In praise of difficult art

After reading Sam Leith’s article in the Guardian on 10 November, celebrating difficult novels, I felt a resurgent confidence in my own difficult activities: reading literary novels, yes, but also listening to and playing classical music.

‘Difficult’ doesn’t mean that the art form in itself is hard to access - Radio 3 and Spotify mean that listening to classical music, certainly in the UK, is straightforward - but that there are layers within the music and connections across works that give up more and more as they are studied. Consider the musical jokes in Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony that were most likely targeted at Stalin and the cryptograms in Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

In the modern landscape of endless content soundbites and instant answers, it seems that difficult art is forced to apologise or defend its position. It’s why there’s so much consternation from those invested in classical music every time there seems to be a ‘dumbing-down’, when it’s reduced to tenuous celebrity links and musical snippets.

Opening up classical music to a wider audience is to be applauded; the team I worked with at the BBC Proms strove hard for this. But it’s a fool’s errand to suggest that, to get the most from this complex art form, it doesn’t require the level of study and thought that our social media-addled brains would do well to dive into.

Laura DavisComment