BBC Music Magazine
What is classical music?
The changing face of an artform
If you had asked someone in 1718 what was meant by ‘classical music’, you’d probably have been met with a blank look. By 1818, there might have been a flicker of recognition. And by about 1829 the label ‘classical music’ was starting to be used, notes the Oxford English Dictionary. But did it refer to the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart, or was it a catch-all term that included works that emerged in the 19th century? By 1918, the definition was vague, and in the 100 years since then, the concept of ‘classical music’ has been stretched further than ever.
‘Western art music’ is not a wholly useful alternative, given that composers come from all around the globe. Perhaps there’s some coherence in terms of musical language? Flick through any history of 20th- and 21st-century music to put paid to that idea. Spectralism, serialism, minimalism, modernism, post-modernism, neo-classicism, neoromanticism, new complexity… the list of styles seems endless.
But what if we say that classical music is played on unamplified, acoustic instruments? That would rule out the electronic worlds of composers such as Jonathan Harvey and Kaija Saariaho. Is it music that’s written down, whether by means of a traditional score or ‘graphic notation’ (above)? Possibly, but how would aleoteric (chance) music and improvisation fit in with that?
How about defining it by where we go to listen to it? Tricky, when audiences now flock to train stations, car parks and various other venues, plus the more traditional concert hall and opera house. In the 21st century, classical music is flourishing – just don’t go asking what it actually is.