Classical Music: What Does That Even Mean?

I mentioned in passing in a recent post that I have trouble with the term “classical music.”  I’d like to expand on that a little bit here.  If you have an opinion, please share it in the comments.  Let’s get a discussion going!

If you ask someone what “classical music” sounds like, you could get an absurd variation of answers.  The person you ask might say that classical music sounds like the symphonies of Beethoven, or a Bach fugue, or the atonal chamber works of Arnold Shoenberg.  Some people will tell you that their favorite classical singer is Katherine Jenkins (You will find that those people have no taste).  If you ask someone from South Asia what classical music is, he might describe Raga.

The point I’m getting at is that we have a word that has come to mean too many different things, and we need a new word, or perhaps a group of words to describe what we’re talking about when we say “classical music.”  We need a new word, because right now, if I talk about Puccini as classical music, some douchebag will feel the need to point out that Puccini is actually late romantic, not classical which is a term referring to European music from around the mid eighteenth century to a couple decades into the nineteenth (basically, from when Mozart was born until Beethoven died).

This discussion was partly inspired by my friend Michael Oberhauser who is a composer of classical music. Here’s an example of a short opera of his that premiered in last summer’s Capital Fringe Festival.

Acutally, he’s a composer of neo-romantic contemporary western art music.  Yeah, that’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it?*  I kind of feel like art is sort of like ordering at Starbucks, the more words you have to use, the more pretentious it makes you.  “I always say, when people ask me what I compose, that I compose ‘classical music with a small c,'” Michael points out, “There are other terms for that, but most of them are a little offensive. ‘Art music’… is popular music not art, ever, by any stretch?”

You’re right, Michael.  I would say that popular music is often art, and that some of the music that is popularly termed “classical,” is most decidedly not (see above mention of Katherine Jenkins, or any performance by the Three Tenors, who were individually extraordinary performers of classical vocal music, but together were peddlers of schmaltz.)  Of course, art is in the eye of the beholder.

And if we’re talking about “popular music” versus “art music,” what then of the music that straddles the border?  Ownership of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue or Porgy and Bess is claimed by the jazz community as well as classical fans.  And while it seems natural for an American composer to look to jazz for inspiration, in Europe, Francis Poulenc was writing music that was equally at home in the concert hall as in the cabaret.

So what do we call this music that we love, this music that is both high-brow and intellectual while also being entertaining as often as it is soul-piercing?  Do we refer to it in specifics according to the piece?  Symphony, chamber music, opera, etc.?  Or perhaps just speak of composers:  Wagner, Handel, Rossini, Webern?

But you still need a word to talk about all of it.  I guess, at least for now, that word is “classical.”

*That’s what she said.

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3 thoughts on “Classical Music: What Does That Even Mean?

  1. Jason Neal

    In much of my research, I keep coming across “Western art music,” which appears in your posting as part of your description of Michael Oberhauser’s music. It’s a useful placeholder, but it’s like the easiest name to remember at Starbucks; a bit pretentious. (And I like Starbucks!) I also don’t like “Western art music” for the reasons mentioned above (yeah, there’s well-crafted popular and fluffy classical), and because the whole term conveys an imperialistic air of cultural superiority.

  2. mollymakesmusic Post author

    Thanks for commenting, Jason! I had never even considered the imperialist implications of the term. That’s the privileged white girl in me I suppose. You’re absolutely right.

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