Classical music has been held up by many as a bastion of Western culture, and, by some accounts, it is—the great works of compositional masters demonstrate what humans can achieve creatively when presented with the right resources, support and time. Even into the 21st century, watching someone who is truly a master of their craft perform, compose or direct allows one to revel in the ability of the human condition and where sufficient practice can take you. This is not just the case for classical music, of course. I could easily make the same statement about athletes, painters, polyglots and the like—anyone who has pushed the body or the mind to its limits.
I love classical music. It has given me a home when I didn’t quite feel like I belonged anywhere else. My singing voice was always too dark for pop and too old-sounding for theater. Classical voice gave me the space to be scary, to be loud, to take up space. It also honed my capacity to listen intently, analyze deeply and understand the myriad of socioeconomic factors that go into making great art. I feel endlessly fulfilled in my field and would not trade it for the world, but it does sometimes strike me how classical music was only designed for an incredibly small collection of people.
The business of classical music is just as important as the art—after all, the great composers would be no-names were they not published, funded and supported. There were, for hundreds and hundreds of years, two main “companies” that provided adequate financial resources for the composition and performance of classical music, those being royal courts and the Church. Choir music, my chosen field of specialization, would be nothing if not for the support of the Church. Almost all choir music, from its inception in the 13th century onward, is sacred. Many choral composers did write secular works, but the historical and cultural core of choir music is inherently rooted in Christianity.
It is, of course, also rooted in masculinity, in a way. The funding and support of male composers were impossible to achieve for most women who were making and writing music. For women, music was to be done in the home, privately, to add to a roster of skills that would position them as a good wife. Those who performed concert music publicly were considered “low,” and those who played music at the royal court were called “courtesans,” a word which all-too-quickly became synonymous with “prostitute.” Success in classical music was predicated on being a white, Christian man.
This is not to say that exceptions did not exist—Salamone Rossi, the one Jewish composer you will read about in your music history books, if you read about any at all, wrote madrigals and other polyphony for the court. Composers such as Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and Clara Schumann utilized their proximity to famous men composing at the time to get their works published and otherwise in the public eye. But for others, there was not a place in classical music for a very long time.
As a choir singer who has no plans of going professional, my two options for postgraduate singing are community choirs or churches. Community choirs are notoriously underfunded, and, while many have proven social and emotional benefits for members, are not often considered as “serious” or “proper” as the church choir. In addition, a community choir will not pay you to sing. Most likely, you will have to pay to be a member—sometimes multiple hundreds of dollars a year. On the contrary, church choirs are more likely to be well-funded, and, if you’re good enough, will pay you to participate. I’ve done it, and I like it—you get to meet nice people, and you get paid a small fee. But I can’t shake the knowledge that I, in my Jewishness that I hope is not too obvious or annoying, am not welcome and do not belong. During sermons, the pastor will tell us to spread the gospel. Save souls, all that. My friends, raised Christian and knowing by now how to filter out the bad parts, have trouble understanding why I’m so uncomfortable. Sometimes I wonder whether it would be better were I not to go.
Balancing my identity with my field can be hard, and I know that it is likely much harder for those who, instead of being listed in the margins of Western classical music history, were simply not present at all until extremely recently. Sometimes, I wish I had chosen a field that better holds these stories or had documented them better. It can be really hard to know that professional classical singing may cause me to have to hold my religion and identity at arm’s length. I often wish I were just grateful for the opportunities given to me—I’m lucky I even get paid to sing, after all—rather than complaining about how I don’t feel included. There’s no easy fix to this. It’s a slow and tiring road, one that has thankfully been explored by musicologists and directors before me and that I hope to investigate more in my postgraduate studies. Until then, though, we should try to engage with our fields through a critical lens and listen to those at the margins, especially in a field like classical music, which, compared to others, has a lot of catching up to do.
“It has given me a home when I didn’t quite feel like I belonged anywhere else.”
Malcolm Arnold: “Music is the social act of communication among people, a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is.”