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Volume 14 - Issue 1 - September 2008

What makes classicalBy

What makes classicalBy Colin EatockClassical?The term "classical music" - once soclear in meaning - has become murky.On the one hand, it is invoked in apositive sense, to suggest "bestness";on the other hand it has acquired (insome circles) negative connotations ofstuffy over-formality and pretentiousness.This Janus-faced ambivalence wasprominently displayed in August whenthe CBC held a press-conference toannounce its new line-up of Radio 2programmes. First, they proudly announcedthat classical music wouldcontinue to be the most played genreon the revamped network (a debatablepoint). Next, they showed a twominutepromotional video - a collageof the various musics and musicianswe could expect to hear on Radio 2 -which contained only about 10 secondsof classical music. It was as though theCBC was embarrassed by its ownclassical content. I guess they didn'twant to look "elitist."So why has the term "classical music"become so complicated, loaded-downwith diverse and even contradictory implications?Why does it mean different things todifferent people?"Classical music," in its narrowest sense -the sense favoured by many music historians- refers to European music of the late l 8thand early 19th centuries. However, mostpeople use the term more widely than that.Yet trying to define exactly what "most people"mean when they use the term is a thornyproblem. (This summer, Harbourfront Centreframed a series of concerts around thequestion, presenting a mix of traditional,contemporary and non-Western "classicalmusics.")Much of the difficulty stems from the factthat "classical music" is not a single concept,but a group of competing concepts huddledtogether under a common umbrella. Here area few of the ideas that, I believe, underliecommon usage of the term.I] Music which has survived its era, to beenjoyed by later generations. This certainlyapplies to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Butit also applies to El vis Presley. Indeed, in themyopic world of popular music, any songthat's still getting airplay a decade after itwas first recorded is hailed as a "classic." (Ihave yet to hear the term "classical rock" -but I'm expecting it to appear any day now.)2] Music that is classically proportioned.We don't really know much about what ancientGreek music sounded like. But the argumentis sometimes put forward that certainmusical styles are analogous to the formalideas in Greek art and architecture. Thiscomparison is often invoked for composerssuch as Mozart and Haydn - but it breaks62'"And now, Bach~s Brandenburg ConcertoNumber One, first movement.,,down when confronted with Wagner, Vareseor Cage.3] The music that is preferred by the aristocracy.Bach, Beethoven and Brahms dowell by this definition - and it's this sense ofthe word "classical" that we invoke when wespeak of the classical music oflndia or Japan(i.e. the kind of music that the ruling classesin those societies listened to). However,aristocratic associations have also givenclassical music a bad name among those whodecry it as "elitist." If rich people like it, itmust be bad.4] The music that is preferred by the intelligentsia.This definition picks up historicallywhere definition 3 leaves off. By the 20thcentury, aristocratic patronage had prettymuch dried up : Schoenberg and Stravinskydidn't have patrons. However, their musicdid attract the admiration (or at least attention)of a well-educated class of people whowere interested in contemporary art andideas.5] Music that is especially refined , elaborateor complex. This definition is often invokedby those brave folks who argue for theinherent superiority of classical music overpopular music. It's a tricky proposition, however.One could, for instance, argue that theclassical music of India is more elaboratethan European classical music because Indianmusicians have a 22-note octave, whereasthere are a mere 12 pitches in the Westernchromatic scale. And if complexity is held upas the highest musical virtue, then PierreBoulez and Milton Babbitt emerge as thegreatest composers ever. But how manyclassical music fans would agree with thatproposal?WWW. THEWHOLENOTE ,COMThere are other criteria that couldbe brought to bear on the question.There's instrumentation: pretty muchany music that an orchestra or astring quartet plays, or a classicallytrained singer performs, is arguablyclassical. Presentation is also significant:just as anything that's hangingin an art gallery claims to be art, anymusic performed in a classical concert-settingclaims to be classical.And of course tradition is a strongfactor: classical music is what yourpiano teacher taught you that it is.All the above definitions areflawed in some way: incomplete,ambiguous, and fraught with diceycultural assumptions and value judgments.It's tempting to suggest that anew terminology is needed, just to beable to discuss this question. Butattempts to establish more preciseterms have met with only limitedacceptance. "Serious music" hasbeen proposed - but it's a term thatsome find offensive, as it implies thateverything else is frivolous. (Fans of jazz,rap and esoteric rock music certainly considertheir music to be serious stuff.) For awhile, musicologists liked to talk about"Western art-music," but that term seems tobe on the wane.Even though trying to define classical musicis like trying to nail soap-bubbles to thewall, the term shows no sign of dying away.We seem to need it. But maybe the fluidity ofthe term isn't such a bad thing, as it allowsfor healthy debate, and a continuing evolutionof the concept. At the very least, the ambiguitiessurrounding the term are an honest reflectionof our culture's increasing uncertaintyabout classical music's values and boundaries.Yet if the term "classical music" is fuzzyaround its edges, at its core, our sense ofwhat classical music is all about remainsstrong. Ask a hundred people passing by thecorner of Bloor and Yonge what kind of musicMozart wrote. It's likely that most ofthem (or at least most who know who Mozartwas) will say he wrote classical music.Until someone comes along with a broadyet precise encapsulation of the idea of classicalmusic that leaves no loose ends or nosesout of joint, permit me to contribute one moretentative definition. Classical music is thekind of music that CBC Radio 2 used to playmost of the time - but doesn't, so much, anymore.Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based writer andcomposer.Thanks to Bill Abbott for use of the cartoon. Visitwww. cafepress. comlbillatoons for productsfeaturing his work; and www.billtoonsherefor anarchive of his cartoons.SEPTEM BER 1 - O CTOBER 7 2008


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