The relevance of classical music

Martin CullingfordThu 10th November 2016

Whether in a concert hall, in a chapel, in a prison or on disc, music matters

A word we hear a lot about today is ‘relevance’. Is such-and-such person, or product, or activity or cause, relevant? It seems to be a particularly significant concern among those whose lives or brands are engaged in the ever-shifting and of-the-moment online world of social media. Given that, those of us in the music world might be forgiven for taking the long view, to trust that our art-form will transcend the temporary. Bach’s music feels as relevant to me as it was to a Leipzig worshipper three centuries ago, so let us not trouble ourselves with such concerns. Genius will survive.

But to think in this way is to risk complacency, and to miss opportunities. Look at, or listen to, popular culture, talk to today’s youth, and it’s clear that classical music doesn’t have the resonance it might, or should. Resonance, no. But relevance? Tackle the first, and I believe the second will invariably follow. 

This month’s issue of Gramophone offers some good examples. In our cover story interview with Joyce DiDonato, the mezzo talks about her desire to programme her new Baroque disc in such a way as to speak to contemporary concerns about conflict. But it’s the passage about her visit to the maximum security prison Sing Sing in New York that is most moving. In a place separated by a chasm from the plush velvet and champagne bars of a city-centre opera house, DiDonato not only found a warm welcome, but more importantly welcoming ears, minds and hearts to the power and passion of the arias she sang. Try telling her, or her audience, that these heady distillations of drama and emotion, forged in an age and society far removed from our own, don’t have a relevance. 

Turning to contemporary composition, the belief of Gil Rose, Artistic Director of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, that the music of today deserves both advocacy and a legacy, has, over the last decade, resulted in a catalogue of 50 releases. As we discover in our feature this month, those recordings have been transformative for both composers and audiences.

This weekend I visited Clare College, Cambridge for an article I’m writing for the next issue. In a 250-year-old chapel of a seven-century old college, singing texts written in 1662 based on scripture two millennia old, the music’s relevance today felt palpable. The sheer joy in the faces of the new undergraduates as they rehearsed, and became enveloped by, the ending of Dyson’s Magnificat in D, was wonderful to see. I’ve read recent articles citing a growth in attendance at both choral Evensong and cathedral services, where the experience of spirituality, reflection and rootedness offered is finding an increasing relevance in our ever-more hectic and amorphous world. Long may that continue. And earlier at Clare I’d watched an undergraduate sing Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad, the talented baritone’s age adding an additional and moving poignancy to Housman’s reflections on the transience of youth and its proximity to death. 

Whether in the choir stall, the contemporary concert hall, or an American prison, classical music’s relevance to today’s world is clearly never in doubt. And it’s incumbent on all of us to make sure it’s heard. 

martin.cullingford@markallengroup.com

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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