add in the constant bragging and the non stop glorification of sex amd we have a steady doet of musical junk food poisoning our airwaves amd minds. Art can lift or it can drag us down.

  • Cliff Weber says:

    “in an age where we are constantly encouraged . . .” What ever has happened to the conjunction “when”?
    It is vanishing from the public sphere along with classical music.

  • Tom Armitstead says:

    This is simply not true.
    If you are in London and take the Tube at Kennington Station you will find a delightful selection of Mozart playing in the foyer.

  • Chamol says:

    ‘Classical music’ being ‘any’ work with acoustic orchestral or chamber instrumentation and opera as same with trained voices! Or do we only mean the usual ‘repertoire’ ie. the same twenty or so european and slavic? composers and the same 100 or so works that get played and replayed and replayed everywhere. Then what about film music. 80% of which is composed today with acoustic orchestral and chamber instrumentation. Do the millions who watch Starwars movies or any of the hollywood DC and Marvel blockbusters … are they not ‘moved, affected, manipulated’ by the orchestral sounds in these films! Would they ‘work’ or be ‘enjoyed’ as much if you took the strings away! Interesting no doubt! But then maybe Hollywood is not ‘high culture’ but we also have eg. Tarkovsky’s use of Bach and Artemiev in his films. Sublime. Cannot imagine his work without them. Me, I recall the Stockhausen festival at the Barbican in the early 80’s. Never to be forgotten … but unlikely to be repeated either. Have I just misunderstood everything! 🙂

  • Walter Delahunt says:

    I wonder whether someone could explain to me why classical music gets the “elitist” judgement levelled against it.
    What constitutes an elite? Wealth? If so, those who created classical music, i.e. composers, were anything but elite.
    Is it excellence? In that case professional sport is also elite.
    And I don’t hear anyone levelling judgement against Roger Federer or Steffi Graf for being “elitist”.
    Is it the high cost of producing operas or symphony concerts? Well, military spending must also be elitist.
    The cost of concert tickets? Rock concerts and football games are more elitist, in that case.
    Education and the pursuit of high standards? Well….medical science is elitist in that case.
    Sure, there are snobs in the classical music business. Just like there are snobs in every other area of human endeavour.

    As stated, I’d be thrilled to hear a compelling reason for the label “elitist”. Until now I know of none.

  • Walter Delahunt says:

    I’m so sorry…..I forgot to mention that the basis of war is the assertion of superiority, which is elitist by definition.
    And if, as reported, the Edinburgh Festival opened to a half-full hall because of a rise in ticket prices, where are all the “elite” concert-goers who are drowning in money and privilege and whatever other nasty little elitist marker?