Classical music in Britain is in trouble. It’s not merely because the infrastructure of the venues, orchestras and groups that sustain the art form have suffered from underfunding for decades. Nor can we pin all the blame on the body blow that many have just received from Arts Council England (ACE) funding cuts, in which the Britten Sinfonia lost all its funding, the London Sinfonietta lost 41 per cent, and the London Symphony, London Philharmonic and Philharmonia orchestras all lost 12 per cent.
Nor is it solely down to the marginalisation of the discipline in UK schools, where enrolments for GCSE Music have declined by 19 per cent since 2011. And don’t blame the public: as Claire Allfree reported earlier this month, a healthy appetite for classical music is just waiting to be tapped. Classical-music streaming figures are higher than ever – even if, through a mixture of arrogance and incompetence, BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM are failing to capitalise.
No, the problem lies higher up, with our political masters, and those who sit on the boards of arts bodies such as ACE – and it threatens to see the power base of the classical-music world shift permanently to the East.
The sad truth is that among Britain’s upper echelons, the situation is very different from that of half a century ago. Now, classical music and opera arouse too much embarrassment or (worse) resentment and suspicion. An insider privy to the recent ACE funding talks tells me that there was palpable resentment towards Glyndebourne, Opera North and many orchestras. Furthermore, in the eyes of some, classical music and opera bear an ancestral guilt. They are fruits of the sins of Western society: its patriarchal and colonial mindset. The rules of tonal harmony are, these critics say, as oppressive as British rule in India, and have to be dismantled – witness the recent calls in universities to “decolonise” the music curriculum.
It is true that, throughout history, composers and performers who are female or non-white have been excluded or marginalised to the point of invisibility. But the classical-music industry is well aware of its historical faults and is working flat out to rectify them (albeit not fast enough for ACE, which has ended up punishing the institutions making the biggest efforts in this regard). The appreciation of the need for change, furthermore, is admirable – but we must be cautious. When taken to extremes, it begins to seem intellectually and morally questionable, as well as damaging to the cultural and intellectual fabric of the UK.
One way to resist that trend would be to look outside our little island to an area of the world where classical music is loved and firmly embedded in the culture, arousing no embarrassment or resentment, and ask: what values does classical music hold there? I am thinking of the Far East, where classical music is booming to a degree that seems scarcely credible. Japan, Malaysia and South Korea all have thriving industries, while nowhere has its rise been so spectacular as in China.
The art form has surprisingly old roots there: the Shanghai Symphony, founded in 1879, is older than the Berlin Philharmonic. Even after the Communist seizure of power, classical music was encouraged, and thousands of Chinese musicians were sent off to the Soviet Union for advanced training. Only during the Cultural Revolution did the form become a hated symbol of Western decadence (yet a few orchestras were kept, to provide the musical backing for revolutionary operas).
Since China’s economic liberalisation in the late 1980s, classical music has been fervently embraced once more. Gleaming new concert halls and opera houses are rising up all over the country, including the spectacular National Centre for the Performing Arts, in Beijing, opened in 2007 at a cost of more than £200 million. China’s piano-building industry is now the largest in the world – and 80 per cent of those instruments are for the home market.
I used to think of this as mere middle-class aspiration, the desire of 21st-century China to “catch up” with the West, but there’s more to it than that. Classical music chimes well with traditional Chinese values that concern self-improvement and self-discipline. Confucianism has returned as an official ideology – and few of the world’s great thinkers have been as passionately engaged with music as Confucius was. For him, aesthetic beauty, self-discipline and a care for the culture you inherit are all bound together.
In line with this thinking, the Chinese regime has made classical music a key component of its educational policy. By the 1990s, Western classical music was judged more important than popular music and deserving of state support. There are now more than 40 million children across the country learning to play the piano, and more than 200 youth orchestras in Guangdong province alone. Higher up the chain, talented East Asian students now flock to Western conservatoires – and I can testify from experience that they often have a work ethic to match their abilities.
The results of this nurturing of classical music across East Asia can already be seen in Western orchestras, where vacant positions are increasingly filled by players from China, Korea, Singapore and Japan. And at the level of the globetrotting star, Chinese performers and composers are ubiquitous, fired up by a love of an art form they are determined to make their own. Yuja Wang, possibly the most famous pianist on the planet, has declared that “music, in the Chinese mind, is the most sublime thing you can do”.
There is a profound irony in seeing China excel at an art form it imported in the 19th century, while here in Britain, a cradle of classical music for more than 600 years, the genre suffers under the combined effects of penny-pinching and ideologically inspired resentment. More seriously, however, the result may soon be a profound shift in classical-music’s centre of gravity. We are already seeing signs of this. Chinese orchestras and opera companies are making major tours to the West, and in 2018 the world’s most prestigious classical label, Deutsche Grammophon, threw its 120th birthday party not in Berlin but Beijing – where it celebrated its latest signing, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.
Ten years ago, Robert Sirota, then-president of the Manhattan School of Music, declared in The New York Times that “the future of classical music depends on developments in China in the next 20 years. They represent a vast new audience as well as a classical-music-performing population that is much larger than anything we’ve had so far.” In the decade since he said those words, the trend has only accelerated.
If China can embrace and love classical music so ardently, surely we in the West can set aside our embarrassment and invented guilt about the art form, and enjoy it for what it is – a thing of wonder and beauty, and an education for both body and soul. For beware: if our cultural masters don’t change their attitude, classical-music lovers in the West may one day need to make a pilgrimage to Beijing or Shanghai to enjoy the art form that they once assumed would be here for ever.