Classical Music Declared 'Relevant' in Cambridge Debate

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Cambridge Union Society is the arena where generations of lawyers and politicians in Great Britain have honed their speaking skills as students. Intellectual jousts between gentlemen -- and latterly ladies -- have been held since the union was founded at the world-famous university in 1815.

On Thursday, the society was host to a debate on the issue, “classical music is irrelevant to today's youth.” On the pro side were Greg Sandow, the New York-based classical music consultant and writer, along with a student composer and a 26-year-old east-London DJ who goes by the name Kissy Sell Out.

On the con side, arguing for the genre's relevance, were Daily Telegraph music critic Ivan Hewett and comedian and actor Stephen Fry. The latter side won, as the motion was defeated by 365 votes to 57.

The entire debate was streamed live online.

Fry argued that classical music still has a place alongside the likes of Lady Gaga – who he claimed to be going to see after the debate – because it could deliver incredible listening experiences and spark a deep emotional response. “The idea that classical music is the province of white-wigged old farts shows a failure of imagination and rank snobbery,” said Fry in one of the night's sharpest zingers.

On the other side, Kissy Sell Out – real name Thomas Bisdee – said he believed Beethoven's music did not speak to the younger generation because performances were dull and not interactive. He complained orchestral concerts consisted of “sitting still, no Bacardi Breezers, no dancing, no hands in the air.”

Sandow, who teaches at the Juilliard School, argued “pop music is by far the more creative field,” adding, “Classical music does not represent or embody the racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity of our world.”

In a post-debate column for the Telegraph, Hewitt, who argued for the winning side, reflected, "I don't think we won all by ourselves; I think we were helped by a shared, inchoate sense that classical music, whatever one thinks of it, is a cultural achievement that can't be lightly thrown away.

“Even those who were irritated by its inherited privileges, or baffled by its strange, buttoned-up ways, or its willingness to repeat the same old masterpieces century after century, seemed to quite like it. Which to me showed a remarkable generosity of spirit.”

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Comments [4]

David Shore from New York

Pop music is, in the main, transient and undemanding and appealing to our "thirty second attention span". It speaks in-the-moment.
Music which we define as Classical needs more than this level of devotion. In some cases a hundred times more. Its appeal is in the intertwined melody and counterpoint, the ever changing moods and in the intellectual and emotional investment made by the listener.
Some of today's pop becomes tomorrow's classical because it is loved and it endures. We only need to think of John Williams and John Lennon to appreciate this.

May. 26 2011 10:32 AM
Frank Feldman

Of course classical music is not irrelevant. But perhaps the forms, venues, and manner in which it is presented to the public have become so.

May. 17 2011 10:37 PM
Barry Owen Furrer

Some people tend to forget that Beethoven's 5th Symphony (for example) was the "pop" or "new" music of 1808-09. The fact that it is still heard today some 200 years later, speaks volumes and begs the question - will the "pop" music of today be around 200 years from now? An interesting debate which will no doubt continue.

May. 17 2011 10:20 PM
violinhunter from Texas

Saying that classical music is irrelevant is like saying that Shakespeare or Michelangelo are irrelevent. However, the youth of today IS irrelevant - that does not even have to be debated.

May. 17 2011 09:19 PM

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