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The Stubborn Classism of Classical Music

What critics get wrong about the genre’s long-standing diversity problems

Few art forms on earth are more indebted to class privilege than Western classical music. For most of its history, it has relied on monarchs, aristocrats, and wealthy patrons even to exist. We have Haydn because of a prince, Mozart and Beethoven because of a baron, Stravinsky and Copland because of an heiress, and Wagner because of a king. We have an entire genre largely because, at Versailles in the seventeenth century, the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully was willing to indulge his employer, Louis XIV, by writing operas that glorified the splendors of the throne. Philanthropists, corporations, and trusts have displaced the kings and barons of yore, but as givers of grants and commissions, they might as well wear a crown. 

Today, the genre is grappling with what, on the surface, might seem like an entirely different aspect of its legacy: the historical lack of diversity in its orchestras and ensembles. The truth is that these legacies could hardly be more intertwined: Economic discrimination has produced diversity dramas of all sorts. Yet you’d never know this from recent attempts by critics to wrestle with the genre’s representation problems without so much as a passing reference to class.

It’s a baffling omission, and one that seems even more egregious when we note just how formative class politics have been for the genre’s institutions and spaces—particularly in the United States. Prior to the Gilded Age, classical music in this country enjoyed a comparatively democratic existence, performed alongside jugglers and vaudeville tunes in raucous theaters filled with every stratum of society. Italian opera was performed in accessible English. Sex workers solicited business in the balconies. Beer was served.  

Yet by the mid-nineteenth century, all of that began to change, and in ways that are still very much with us today. Seeking heightened status by associating with the Continental elite, New York’s newly wealthy industrialists began to prefer their operas in their original and “sophisticated” European languages and with fewer interruptions from the lower-class rabble. This led them to build theaters of their own, where they could conspicuously consume their superior morality and taste well away from the riffraff. The original Metropolitan Opera, finished in 1883, was such a place, founded largely because the older Academy of Music—with its mere 18 luxury boxes—couldn’t satisfy the degree of public preening demanded by New York’s nouveaux riche. By contrast, the new Met had 122 boxes, arranged, as historian Joseph Horowitz has written, in a “diamond horseshoe [that] invited bejeweled boxholders to admire one another.” 

The effect of these new temples of culture was to consolidate mid- and late-century notions of class and status, giving the wealthy a place where they could come to understand themselves as such. But they also allowed for the cultivation of an aesthetic and its accompanying rituals that were just as essential for hardening class boundaries. Formal dress codes and arcane concert rituals—no clapping between movements, no shifting in your seat—helped to further alienate the working class, while also disciplining the audience’s bodies, turning what might have been a space of unguarded leisure into one of corporal policing. The related aesthetic of listening to difficult masterworks in focused silence, emphasizing stern contemplation and delayed gratification over the more immediate pleasures of popular music, itself had disciplinary connotations—not least for those who might have come to the concert hall after a long working day.  

To be sure, historians have made much of the importance of “middle-class” music-making outside of the concert hall, beginning in the Victorian era. Yet those domestic pursuits were often—and in some ways continue to be—undertaken in the name of a disciplinary moral betterment that was no less infused with class implications.

As for the musicians who have professionally performed classical music over time, they have tended to be people with access to expensive training offered by expensive conservatories that enable them to get the most out of expensive instruments, and all after having had the family means and disposition to be exposed to the music in the first place.  

Today, the more vibrant strands of the genre have done a bit to distance themselves from this historical baggage. The “new music” scene, in particular, has thrived beyond the hallowed halls of Gilded Age propriety, gleefully juxtaposing Steve Reich with Radiohead and claiming, at least, to care little about ill-timed sneezes and people showing up to concerts in shorts. 

Yet for the most part, classical music’s elite history and rituals are still very much with us. Go to Carnegie Hall, and you’ll still see fur coats, pay $50 for a seat with an obstructed view in the stratosphere, and get scowls for clapping at the wrong time. Go to the movies, and you’ll still find that Vivaldi, played by a string quartet in black tie, is rich people’s preferred cocktail party music. Conservatory training and instruments still cost a fortune. And most music history courses and classical radio ads alike still frame classical music in covertly, if not overtly, elite terms. 

The point is that there are myriad class-related hurdles—material, psychological, and associative—that have prevented families of limited means from pursuing, or even wanting to pursue, this music. And of course, a disproportionate number of these families are Black. When we add in the fact that the top one percent now own a greater percentage of wealth than they did even in the Gilded Age, when many of our highbrow associations with classical music were formed, and when we consider that Black wealth continues to plummet as a share of the overall pie, it becomes clear that any discussion of diversity in classical music that neglects class issues is hugely problematic. 

One of the reasons class forms such a blind spot in these discussions is that classical music’s leaders, critics, and spokespeople are likely to be members of the privileged set themselves. This is what Adolph Reed meant when he asserted that identity politics is a form of class politics that is unaware of itself as such. But the problem is as much sloppy thinking as it is bias. 

Take Michael Andor Brodeur’s article from last summer in The Washington Post on classical music and racism. After recounting the alto Jessye Norman’s encounters with discrimination and racism as an international opera star, he pivots to a discussion of the current lack of minority representation in American classical music in general, implying that the former is a straightforward result of the latter and that the fix lies in simply increasing diversity in classical music’s ranks. There is so much more to it than that. 

Like the fact that, in 2018, the median income of Black workers in the U.S. was $41,361, while the median income of white workers was $70,642. And the fact that the median net worth of white households remains roughly 10 times that of Black households. While the reasons for these disparities are inextricably tied to historical racism, anti-racism and diversity efforts can only do so much to make up for this massive opportunity gap. The problem of having material access to the training, the instruments, and the inspiration will always remain. Racism and discrimination, in other words, alone cannot account for the problem. 

Writer and musician Linda Catherine Cutting, in her article for WBUR Boston, gestures toward this understanding, yet only as a passing thought: 

In all major American orchestras, only 1.8 percent of the musicians are Black, a statistic that doesn’t touch the field of talent that’s available, as there’s a much higher percentage of Black classical musicians graduating from top conservatories. And those are the ones who found a way to get there, despite racial and economic obstacles.

Economic issues are here positioned as an original and primary impediment to advancement. But they’re sidelined, nonetheless, as a mere footnote. 

Even New Yorker critic Alex Ross’s otherwise nuanced and noteworthy contribution fails to go beyond the predictable prescription. “A deeper reckoning [with the genre’s representation problem],” he writes, “would require wholesale changes in how orchestras canvass talent, conservatories recruit students, institutions hire executives, and marketers approach audiences.” There is a widespread sense that issues like the distribution of wealth are beyond the purview of classical music, and indeed it is not within the classical music critic’s power to change the world. But at the same time, there seems to be little reckoning with the genre’s deep roots in this very system of inequality—little acknowledgment that the art is the handmaiden of the system. 

When critics fail to move beyond the typical diversity platitudes, they flirt with absurdity. Chief New York Times classical music critic Anthony Tommasini’s recent article offers a case in point. Describing how orchestras improved diversity by instituting blind auditions in the 1970s, he goes on to recommend that this practice be reversed, since blind auditions didn’t do enough to fix the problem. Affirmative action, not meritocracy, is now in order, he says. When Tommasini later suggests, promisingly, that classical music’s diversity problem might begin earlier than auditions, he comes up empty-handed. Perhaps we can only wait, then, for him to eventually suggest reverting back to blind auditions when the problem still isn’t fixed, content to vacillate ineptly on a plane that, disjunct from classical music’s bedrock connection to material concerns, is incapable of addressing the core issue. 

At this point, some will argue that I’m being unfair—that these critics never intended to provide comprehensive assessments of the diversity issue in classical music, and that they’re merely focusing on what can be done internally by organizations and in line with the demands of the day. After all, orchestras (and critics) can’t exactly raise the national minimum wage.

Yet to respond in this way would just be to further normalize an ineffectual pragmatism that characterizes so much of our political discourse in general. Is it the job of critics to think and write only within the discursive frameworks established for them by the liberal pundit class and Twitter? Or is it to challenge and interrogate en route to actually solving problems?  

I want to be absolutely clear here: Racism in classical music is virulently real. The experiences described by Jessye Norman and other musicians should anger us, particularly since they so closely follow the experiences described by Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, and other Black musicians from previous generations. We should also want children to be able to go to an orchestra concert and see themselves reflected in the faces of the players on stage. The demand for radical equality is a demand that these problems be fixed. And the actions being taken right now on the part of artists and ensembles in the field are at least signs that work is being done toward that end. 

The issue, then, isn’t anti-racism and diversity per se so much as what happens when those frameworks are sloppily conflated with other issues and allowed to dominate our critical interventions—to say nothing of our politics—at the expense of more comprehensive and structurally rooted visions of equality. As writers like Cedric Johnson, Walter Benn Michaels, and so many others have argued, diversity efforts are a way of managing inequality, not of really addressing it. It’s why corporate America loves talking about diversity, since it means it can win progressive points (and avoid lawsuits) by merely changing the look of its executive teams and boards without having to lift a finger to materially improve the lives of the workers who make it its millions.

So what might readers hope to gain from more critical attention to these material issues? The goal would not be to induce in fans and audiences some sort of self-flagellating privilege guilt inside the concert hall; it would be to induce political solidarity with the workers, Black and white alike, outside it—the ones who can’t afford the tickets or who have been taught by the genre to assume they can’t. Criticism isn’t activism, but it can at least provide the latter with fuel. Of course, it can’t do this when these economic concerns aren’t on the radar in the first place. And this might be the real tragedy: the degree to which the dream of a more radical equality rooted in universal social provision has been foreclosed from the collective imagination. Once again, if the issue of economic access isn’t mentioned in the context of classical music, then where?  

We must be vigilant about keeping class in these conversations. Because as long as critics, fans, and musicians fail to take stock of the material dimension of these issues, economic restrictions on access will forever remain normalized, as will the toothless politics that allow them to be. Those politics are evident here, in Brodeur’s column for the Post:

Initiatives, statements and studies, call-outs, cancellations and cantatas—they’re all pieces of the work that has to be done. But at the heart of both the music we love and the problems seemingly written into it is the importance of actively listening—a responsibility to truly hear one another, that falls upon every one of us. 

It’s a cute yet cloying sentiment that actually needs to be inverted: We have a responsibility to listen but a greater one to act. And not just within our organizations but also politically, electorally, and in solidarity with those we claim to care about. We can only do that effectively if our critical discourse doesn’t fail to include entire dimensions of the problems at hand. Class is too often that dimension, and the faster we can rectify this in classical music and elsewhere, the better able we will be to address our problems.