Whether or not classical music is still ‘relevant’ is a debate that has been going on for years. But the cold hard figures would suggest that it is. The BBC Proms remain popular, Classic FM’s weekly listenership is over five million, and ‘crossover’ artists such as Katherine Jenkins sell albums by the million.
To solve this debate, really only two words are needed: film soundtracks. Or any kind of soundtrack, actually. Everyone can think of a few movie scenes that are made what they are by the music that goes with them. The shower scene in Psycho. Jaws. Barber’s Adagio for Strings in Platoon. When opting to write a piece on classical music, I started by jotting down a list of all the pieces I know by name. I thought that would be tricky enough – but it wasn’t; I got close to ten without having to think about it too much. And I’m pretty sure that’s not because I used to use Radio 3 as a cure for insomnia.
A common accusation levelled at classical music – usually by hormone-ridden, dubstep-loving teenagers – is that it’s boring. Nothing happens in it. It’s just background noise; the sound of grandparents’ houses and Sunday afternoons. But take Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – it’s pacey and hectic, interspersed with moments of joy. And also Sprach Zarathustra – or, as I called it for years “you know, the one that sounds a bit like landing on the Moon”, and Nessun Dorma – they are essentially the sounds of pure, golden glory.
Classical music can also be ‘scary’ in a way that almost any other genre of music can’t be – think of any crucial, leap-off-your-seat moment in a horror film, and the chances are it’s accompanied by piercing violins, discordant organs, or doom-laden piano chords.
Organ piece ‘Volumina‘ by Ligeti is genuinely unsettling – I can’t name a pop song that would have the same effect on listeners. Ligeti also wrote the score for The Shining, so freaking people out was apparently his thing. The afore-mentioned Adagio, Ride of the Valkyries and Carmina Burana: O Fortuna were seemingly all composed to signify doom, despair and Very Bad Things.
Admittedly, there seems to be some infighting in the classical music industry itself – constantly having to fight against the perception that you’re old-fashioned, snobbish and prefer tradition to innovation, I’d imagine. Performers that have bridged the space between classical and popular have taken flak from both sides, but have also sold millions of records; string quartet Bond, Hayley Westenra, Vanessa-Mae, and the wonderfully-named Romina Arena (look her up). You can argue whether classical music ‘should’ be made more accessible until you’re blue in the face, but you can’t argue with sales figures.
At risk of being a bit airy-fairy about this, classical music still has a place in modern society because it has a way of hitting a spot that non-classical music can’t quite reach. Classical music gets the listener to do a lot of the emotional “work” themselves. A rocking great power ballad will have lyrics to give you a point of reference, while a classical piece won’t. As far as opera is concerned, yes, it has words, but there is often a language barrier – the listener still has to rely on a feeling to decode the meaning of the piece. You only have to hear fragments of Nessun Dorma to be able to envision Olympic athletes triumphing, soldiers returning home to surprised partners and overjoyed children, winning goals being scored and trophies being lifted…I’m getting emotional just typing this. You get the point. Quite simply, making emotional connections with music is deeply ingrained in human beings, and for that reason, classical music isn’t going anywhere.
Written by Kirsten Parnell