25 July 2022, 10:34
It’s not classical at all (big ‘C’), so why has the name remained a generic term for western instrumental, orchestral and choral music?
The oxford dictionary defines “classical music” as “music written in a Western musical tradition, usually using an established form (e.g. a symphony). Classical music is generally considered serious and of lasting value.
The Oxford definition is just one example of the widespread use of “classical music” when describing instrumental, orchestral, vocal, choral and other forms of Western music.
But let’s really think about this term… ‘classic’. Why do we use it as an umbrella, catch-all phrase for Western music, and where do the eras of Renaissance, Baroque, Romanticism and beyond lie?
Here’s why the world has landed on “classical music” to describe the powerful combinations of instruments, melodies, and harmonies that make up the canon of Western music history.
Read more: Why are there only 12 notes in Western music?
Big ‘C’ versus small ‘c’
Before we go any further, let’s quickly unpack this. We use classical music (small ‘c’) to refer to western instrumental, orchestral, vocal and choral music – created for secular and sacred contexts.
But you may also have heard “classical” in the context of the classical era of music, around 1750-1830 and encompassing composers such as Mozart, Haydn and early Beethoven (although some say it has launched the next era, the romantic era (1830 -1900) really).
The classical era saw the formalization of fixed structures, compositional techniques, and orchestral sizes and shapes in the symphony, comic operas, and classical piano sonata.
Orchestras have gone through great changes: the harpsichord or organ of the previous Baroque era (1600-1750) was no longer the musical basis of orchestras, and wind instruments such as the horn, trumpet, clarinet , flute and oboe joined the strings to create a new, distinctive sound.
Society was being reshaped by the Age of Enlightenment, a time of radical change when social values centered on human rights and freedom of religion. And the architectural style of the time focused on straight lines and order (as opposed to the more ornate styles of Baroque), reminiscent of ancient Rome and Greece – hence the term “classical”.
Read more: 10 of the best composers of the classical era
So why did the “classic” remain?
“Classical” seems to work as a catch-all term of Western art music genres, as it evokes that ordered classical era of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven in which so many instrumental, chamber, orchestral and orchestral forms opera that we still hear regularly today were established. .
Indeed, the lineage of shapes and tonality established in the classical period can be seen as a common thread of works by composers from earlier eras (Baroque, Renaissance, Medieval and before), at the works of romantic, 20th century and contemporary artists, as well as popular western musical genres like jazz, pop, rock and beyond. So perhaps it made sense to use it as shorthand to refer to genres that predated the developments of modern history in popular culture.
Another reason the term began to take hold was the 19th century trend for arts, culture and society to return to “classicism”, with its straight lines and order. Classicism was desirable, heralded, and widely promoted after the previous period of opulent and ornate Baroque styles in arts and architecture. Music was one of the areas unable to escape this trend.
“There is no other word that seems to describe it better”
“People use this word to describe music that isn’t jazz, pop songs, or folk music, simply because there’s no other word that seems to describe it better,” said the great composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein in a TV show. Youth Concertsbroadcast in January 1959.
Bernstein goes on to say in his program that ‘classical’ is better than the problematic alternatives of ‘good’, ‘serious’ and ‘artful music’ – all terms which of course also apply to myriad other genres, from jazz to RnB, folk, country pop and beyond.
We really like this idea. And if “classic” is good enough for Bernstein, it’s good enough for us.
Click here listen to our Classic Essential playlist on Global Player.