The enduring appeal of classical music

Simon Mayo – © BBC Radio 2

There were more than a few raised eyebrows when Simon Mayo resigned from the BBC after 32 years of bringing pop and mainstream music to the nation. A much-publicised backlash from listeners after Jo Whiley teamed up with Mayo to host Radio 2’s drive time slot prompted his departure, but it’s where he ended up that sparked the most interest.

In March, two months after leaving the BBC, Mayo helped to launch a new classical music radio station. He now fronts a mid-morning show on Scala Radio which, according to the DJ, promises “classical music for modern life” with an “informal come-as-you-are” attitude. Mayo thinks that “a lot of people will be surprised at how accessible classical can be”.

Early indications are good with reviewers praising the new offering. But Mayo has entered an already crowded field with BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM the go-to stations for lovers of classical music. Still, it’s a bold move and one that is testament to the enduring appeal of classical listening. In the 21st Century world where pop is king, it’s heartening to know that people still care about Mozart, Bizet and Brahms.

In fact, classical music sales are doing better than you might expect. Statistics from the BPI, the UK’s record label association, reveal that streaming and sales of classical CDs rose by more than 10 per cent in 2018 compared to 2017.Across different formats, that equates the purchase of over 2.2 million classical albums last year. What’s more, the sector is growing at a significantly faster rate than the rest of the UK music industry.

What is driving this increase? Well, film soundtracks such as Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter and more are immensely popular (John Williams is a particular favourite) as is the draw of the celebrity singer such as Andrea Bocelli or Alfie Boe. Then there are theme megastars of the classical world like the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. New works are also doing well and serving to extend the appeal of classical music, not least among younger people who prefer to stream music rather than buy physical albums. Let’s not get too focused on that though – recent research by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra shows that 53 per cent of classical fans consume music on a CD with streaming at 38 per cent.

All that aside, there’s a more important point to be made here: classical music is beautiful. And, depending on which composer you’re listening to, it’s uplifting, heartbreaking, mind-blowing, melancholic, soulful, inspiring, devastating, wistful, and exhilarating. Put simply, there’s nothing else like it.

It’s memorable, too. Why else would so many advertisers, film-makers and all manner of other producers and creatives use it? Consider one of the most famous tunes from the history of music, Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik. This has been employed repeatedly across diverse mediums and sometimes crops up where you least expect it (Charlie’s Angels, anyone?). Then there’s Puccini’s O miobabbino caro from Gianni Schicchi. Possibly the most recognizable aria of them all, it has featured on the soundtracks for Downton Abbey, Captain Correlli’s Mandolin…the list goes on and on.

It could be argued that we’ve reached a point in human history where this kind of composition can be regarded as ‘cool’. Not only have classical tracks played a profound role in moulding what we all listen to (where do you think pop music came from?), classical music embodies all that is human and humane. And you don’t get that from Little Mix.