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What is classical music?

“The journey not the arrival matters”
Leonard Woolf

With the proliferation of musical styles at the end of the twentieth century it is legitimate to reconsider the definition of classical music. The recording industry, in an attempt to boost their sales, is feverishly working to blend differing types of music to create combinations that will be pleasing to their public. The resulting “crossover” albums have muddied the waters and raised interesting issues about the nature of classical versus popular music. For any form of art to survive it must have defining limits and parameters of structure. Defining the period of classical music as that from the High Middle Ages to the present, let us consider what makes music “classical” in nature.
1. Seriousness of purpose: Music considered classical is created by an artist with an intellectual purpose in mind. Much of the early music was generated to serve the church and to glorify God. After 1700 music was created to express the intellectual ideals of the Age of Enlightenment and, in the nineteenth century, was used to express revolutionary sentiments both political and artistic. The Romantics used their compositions to tear down the structures that had been so painstakingly established by their Baroque and Classical predecessors and music of the modern period has further stormed these formal battlements. Music of the twentieth century that is considered classical has often dealt with an exploration of the human psyche and expressed the horrors of the Age of Anxiety. What is common to all classical music is that its creator had a particular serious purpose in mind when he first set out to compose his piece.
2. Definite sense of form: Although forms vary from period to period, a common factor in classical music is a sense of strict architecture. A Gregorian chant has a particular structure which cannot be varied by the composer. A piece of Renaissance polyphony follows very stringent rules of voice leading which results in a golden combination of individual tones. Some composers, like Bach, thrived by being restricted to highly structured forms and created intense solutions to the formal puzzles that were their canons, chorales and fugues. The period of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven saw the supremacy of the sonata form, with a defined plan of thematic exposition, development and recapitulation. Even modern composers who tore down the barriers of harmony and tonality kept the classical systems of form intact and only modified them for their own purposes.
3. Tradition of harmonic theory: All classical music, from whatever period, is consciously a product of a great tradition of harmonic principles which requires intense study and years of intellectual effort. Although the rules change from century to century, the music is constant in that it conforms to a set of rules which guides the composer in his efforts or, if he rebels against these rules, he is still aware (perhaps even more so) that this revolt is part of the grand scheme of harmonic evolution. Arnold Schoenberg once stated that to break the rules one must know them all and he spent many years cultivating a vast knowledge of the history of harmony before he rejected it entirely in his atonal music.
4. A sense of development: Perhaps the overriding principle which distinguishes classical music from popular music is the notion that the music must always progress, must always travel from point A to point B. All periods of classical music have a definite scheme of development which insures that the music will inspire or edify the listener in some manner. In a sonata form composition such as a symphony the opening theme will journey through many different musical transformations including key changes, tempo changes, variations, combinations with other themes, dynamic variants, orchestral coloristic effects, inversions, etc. to arrive at some future point as a transformed entity and even if the recapitulation of the theme is identical with the opening statement, the musical journey has affected the ear of the listener so that the opening theme is now heard in a different light from the way that it was originally stated. This sense of development is the cornerstone of Western classical music tradition.
5. Inner voices: A classical composition, from any time or place, is endowed with inner voices which reveal themselves slowly over time to the listener. A complex symphonic score can be heard literally thousands of times and still not yield all of its secrets. One of the greatest joys for a classical music lover is the hearing of a new phrase or passage in a familiar work. This is sometimes accomplished by hearing a familiar piece live rather than on record or by hearing a new version of the piece by a different orchestra and conductor, but the experience is even richer when one hears new material in a version that one has played many, many times. A complex passage such as the last 49 measures of the first movement of the Symphony #7 of Gustav Mahler requires literally hundreds of listenings to hear all that is going on particularly in the brass and percussion sections. And yet one feels excited and fulfilled when hearing this piece for the first time as well. The phenomenon of inner voices is not unique to orchestral music. Inner voices are just as prevalent in a piano sonata and can remain hidden for a number of listening years. It is an important criterion of the great composer’s art to create these magnificent gifts for the listening public and it is the inner voices which build the harmonic structure necessary for a great piece of music to survive. This richness of the musical landscape is unique to classical music and sets it apart from the world of popular music, where whatever you hear the first time is the same as you will hear on the 1,000th listening.
6. Professionalism of performers: In order to perform classical music well a student must go through many years of rigorous training and intensive education and must begin this regimen at an early age. The breath control needed for a classical singer or wind player, the dexterity of a string player or the hand to eye coordination of a pianist or organist can only be developed and refined by years of proper teaching and guidance. With the exception of a few savants (Mozart appears to have been one) all classical musicians go through a lifetime of training and development and must continually refine their technique throughout their playing or singing careers. Additionally, a great musician must also learn about the tradition of music and the intellectual environment from whence it came in order to perform the pieces in the proper style of the period in which it was written and to express the appropriate emotional content of the work. Recent attempts of pop singers to perform classical music are particularly instructive. Michael Bolton’s recital of operatic arias proves the point that classical singers must be properly trained. Although I am sure that Mr. Bolton is sincere in his desire to perform these masterpieces, his voice is woefully thin and underdeveloped. This has nothing to do with his natural gifts, but rather everything to do with his lack of proper training and discipline.
None of these elements of definition have anything to do with what is “good” or “bad” music. That is the realm of aesthetics and subject for another essay. All of these elements are only meant to help define the scope of classical music.
The idea of “classical music” is a relatively new one. Before the nineteenth century musicians only created music for their immediate public, whether spiritual or secular. Although revered today, Bach was a lowly servant of the Church of St. Thomas in Leipzig and was responsible for bussing tables in the school cafeteria as well as composing cantatas for Sunday services. Mozart wrote his marvelous piano concerti so that he could have something new to perform and tossed off The Magic Flute in a few days as a vaudeville piece, thinking so little of its place in music history that he was still scribbling parts in the orchestra pit during the first performance. The first composer to recognize his own genius and place in intellectual history was Beethoven. He wrote cadenzas for the Mozart concerti with an eye towards future performances and knew that his music was destined to be adored by posterity. Perhaps the idea of classical music really began with the performance of Bach’s 100-year-old St. Matthew Passion by the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig conducted by Felix Mendelssohn. He and Robert Schumann had recently rediscovered the works of Bach and were eager to present them to the public. Before that time, older music was the property of the museum or library, not the stuff of concert programs. Concerts were given by composers and featured their own works, many heard for only a brief period of time and then relegated to the archives. Nineteenth century critics like Schumann changed the perception of older music and the notion of a classical tradition was born. Early music specialists, like Johannes Brahms, began to present music of the Baroque masters at the Vienna Philharmonic and music critics like Eduard Hanslick began to compare new works to their classical predecessors. By the turn of the twentieth century the era of the critic was in full swing. A new work of music must somehow fit in to the tradition of works that went before it or risk the wrath of a Karl Krauss, Julius Korngold, Donald Francis Tovey or George Bernard Shaw. The now ingrained notion of “classical music” as a great tradition was nurtured by these influential men and really only became a viable concept around 1870.
It is important to remember the distinction between classical music and Classical music. With an upper case “C”, Classical music refers to the period from approximately 1750-1830 and has as its most famous practitioners Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert who all lived and worked in the city of Vienna. Along with the group of composers active in Mannheim, most notably the Stamitz family, these four men wrote music in strict sonata form and developed the symphony, the sonata and the concerto into their generally accepted forms. The Classical period did not last long, however, as even two of its giants, Schubert and especially Beethoven, were sowing the seeds of its destruction by the onrushing Romantic period.
So what is classical and what isn’t? For that matter, what constitutes “pop” music? Perhaps we can resolve this issue by working our classical criteria on the world of pop. Remembering that questions of good and bad are not relevant to this discussion, let’s examine these criteria one by one. The bulk of pop music does not appear to be composed with a seriousness of purpose, but rather simply to entertain (and to sell records). There is an extremely rudimentary sense of form and a simplistic harmonic theory (but, except in certain types of folk music, no feeling for its tradition) in a pop tune. There is no sense of development, however, and no inner voices (not to mention the extremely disturbing trend in popular ballads of the 1980’s and especially 1990’s which has exposed the bulk of the singers’ inability to stay on pitch). And the amount of training criterion certainly doesn’t apply, as the basics of a rock chord progression can easily be learned in one afternoon. However, there are numerous examples of music created for the popular media which exhibit many or all of the criteria for classical music and this music should be seriously examined.
Let’s consider the Gershwin problem. Is Porgy and Bess jazz? Is it Broadway? Or is it opera? It has seriousness of purpose, form, harmonic theory, development, inner voices and requires much preparation on the part of the performers. So therefore it can qualify as classical music. But it should not be performed as if it were classical, and that is the wrinkle. In the film version of Porgy the director hires serious classical artists to dub in the songs of the characters, who are played by actors. The resultant “high operatic” style is ludicrously out of place. The only actor who is allowed to sing his own part is the marvelous Sammy Davis, Jr., a consummate entertainer with just the right sense of breezy jazz inflection. His scat-singing version of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” puts the opera singers’ pretentious efforts to shame. Yes, Gershwin is classical, but not a holy relic. It has to be performed not only with musical integrity but with also a touch of jazzy irreverence. The same is true of the music of Scott Joplin or the musicals of Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers. A show like Carousel is truly a modern opera, but it is still a popular entertainment and should be performed as such.
Much jazz is written along classical lines and some was written to be a part of the classical tradition. Duke Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy or Wynton Marsalis’ Blood on the Fields are classical pieces, written with great reverence for classical principles. But that doesn’t mean that “Take the A Train” is a classical piece. It is not and its composer had no intentions to that effect. Much jazz of the 1960’s was written as part of the post-Webern classical tradition and as such deserves a place in the history of classical music. Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane wrote music with very serious purpose, a highly developed sense of form, ultra-modern harmonies, sophisticated developmental patterns, and fantastic inner voices. These artists also honed their performing techniques over many years of intense study and their music sings of a deep commitment. Gunther Schuller and Dave Brubeck, who both studied with Schoenberg at USC, have also shown these classical qualities.
Rock music since the era of the Beatles has occasionally tried to exhibit classical tendencies. Is the Rolling Stones song “As Tears Go By” classical because it uses a string quartet? Clearly not. But what about the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”? It develops, it progresses from point A to point B. Some rock musicians have made a conscious effort to write music along classical lines. The Jimi Hendrix song “1983” is developed in a sonata form style as is much of the music of Phish. There is a wonderful symbiosis between musical styles which allows for these unclassifiable compositions. One could argue that the early songs of Bob Dylan had extreme seriousness of purpose, but they are still musically simplistic. Some rock musicians have truly “crossed over” into the field of classical music and written compositions outside the parameters of their popular music training. Frank Zappa composed a number of modern classical pieces that were recorded and conducted by Pierre Boulez. These pieces need to be evaluated on their own merits independent of their composer’s other field of endeavor.
Of course each individual listener must decide for themselves what music they will hear. Record companies at the end of the twentieth century seem obsessed with dissolving the lines between genres and this may ultimately create some interesting new art forms (although a lofty purpose such as this is probably not their primary motivation). Popular elements have always played a significant role in classical music from shepherd’s pastoral songs of the Baroque to folk elements in the music of Stravinsky and Bartok. For now, classical music has its own identity, but as we have seen it is a relatively new concept. Perhaps in the twenty-first century a new music will develop that will fuse the best elements of several art forms, including classical, into a new and exciting form of music. This music could endure as long as it adheres to the principles of artistic honesty and integrity.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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