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.

9 thoughts on “Accessibility

  1. The American entertainment industry seems to believe its customers are really stupid and so things have to be dumbed down, for which, of course, “made accessible” is the euphemism. Top of mind examples include changing the title of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or, my all time favourite, changing The Madness of George III to the The Madness of KIng George because those thickies out there wouldn’t go and see the sequel to The Madness of George and The Madness of George II without having seen the original. Cynical me half believes that dumbing down is a deliberate strategy to deprive people of critical thinking skills.


    1. I know – it’s pretty insulting. I remember the thing about the ‘philosopher’s stone’ title as well and even though I’m not really a Harry Potter fan I thought it was silly. It’s like no one thinks Americans are capable of, I don’t know, looking something up on google or whatever. Or that we’re all so afraid of being challenged that it’s best not to bother in case we get scared off. Which is unfair, because my experience teaching suggests that when you do push people out of their comfort zone, quite often they rise to the challenge.


  2. You are writing here about a very interesting thing, and probably I have to go back read it again to capture all you said.

    About the education component: I believe that the early exposure to different kinds of music (and culture in general) makes you more adeptive to it later. Not nessessary that you enjoy Mozart or Beethoven at the age of, say, ten. But at least you realise that there are people (like your parents), who listen to opera or symphonies because they like it. So, it is not that big step for you later…


    1. Re: education – I think this is very true. Most of the people I know who like classical or opera were exposed to it young. Or at least exposed to a variety of different sorts of music at a young age. I didn’t hear any opera at all until I was in college, but my mother played the flute and loved classical, so I heard a lot of chamber and symphonic music growing up, even though I didn’t really understand most of it at the time.

      Which is an argument for more music education in school! But in the US at least, that is a whole other can of worms that has more to do with politics than learning.


      1. One of the things COC does is give tickets to high schools. I think they have a corporate sponsor for the program but that’s really neither here nor there. One of my opera going friends is a young teacher at a school in one of the poorer parts of the city. I think it’s really cool that she gets to take a bunch of kids, mostly Tamil immigrants, to The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk for example. The kids seem to love it.


  3. i’ll jump in the conversation because i always make the argument about “accessibility of classical music” here in the US. For the record, i was exposed to 0% classical music growing up in vietnam (we listened to things that caused some people to cringe, modern talking, boney-m <– still love, try their rasputin tune :-D), and fell in love with classical music instantly 2nd year in college when i picked up a cassette tape of beethoven 9 choral from the trash bin and put it on. For me accessibility equals money in the US, and for that reason, i always complain about how inaccessible classical music is in cities like Los Angeles where it costs beyond reasons to sit so far away you have no clue what the singers/performers look like except from the poster at the entrance. With lack of exposure/education (in school, on TV), there's no chance for the young people to listen to and have choices between genres of music. In addition, even if you're exposed to it and realize you love it, it's difficult to branch out because companies (forced by donors probably?) are feeding the audience full dosage of what is considered "popular" (hundreds of Handel's messiah to 2 pergolesi's stabat mater in 8 years in boston for example). I haven't lived in too many US cities, but Boston for example, is an ideal place to get great exposure to small, intimate, and most importantly _free_ live performances where one can truly form attachment to composers/pieces. Nowadays, we are also truly blessed with youtube. without it, i (any other?) wouldn't have gotten exposed to and fall in love with operas. Just the last point about "dumb down" in the US, i feel it in southern california in many aspects, not just classical music. There's somehow always a need to spell out 2×3 = 2+2+2, and they'll make sure to tell you ahead of time which scene is "funny" (though sometimes there's nothing funny about it), "so laugh or we'll have to get the performers to spell out f-u-n-n-y for you!"


    1. Yes! The Rasputin song! (I know it well)

      Money is definitely an issue – if you live in a large city, it’s fairly easy to find a variety of cheap/free music performances, but other than that . . . I live in a mid-sized southern city (500,000 people or so) which has a symphony and universities with chamber groups, but the symphony tends to be pretty expensive for what you get, and the same thing happens here that you described: they tend to do the ‘crowd pleasers’ over and over again – e.g. Handel messiah overload at Christmas, lots of pops concerts, and so on. There isn’t quite that critical mass of listeners and performers that make places like Boston or NY so good. And I agree, it’s probably related to donations. This is the best explanation I’ve seen for why the Met in NY is so conservative about the types of productions it runs: they don’t want to scare off their donors. Which means that the public wins in the sense that there IS large-scale opera with great singers, but it loses via the lack of variety. (And there are some other cities where the opera is basically MAGIC FLUTE ALL THE TIME b/c they know it’ll sell tickets.)

      So I spend a lot of time with YouTube too. I think it’s not only that it makes more music accessible to more people, it’s also that you can see people in the comments talking and arguing about music/composers/performers. Sometimes productively, of course, and sometimes not. There are plenty of obnoxious people on YT but I’ve actually had fun seeing people argue over whether a performance is good or not — and in some cases I’ve gone and listened to things that I wouldn’t have otherwise as a result.

      I think what is needed is that combination of exposure (whether as a child or older) and cheapness/variety and community – places to talk/read about what you’ve been listening to. In a lot of places that kind of community doesn’t really exist, at least in the world outside the internet.


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