Royal Musical Association Conference Poster

We are delighted to be presenting a poster on the work of the network at the Royal Music Association Conference at Newcastle University, 14-16 September 2021.

Questions about what classical music represents, whom it represents, and who is missing or under-represented in its practices are currently at the fore of public and scholarly debate about the art form and the profession. To explore these issues, the Representing Classical Music in the 21st Century AHRC network adopted an innovative, dual focus on representation. It considered contemporary artistic and media representation of classical music (e.g., plays and films depicting ‘classical’ musicians) as well as demographic representation in the classical music industry. The latter includes representation of ‘classical’ musicians by agents and record companies; musicians’ self-representations (e.g., on social media); and the demographics of the classical music profession and repertoire vis-à-vis gender, class, (dis)ability, and ethnicity.

This poster presents key findings and outputs emerging from network events, which include a new play script, a special collection of essays and a range of blog materials. View the poster here: WHITTAKER RMA Poster FINAL PDF.

Final Symposium

The third and final network symposium was held online on May 14, 2021. This event was rescheduled from April 2020.

Deborah Annetts, CEO of the Incorporated Society of Musicians and Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, CEO of UK Music, were guest speakers. Over 20 attendees from several academic fields and from the classical music industry discussed issues related to the network topic. Attendees prepared position statements, which are available on this blog. A reading of an excerpt from an early draft of Dzifa Benson’s new play Black Mozart, White Chevalier was presented. This was followed by a q-and-a session with the author. Benson’s play focuses in part on the relationship between Mozart and his contemporary, Joseph Boulogne.

Here is a video of the reading, shared with permission of the author. Please note that the script is a work-in-progress. The recording, a ‘scratch’ presentation, was made to give a sense of the play and to stimulate discussion.

Writing off modernist music

He sits here, years too late, knowing everything. Music has turned out to be the very thing he was taught to scorn. All his fellow composers have scattered on the winds of changing taste. But the young are still here, still in a hurry for transcendence, still willing to trade Now for something a little more durable…

Orfeo, p. 251

Orfeo is Richard Powers’s 2014 Booker long-listed novel about a fictional composer, Peter Els, who loves classical music, is schooled in modernist music, and who accidentally becomes a bio-terrorist in his old age. It’s formally innovative and full of music, including a moving account of Messiaen composing Quatuor pour la fin du temps in a concentration camp. Yet for all its explosive writing and up-to-date references to terrorism and technology, the novel ultimately decides that true music is classical music, and anything else is dangerous. In the quotation above, tonality reasserts itself as ‘everything’ for Peter Els, while composers who have diverged from it are merely following ‘changing tastes’. His university education, Peter realises, was worthless: it merely ‘taught’ him to ‘scorn’ the true and universal beauty of classical harmonies. Twentieth century music is dismissed as a passing fad, while a form of ‘transcendence’ specifically equated with functional harmony is reasserted as a universal and ahistorical truth, different to the transient ‘Now’.

The novel doesn’t complicate this idea: this is an important moment of realisation for Peter at a climactic moment forming a crucial stage of the narrative resolution. Powers even has Peter blame modernist music for making him a terrorist: ‘I wanted music to be the antidote to the familiar. That’s how I became a terrorist.’ Orfeo is a recuperative and nostalgic text that holds up longstanding aesthetics and ways of living as right and true: it advocates classical music and the nuclear family, and its narrative – focalised through a white male composer and his white male artist friends – refuses to tolerate anything unfamiliar.

It’s hard to imagine a contemporary novelist writing off twentieth century literature or visual art in this way: complaining that Joyce, Woolf, or Van Gogh have damaged us, and that we ought to return to the ways of Austen, Chaucer, or Giorgione. Yet Powers does feel able to claim that modernist music was a mistake. Is this because contemporary discourses about C20th art music are so impoverished?

Dr. Gemma Moss is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University.

The limits of cinema’s representations (what they tell us and what they won’t let us hear)

When using cinema as a vantage point for studying the workings of music in contemporary culture, I have often felt a sense of frustration with the limitations of cinema’s representations of classical music. By this, I don’t just mean a frustration with the seemingly endless reiteration of a limited number of stereotypes (classical music as sign of social distinction, of intellectual complexity, of universality, of pastness etc.), but also with the very process of using music (indeed, all kinds of music) as a symbolic sign. In this sense, it seems to me that cinematic representations of classical music as privilege, as universal language, as an old cherished object etc., not only foreclose many of the music’s possible meanings but also function as listening obstructions. These representations often seem to ask me to read music as a sign before I get the chance to experience it.

So, what can we do with these limitations? As possible catalysts for our discussion on Friday, I would like to put forward two sets of questions:

  • What can the limitations of cinema’s representations tell us about classical music? Does the stereotypical fixity of many of such representations reveal a narrowing in the music’s cultural significance? Does the common use of classical music as a symbolic sign reflect—in a microcosm—the broader sense in which the discourse of music as classical can be an obstacle to one’s engagement with the music’s aesthetic and historical specificity? If so, what would have to change for these representations to give way to rich cinematic experiences of music?
  • Should we also question the very usefulness of focusing on cinema’s representations as a way of understanding classical music’s significance in twenty-first-century culture? Should we ask, instead, how cinema, as a technology and a representational system, remediates listening to classical music? And should we do more work on how film continues to shape our engagement with classical music beyond the cinema?

Dr. Carlo Cenciarelli is a Lecturer at Cardiff University and is the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Cinematic Listening (OUP, 2021).

Maybe representation as a goal isn’t enough

I want to express some problems with the current focus on ‘diverse representation’ as an aim for opera, where my experience is (and for classical music):
  1. It is harmful for marginalised people to come into environments that are not safe and supportive. How can we make sure that we are not encouraging ‘diverse talent’ into harmful situations?  Is the positive story we want to tell about representation making life harder for people who are already here? On the other hand, how can we be honest about how things are without being discouraging?
  2. In my experience ‘diverse talent’ in opera is co-opted into telling harmful stories about itself. How can we address the conflict between these different meanings of ‘representation’? One answer, potentially, is more representative artistic leadership, but without even broader change, individuals in positions of power may achieve little, or burn out (see above).
  3. People have been ‘reinventing opera’ and ‘making classical music open to everyone’ for longer than I’ve been alive. Broadly speaking, either it’s not working, or it is working, but not in the way claimed (or intended?).
  4. Overall, I think the connecting thread between these thoughts is that you have to deal with the ideology of what and who is already there, before/as well as inviting people in, or deciding it’s your place to invite people into. Potential audiences aren’t just put off Covent Garden by the ticket prices, but by (a portion of) the existing audience. Artists aren’t just excluded by an absence of role models but by the presence of racism and ableism. Representation as a goal — in terms of workforce or audience demographics — maybe isn’t enough.

Toria Banks is a director, acting teacher, dramaturg, writer, and producer. She is one of the core team of HERA.

Legitimacy & Aesthetic Ideals

This post is written by Åsa Bergman.

The legitimacy of classical music in contemporary society has been debated by researchers for some decades and has also been described as weakened in relation to the past (Kramer 2007, Botstein 2013). In a discussion that recently took place in the Swedish daily press between representatives of concert institutions, journalists and musicologists, classical music was described as marginalised, compared to other music genres. This was furthermore pointed out as connected to how market discourses today permeate the concert programs and to how they are presented to the audience (c.f. Wallrup 2016, Brodej 2016).

However, based on an ongoing study of how symphony orchestras in England and Sweden present concert programs on their web sites, legitimacy seems to be obtained by maintaining a balance between constructing classical music in line with aesthetic ideals established in the 19th century and more contemporary music ideas. While the former discourse emphasises the music’s eternal values, and its potential to generate transcendent experiences (Bonds 2006), the latter emphasises classical music as an open semiotic space, whose meaning the listener is free to define on basis of needs and desires in a specific situation or context (Kasabian 2013, Nealon 2018).

One way to understand the two identified discourses is that a discursive struggle is taking place, another is that they are interconnected. Since, even if the romantic aesthetic ideals are less expressed in relation to the promoted concert programs investigated than experience-oriented and mood-enhancing meaning, and thus could be understood as being challenged by them, such ideals seem to remain uncontested as long as they are combined.


Bonds, Mark. Evan. 2006. Music as Thought. Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Brodej 2016 Så här kan vi rädda den klassiska musiken [This is how we can save the Classical Music] Expressen 2016-05-25

Kassabian, Anahid. 2013. Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press

Nealon, Jeffery. T. 2018. I’m Not Like Everybody Else. Biopolitics, Neoliberalism and American Popular Music. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press

Wallrup 2016 Därför skiljer sig konstmusiken från poppen [Therefore, the Art Music Differs from the Pop] Svenska Dagbladet SvD 2016-06-21

Åsa Bergman is an Associate Professor in Musicology in the Department of Cultural Sciences at the University of Gothenburg.

J.S. Bach’s Religious Music in Contemporary European Art Cinema: Western Art Music or ‘Film Music’?

This post is written by Dr. Douglas Knight.

Historiographic accounts of J.S. Bach’s reception have often overlooked European art cinema’s significance as a twentieth and twenty-first-century ‘receptor’ of his music, particularly with regard to those works written for the Lutheran church. Films by post-war modernist directors, such as Pasolini and Tarkovsky, were foundational in making extensive use of Bach’s religious and concert music. More contemporary auteurs of the past twenty years, including Haneke and Dumont, for example, have also actively paid homage to this previous late-twentieth-century generation by using Bach’s religious music in similar ways. I would maintain that collectively their films demand to be considered in a broader historical context, specifically the traditions of revivalist stagings of Bach’s Passiontide works and earlier twentieth-century composers’ modernist orchestrations, such as those by Schoenberg. I would argue that Bach’s church music in European art cinema since the 1960s is an extension of a particular line of modern Bach reception.

That these refunctionings of Bach’s music now occur in the secular, mass-participatory media of film, inevitably changes the music’s meanings, certainly as compared with original historical and religious meanings. Does Bach’s religious music of the eighteenth century now function epistemologically as ‘Western art music’ as it often has done in concert halls, or, instead, as ‘film music’ to be listened to cinematically? The formal role of the music and its poetics may instead come to be prioritised audiovisually over attempts at pietistic observance. Yet, as scholars such as John Butt and Lawrence Dreyfus have demonstrated, much of Bach’s church music ultimately stems from secular operatic influence. To this end, I would argue that European art cinema’s use of Bach’s religious music reveals the dialectical tension between liturgical religious practice and secular artistic expression that is at the heart of this programmatic music to an unprecedented degree. I would encourage network participants, and scholars of both film and art music traditions, to consider this scene of diegetic performance in Dumont’s film, Hadewijch (2009), as illustrative of these critical issues.


Applegate, Celia. 2005. Bach in Berlin: Nation and Culture in Mendelssohn’s Revival of the St. Matthew Passion. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Butt, John. 2010. Bach’s Dialogue with Modernity: Perspectives on the Passions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Caruana, John. 2014. “Bruno Dumont’s Cinema: Nihilism and the Disintegration of Christian Imagery.” in Camil Ungureanu and Costica Bradatan (eds.), Religion in Contemporary European Cinema: The Postsecular Constellation, 110-125. New York: Routledge.

Dreyfus, Laurence. 1996. Bach and the Patterns of Invention. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

Marissen, Michael. 1993. “Religious Aims in Mendelssohn’s 1829 Berlin-Singakademie Performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.” The Musical Quarterly, 77, no. 4: 718-26.

—. 2016. Bach & God. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dr. Douglas Knight is a researcher and organist in North London. He has recently completed a PhD in musicology from Royal Holloway, University of London: “Post-War European Art Cinema and Classical Music”.

Representations of Classical Music Listening and Constructions of the Self in Post-Millennial Cinema

This post is written by Dr. Tobias Pontara.

Depictions of classical music listening in post-millennial European and American cinema can be seen as perpetuating a conception of the listener that has been dominant in Western society since at least the beginning of the nineteenth century. Variously described by writers such as Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Eduard Hanslick, Theodor Adorno and, more recently, Roger Scruton, this is a listener that relates to music as an enchanted, psychologically withdrawn and existentially self-sufficient experiencer. As Judith Becker (2010) points out, however, taken-for-given assumptions of ‘an inwardly focused, isolated listener [are] inadequate’, insofar as such ‘portrayal[s] of listener and listening present a set of unexamined ideologies and presuppositions that would not apply for most of the world’. Moreover, even within the Western classical music tradition such assumptions are problematic, since they do not do justice to the manifold ways of listening that exist in relation to classical music. The image of the silent, immobile and inward-directed listener is misleading because it acknowledges only one of many ways of musicking (Small, 1998) that people engage in while listening to classical music in everyday life (cf.  DeNora 2000; Lilliestam 2020)

It is nevertheless an image of the listening subject that ties in with broader conceptions of the self in the modern Western world. In Charles Taylor’s seminal book Sources of the Self (1989) one of the central constituents of the modern Western identity is a deep experience of inwardness and the resulting sense of a strongly detached self. In the history of aesthetics, this self is presupposed already in Kant’s theory of aesthetic judgement and his claim that pure aesthetic pleasure is defined by a disinterested approach to the contemplated object. And this in turn is what underwrites most (if not all) accounts of classical music listening. With regard to cinema this is evidenced by recurring tropes relating to classical music listening throughout the history of Western filmmaking, such as depictions of solitary listening in public and private settings. Whether the focus is on overwhelming experiences in the concert hall, on technologically mediated listening or on personal memories in relation to music listening, contemporary cinema’s portrayal of classical music listening builds on these tropes. In doing so it at the same time draws upon and reproduces the Western idea of an inwardly constituted detached self.


Becker, Judith (2010) “Exploring the Habits of Listening: Anthropological Perspectives” in Patrik N. Juslin (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Music and Emotion: Theory, Research, Applications. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 127–157.

DeNora, Tia (2000) Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lilliestam, Lars (2020) Lyssna på musik. Upplevelser, mening, hälsa. Göteborg: Bo Ejeby Förlag.

Small, Christopher (1998) Musicking. The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Taylor, Charles (1989) Sources of the Self. The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Professor Tobias Pontara works in the Department of Cultural Sciences at the University of Gothenburg.

The Elevated Status of Opera in Cinema

This post is written by Dr. Johanna Ethnersson Pontara.

During the last few decades scholars have paid increasing attention to how cinema deals with traditional aesthetic values in its representations of opera. Marc A. Weiner (2002) and Marcia Citron (2010) have explored films from the late 1980s and 1990s (Moonstruck, 1987; Pretty Woman, 1990; Philadelphia, 1993; The Shawshank Redemption, 1994) and shown how they connect operatic song with transcendence of particularity and emotional liberation. The opera performance, whether staged live in the opera house or mediated by technology, generates a special experience for attentive listeners in the fictional world at a pivotal moment in the narrative. Recently, Citron (2011: 318) has argued that this idealization of opera is challenged with the James Bond film Quantum of Solace (2008). Here, a staged opera performance is fragmented and serves to reinforce an action scene. Moreover, the performance is not associated with attentive listening. Lawrence Kramer (2013) has, just like Citron, pointed to a new conception of opera in recent cinema. According to him two conceptual supports on which the representation of ‘classical music’ has depended have been removed: ‘the status of a relatively stable whole’ and ‘a model of consciousness and attention’ (Kramer, 2013: 42-43). He exemplifies this removal by showing how the habanera from Bizet’s Carmen is used in the film Up (2009). The specific music and the specific opera, here, only have overall semiotic value – as recognizable classical music – for the film viewer, and the music ‘does not act as a token of a larger whole’ (Kramer, 2013: 48).

Scenes from recent films, however, show that cinema nonetheless continues to uphold an idealized image of opera. Of interest, though, is that this idealization does not revolve around the operatic song as a sonic entity or representation in a staged setting, which is the case in the mentioned films from the 1980s and 1990s, but around the presence of the singer as a real-life singer. This promotion of the singer appears to be connected to cross-promotion strategies between cinema and the classical music industries. Opera singers make use of cinema to promote themselves, while cinema in turn makes use of the real-life celebrities in order to market films containing opera.


Citron, M 2010 When Opera Meets Film. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Citron, M 2011 The Operatics of Detachment: Tosca in the James Bond Film Quantum of Solace. 19th-Century Music, 34(3): 317-318.

Kramer, L 2013 Classical Music for the Posthuman Condition. In: Gorbman, C, Vernallis, C, Richardson, J The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 39-51.

Weiner, M A 2002 Why Does Hollywood Like Opera? In: Joe, J, Rose T Between Opera and Cinema. New York: Routledge. pp. 75-91.


Dr. Johanna Ethnersson Pontara is Associate Professor of Musicology at Stockholm University.

Classical Music and Conflict in the Contemporary Novel

This post is written by Katie Harling-Lee.

There is a recent trend for contemporary novels which feature classical music, set during political or armed conflict. This trend can be found beyond the novel and in wider popular culture, and whilst my research focuses on representations of classical music in the contemporary novel, these novels inform and are part of the wider popular imagination, as they can be described as ‘popular high culture’: ‘literary novels that appeal to scholars whilst also functioning as entertainment on the contemporary literary marketplace’.

In my research I use the term ‘musico-literary novel’: ‘a novel which thematically engages with musicological and music philosophy concerns throughout its narrative’.[1] Examples include Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016), The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (2016), The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway (2008), and Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (2001). 

The novels represent classical music in an in-depth, extensive way, depicting imagined experiences of music listening, music practise and performance, and musical composition. Some of these novels only feature classical music, whilst others include various styles or types of music, yet these particular novels maintain a primary focus on classical music within their conflict context.

In analysis of the novels’ representations of classical music, a common thread occurs. An element of classical music that is repeatedly valued is its established tradition, e.g., formal structures and etiquette, global reach, and its centuries-long tradition. Anna Bull has importantly highlighted the structures of control which are present in the classical music tradition, and the issues this raises,[2] yet these novels complicate such criticisms through their use of the armed/political conflict context. Depicting the human desire for some semblance of control in a chaotic, conflict zone, these novels present a different perspective on classical music’s controlling elements: when a character’s country appears to be falling apart, the character turns to classical music as a source of survival.[3]


[1] Katie Harling-Lee, ‘Listening to Survive: Classical Music and Conflict in the Musico-Literary Novel’, Violence: An International Journal, 1.2 (2020), 371–388 (p. 373).

[2] Anna Bull, Class, Control, and Classical Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[3] What makes this valuation of music in a conflict setting even more thought-provoking is the real-life parallels that can be found in musicians’ memoirs (e.g., The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labour Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Zhu Xiao-Mei (2012))

Katie Harling-Lee is a Wolfson Foundation Doctoral Scholar at Durham University.