The wide-awake young manager of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, James Williams, recently suggested that we should drop the term ‘classical’ when we apply it to music. The description ‘classical music’, he maintains, is a turn-off for young people, denoting ‘boring old stuff your parents used to like, by dead composers you’ve never heard of’.
James has his finger on the pulse more than I do, but even in my off-centre cultural cocoon I have to admit I agree with him, though I can’t think of a better term. When I was growing up there were two kinds of music: (1) music, and (2) pop music (plus jazz, folk and some lesser genres). If you gave ‘music’ as one of your interests when you filled in a university application form, that was assumed to mean what we now call classical music. If your passion was for Elvis, Tommy Steele or the dangerous young Cliff Richard, you would have had to put ‘pop music’ – if you didn’t mind being considered, frankly, a bit common.
It was in the 1960s that a cultural shift began to happen: pop music became mainstream. Everyone under the age of 25 listened to the Beatles and the Stones, which is how they racked up unprecedented record sales. It had something to do with a new youth culture taking hold, something to do with pop music becoming more exciting and exploratory, something to do with a more egalitarian society – but the result was that classical music, the bedrock of our culture, taught up till then in every school, was elbowed aside, becoming a niche interest.
Today we have (1) music (meaning pop music and all its sub-genres) and (2) classical music. If you are in any doubt where the mainstream lies, look at press coverage: the death of an old rock star rates many more column inches than say, the recent death of our former Master of the Queen’s Music. Or consider the honours system: what would Lord Britten, Sir William Walton and Lord Menuhin have made of Sir Paul, Sir Elton and Sir Mick?
Yes, we have a large and thriving classical sector in the UK, with higher standards of performance and more imaginative presentation than anything I remember in my formative years. But we shouldn’t have to use the term ‘classical’ almost like an apology. Classical music is our birthright and our heritage, and we should teach, value and nurture it. It’s still in the mainstream. ‘Music’ is a good enough description for me.