classical music again

MONDAY, December 9, 2019

What is classical music?

It’s a simple question which turns out to have no satisfactory answer. Someone somewhere said: “If you teach it in a college course, it’s classical music.”

“The Classical period”…

To confound the problem, there is a stretch of time that is generally called the “The Classical period”, which describes Haydn, Mozart and other people of that time. Beethoven is generally classified as the bridge between that Classical and Romantic periods. So already we have a simple word that clearly means two things.

The difference is a capital letter…

If it is “Classical”, it’s mainly Hadyn and Mozart. If it is “classical”, it’s just a word that tries to separate new music from old music. The same exact word has two completely different meanings depending on whether your use a big or small “c”.

Where the word came from…

The earliest reference to “classical music” is recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary to appear around 1829. To put that into perspective, Chopin was around 19 at that time and had already composed some of his most famous music, a couple of piano concertos. But what did people mean with this word? In truth it was an attempt to glorify music from the recent past, the period from Johann Sebastian Bach through to Ludwig van Beethoven, which actually was a rather long time-span. Bach was born in 1685, and Beethoven died in 1827.

Almost 150 years…

To put that into perspective, that’s 142 years. That’s like glorifying 1808-1950 as a golden age and lumping together Frédéric Chopin with Béla Bartók. In other words, within that range there are composers with such vastly different writing styles that it makes your head spin. So even in 1829 it was a pretty meaningless word.

But how did “classical music”, small “c”, turn into the “Classical Period”, big “C”?

The answer seems to be that the capital got added later to refer to a specific time period, which at least is perhaps somewhat useful, and it is pretty much accepted today that Haydn and Mozart were the center of it all. Haydn was born in 1737, but of course he was only 13 years old in 1750. Mozart was born in 1756 and died in December 1791, so it is probably safe to consider the Classical period as from around 1750 to 1800, and that turns out to be pretty handy when looking at European music.

Music before Haydn is divided into at least two additional periods…

This gets a bit tricky. The Baroque period is used mainly for composers around the age of JS Bach, and Bach was born in 1685. You will see this extended back to 1600 – which I think is far too large a time span – then is usually defined as ending around 1650, the year of JS Bach’s death. But even in Europe during that time, styles and trends overlapped.

The Galant period…

In music, galant refers to the style which was fashionable from the 1720s to the 1770s. As you can see, this overlaps the Baroque period and the Classical period. It was was a movement that attempted to return to more simplicity and featured composers who essentially called JS Bach’s music “old music”. The idea was that “old Bach” was good in his time but his music was no longer modern and of great interest to younger people, and this was fueled by, among others, his own sons.

Essentially they tried to paint JS Bach as an old fogey…

They said he was no longer relevant. They made fun of him as old-fashioned, a has-been, a relic of the past. However, the joke was on them, because every succeeding generation cherished old Bach’s music greatly, while their music was mostly forgotten. If you ask anyone who was the greater composer, JS Bach, or one of his sons, the answer will always be JS Bach. In fact, the next generation, that of Haydn and Mozart, already greatly respected JS Bach, then every succeeding generation continued to study his music. His music had a brief decline at the very end of his life but then took off again like a rocket by the mid 1800s, and there is not an intelligent musician on the planet who is not awed by Bach – old Bach, not his sons.

Mendelssohn was the tipping point…

Mendelssohn in his own time was a composer of new, popular music, and until Mendelssohn’s own music started to be looked at as old-fashioned, which essentially happened after he died, his music was looked upon as original, forward-looking and very much with the pulse of the times. Mendelssohn championed the music of JS Bach and brought his music back to fame and popularity; that popularity has remained up to this very moment.

Each generation tries to label the previous generation as old and no longer important…

What goes before is called irrelevant, stale, boring, predictable, something that we just don’t need anymore. But then wiser people in new generations rediscover what was great about that older music and bring it back into popularity, if it is deserving. This, for example, is what is happening in the music of Jacob Collier. His uploads to the Internet went viral, and his composing and arranging is wired into the very latest technology and is reaching out to people worldwide, but who is he championing? Mainly he is channeling musicians going back up to 50 years or more, and he continually talks about it.

But we are back to the same question:

What is “classical music”, small “c”? When did this term become used as it is today? The answer so far: No one seems to know. I’ve searched for answers, but I’ve had zero success. I can only repeat that each generation tends to look at the last generation and all generations before it as old, so each new generation attempts to label its music as new, original and more important that what went before. However, over time there is a reevaluation of everything that went before, and slowly things are reassessed.

What is popular right may be forgotten tomorrow, and usually is…

The music that is viral right now now may be classified as pure junk in a year or two, most certainly in another 50 years, or even in a decade, But what remains popular in another 50, 100 or 200 years ago is likely to be valued for another 500 or 1000 years. This is the test of time. Human beings are very bad at judging the worth of what is current.

Recency bias…

Recency bias distorts our perception of what is good and not so good so that we utterly lose perspective, so when judging the present we become very poor judges of what has great worth. But over time people become much better at weighing what is great and what is simple hype. The empty, hyped things are then discarded. This does not mean that something that is popular right now, this year, will not remain popular and valued in another 100 years, but the chances of this happening is very slim.

Examine how poorly people from the past predicted the future…

To understand this we need only study opinions from the past and analyze how accurate they were. When we do this we find that even the well-intentioned, so called most-knowledgeable experts were usually amazingly wrong about what was really good, and what would really last.

Finally, and hopefully back to my main point…

Apparently sometime in the 1900s a sharp divide between so-called “serious” music and “lighter” or more “popular” music was made. In an attempt to divide the two, my guess is that the “classical music label became more or less common by around 1950.

At that time so called “classical music” was also called “long-hair music”, which is rather humorous when you look at all the guys with shoulder-length hair playing rock guitar about 20 years later. But the problem is that this divide between popular music and “serious” music did not exist in the past and is a fairly new idea.

It has always been about money and fame…

In the past each new generation of musicians were struggling to make money, struggling to write popular music and struggling to be more popular than all their contemporaries. Popular music of the time was directly linked to the newest music, and these younger musicians were always criticized for taking things too far, challenging the old guard too much, changing things too radically and having too little respect for traditions of the past.

They weren’t called classical musicians. They were called rebels…

In other words, the war between past generations and the next generations were just like today, no different, with older people saying that kids had no respect for the past, and the kids saying the older people were too traditional and boring.

A word to communicate with non-musicians…

The word “classical”, as it is used today, is an invented term used by people who don’t know much about music to communicate with others who don’t know much about music. Use it if you like, and you will need it to talk to Aunt Sally, Uncle Joe and Grandpa Jones, who most likely will have no formal knowledge of music, but be aware that this word – “classical” – has been forced upon knowledgeable musicians of all genres by people who are rather clueless about how music really works. When you are among fine musicians, they just don’t think this way. They don’t divide music in this manner. They are as interested in something from 500 years ago as from last year, and they have a very different way of deciding what is great – and what is not. You also have to turn this around. If something is really great, they are as excited about something that was created today, right now, as in something that is established and has the weight of so-called experts behind it.

It’s just popular music that has been famous for one day or a few centuries…

This is why any music – labeled “classical” or with some other term silly term – has always been popular music and always will be popular if it has remained famous for a long time and continuous to attract new listeners in each new generation.

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