Notes from a small island

British audiences tend to be suspicious about “High Art”. Yet the winner of the New Statesman’s Musi

When Genista McIntosh, a former chief executive of the Royal Opera House, spoke recently of Britain's "latent hostility to art and artists", she was stripping the bandage from an old and festering wound. We are a nation of apologists when it comes to intellectualism; the same current of scepticism that pulls us towards caricaturing our politicians and princes with such glee runs contrary to any serious tide. It's an attitude that squirms uneasily around historians and philosophers, but also reserves particular suspicion for anyone engaged in "High Art".

Long banished like a madwoman to the attic are the abstractions of classical music. While commercial success seems to be driving a revival across our other arts - the West End is breaking box-office records, flagship galleries such as Tate Modern and the Serpentine are drawing greater visitor numbers than ever before, and even the moribund British film industry seems poised for resurrection following the triumph of The King's Speech at this year's Oscars - who is taking the podium on behalf of classical music?

Occupying an inconspicuous corner of our broadsheets, a small allotment on Radio 4 and permitted the occasional outing on BBC2 or BBC4 (preferably fronted by an enthusiastic amateur such as the actor Simon Russell Beale, with his Sacred Music series), classical music just doesn't seem to have claimed its place in our mainstream cultural consciousness. For the most part, it is either exiled to the specialist ghetto of Radio 3 or turned into populist easy-listening fodder on Classic FM.

Yet this music does not enjoy being among the marginal elite. "It's always been a bugbear of mine," says Oliver Condy, editor of BBC Music Magazine, "that you can tune in to Newsnight Review and hear people discussing books and modern art eruditely but not learn anything at all about classical music. There is this real mistake people make: they think they need to know a lot about music in order to enjoy it. People are scared off by the scale and intensity."

Richard Morrison, chief music critic of the Times, offers an explanation for why this is the case: education, or rather a lack of it. "I'm afraid we have two or three generations of bad or non-existent teaching of music in schools to thank for the fact that even cultured people, perfectly willing to talk about theatre or books, shrivel and are afraid to voice opinions about classical music," he says.

The independent Music Education in England review, commissioned by the coalition government and published in February, offers a strong case for both the aesthetic and the social benefits of classical music in education. It represents a step towards fixing our uneven system, but the Department for Education's response has been unconvincing. Music is excluded from the new English Baccalaureate; it remains an optional extra, an indulgence for those with enough money and parental encouragement to make it possible.

For Professor Julian Johnson, head of music at Royal Holloway, London, and author of Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value (Oxford University Press), education is only the surface of a problem that runs much deeper. Our difficulty, he argues, lies in the lack of a socially accessible vocabulary for classical music, a "common language to talk about what the arts and humanities do for us that makes sense to people. The inherent value of classical music has been assumed and taken for granted; I think it's good that it's questioned, but if you don't have that shared language it can't usefully be discussed - there's no real debate."

Compare this to Britain's visual arts scene, home to scandal, strong opinion and the most visited modern art gallery in the world. In Fear of Music (Zero Books), the critic David Stubbs draws a vivid contrast between Tate Modern - our great success story - and concerts of contemporary classical music which still occupy, he argues, a distinctly marginal position.

Is this a by-product of the art form itself? Certainly, the temporal element of music demands commitment. If Andy Warhol's Pistols for Two (1951) offends you, there's nothing to prevent you strolling on past; walking out of a Harrison Birtwistle opera or a symphony by Peter Maxwell Davies represents a rather less acceptable breach of protocol. In a culture for which music has become unmoored from its social and emotive meanings - drums no longer direct action on the battlefield; Mass no longer necessarily solemnises a marriage, nor a requiem a death - we have become reliant on narrative and image to anchor our spectating experience.

This does not tell the whole story, however. Curated and presented intelligently, classical music - and contemporary classical music in particular - is gaining ground in Britain. With three record-breaking years to their credit, the Proms are flourishing, luring ever greater first-time audiences to the contemporary and unfamiliar (without even the promise of a seat). As the Proms director and controller of Radio 3, Roger Wright, argues: "It's been too easy and too much part of a script that remains unchallenged that there are audiences for new film and art but not for contemporary classical music. It's a notion we need to get over."

But how? The explosion of British fine art during the 1990s emerged directly out of the Young British Artists, a group whose publicly anti-intellectual stance seduced Britain to the idea of art as irreverent play. While classical music has its rebels - both Thomas Adès and now Mark-Anthony Turnage have shocked audiences with sexually explicit operas - it has thus far refused to play the media game. Contrary to perception, however, Britain boasts bold programming and compositional talent. And there is a progressive contemporary scene here whose growing popularity is reflected in the steady rise of attendance figures for events such as the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

Ever since Henry Purcell, British music has been characterised by its dialogue with foreign influences - a tradition perpetuated through the plurality of today's composers. Turnage may be the toast of the season, but his brassy fusion of operatic convention and Broadway colour must not eclipse the stage works of Jona­than Dove, whose elegant Flight will surely outlast Turnage's Anna Nicole. The witty intellectualism of Adès could not be further from James MacMillan's music, which is charged with the meditative intensity of his Celtic Catholicism, or the inscrutable, stare-you-down complexity of Brian Ferneyhough, whose work was showcased at the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Total Immersion event last month.

Neglect, it seems, is treating classical music surprisingly well. Yet the ongoing cuts to public spending on the arts signal a fundamental shift away from Britain's long-established model of blended funding. It is one that will require us to lean far more heavily on private investment. We will be looking to individuals - whether as donors or as concert-goers - to step forward and champion this music.

The musicians have played their part. Go to hear the London Symphony Orchestra perform Shostakovich on a Saturday night, pay a visit to a Welsh National Opera production or to Symphony Hall in Birmingham, listen to the eclectic work of our contemporary British composers, and you will realise that the most eloquent case for the value of classical music to Britain has already been made. l

Alexandra Coghlan will be writing regularly for the NS

This article first appeared in the 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world