What’s wrong with an older audience?

We’re all familiar by now with the problem of ageing audiences in classical music, and the endless calls to modernise and bring in the young, which generally means dismantling concert conventions. We must go to young people because they’ll never come to us, we’re told. And we’re to do this by indulging their attention deficit, their penchant for noise, their love for the casual and their suspicion of the formal and the reverent. Okay, but if you do that, this young person will never go to any of your concerts.

All that said, I can understand the alarmists’ concerns. Who doesn’t wince at statistics like this:

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Longer term statistics are much, much worse. One report has the average age of French classical music audiences slipping from 36 to 61 over thirty years. In Australia, the largest proportion of classical music concert-goers are those aged 65-74. Greg Sandow lists studies showing a median age of 30 in 1937, then an average of 35 in 1955, moving on to 38 in the 1960s, at which point some alarms were already being sounded. Sandow has also collated longer term NEA data to show that, yes, this trend is obvious, historically unique, and shows no sign of stopping.

But why is this thought to be self-evidently bad? Today’s copy of The Times reports that violinist Nicola Benedetti ‘has expressed outrage at suggestions that organisers of symphony concerts should focus on attracting younger crowds, at the expense of older devotees.’ She suggested that older audiences are better at focusing and concentrating on the music, as well as noting that symphony performances are ‘suited to an atmosphere of formality and respectful attentiveness’.

It is somewhat outrageous that this even gets to be phrased in terms of a pernicious generation gap. The old are simply custodians of what they love, certainly not to the exclusion of the young. They really aren’t the problem — quite the contrary. Classical music has been made less welcome in modern society, whether by market forces or radical cultural change — or both. If we could simply improve, or in many cases (re)introduce, serious classical music education in state schools, and give classical music some much needed social capital, the sense of crisis would quickly fade.

There’s another, more sensitive topic. Younger generations are less white, and those of other ethnicities are even less likely to listen to classical music (with the obvious exception of East Asians, who make one less pessimistic about the future of classical music). Many people celebrate this. Desert Island Discs is, for those outside Britain, a radio programme where guests, from celebrities to politicians to academics, choose the pieces they would take with them to a desert island. When the programme begun in the early 1940s, 58% of the playlist was classical. Now it’s 21%. The Guardian had an article celebrating that the show now ‘features more diverse range of cultures and musical choices’. Of course, there are many of minority ethnicity who do choose classical music, but the historical constituency for classical music is in relative decline. And regardless of ethnicity, intelligent, fairly well-off people — those most likely to have an interest in classical music — are not exactly having the numbers of children they once would have. Which makes me think classical music is just a victim of general cultural decline.

I can think of few better musical accompaniments to this post than William Byrd’s Ye Sacred Music, written as an elegy for his friend and mentor, Thomas Tallis. ‘Tallis is dead, and Music dies.’

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