Musician and Classical 96 FM host Kathleen Kajioka with conductor Peter Oundjian during a Toronto Symphony Orchestra rehearsal break at Carnegie Hall in 2011 (Kathleen Kajioka photo).

Musician and Classical 96 FM host Kathleen Kajioka with conductor Peter Oundjian during a Toronto Symphony Orchestra rehearsal break at Carnegie Hall in 2011 (Kathleen Kajioka photo).

On his blog Eatock Daily, Toronto composer and music critic Colin Eatock recently shared some thoughts about the snobbery many people take for granted in the classical music world. Here is that post, reproduced with his permission:

Some years ago, a composer I know told me that he was writing a commissioned work for the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet. And then he added an interesting observation.

“I notice,” he said, “that people’s eyes tend to widen for a second, and then return to normal size, as I say the words ‘Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet.’ For a brief moment, they think I’m writing a piece for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra!”

The incident made me aware of just how status-conscious the classical music world is. Of course, there’s nothing shabby about composing for the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet. But mere idea of writing for the whole BPO is strong medicine – a heady cocktail of authority, excellence and celebrity.

This is what I like to call “pushing snob buttons:” invoking an association with the great and famous in a way that automatically impresses other people. In the classical music world, it is the coin of the realm.

You played a concert last week? That’s nice. The concert was in New York? Even better. The concert was at Carnegie Hall? Wow – you must be something special! To a classical musician, the mere mention of Carnegie Hall pushes a snob button.

Is this fetishization of prestige a good thing? Probably not.

First, this way of thinking assumes that the musical world is a just place, where the cream naturally rises to the top. Anyone who doesn’t advance to the upper echelons of the profession clearly doesn’t deserve to. Also, it encourages laurel-resting – permitting the those at the top of the heap to grow complacent, while less glorified and more deserving musicians and institutions struggle in relative obscurity. Moreover, it skews the economics of the business, ensuring that the stars command enormous fees the while rank-and-file musicians – the backbone of classical music – must struggle as best they can.

For these reasons, it’s tempting to denounce the whole snob-button effect as superficial, pretentious and just plain unfair. But the phenomenon is perhaps more complex, and more defensible, than it appears to be on the surface. Arguably, the big names – Yo Yo Ma, Valery Gergiev, the Metropolitan Opera, etc. – serve as vital “tent-poles,” supporting the entire structure of classical music. It’s not clear how classical music could flourish without some kind of star system, to ensure that the masses are duly impressed with the whole enterprise.

And of course it’s not just the classical music world that has snob buttons. Tell your film buff friends that you saw a famous movie star getting into a taxi at the airport and you’ll have their rapt, undivided attention.

These days, it seems we’re all prestige junkies. We should at least be aware of it.

Colin Eatock
You can find out more about Eatock and follow his blog here.

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5 Responses to Commentary: The classical music world’s status symbols wrongly imply associations with merit

  1. LIZPR says:

    It’s the same with designer labels or celebrity chef-run restaurants. It’s not exclusive to the music world, that’s for sure!

  2. Friedrich Engels says:

    I find this article a bit snobbish.

  3. Dr. Karl Marx says:

    My own hypothesis concerning the intersecting of music and prestige can be summed up as follows:

    My basic dialectic can even be reformulated using the same separation-and-return language used by Hegel to describe Spirit’s separation from and return to the state of unity. Under primitive communism (Gens), the workers (hunters, gatherers, fishers) keep what they produce, but the output is so meager that there is no significant ‘’surplus’‘ production, or wealth. So the union of man and his surplus production is only potential. Under slavery, feudalism, and capitalism, surplus production–wealth–comes into being, but the exploiting classes separate the exploited workers from this surplus: the worker is actually separated from his surplus production. Under final communism, “the expropriators are expropriated,”so man will enjoy actual union with his surplus output. This dialectic results:
    Thesis: potential + union (of man and his surplus output, which doesn’t yet exist)
    Antithesis: actual + separation (of man and his surplus output)
    Synthesis: actual + union (of man and his surplus output)

    Sincerely, Prof. Dr. Karl Marx, London, UK

  4. Friedrich Engels says:

    I find this article AND Dr. Marx’s comment a bit snobbish.