The music world is too often concerned with debates about elitism, snobbery and archaism. The problem is that too often this debate is being conducted by adults.
In the Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music from 1906, Ferruccio Busoni spoke of the “unawakened capacities” of music. Whether it be an undiscovered or underperformed composer like André Mathieu, or a recently discovered piece, classical music is a realm of discovery. What makes it so fascinating is its ability to reveal something new to everyone, be they a seasoned concertgoer or an open-minded newcomer.
I recently had the pleasure of taking a friend to the Royal Ballet to celebrate his eighteenth birthday, the first time he had had the opportunity to visit the Opera House; here was a young man who, despite having never visited Covent Garden, was eager and excited to embrace classical music. Here was someone who was genuinely thrilled at the prospect of live classical music. Here was someone who, admirably open-minded and inquisitive, embraced the chance to enjoy the genre when the opportunity arose. Sitting rows behind a live orchestra, the vitality of classical music was overwhelming. Equally, my ten-year-old piano pupil has been entranced by Holst’s The Planets ever since her primary school teacher introduced her to the composer; her face lights up when we discuss the way Holst generates a terrifying atmosphere in Mars through col legno strings and that insistent ostinato. These examples demonstrate both the “unawakened capacities” of classical music to stir the excitement of more young people, as well as the “unawakened” interests of so many of today’s youth, who simply have not been given the opportunity to embrace the genre. The undeniable fact is that there is a huge market for classical music waiting on Spotify, on YouTube, in schools and on social media; young people are receptive, and classical music must be receptive to them.
Classic FM’s recent RAJAR statistics highlight this exceptional willingness to embrace classical music on the part of young people; 934,000 people below the age of 35 now listen to the station every week, an increase both year-on-year and quarter-on-quarter. Indeed, over half of the station’s 1.4 million followers on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram are under 35. It is evident that there is a growing appetite for classical music amongst young people, provided we can find the best ways of getting this music to reach them in the first place. Neither my friend nor my piano pupil would have listened to the music they now so enjoy if they hadn’t have been introduced to it by others. This is where superb schemes like the BBC Ten Pieces programme are vital, for in exposing young people to a broad and representative selection of classical pieces, the genre is immediately made more open and accessible for the adventurous beginner.
Classical music is too often labelled elitist, archaic and unexciting, yet the Ten Pieces project – along with such fantastic radio programmes as Catherine Bott’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know… and Tom Service’s The Listening Service – challenge this unfounded stereotype by making the genre open to all, modern and alive. Too many of my contemporaries think classical music ‘finished’ when Beethoven allegedly shook his fist at the Heavens before passing away in 1827, and this image of classical music as a conservative – hence ‘safe’ (which equals unexciting) – art form must be challenged. Yet this might not be as difficult as you think. Young people love exploring, love discoveries, love exciting possibilities. As Alan Davey rightly argued in a recent article for the Guardian: “young people are not afraid of things that need to be worked through.” Mendelssohn composed his Octet aged sixteen.
And how important it is that young people do explore. In embracing classical music, we can better grasp the world around us, as well as the destination we’ve travelled from and seem to be travelling to; music is a fundamental part of world culture, and in the same way studying Harlem Renaissance Jazz teaches us about racial attitudes in 20th century America, so the study of JS Bach’s chorales reveals something about the nature of Lutheran religion in 18th century Germany. In this way, the study of classical music opens up numerous other studies, be it contemporary dance or Romantic poetry. For young people, music can be an instruction in a thousand more disciplines than music alone.
Nor is there reason to avoid this wealth of culture, for it is available at our fingertips; as of March 2017, Spotify had 50 million paying subscribers worldwide, whilst YouTube has over 1 billion users. Classical music is more accessible than ever; indeed, the very notion of musical genres dissolves when, on the same playlist, I can enjoy John Mayer followed by John Dowland. Music is more wide-ranging than ever because it is more wide-reaching, yet classical music must continue to harness such technology to further open itself up for exploration. The “unawakened capacities” of technology can bring out the “unawakened” enthusiasm of countless more people for this exciting genre.
This opportunity for exploration is exactly what the RPS/ Classic FM commission is doing for young composers today. The commission is a valuable chance for us to develop our own compositional voices, whilst working with professional musicians and exploring the fascinating world of both broadcasting and formal commissions. What could be more exciting for a young composer than an invitation to the RPS Music Awards, attended by such names as Stephen Hough CBE and Dame Felicity Lott? This is proof that classical music is an open and accessible world for young people, and that classical music is for youth as well as for any other age. Yet this commission is also a sensational opportunity to open the genre to an even broader, younger audience; by identifying classical music with young people, the genre suddenly becomes one associated with greater inclusion, excitement and possibility. This desire to introduce more young people to the genre influenced my inclusion of references to some of the best-known classical pieces in my commission; I hope that this will engage listeners to multiple pieces by listening to only one. The RPS is a model of the variety and possibilities offered by classical music, giving valuable chances to young performers and composers; Classic FM is doing the same for young listeners. Now we must make this known; we must reach young people in new and exciting ways, making music embrace them as much as the other way round.
The music world is too often concerned with debates about elitism, snobbery and archaism. The problem is that too often this debate is being conducted by adults. This is a blog written by a 17-year-old, who loves classical music passionately and wants other young people to share the same incredible experiences the genre has given me. There are numerous articles about the importance of classical music, debating whether or not the genre faces a crisis or a new dawn, but all too often this is a debate about youth, conducted only between adults. We need classical music to be visible, accessible and exciting for young people. The best way to do this is to have young people associated with the genre. Some will forever harbour “unawakened capacities” to enjoy classical music, simply because they were never given the chance to embrace it. Let us breathe life into the “unawakened capacities” of classical music to energise today’s young people. It has done so much for me.
Written by Jack Pepper
Jack Pepper was one of seven composers commissioned by the RPS and Classic FM to mark the station’s 25th birthday. His fanfare “Signal” will be premiered at ABRSM’s music education event, ‘Shine‘. on Friday 7 July, 11am at the Barbican