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If music be food of love we are starved of affection

By Greg Barns - posted Monday, 31 December 2007

Classical music in Australia is dying a slow death. In common with Europe and North America, the Australian classical music world is characterised by stagnant audience numbers and a low profile in the community.

This is a cause for national concern, and the newly elected Rudd Government, along with state and territory governments, ought to take steps to redress the trend. The generally successful efforts of governments over the past decade to promote reading and Australian literature could provide a useful blueprint for any concerted strategy to lift classical music from the doldrums.

The number of Australians who attend classical music concerts each year - about 1.5 million - has not shifted since the first Australian Bureau of Statistics survey of culture in 1992.


It is doubtful if there is one classical music composer or performer, with the possible exception of the "rock star-like" Richard Tognetti of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, who is recognised in the broader Australian community. Yet classical music's equivalents in literature are prominent Australians - authors such as Kate Grenville, Peter Carey and popular poet Les Murray spring to mind in this context. And in the education system, classical music education is not regarded as fundamental as literacy or numeracy.

To give classical music in Australia a more stable foundation for the future, arts ministers should borrow from the strategies used by their governments to boost an appreciation of reading and writing over the past 15 years or so. The number of governmental initiatives in the area of reading, creative writing and literacy is astonishing. There is a national literacy and numeracy week supported by all levels of government. Nearly all state premiers have their own literature awards.

This year we saw the launch of the Vegemite Little Aussie Reader project, which involved "the distribution of scrap books, reading materials and information sheets to all public libraries and 4,693 accredited long-day-care centres across Australia". There is a national, annual federal government sponsored Books Alive campaign, encouraging Australians to "discover the joy of reading".

The result of all this activity is that the Australian literary scene is booming today. Creative writing courses are popular and today from Cooktown to Bunbury there are meetings of book clubs, "poetry in the pub" evenings, and writers' festivals.

We have sports stars such as former Olympic swimmer Lisa Forrest fronting promotion of reading. Australian literary figures are so well known that they are used to head environmental or community campaigns - writer Tim Winton is an influential environmental campaigner in Western Australia.

The same efforts need to go into rescuing classical music from the doldrums. Just as it is compulsory for children to learn to read and appreciate books from a very young age, so they should also be exposed to the wonders of classical music through access to musical instruments and the stories about the colourful lives of composers such as Mozart and Beethoven. Teacher training should include at its core an appreciation and basic knowledge of classical music.


We need also to have a national music week, which has the same profile and effort attached to it as those weeks in which we celebrate reading. A national music week could include free classical music concerts, profiles of our leading composers and performers, and competitions for students that encourage composition and performance of classical pieces.

Each of the premiers and the federal Arts Minister should develop a series of annual awards for new composers and performers. Media organisations, which have supported literature and literacy promotion efforts strongly in this country, could become the partners of government in raising classical music literacy.

Who knows? If Australians really discover their collective ear and embrace classical music this might encourage people to form music clubs where, instead of discussing a book, members listen to an opera or a symphony and learn to appreciate the context in which it was written and what the composer is telling us.

Our nation needs its governments to broaden the appeal and reach of classical music because it will make us a better society. As Michael Tilson Thomas, the prominent American conductor and educator says, "through the emotions it taps, music can make us more aware of our selves and of others". That can only be a good thing for Australia.

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Greg Barns recently served on the board of the Australian Youth Orchestra. First published in The Age on December 20, 2007.

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Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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