James MacMillan

James MacMillan is a Scottish composer and conductor. He is the artistic director of The Cumnock Tryst.


What is classical music for?” So opened a Guardian editorial attacking the elitism of classical music, evoking hackneyed tropes of moneyed privilege and snobbery. True, the question is a bit of a cheap journalistic trick – it deflects from the subject’s true value and authenticity while inserting an irrelevant utilitarianism to suit the activist/journalist. But it is, actually, a good one to ask – because it leads to other ones.

Existential doubts can force a renewal of quicker thinking and commitment. We can all get tired and lazy about what we do, what we think important, and how we pursue our principal enthusiasms, motivations and beliefs. I’m sure there are some people at that once-respected newspaper asking “What is the Guardian for?”

At least the writer had the intelligence to then quote the German philosopher and composer Theodor Adorno: “Art keeps itself alive through its social force of resistance; unless it reifies itself, it becomes a commodity.” Unfortunately, the article upheld the clear belief that pop culture has achieved this feat, whereas what is referred to as ‘serious music’ has not.

The writer completely missed the fact that the most interesting and controversial thing about the 20th century’s foremost thinker on aesthetics and philosophy was his trenchant criticism of popular culture – especially the mass-produced, American-influenced sort so repetitively, monotonously and unquestioningly championed by the Guardian.

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Adorno’s principal targets throughout his life were fascism and what he called “the culture industry” – a term also used by Max Horkheimer to describe how popular culture in capitalist society functions like an industry, producing standardised products which produce standardised people – and consequently standardised journalistic asininity.

Adorno argues that the culture industry (and its bride, the advertising industry) is a corrupt product of late capitalism in which all forms of culture (from literature, through films and all the way to elevator music) are all just part and parcel of the system of production. Capitalism has a deep cultural force as well as an economic one. The profit principal is paramount in contemporary pop culture, appealing to the lowest common denominator, with the aim of producing pliant consumers, adapted to the needs of the system.

I would expect to read in the Guardian – a Left-wing journal – constant probings of our ubiquitous pop industry and its umbilical link with the rich and powerful. But probings I find none. What I do find (which reminds me also of the BBC) is breathless, adoring praise for events such as the Glastonbury Festival and the elevation of the decidedly mediocre and banal to iconic genius status.

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I also find criticisms, which baffle me, of the cost of classical concerts. As Richard Morrison explains in his counter-blasting response in The Times:

“You can get a standing-ticket for any of this summer’s 75 Proms for £6, and 70,000 punters will do so. Another 100,000 will buy seats costing £15 or less. Compare that with the £250 cost of attending the Glastonbury Festival. I’ve been promming for decades, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who owns a yacht. I did once meet someone who was off to his second home in Gloucestershire. He was the editor of The Guardian.”

The fact is that the pop-dominated, mass-produced culture industry and big business are inherently bound together to make a large-scale system of control and exploitation. In comparison to this behemoth, the experience of classical music for most of us is of a struggling, hard-pressed cottage industry. Those of us involved in it spend a lot of time fighting the political class (something the Guardian used to do) which is presiding over a state education system that marginalises music and the other arts.

I often come across people – sometimes on the Left but not always – who believe that complex, discursive music like classical and jazz isn’t what ordinary working-class kids should be doing, that these genres are too elitist and the preserve of “dead, white males” as the Guardian would have it. But if someone had told me and my parents this back in the day, we would have laughed in their faces.

I remember my Ayrshire home town of Cumnock as a very musical place, where ordinary men and women from humble homes would make music together. There wasn’t a lot of money around – a lot of people were genuinely poor – but it’s clear that this music making at an early age can transform lives – it certainly changed mine.

This was the beginning of a magical life in music for me. It’s a familiar path for many working-class Scottish kids who were given free music lessons and encouraged to be involved in school orchestras, bands and choirs back then in the Sixties and Seventies, where our teachers knew how to nurture our talents and enthusiasms into lifelong vocations and careers. This is now under threat – and youngsters from less well-off homes are being discouraged away from the world of music, sometimes by budget cuts, but also poisonously abetted by media pressure.

What needs to be said often and loudly – and in our press – is that discursive music, which is complicated and requires focus and concentrated skill (like learning to play an instrument or singing) can take a lifetime’s commitment, both for listeners and performers, as well as composers, of course. But it is a lifetime that is full of rewards, artistically, emotionally, socially and intellectually.

Active engagement with music brings benefits throughout people’s lives. Even very young children’s perceptual development is enhanced by musical engagement, affecting language development, improving literacy and rhythmic co-ordination; fine motor coordination is improved by learning to play an instrument.

Participation in music is said to also improve spatial reasoning, an aspect of general intelligence which is related to some of the skills required in mathematics. While general attainment is clearly affected by literacy and numeracy skills, involvement in music appears to improve self-esteem, self-efficacy and aspirations – all such important factors in improving young people’s commitment to studying and perseverance in other subjects.

Why would the political class, with their media allies, conspire to create a situation which allows children, especially poorer ones, to miss out on such a vital ingredient of their education? It’s as if their sanctimonious mantras about inclusion, access and diversity get thrown straight out the window as soon as they are asked to do something about it.

If the Guardian were really interested in finding an answer to that smart-arsed opening question, it might consider acquainting itself with the grass-roots ecology of art music – something that is now under attack from philistines and ideologues of all political stripes. It should be trumpeting the expansion of horizons, not shutting them down for the sake of some small-minded dogma.