How classical crossover has fuelled creativity
Though classical crossover is often met with snobbery by purists, historically the phenomenon has acted as a fundamental creative catalyst, says Tom Service
Classical crossover. A term that makes purists recoil, that defines a genre-less genre that has classical musical culture up in arms even while it has non-specialist charts in its thrall. Yet crossover’s essential philosophy isn’t as separate from classical ideology as purists might like to think, and neither is it as genuinely open-hearted in its crossing of genres as its fans might suppose.
Crossover is about turning the ambition of the operatic into the glamour of the poperatic, fusing the emotional scale of classical music with the marketing and soundworld of pop. The result ought to be records, performances and careers that appeal to the biggest possible audience with the greatest possible impact.
And it works: it’s not only that Ludovico Einaudi, André Rieu, Katherine Jenkins, Michael Ball and Alfie Boe usually sell more records than musicians who confine themselves to the un-crossed-over classical; they’re only the latest manifestations of a phenomenon that goes back to the start of the record industry. Enrico Caruso and Nellie Melba were doing something similar in their recording careers, singing operatic offcuts, folk songs and popular tunes in new arrangements to sell millions of 78s; and between those recording pioneers and today’s crossover artistes is a chain of connection from Mario Lanza to the Three Tenors, from Kenneth McKellar to Andrea Bocelli.
And there’s another sense in which the snobbery directed at crossover is both misplaced and ahistorical. Without crossing popular musical theatre with masonic ritual and operatic virtuosity, Mozart’s The Magic Flute (one of the best operas for beginners) couldn’t have been composed; without crossing Renaissance polyphony with Baroque counterpoint and Romantic sublimity, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis wouldn’t have been written; and without fusing oratorio with song-cycle, symphony and opera of the imagination, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony couldn’t exist.
The weirdness of the music in today’s classical crossover charts is that it’s less likely to cross genres than contemporary ‘classical’ music: crossover is now a separate genre of production, product and performance that’s defined by and cosseted in its own realm of poperatic sheen, which doesn’t – ironically – cross over with anything other than itself.
It used to be so different. And if you want to experience the true power of what’s possible when opera meets pop, a place in which the crossover equation – more+more=most – really does shake the foundations of the sky, you need to hear Freddie Mercury’s album with Montserrat Caballé: Barcelona. The meeting of those voices crosses the streams of musical genres to produce something irresistibly excessive that flies into a new musical dimension: prepare to travel with Freddie and Montserrat to crossover and beyond… to Barcelona!
Top illustration by Maria Corte Maidagan
Tom Service is a familiar voice to BBC Radio 3 listeners, the station on which he has presented Music Matters since 2003 and his own programme The Listening Service, in which he breaks down how music works. He is also a monthly columnist for BBC Music Magazine. For many years, Service wrote for The Guardian, where he was chief classical music critic.