Home About Me Performances and directing work Compositions Writings Classes Contact Me
Fay Guiffo

Elitism and classical music in today’s society: between reality and fiction (part 3)

April 21, 2020

To read the first part of this article, please follow the path. Already a bit ahead? Follow the way to the second part.

In a world where classical music seems to be dying or reserved to a group of people and definitely misrepresented in the capitalist system, it could be argued that musicians would benefit from becoming their own spokesmen. This mission appears to be a difficult one as it means that musicians have to learn how to represent themselves, not only how to be good as performers. However, it now seems to be a necessity as today’s society ask from artists to work on their self-promotion and to stay connected to the world they live in. Indeed, by being aware of the impact and reach of their artforms, musicians would attune to the needs of the modern society. Thus, they could benefit from the support a society which would likely be more sensitive to their role.


  •  Classical musicians and representation

In order to counteract the damaging representation of classical music in our society (for example: adverts), classical musicians need to work on their image and how they want their work to be perceived. ‘Rather than blame it on the audiences, the performing art organizations should examine their offerings, marketing strategies and tactics because these also affect the demographics of attendance, the type of audiences, and their level of support’ (Rizkallah, 2012, p.112). Musicians need to develop their knowledge in that sense.

Unfortunately, classical musicians are not necessarily prepared to represent themselves. According to Pepetone, ‘musicians are notorious for their general lack of intellectual culture. Many seem to think that once they have acquired the necessary skill, they are absolved from any further responsibility to cultivate a broad and genial acquaintance with the world of ideas’ (Pepetone, 1995, p.26). Thus, musicians would be disconnected from society and reality, as they focus on their practice and performance and delegate the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ to some organizations who employ them. I would say that this statement is partially true. From my experience, I have seen many artists who had no concern about social issues and the gap that is currently existing between society and the classical music world. However, some classically trained musicians try to contribute to make a change. Few months ago, I participated in a flashmob performance with the Glasgow Barons Street Orchestra, organized by the conductor and artistic director Paul MacAlindin. This local action led us to play in some schools, an hospital, a pub and a commercial centre in the sector of Govan, a deprived area of Glasgow. By engaging in this project, we try to transform the representation of music from an inaccessible leisure to a practice that could be enjoyed by anyone, anywhere. The orchestra, Nevis Ensemble, shares this vision as they make the statement ‘music for everyone, everywhere’ (NevisEnsemble, 2019).  Even though it seems that orchestras could create a change in the collective unconscious by performing in unusual places in front of a diversified audience, this practice still seems very occasional.


  •  Performance: stay in tune with the society

The same way commercials use information in order to respond to the demand of the potential client, classical musicians would benefit from understanding the society they live in. Because of the fierce competition of the entertaining and art market, it became a necessity for artists to understand cultural, social and economic issues of their time. These reflections could help artists to design performances which are relevant to the community they target. According to Rizkallah, this approach helps to reach an audience (Rizkallah, 2012, p.113).

Some great examples of projects demonstrate how this approach can be very success. The production “Les Indes Galantes”, an opera-ballet by J.-P. Rameau, directed by Clément Cogitore in 2019 in the prestigious Opéra Bastille (Paris), was a ‘huge public success’ despite of the press negative reviews (Bourdais, 2019). This reinterpretation of this masterpiece of the baroque repertoire includes urban dancers performing over the classical singers and musicians (Opéra National de Paris, 2017). This contrast echoes the social situation in France: the immigration issues, the gap between low and upper class, the division between art forms based on the social categories… Thus, Clément Cogitore proposes a show which interrogates the current division in today’s French society.

In the United-Kingdom, some orchestras decide also to shape their own representation of classical music. Thus, the musician and artistic director Chi-chi Nwanoku founded the ensemble Chineke!, an orchestra which promote diversity in terms of ethnicity and gender  (Nwanoku, 2019). This action falls within a will to challenge the representation of classical music as being an elitist art form. I personally decided to engage in project that can challenge the common representation of classical music. Few months ago, I composed a music for Within our gates, a silent film from 1920, directed by Oscar Micheaux, considered as the first black director. The screening with live music was performed at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow. As a coloured woman, I felt that I engaged into a political act, by composing a classical music to support the work of a black director. Even if it’s definitely not a revolution in the art industry, at least, I contributed to show the diversity in the classical music world by collaborating with musicians from different ethnicities. It could have an impact on young black audience members, who may see themselves represented in this work. Thus, they could perceive classical music as a meaningful activity and may be imagine what it could be to learn an instrument.


Final words...


In today’s western society, Classical Music seems to be victim of its past. Despite the accessibility in terms of consummation (online platforms, affordable tickets, free concerts…), this art is still perceived as elitist. And if the practice itself can have a cost that some people can’t afford, listening and enjoying classical music is not. And yet, the typical audience represents a certain social and ethnical category. The mechanisms of the capitalist society in which we live in have an impact over the consumer’s perception. Unfortunately, Classical Music is largely misrepresented in the advertisements, and participate to the common idea that classical music is elitist. Therefore, it seems really important that artists learn how to promote their art, in a society that tends to reject classical music for not being interesting or useful. They could change this perception by giving performances in various places, in front of people from a socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. I think it’s also the role of musicians to widen access to training and offer to these people the opportunity to take part in classical music as participants and musicians. That would have a significant impact on the classical music world and society, as people coming from different backgrounds could feel they can be a part of this world too. Even though these concepts already exist (El Sistema, Big Noise…), there is definitely more to do. Plus, Classical musicians should be encouraged to connect with the community by questioning the social, political, and economical issues. I am convinced that by this approach, musicians can open up their art form to others, so that people can experience it as important and perhaps even life changing moment. After doing this research, I decided to engage more in projects that really reflect on social and political issues of my time, in order to connect and have a positive impact in the world I live in.









Bourdais, S. (2019). À l’Opéra Bastille, les “Indes Galantes” ne valent pas forcément le détour, Télérama. Available at : https://www.telerama.fr/musique/a-lopera-bastille%2C-les-indes-galantes-ne-valent-pas-forcement-le-detour%2Cn6460597.php. [Accessed: 09/01/2020].


Cambridge University Press. (2020). Elitist. Cambridge Dictionary. Available at: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/fr/dictionnaire/anglais/elitist. [Accessed: 09/01/2020].


Classical MPR. (2016). Diversity in Classical Music. Available at: https://www.classicalmpr.org/story/2016/02/08/diversity-in-the-classical-space. [Accessed: 09/01/2020].


Hillériteau, T. (2015). Musique classique : un public élitiste qui peine à se renouveler, Le Figaro. Available at: https://www.lefigaro.fr/musique/2015/01/13/03006-20150113ARTFIG00032-musique-classique-un-public-elitiste-qui-peine-a-se-renouveler.php. [Accessed: 09/01/2020].


Huron, D. (1989). Music in Advertising: An Analytic Paradigm, The Musical Quarterly, 73(4). Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/741819. [Accessed: 09/01/2020].


LeGendre, K. (2016). We Need to Talk About: Diversity in Orchestras, Musician’s Union. Available at: https://www.musiciansunion.org.uk/Home/News/2016/Oct/We-Need-to-Talk-About-Diversity-in-Orchestras. [Accessed: 09/01/2020].


Merlin, C. (2011). La musique classique se meurt à la radio et la télé, Le Figaro. Available at: https://www.lefigaro.fr/musique/2011/10/03/03006-20111003ARTFIG00783-la-musique-classique-se-meurt-a-la-radio-et-la-tele.php. [Accessed: 09/01/2020].


Merriam-Webster. (N/A). Diversity. Merriam-Webster.com dictionary, [Online]. Available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/diversity. [Accessed: 27/06/2020].


NevisEnsemble. (2019). About. Nevis Ensemble, [Online]. Available at: https://nevisensemble.org/. [Accessed: 26/06/2020]


Nwanoku, C. (2019). Classical music is overwhelmingly white and male. My orchestra shows that can change, The Guardian. Available at:  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/26/classical-music-white-male-orchestra-proms-female-bme-chineke . [Accessed: 09/01/2020].


Orchestras Canada. (N/A). Perfect Fifth of Diversity: A framework for self-assessment? Available at: https://oc.ca/en/resource/perfect-fifth-diversity/ . [Accessed: 09/01/2020].


Opéra National de Paris. (2017). LES INDES GALANTES by Clément Cogitore [Online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9h9HP-VOJv4 . [Accessed: 09/01/2020].


OzLandTV. (2017). Peugeot 308 GTi feat. Novak Djokovic TV Commercial 2016 [Online]. Available at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NYNnXxXfye4 . [Accessed: 09/01/2020].


Pepetone, G. (1995). Classical Music’s Last Sanctuary, American Music Teacher, 44(4). Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/43539007 . [Accessed: 09/01/2020].


Rizkallah, E. (2012). A Non-Classical Marketing Approach For Classical Music Performing Organizations: An Empirical Perspective, Journal of Business & Economics Research. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/237629353_A_Non-Classical_Marketing_Approach_For_Classical_Music_Performing_Organizations_An_Empirical_Perspective . [Accessed: 09/01/2020].


Strahle, G. (2017). Marketing Classical Music to Millennials: Challenges and Some Answers, Music Australia News. Available at : https://musicaustralia.org.au/2017/03/marketing-classical-music-to-millennials-challenges-and-some-answers/ . [Accessed: 09/01/2020].


Tan, L. (2014). Towards a Transcultural Theory of Democracy for Instrumental Music Education, Philosophy of Music Education Review, 22(1). Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/philmusieducrevi.22.1.61 . [Accessed: 13/01/2020].


Tribot-Laspière, V. (2019). Pourquoi la musique classique explose-t-elle en Chine ? France Musique, [Online]. Available at : https://www.francemusique.fr/actualite-musicale/pourquoi-la-musique-classique-explose-en-chine-71257. [Accessed : 26/06/2020].


Γιώργος Μήτρογλου. (2016). Top 11 commercials with Mozart's music [Online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEj9J7PL9Es . [Accessed: 09/01/2020].