Definitions, anyone?

This is Lady Effingham’s rant from the Classics from Scratch episode broadcast yesterday (5th September 2013).

What IS classical music, exactly?

How do you define classical music? I suppose we could all say we know it when we hear it, or do we? It’s an amazingly broad category and it encompasses a huge range of types, styles and purposes. Lots of classical musicians don’t like the label ‘classical’ at all – and lots of them play other kinds of music as well.

Music that we classify as ‘classical’ dates from the medieval period right through to this week, and now includes lots of music which, if it were written today, might be re-classified as pop songs, dance tunes, jazz numbers, background music or musical theatre. So what is it that makes us call it ‘classical’?

Is it the instruments that play it? Well, there’s a massive range from the ancient krummhorns and dulcimers to the much newer electronic instruments such as the theremin and the synthesizer. Also, the actual sophistication of instruments ranges from an enormous concert organ with hundreds of stops and thousands of pipes, to a pair of wooden sticks – the claves – struck together. The orchestra itself can vary from about 15 players at its smallest to around 150 for some of the largest works ever written.

Is it the type of voice? Well, there might be something there. Certainly the operatic voice, and the cathedral choir or a cappella vocal styles are different from pop, jazz or musicals. There’s a lot less use of amplification – though it’s sometimes used as an effect or to enable the voice to be treated and changed during a live performance. The music of Stockhausen is one place where you can hear this. Also some modern operas use a very light amplification style to enable voices to be heard over a very loud orchestra.

Is it that it is music with a serious intent? Well, possibly – a lot of classical music is very serious and intellectually challenging, but a lot of it is just great fun – some of Haydn’s symphonies, lots of comic opera, lots of jolly pieces intended just to amuse or entertain. And some of the works that ARE written to entertain – such as Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf – are really quite serious underneath.

Is it that it’s harder to play or sing? Well, again, not really – though it may be possible to say that the most difficult classical pieces – such as Rachmaninov’s Piano Concertos or a big orchestral work by Messiaen – are harder than anything else. But plenty of classical music is not hard to play or sing – think of the Ode to Joy theme from Beethoven’s Ninth. I would think it’s probably easier to play Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ on the piano than it is to get your mitts round Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’. Musicians employed in the pop industry include some really great virtuosos – you only have to listen to one of Leonard Cohen’s later albums to find that out.

So – there’s no definition that works as far as I can see. I think it’s much better to think of music as a whole, and pick the bits that mean something to you. Always keep exploring, and always remember to go back to your old favourites.

To hear Series 2, Episode 6 of Classics from Scratch, click here.

To visit Secklow Sounds, click here.

Published in: on September 6, 2013 at 10:50  Leave a Comment  

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