Why is classical music making a comeback?

They say the classics never go out of style, which seems to be the case for classical music. As we know, the Covid-19 pandemic was a reset for society, with those of us not in political power collectively using the time off to re-evaluate our place in the world and what we want from life. It also led to many exploring new realms of interest, ones that had been previously dismissed without a great deal of thought. One such area was classical music.

If we cast our mind back to a few years before the pandemic struck in early 2020, there were signs that classical music was starting to re-emerge, refusing to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Various now-popular artists made waves by drawing on the sprawling world of musical theory. In London, Black Midi and Black Country, New Road did so in an embodiment of the contemporary distaste for rigid form and the standard verse-chorus-verse configuration. It was a masterstroke, and the bands became two groups considered at the forefront of modern British music.

To many, popular music had grown tired, so they looked to some of the greats of the classical world for inspiration. Adding to this, one suspects that Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood’s foray into the world of soundtrack composing went someway in changing the contemporary opinion of classical. His glistening blend of classical and modern for titles such as There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice, and Phantom Thread remain some of the most profound scores in existence. He showed that it’s not some stuffy form that only the richest of society could access, but it is exciting and thought-provoking when weaponised properly within popular culture. This is a trend Greenwood continued after the lockdown period, too, with his score for Jane Campion’s 2021 drama The Power of the Dog incredible.

A 2020 study by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Deezer, and the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) found that classical music was enjoying a rise in popularity among young people during the lockdown period. Its findings were remarkable. In the time between April 2019-2020, there was a 17% increase in classical listeners worldwide on Deezer.

In that 12 months, almost a third (31%) of Deezer’s classical listeners in the UK were under 35, a much younger age group than those who typically purchase the genre. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s research also found that those under 35 were likelier to have listened to orchestral music during the lockdown at 59%, compared to the national average of 51%.

Indicating the holistic pull of classical music, 35% of respondents in the Orchestra’s research felt the genre helped them to relax and maintain calmness and well-being during the pandemic, with 18% saying that listening lifted their spirits. Following this, one of the study’s most pertinent findings was that streamers under 35 accounted for over two-thirds of classical music played worldwide between June 2019 and 2020, at 69%. The figures represent a momentous sea change, yet this was only the beginning; we’re now three years on.

So, now that classical music’s emotional and sonic appeal to contemporary listeners has been examined, what else has caused its rise? In a January 2022 think piece for The Observer, John Gilhooly – director of Wigmore Hall and chair of the Philharmonic Society – offered some other factors that have contributed to classical’s rise. 

Gilhooly notes classical’s role in “our wider community” and its benevolent efforts for people of all ages and backgrounds as a significant factor in its resurgence. Firstly, he notes Wigmore Hall’s – the “international home of chamber music” – pioneering ‘Music For Life’ and ‘Singing with Friends’ programmes as two examples. He writes: “We also reach some of the most marginalised people in society, including those who have experienced homelessness, domestic abuse and children living with HIV, a forgotten minority.”

Elsewhere, Gilhooly mentions the English National Opera’s ‘Breathe’ programme. This well-being programme draws on the expertise of opera singers and staff at Imperial College Healthcare to help long Covid sufferers across the UK improve anxiety and breathing. Now in place at 50 trusts across the country, “it vividly illustrates more than ever the worth of music in social prescribing.”

Gilhooly also mentioned the work of not-for-profit arts organisation Bold Tendencies, which reclaimed the Peckham multistorey car park as an innovative arts destination for the locale, with classical music at its heart. 

Not only did it become a relevant blueprint for others, but next time you see the trendy Frank’s Cafe, which sits atop the building, posted on someone’s Instagram, note that it was all possible because of classical music. It tells of how classical music has dramatically changed its role in society.

Other non-professional choral societies “abound”, which connect communities. These include the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra leading rehabilitation workshops for stroke recoverers in Hull and ‘Sound Young Minds’, a bespoke programme created by the City of London Sinfonia with the Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School. The latter aims to build confidence and self-esteem in young people with severe psychiatric conditions through music making. 

There’s also New York City’s ‘Lullaby Project’. Helmed by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, it pairs expecting or new parents and caregivers with professional artists to write and sing personal lullabies for their babies. It supports mental health and childhood development and strengthens the bond between parent and child.

Gilhooly says that the “innovative work” of these institutions is just the tip of the iceberg of classical music embedding itself into the social fabric. Helped by the social changes “precipitated by the pandemic”, it has resulted in a radically new landscape. Now, classical music is re-energised and has a more tangible impact than ever before, hopping over socioeconomic, gender and racial divides in ways once thought impossible.

There have been a series of other elements that have seen classical come to the fore once again. One is influential British electronic artist Floating Points’ 2021 album, Promises with Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra. It is widely hailed as one of the most essential releases of the past few years, or a “modern masterpiece”, as The Murder Capital frontman James McGovern told us.

American composer Caroline Shaw is also credited with impacting classical’s comeback. She’s collaborated with Kanye West on numerous occasions, such as on ‘Wolves’ from The Life of Pablo, and has even had her music used for a Beyoncé tour video. In 2020, she entered the bastion of popular music when she received a Grammy nomination for Orange before eventually winning the 2022 ‘Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition’ for Narrow Sea. Following this, a renewed interest in boundary-pushing composers such as Steve Reich and Harold Budd has also had an effect.

Reflecting the scope of the classical music comeback is that Apple rolled out Apple Music Classic in late March. A standalone streaming app, it seeks to ease listeners’ way into classical, an area that has long been considered complicated and difficult to penetrate. A certain Jonny Greenwood also championed it.

After the app was launched, the Radiohead man said: “What I’m encouraged by is that so many people who listen to the kind of music that Radiohead make also have a deep interest in classical music.”

“But until now, it can be quite off-putting trying to discover more about composers,” he explained. “I just think there’s a whole market of people who are interested in artists like (US composer) Steve Reich, for example, and think of them as all being quite similar.”

“But until now, when you look for Steve Reich on Apple Music it’s quite off-putting, and it’s quite limitless, the amount of recordings and pieces,” Greenwood continued. “And the clarity that it’s going to give to people when they want to actually step into this amazing world of music is going to be a huge help, I think.”

With classical music becoming so prominent across society, it can only mean one thing: it is here to stay, and for the better.

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