Classissima My classical music


Simplifying our access to classical music is a necessity

The proliferation of websites devoted to classical music or opera is rather encouraging. It indicates a vitality that belies the cliché "classical music is has-been." Despite all the difficulties they encounter in maintaining themselves, the discussion groups discuss, the medias media-ize, the bloggers blog and the vendors sell. By launching, by refusing to be the nth forum, the nth merchant, we were obliged to adopt a very different position. Our idea of simplifying the access to classical music came quite naturally, especially since there was room for innovation.

Why does classical music seem obscure to many people? Certainly not because of its forms or instruments, in which case no advertising agency would use the Shostakovich's Waltz No.2 to promote an insurer, and Walt Disney would not have produced Fantasia. Is it cultural codes? No, since wearing a tuxedo is not required to attend the MET performances, and some violinists can play in jeans and sneakers without altering their virtuosity.

Classical music's hermeticism is largely due to the immense repertoire and the abundance of performers. How to approach a genre so vast? How to go deeper? In the tens of thousands of sites we visited, only a tiny handful1 provides some clues. Almost all of them assume that we've heard all this before, that the "site visitor" will be able to distinguish between Byrd and Boulez, or between Stokowski and Christie, cite the key works by Dvorák with any hesitation, the key roles of Raimondi (Ruggiero not Gianni) or Kožená. This is nothing new. In a sense, the specialized media does the same. Reading an article or listening to a program addressing a Bach cantata quickly becomes a difficult test for the simple amateur: not a sentence flows without referring to Gunther Ramin, Kuijken, or Lezhneva. Even music lovers can switch off. So there is undoubtedly a serious barrier to entry.

With the internet, you would think that search engines could facilitate access. But no, you must know what you are looking for. Exactly. Bartoli? 75% of the results of the first page are for the Marion tennis player and only one of these results is related to Cecilia. With more precise searches, the results are disappointing with links to sites whose interest is doubtful (and for non-English, there are too many links to pages in English, because the web is American, mostly). In small niches, the internet user is not well served.

Simplifying access to classical music clearly has meaning. Yes but now: how?

Take the example of the composers. A Dutch has identified 20,000! Classissima only offers 2,000. Whatever the number, the question is "how to access?" The access by alphabetical order is the rule, useful for those who seek August Klughardt. Classissima offers a navigation system to explore 10 centuries of classical music, in width and depth. At first level: 70 composers. The composers offered at each zoom depend on their reputation2. Far from perfect, this mode of access is however unique on the web.

The names are also obstacles. Allen, Nancy the actress comes before Nancy the harpist, credited to a few dozen albums but pushed into the ninth page then the twelfth page of (fourth for Kaufmann: Georg Friedrich, Dieter, Jonas...? Shostakovich or Schostakowitsch? Dmitri or Maxim? George Frideric or Georg Friedrich Handel?

Access to works is not easy either. The 100 most famous composers have signed 25,000 scores! While some, such as Dutilleux and Kodály, have produced only some dozen works, others as Bach or Schubert have been more prolific (more than a thousand works each). And still obstacles: the association of "Die Zauberflöte" to "The Magic Flute" is not obvious to everyone. Search the symphony "From The New World" in iTunes and you cannot access to the interpretation of Slowakische Staatsphilharmonie and Libor Pešek sold on the same platform as "Aus der Neuen Welt".

Access is the real challenge of Classical music on the web. In France, for example, 200 albums come out every month. At least 250,000 albums of classical music have been published to date! The catalogs are huge... but very polluted. For example, about 3 million artists are listed in iTunes, 220 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart are available, written in 170 different forms! And these catalogs offer album tracks and not works. Search the Symphony No. 5 Beethoven and you won't find the one conducted by Dudamel (a "sinfonia"). The search tools of these catalogs are very poor, and will remain so: why provide a best user experience if the promotion of new references or ones with better margins is legitimate?

In fact, it is simply impossible for inquiring minds as music lovers to access online the true diversity of classical music. The Internet has not really solved the issue of choice in record stores. It's just a little better.

Simplifying access to classical music is a necessity and also a great challenge, because it is not simple. The solutions developed by Classissima currently, basically for 6000 composers / performers, are the beginning of new innovations.


(published in Opera Magazine #23 - September 2011, translation from French with Ilona Oltuski's assistance)

2. The reputation is based on a analysis of fifty Tops (books, websites, CD sets…) involving 600 main composers. Thus, 97% of classical composers shouldn't major (!).