The idea of this poll is generated from the following article on the book
Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Values.
By Julian Johnson.
Oxford University Press; 152 pages
Jan 9th 2003
From The Economist print edition
IN THE early 17th century, a poet stirred by the rich polyphony of church music declared
that it showed him “the way to heaven's door”. Three hundred years later, another poet
heard in a Beethoven symphony “mankind made plausible, his purpose plain”. Unhappily,
reactions to classical music in our time are often less visionary. Miles Davis, a noted jazz
trumpeter who turned to rock, pronounced it “dead @#%$”, lacking the instant impact which
pop music offers and which pop culture of all kinds has made the global measure of
As indifference to classical music grows, Julian Johnson, an academic and composer, has
produced a heartfelt and finely reasoned appeal. “Who Needs Classical Music?” not only
makes the case for the relevance of its subject, but launches a larger attack on attitudes
which threaten to marginalise both classical music and high art in general, replacing their
unique depth with the frissons of fashion and sensation. For Mr Johnson, mainstream
culture has become saturated with the youth values of immediacy and novelty. Geared to
commodities and advertising, it dismisses the more deliberate and complex responses
which classical music requires as outmoded, unsellable and elitist.
Indeed, so as to survive, classical music has in places begun to adopt the trappings of
pop. Classical charts are dominated by easy-listening compilations, crossover albums,
tie-ins with films and ad campaigns, and photogenic young performers of frequently limited
talent. The one way for core classical repertoire to achieve hit status is by hype of its own, as in the recent
recording of Mahler's Fifth Symphony by the Berlin Philharmonic and its charismatic new conductor, Sir Simon
But even this kind of appeal has more to do with media than music. Mr Johnson is concerned that some people who
profess a fondness for classical music are really more attracted by its image, staking a snobbish claim to what is
perceived as an elite activity without making the effort of attention which classical music depends on and radically
The very ubiquity of music in the modern world is part of the problem. Mr Johnson regards recording as a
double-edged sword—excellent for making masterpieces available at the touch of a button, deleterious as an
encouragement to treating them merely as an agreeable background noise to suit a mood, while away the time,
half-ignore and interrupt at will.
At the heart of Mr Johnson's argument is this sense that the classical impulse is different from simple
entertainment. Classical music offers not merely the basic pleasures of melody, harmony and rhythm, but the
meanings which these elements can reveal when explored in the process of composition by a master. It is just this
intense emotional and intellectual engagement, shared by composer and listener, that pop music and pop culture
reject: it is definitely not cool, a quality which denies complexity, in which work followed by chilling out define the
parameters of being human.
By contrast, Mr Johnson's idea of humanity is inherently complex and uniquely fulfilling, involving “the tension
between the bodily and the intellectual, the material and the spiritual, the thing-like and its transcendence in
thought.” Throughout the ages, people have sought to reconcile their dialectical nature, and classical music offers
the means of resolution. From Bach to Beethoven, Brahms to Alban Berg, its mysterious processes engender “a
squaring of the circle that we claim as fundamentally human. We understand ourselves as particular, physical
beings, but we also value the ways we exceed the physical, the ways our capacity for thought, feeling and
imagination seem to transcend our bodily existence.”
Mr Johnson insists that this experience is not remotely elitist, but part of a natural human desire to possess more
life, in more comprehension and abundance. His wise, perceptive and inspiring book provides something of the same
humanising effect, as well as passionately answering the question in its title.