Post 3: What Makes It "Classical" - a viable definition?

Mar 4, 2014

I’ve put it off all week, but the clamor is getting overwhelming… would you believe a single email?... so: on to the follow-up! In my last post, I explained why my trusted ideas about “what makes music classical” now seem confused, and I promised to follow up with a more viable approach. Here's a start. I don’t want to oversell it; at best, it’s only part of the answer. But for me, it helps clear at least some of the fog. 

It comes from Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music, which at 4,000 pages weighed in at 20 pounds and cost $550 when it came out in hardcover in 2005. Today, the e-book sells for $69 and travels weightlessly in a smartphone. In either format, the size does not result from padding: an author would need many more volumes to cover all the music that matters over a millennium. What he does cover is dazzling in its variety, and he pulls the vast range of ideas together with a few unifying themes. One of those themes served as my fog-clearer. 

Here it is. Taruskin argues that classical music is at its core “literate”- that is, created and propagated largely by writing. I know that sounds obvious, but just as a fish might take water for granted, I had forgotten how unusual it is. That Paul McCartney can’t read music hasn’t interfered with his becoming one of the greatest songwriters, but anyone wanting to be a classical composer must first become fluent at notation. (The exception is Sir Paul, who hires assistants to notate ideas when he creates his classical works. Still, you get my point.) Classical pieces are called “works,” as books are. Musicians speak as if these works exist outside of time, in “scores,” booklets of written music. The idiom “know the score” comes from sports (thanks for clearing that up, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms!) but musicians use it to mean “really understand a piece of music.”

Paul McCartney at Carnegie Hall for the U.S. premiere of his award-winning 2006 oratorio "Ecce Cor Meum" (Behold My Heart).
Credit Sean Henri from Wikipedia

Taruskin is careful to spell out the caveats when he makes his point about literacy. He goes out of his way to reject the implication that literate music is superior to pre-literate, non-literate, or what he calls post-literate music (music created digitally). He would have called his book Music in the Western Literate Tradition if he’d had the choice, because he knows that most of “Western music” has not been in the “literate tradition.” Students used to learn that classical music began with Gregorian chant, but Taruskin observes that other music, perhaps involving instruments and dance rhythms, existed before plainchant was written down. And chant was written down not because it seemed better than other music, but because the Carolingian Empire was trying to consolidate power, and doing so in that era required standardizing the liturgy.

Taruskin also reminds us of how often classical music has been enriched by interacting with non-literate music—for example, when Haydn or Bartok took material from folk musics, or when Schubert or Brahms were inspired by Roma café music. Another caveat is that printed scores have been used in divergent ways over the centuries, with varying degrees of "literate" control of the sound. While a Mahler score contains 100% of the notes plus detailed instructions on how to play them, the piano part of a Mozart concerto might include only an outline over which Mozart would improvise the details in concert. On paper, Palestrina’s masses exemplify the rules of smooth Renaissance counterpoint, but in performance in the Sistine Chapel his singers flouted those rule by floridly ornamenting their lines. And some scores, like the three-voice fugue in Bach’s A Musical Offering, seem to be records of improvisations; improv was once a central part of classical music. When Bach gave an organ recital, he began by playing one of his composed works but then improvised at length. Those improvisations were “classical music” even if they weren’t written down.

This man could write strict counterpoint (check out that canon he's holding).
Credit wikipedia

But they still illustrate the takeaway from Taruskin. Modern notation didn’t just let people keep a record of the music they were playing—it radically changed that music. As composers came up with melodies, harmonizations, and rhythms, they also optimized skills that are facilitated by writing. Consider Bach’s specialty, counterpoint that is “strict” or “imitative.” The adjectives distinguish it from “free” counterpoint, which you can hear when Eric Clapton jams with Derek Trucks or when Louis Armstrong's Hot Seven set forth. Earwitnesses tell us that Armstrong’s 78-rpm recordings are too short to capture the heights his genius soared to in live sessions, but they are still some of the greatest music we have partly because of that free counterpoint. Taruskin does not claim that strict “imitative” counterpoint is superior—at its worst it can be pedantic—but when it’s handled by a Bach or Mozart in full flight it is one of the things that makes music “classical music,” and it has its own unique power and inspiration. Without writing, not only would we have lost our chance to hear Bach’s greatest fugues, but he would never have come to compose that way.

Another example of a literate skill, a specialty of Beethoven, is creating and then resolving harmonic tensions not in the minute or two you’d find in a typical song, but over a span of as long as 15 minutes. Extended harmonic tension is part of how Beethoven conveys the wordless drama of the first movement of his “Eroica” symphony. We don’t need to be able to read music to feel its dramatic arc, but Beethoven couldn’t have built that kind of drama if his medium hadn’t been writing.

I could go on with other examples, such as motivic development (lookin’ atcha, Brahms and Wagner). And Taruskin also makes an interesting point about how  literacy was once the property of elites, and how its spread to the rest of society is part of the story behind the spread of classical music (which is at its heart a middle-class phenomenon. I’ll get to that some other time, all right?). But let me move on to another topic. The idea that the medium shapes the message will be familiar if you’re an English major—for example, writing and printing made it easier for storytellers to take us into the subjective worlds of multiple characters, thus facilitating the rise of the novel. And then there's Shakespeare: putting on a show was one thing, but making magical poetry flow endlessly from actors' mouths was another, and it was possible only because the Bard could put quill to folio. Shakespeare and Bach continue to move us not only because of their insights into the human condition, but also because of the ways in which they convey them. No one can complain about Leonard Bernstein adapting a Shakespeare plot for West Side Story -  but we still want a chance to hear Shakespearian language.

This season, no fewer than six Shakespeare plays are opening in New York, four on- and two off-Broadway. Those numbers seems to count against one of Taruskin’s most interesting speculations: that digital music-making might eventually make literate music obsolete (Sir Paul will be off the hook). Perhaps writing scintillating dialog or arching scenes for the stage will seem pointless once you can film actors improvising and then edit the results digitally; perhaps writing out scores for musicians to play will seem like a waste of effort when you can create the sound you want directly in your computer. Yet Netflix notwithstanding, live Shakespeare is boffo, as are the new plays opening this season in New York (not to mention Iowa). Meanwhile, over 150 Bach festivals will takes place this year around the world, 80 of them inaugurated since the year 2000. In the last year, a dozen recordings of the Goldberg Variations have been added to the over 500 recordings already there, and some of the new ones are keepers, including Jeremy Denk's award-winning traversal.  And composers like David Lang, Caleb Burhans, Maria Schneider and Jennifer Higdon (to name four from my “Favorite CDs of 2013” list) are creating beautiful scores for musicians to perform, and the results are winning Pulitzers, Grammies, and most importantly, the ears of listeners. Another one of my favorite composers, Paul Lansky, has done a reverse-Taruskin: he moved from writing computer music to writing for acoustic instruments, explaining, "To create the sound of the violin - wow! I can't do that on a computer."

Composer Paul Lansky pioneered digital music but left it to write acoustic classical scores.

I hope to say more about digitization and classical music in some future post, but for now a conclusion: the achievements of the age of literacy continue to do things for us that nothing else quite can, even as new forms of genius emerge. We want our news websites, but we also want long-form articles that give us in-depth background. We want TV but we also love novels, and great ones keep getting written, notably in Iowa (for example, by these people). Perhaps we’ve entered an age not of post-literacy but of enhanced literacy - a sort of transhistorical, cross-cultural conversation in which Bach and Shakespeare participate even more vitally than before.