What is clas­si­cal mu­sic?

BBC Music Magazine - - Sounds Of A Century -

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.

What’s the score?:Cage’s graphic no­ta­tion for 4'33"

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