Blog Post 2: Just What IS "Classical Music"?

Feb 17, 2014

Quick: define “classical music.”  It may sound easy, but most of my attempts have been dead ends. They don't get you to much of the music. Later I’ll discuss a definition that I think works - it covers everything, and helps explain why classical music matters to us. But first let me give you a tour of some of the blind alleys.

A generation ago people sometimes said that classical is “art music,as opposed to “entertainment.” (It was also called “serious music.") If you haven’t heard anyone press this idea for a while, there’s a reason: we now take for granted that musicians who are not "classical" can be artists rather than entertainers. Think of jazz giants like John Coltrane, or of singer-songwriters like, say, Imogen Heap or Leonard Cohen. 

Duke and Trane from the cover of their LP together. That these two giants were artists is disputed by exactly no one!

Also, the "serious art" definition ignores classical composers whose job descriptions have been, "That's entertainment!" But their dances, operettas, and party music - serenades, divertimentos, and the like - are central to the classical repertory. Nobody would claim that Johann Strauss, Sr., was "art" while Duke Ellington was not.

Mention of the Duke points to another criterion that no longer makes sense: the idea that classical music is essentially European. In 2o14 no reasonable definition of classical music could exclude Ellington's symphonic works or the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos, Tan Dun, and thousands of other composers from every continent but one. (That would be Antarctica, of course. Quick - there’s still time for someone to become the first to write classical music at the South Pole!)

A more common definition of what makes classical "classical" is that it has "stood the test of time." The idea goes back to the first connoisseurs to take the adjective “classical” from Greek and Roman literature and apply it to music. These 18th-century Englishmen called their gatherings the “Concerts of Antient Music" - and no, that's not a typo; they used that spelling precisely because it was archaic even at the time. Repertory at the Concerts had to be at least 20 years old.  When Haydn offered to lead one of the Concerts in 1791, he was declined: his music was the rage in London in the 1790s, but the Concerts of Antient Music didn’t touch it until 1829, two decades after his death.

In 1848, the Concerts of Antient Music gave up the ghost. Londoners in the 1840s really did want to hear Mendelssohn conduct his new  works. (To be sure, London had by then supported a series focused on "antient" music for seven decades, and today has several such series.) But thinking about Mendelssohn and Haydn reveals the most basic problem with the “test of time” definition: Haydn’s "London" symphonies and Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony were undeniably classical music even while the ink was wet. Whatever classical music may be, these works were examples of it before even a picosecond had passed.

His works were "classical music" as the ink was drying.

Another problem with the "test of time" might have been inconceivable in Mendelssohn's day but is hard to ignore now. Back then, only written-down music could last long enough to be put to that test, but since the invention of recording, it has become easy to make non-written music permanent. Plenty of non-classical recorded music has stood the test of time, from Jelly Roll Morton to tunes my friends Bob Dorr, Karen Impola, and Mark Simmett spin on IPR.  

There are at least two other problems with the "test of time." First, determining what has passed is never a finished process. It’s not always clear which music will sound great in a few decades, not to mention a century, since composers go in and out of fashion like rock bands. Second, some music that is inarguably classical is dreck from day one (feel free to supply your own examples, because I’m not touching this!) - it can fail the test of time from the first moment. Believe me, it happens.

So what makes classical music “classical” cannot be defined by the test of time, continent of origin, artistic seriousness, or quality. What can it be defined by, then? Stay tuned—in my next post I will talk about an answer that gets us to where classical music actually lives.