There was a review recently in the New York Times of a sort of Broadway-ized version of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. The review said basically what you would expect given what the producers of this version did to the opera: the reviewer said it seemed ‘slighter’ and smaller than the original. Something was missing.
This production has caused a certain amount of controversy, with the loudest voice being that of Stephen Sondheim, who said essentially that the producer of the ‘revamped’ Broadway version of Porgy and Bess, Diane Paulus, was doing wrong to Gershwin’s work.
I saw a certain amount of reaction to that at the time in the form of the argument that Sondheim was being condescending to a black woman who was rewriting a white man’s work. I don’t think this is an unreasonable thing to wonder about. However, I don’t think it was true in this case. Sondheim’s reaction was sharp and sarcastic, but the core of what he said was that Paulus was refusing to take opera seriously as a genre. That she had certain criteria for ‘characterization’ or ‘backstory’ that were derived from Broadway theater, and when Gershwin’s work, which is an opera and not a musical, didn’t do those things in the way that a Broadway musical would, she decided that the audience wouldn’t get it and thus the work required revision in order to be accessible.
I haven’t seen the show myself, and I probably won’t, and in either case the thing that caught my attention about the furor over Paulus and Gershwin was that word “accessible”. This is a word that tends to get bandied about a lot whenever classical music comes up. I have never been sure quite what the core of the ‘inaccessibility’ criticism is. It comes up in other musical genres too, as in the comments here, specifically comment #22, where the commenter argues that prog rock was inaccessible because it required too many musicians of a high level of skill and an audience with a fairly long attention span. People say basically the same thing about classical all the time.
I’m not sure the ‘too many musicians’ point gets at the core of the ‘accessibility’ problem because there are plenty of types of classical music — string quartets, e.g. — that require no more people than your average rock band.
The same is true of the skill argument. There are plenty of skilled musicians and singers in the non-classical world. Popular music often trades in the illusion that the performance is ‘raw’ or ‘spontaneous’ and requires no more skill or talent or practice than the average member of the audience might be able to muster, but (at least in good rock or pop music) this illusion is precisely that, an illusion.
And it’s not as if most classical music is melodically incomprehensible. It’s complicated, but it’s not all twelve tone serialism. And it’s the kind of complicated that is as complicated as you want it to be in the sense that you can have fun listening to Beethoven even if you’re just picking out the tunes and not listening for structure or interpretation.
It’s probably possible to argue that the whole ‘inaccessibility’ thing actually has very little to do with the music at all. Because classical is something only obnoxious people listen to, right? There’s always that suspicion that if you say you like opera, you’re only pretending to like it so that you can seem smart. The association with pretentiousness crops up all the time. I was watching the show ‘The Wire’ recently, and there is an episode where two characters, both cops, are each separately having dinner with their spouse. In both cases, the spouse wants the cop to quit being a cop and become something more middle class, like a lawyer. The scene cuts back and forth between the two dining rooms. Each dinner has been organized by the spouse rather than the cop, complete with wine, candles, nice china, and so on. And what music is playing? One of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. Here Bach is being used to signal pretentiousness, or social-climbing, or even in a way inauthenticity, in a sense that both Kima’s girlfriend and Cedric’s wife want them to do something that requires them to betray themselves in some way. (There is also probably a gender aspect to it too, in the sense that both the social climbers in this case are women and classical music is often associated with a sort of feminine type of “we need to be more refined” social climbing, often juxtaposed with ‘masculine’ authenticity. I think this concept/distinction is bullshit, but it appears quite a bit.)
If you think about it, the use of Bach in this scene is bizarre. I mean, there is nothing intrinsically ‘not cop’ about Bach. I would probably even say that the question of whether Bach is ‘cop’ or ‘not cop’ is kind of funny. (On the other hand, if you asked me the question, I would claim unreservedly that Berlioz is ‘not cop’ but that depends on a slightly different series of intellectual associations.)
At this point it looks as if I have argued myself into the position that the accusation that classical music is ‘inaccessible’ is basically an illusion based on the associations we have with it. However, I have avoided the technical differences between most classical music and most pop music, which was probably not wise. I have also avoided the social class/education question which is behind the whole cop/not-cop thing. I’m not actually sure what I think about that. If I had to take a stab at it, I’d say that people who really like classical tend to have been exposed to it young, which means there is probably a class/education component to it, in the sense that people tend to like the same things that people around them like. This is a generalization, though, and there are bound to be exceptions. Besides, it doesn’t really explain the whole ‘inaccessibility’ complaint either way.