The Classic Brits are Not What's Wrong With Classical Music

Classical music is obsessed with the past to the point that it believes in its own death - or at least it's sufficiently concerned about its health to feel threatened by an event as irrelevant as the Classic Brits.

The Classic Brit Awards aren't just bad. They are a "scheming reduction of music to a sticky, manipulative meringue", according to Paul Morley, and "an offensive, unnecessary, manipulative and dangerous sham", according to pianist James Rhodes, who followed up on a vociferous blog by Morley with a vicious little number of his own on the Telegraph website on Monday.

The awards ceremony, which began in 2000 and has been hosted by Myleene Klass for the last five years, just seems to have got too much this year, spewing out awards to popular figures such as film composer John Williams, Military Wives man Gareth Malone, and schmaltzy waltz king André Rieu - all to the utter disgust of Morley, who vividly describes himself as stupefied by the experience and stunned by its complete lack of musical substance.

One of the good points that Rhodes makes in his blog is that Morley, as a rock journalist, was better placed to begin this heady and violent assault on the Classic Brits than classical types themselves, who would have found themselves open to claims of jealousy or elitism. Morley's rock background, however arbitrarily, functions to give him carte blanche to be as idealistic as he likes without appearing snobbish. Classical musicians themselves inevitably look like they're stuck in an ivory tower if they try and knock down one of the only classical events which is enjoyed by an audience greater than the ageing bejacketed few - but Morley, knowing popular culture so well, faces no such obstacle.

And you have to admire the force with which Morley used his platform; there is, to be sure, plenty which is completely deplorable about the Classic Brits and the dim, platitudinous light in which they cast music. It's obvious that any music ceremony which involves Andrew Lloyd Webber, Alan Titchmarsh and Gary Barlow is pretty low on cred, and Morley's article is a virtuosic romp through the lowest points of the sad and faintly depressing evening that this probably was.

But on the other hand, you do have to wonder what anyone actually expected from the evening, which is politely ignored in more serious classical circles and, I assume, omitted from the CVs of those credible classical artists who randomly happen to win its awards. It's nothing but a popularity contest, in other words, but actually that's fine, because it's meant to be a popularity contest. And that's why, while Morley's article remains essentially worthwhile for showing that nominally "classical" music is just as prone to vacuity and populism as pop, I really wonder what Rhodes's follow-up was meant to accomplish.

Unlike Morley, Rhodes spends most of his article dissing the popular crossover stars the Classic Brits indulges, scoffing at the very thought "that André Rieu, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Andrea Bocelli are amongst the greatest classical musicians alive today" or "that Mylene [sic.] Klass and Vladimir Horowitz are both pianists". Myleene Klass is a pianist, factually speaking (and pales in comparison to Horowitz little more than Rhodes himself), and I'd like to know where exactly Rhodes read that the Classic Brits were meant to award the "greatest classical musicians alive today", rather than to award - like most awards ceremonies - whomever the organisers felt fitted the criteria best.

In other words, it baffles me as to why Rhodes ever even thought that the Classic Brits were going to be a celebration of highbrow classical music rather than a haphazard, pointless publicity stunt. In assuming that this awards ceremony was meant to be more than it is, Rhodes is himself part of classical music's image problem, with its obsession with greatness, aesthetic purity and anti-populism.

What's more, Rhodes's final flourish - declaring that "It is an undeniable truth that we will still be listening and talking about Bach, Beethoven, Chopin et al in 300 years" - is stunningly pessimistic. This music will still be top of the list in 300 years only if nothing better has been produced in the intervening period, and while it's a tall order, the idea that this isn't even a possibility is what's really wrong with classical music at the moment.

Classical music is obsessed with the past to the point that it believes in its own death - or at least it's sufficiently concerned about its health to feel threatened by an event as irrelevant as the Classic Brits. The best way - the only way, in fact - to promote classical music for the future is to actively celebrate the huge amounts of brilliant, original and worthwhile music which is still being written. This is why I believe in the future of classical music, and it's why I couldn't care much less about the Classic Brits.

If you're in London, I'll be talking some more about classical music past and present at Foyles next week in a discussion on art, genius and tradition. It's a satellite event to the Battle of Ideas, which is at the Barbican on 20-21 October.


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