Last week saw the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the greatest classical composers of all time. Having composed over 700 works of music, several of which were written after he became deaf, Beethoven was a prolific, unstoppable force rivalled by few. His most popular compositions, such as ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and ‘Symphony No. 5’ are easily recognised by people everywhere. However, the musical landscape has changed greatly since the days of Beethoven; far from being the popular music of its day, classical music nowadays is seen to be reserved to an audience of the wealthy elite. The question that begs to be asked is: what place does classical music have in the 21st century?
Part of the enduring charm of Beethoven’s music is its ability to adapt to change. The composer found a new home for the first movement of his ‘Piano Sonata No. 8 “Pathétique”’ in pop superstar Rina Sawayama’s track ‘Snakeskin’, which uses the main melody from the sonata as its vocal melody, as well as an extract of the sonata in its outro.
This isn’t the first time that Beethoven has been given somewhat of an update; rapper Nas borrowed from ‘Für Elise’ in his track ‘I Can’. And it isn’t just Beethoven that has received the cross-genre adaptation; Monti’s violin melody from ‘Czardas’ serves as the introduction to Lady Gaga’s ‘Alejandro’, Little Mix transform Fauré’s ‘Pavane in F sharp minor’ into an R&B anthem in ‘Little Me’, and Stromae updates Bizet’s ‘Habanera’ with lyrics for the modern age in ‘Carmen’.
But of course, the relevance of classical music in the 21st century doesn’t just exist in its relation to other genres of music. Contrary to what many believe, classical music is not a dying art. It exists everywhere. Concert halls regularly sell out for classical performances, youth orchestras and orchestral university societies are alive and thriving, and more children than ever are brought up learning a classical instrument. The BBC Proms alone have an audience of around 15 million each year (including those who watch on TV). The classical greats have been beloved for many years, and new greats continue to be flourish within the genre of 21st century classical music. 21st century classical music has seen a certain relaxing of boundaries between genres as modern composers seek to incorporate elements of world music, pop, jazz and more, as well as using production software and technological advances to experiment within the genre.
The beauty of classical music lies far beyond its ability to help you dazzle conversation at dinner parties. Classical music can help to lower blood pressure, act as a natural pain reliever, improve cognitive functioning, reduce stress levels and improve sleep. But no one listens to music purely for the health benefits. There is a level of emotive, all-encompassing beauty found in classical music that is difficult to find elsewhere. Classical music fulfils many different functions; it can tell a story, encapsulate a concept, follow a methodical pattern or just exist as art for art’s sake. It’s wealth and variety cement its position as music that is truly timeless.
Many are put off by the perceived complexity of classical music, believing that in order to enjoy classical music, one must have had professional training – but this is not the case. It can be difficult to figure out where to begin when listening to classical music, and it can’t be denied that classical music faces a big problem with elitism and inaccessibility. It continues to struggle with its image of being exclusively targeted towards the wealthy, educated and powerful. Classical music has also been known to extensively favour wealthy white men, both as composers and performers, meaning that women, people of colour and those from a lower socioeconomic background face barriers in entering the classical world. While these problems will not disappear overnight, projects such as Chineke!, Venus Blazing and the gender equality pledges undertaken by the Proms, Cheltenham music festival and others, are encouraging signs of the progress that is being made.
Classical music will never cease to be relevant. It brought about the major/minor system that is the base for most contemporary Western music; it is an integral part of most movie and TV soundtracks, and has proved itself willing to evolve and interact with other genres of music. But in addition to this, classical music is a thing of beauty in and of itself. It may seem daunting at first, but despite what you may believe, it doesn’t take a music degree to appreciate the overwhelming beauty of the genre. Whether it’s a Bach prelude written in the 1700s or the exquisite blend of rap and classical piano on Glenn Gould’s ‘Uninvited Guests’, there is something for everyone in the rich world of classical music.
Words by Joanna Magill
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