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Reviewed by:
  • Class, Control and Classical Music by Anna Bull
  • Mark J. Whale
Anna Bull, Class, Control and Classical Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019)

Anna Bull makes a bold claim for her book, Class, Control and Classical Music. It is, she argues, the first book “to comprehensively analyze the culture of classical music practice in relation to economic inequalities in the UK.”1 According to Bull, classical music plays a part both in causing and perpetuating the gap between the rich and the poor, the dominant and dominated members of society. The relationship between classical music and inequality, Bull argues, is fundamentally tied to the U.K’s social class system in which “middleclass identity and culture is valued more than working-class … identit[y] across a range of social institutions.”2 Classical music, Bull maintains, plays a part in creating a hierarchical society in that its “embodied practices”3 are continuous with practices employed by the “professional white middleclass in the UK” to uphold “white middleclass social domination.”4

The author argues that the way classical music is imagined, configured, and produced, both in terms of its social organization and aesthetic ontology, it mirrors middleclass paradigms of organization and ontology. Middleclass people see themselves in classical music in a way that lower class people do not. As a pillar of middleclass identity, classical music is unavailable to lower class people. In this sense, the circle of middleclass domination is closed. [End Page 100]

None of this is particularly new, as the author acknowledges, and her text is diligently littered with references to scholars, many of whom have come to similar conclusions: Pierre Bourdieu, Christopher Small, Susan McClary, Marcia Citron, Lucy Green–the list goes on. What is new in her account, Bull maintains, is the study’s focus on “white middle-class English youth”5 and their relation to classical music. The author traces her argument–the classical-music/inequality relationship–through the worldviews, musical activities, and words of young people invested in classical music.

CRITICAL COMMENTARY

I have fundamental concerns about Bull’s thesis, methodology, and conclusions. I fully accept that for many classical music devotees, part–perhaps all–of what classical music offers is a sense of “exclusivity.”6 What I do not accept is that this sense of “exclusivity” is what constitutes the totality of classical music’s value for all people who engage in it. Nor do I accept that classical music directly engages any but a very small subsection of the middleclass.

Bull’s central claims, as I have noted, have to do with the way classical music shapes middleclass identity and perpetuates economic inequality. A google search tells me that the middleclass constitutes 59% of the UK’s population.7 In 2012/13, when Bull undertook her study, 7.9%8 of the UK’s population had attended a classical music concert and 2.8% of the albums sold in 2013 were classified as classical. While the reach of classical music seems to have increased recently, it remains a long way short of reaching 59% of the population. How much influence does classical music really have on the middleclass such that it could cause economic inequality?

I find myself asking the same question when I reflect upon my marginalized and stigmatized years as one of very small number of classical musicians at a large, middleclass grammar school, or my experience cocooned at the Royal Academy of Music, cut off from the vast majority of middleclass university attendees. The Academy was certainly “apart from the rest of the world,”9 but it was also apart from the bulk of the middleclass population. Bull provides no explanation, either in theoretical or evidential terms, how a very small subsection of the middleclass shaped by classical music, directly or indirectly influences the class as a whole, such that one could make the claim that classical music contributes to a widely held sense of middle-class exclusivity–that it causes economic suffering for the classes that are excluded.

Bull claims that her book constitutes a “wider socio-cultural analysis of classical music’s place in contemporary society.”10 The data supporting her claim come from interviews...

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