Twitter was never a very musical social medium. Unlike YouTube, you couldn’t listen to ten hours of “Für Elise” on repeat; unlike TikTok, teenagers didn’t go viral for singing sea shanties. You can’t really share your own music like on SoundCloud or Bandcamp, and probably no one will care about your rare vinyl of Gérard Grisey playing the accordion at the age of 14, as they might (I definitely will) on Discogs.
Nor was Twitter ideally suited to discussing music itself. The site’s priorities made it hard: YouTube links refused to preview, and score photos were unduly castrated by automated cropping. Besides, the site has a way of fracturing your attention; after a bit of scrolling, an hour-long Bruckner symphony feels like an entire gray November hiking in the alpine rain. Classical Music Twitter was never extremely musical. Aesthetics, criticism, analysis, comparison, even recommendations—you need to type more characters. The sound has to be closer.
Still, Twitter has become an essential—even irreplaceable—forum for practitioners and fans of classical music, and if (when) Elon Musk runs the site into the ground, it will be a real loss. We already had enough places where we could listen politely. On Twitter, classical music people could talk to each other, loudly. And there was a great deal to talk about.
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Twitter took the conversations that were happening in the bar after the concert and made them public, including new swathes of people in the process. You could trumpet your dislike of Brahms and decline to give an explanation. You could be dissed by a critic and tell them to fuck off. You could complain about the prodigies who play better than you despite playing your instrument for a fifth as long as you have. You could tag the Berlin Philharmonic in a tweet and beg them to commission you. You could create bits of throwaway work based on whatever was viral that day to procrastinate, then parlay the likes into attention for your real stuff. You could explain why you quit music. You could do a dramatic reading of Khatia Buniatishvili’s biography, and hundreds of people would laugh at it.
You could admit doubt and vulnerability, emotions which we in classical music are only used to hearing about from people who are already dead.
The denizens of Classical Music Twitter became the querulous, fractious conscience of a field unused to outside oversight. Remember some of the stupid things classical music institutions used to do all the time—without a second thought—before the online “mob”? Entire orchestral seasons without a single work by a person of color or a woman; blackface; entire musicology panels without a single speaker who was a person of color or a woman; yellowface; desperately cynical labor negotiations; banning outside water bottles, then charging like $17 for the stuff; paying freelancers late, in “exposure,” or not at all; hiring music directors who say women belong not on the podium, but in the kitchen; entire competitions without a finalist who was a person of color or a woman; Beethoven anniversaries. Twitter didn’t fix all that, of course, but it did force the institutions to confront the risk that someone might notice.
When I heard Yannick Nézet-Séguin lead the Philadelphia Orchestra in Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 at the Philharmonie in Berlin this fall, I thought: Twitter did that. Well, not just Twitter—the offline work was at least as essential—but for years, musical pockets of the platform had used it as a grassroots tool. It was not unlike the early days of Black Lives Matter or any of the countless other social movements that relied (and rely) on the platform for organizing. Classical Music Twitter pushed for more programming diversity, and orchestras and other institutions began to listen.
As many others have already pointed out, Twitter was most useful for people trying to break into fields with persistent gatekeeping. Classical music is a champion in that regard, the domain of men with bald patches and beards who drink whisky and smoke cigars, as composer Rebecca Saunders once put it. While the conversation on Classical Music Twitter was chaotic, frequently influenced by personal agendas, and sometimes eye-wateringly ill-informed, it had the advantage that it could be joined. It’s hard to imagine what VAN would be if that conversation hadn’t existed.
Not that it was an easy place to exist in. Classical Music Twitter shared many of the ignoble characteristics of the website as a whole. There were the sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-Semitic, ableist, and personally insulting comments. The niche disputes turned bitterly personal, the rumors treated as established fact, the quotes which got more engagement out of context than in. The insufficiently understood academic jargon; the presumption that the person who disagreed with you—about the importance of Wagner in the classroom, about a singer’s makeup—was a fucking idiot. The campaign to cancel Arnold Schoenberg. The tempi written just so they’d be tagged by Threatening Music Notation. The opera ideas based on viral “true” stories; the operas canceled due to mean tweets. Igor Levit’s career as a political pundit. Tweet Seats. The uncountable good performances, albums, compositions, and articles completely ignored in favor of the daily Wutzeitgeist, or the thing that everybody was mad online about that day. (No, that isn’t a real German word.)
And yet that adversity was a bonding experience, too. As Angela Watercutter writes in Wired, “It’s hard to hear the requiem being sung on Twitter and not want to sing along.” Let us join together in this great Requiem then, this Symphony of a Thousand Voices, intoning, with fervent majesty, a bunch of @dril tweets. ¶
Fleeing Classical Music Twitter for Mastodon but not sure where to start? VAN has got you covered with the server classicalmusic.social.
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