In Defence of Not Apologising

”In Defence of Not Apologising,” a brief essay.

Compared to the general order that in theory is supposed to reign in adult social and professional life, the playground of our childhood days was a pretty rough place. One either had to go with the crowd in certain activities or pretty much consign oneself to being a loner. The rules were pretty simple, really. Be a bully, or at least laugh along with the bully, or be bullied. Fit in with your peers, conform, and you would find, if not happiness, then at least some form of childhood contentment.


Now, chances are that if you’re involved in classical music, you probably stood a little apart from the crowd. You might have been the child who was always chosen last for team sports. Or perhaps you were the girl who was a bit of a teacher’s pet and always had nice ribbons in her hair. Or were you the boy who took flute or clarinet lessons while his peers played football on Saturday mornings? And if you are professional musician, it means that you stuck with it all these years, and it thus follows that you enjoy the music with which you’re involved even if you may have, at times, felt a bit left out.


There is a recent trend in popular thought, to some extent derivative of the same squeakings and squawking that seem to surface every few months in our little field, that tries very hard – too hard, perhaps – to ignore these sorts of narratives. There are some chatterers in the blogosphere, professional or otherwise, who tell us to all give wide smiles and quit looking so thoughtful all the time. According to the observers who peddle the products of this mentality, classical music needs to be ”cooler” (whatever on Earth that means). We should be apologising for classical music and for its audiences. We should renounce and reject the fact that it takes years of training and, yes, education, to not only execute and create this music but also to appreciate it to the extent intended by its creators. And we should be ashamed that it is, and has long been, what some would call a minority taste.


Read those last three words. That’s right, I said it. A minority taste. This was never – in contrast to what I have more than once heard about Vivaldi, for instance – the ”rock music of its time.” Teenagers weren’t exactly engaged in necking at recitals by Myra Hess or Arthur Grumiaux. Purcell’s pit musicians weren’t dressed like people half their age in order to  impress potential donors and justify grants.


A lot of the tone of classical music’s detractors strikes me as a bit angry, and indeed I can understand some of the anger. Some halls can be much more inviting. I admit that even I get pretty lousy treatment from ushers, as a young audience member, in the very halls in which I have played the previous evening! Some of our overly zealous fans do thrive on a culture of exclusion, and it’s wrong. The socially ambitious amongst us – and there are plenty of young people who think this way – prefer to always side with society’s ”winners” in a pretty ersatz and monolithic form of Social Darwinism. And there are some people who think that classical music shouldn’t have to change a thing because it’s intrinsically ”better.”


Well, I’m not one of those people. I’m saying that classical music is the way it is; but more importantly I’m saying that music (or indeed any kind of art) is more than just a supermarket brand that needs sprucing-up every few years.


My point here is that many of us decided to dedicate our efforts and indeed our lives to this field not in order to be popular but because we sensed something of value in this music. Many of us recognise the value of new media and other ways of transmitting our message to the greatest number of people possible. This is to be celebrated, and anyone who thinks that classical music or any tradition exists to help us hide from the present is, well, a bit cowardly. Young musicians are doing more than ever to take not only existing repertoires to new audiences (or new repertoires to established audiences!) but also to draw society’s attention to the creative achievements of a wide range of communities in an ever-changing social landscape. However, there are some who also forget that the first aim of the musician isn’t to be hip or reflect his musical roots in favour of the ever-shifting sands of ephemeral trends. There is no shame in doing something that doesn’t have millions of followers. I may err on the side of the unrealistic and hopelessly uncool, but I do think that quality will eventually draw the attentions of those whose patterns of thinking are commensurate with the level of thought of the composer and his peers.


In other words, if I’m sitting here as a professional musician, it’s because I made a few sacrifices and also consciously chose to reject compromises. This little essay is for those of us who stayed inside on weekends, played preludes and fugues and worked on harmony exercises and scales in all the major and minor keys and shaved reeds  and changed strings for hours and liked it. We’re not about to give it up just to impress the kids on the playground.


(c) Mahan Esfahani; Oxford, February 2013.