After a long paean about Prince's performance of his song Purple Rain, Prof. Elliot sums up as follows:
Now I am not going to be so presumptuous as to criticize Prince--I have been a fan of his music since the 80s and the album 1999--but I am most certainly going to criticize this depiction of his music.This is only one of thousands of masterful performances that have already been shared amongst Prince’s fans and that will be returned to in the days and months to come, to offer solace, counter incredulity at this latest loss, and pay witness to a truly eclectic and classical artist.For this is what Prince was: not in the narrow sense of his interest in Western classical music, but in a far more liberated and liberating understanding and extension of the varied streams of a black classical music tradition that incorporated gospel, jazz, R&B, rock and roll, soul, funk, hip hop and more.
This kind of thing poses an acute typological problem for me, so I may as well admit it. The problem is with the definition of the word "classical". There are typically three meanings:
of or relating to ancient Greek or Latin literature, art, or culture.
synonyms: ancient Greek, Hellenic, Attic; More
(of art or architecture) influenced by ancient Greek or Roman forms or principles.
synonyms: simple, pure, restrained, plain, austere; More
(typically of a form of art) regarded as representing an exemplary standard; traditional and long-established in form or style.
"a classical ballet"
synonyms: traditional, long-established; More
of or relating to the first significant period of an area of study.
relating to or based upon concepts and theories that preceded the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics; Newtonian.
In addition to this we could add the Wikipedia article on classical music which defines it as:
Classical music is art music produced or rooted in the traditions of Western music, including both liturgical (religious) and secular music. While a similar term is also used to refer to the period from 1750 to 1820 (the Classical period), this article is about the broad span of time from roughly the 11th century to the present day, which includes the Classical period and various other periods.So, for our purposes, there are three relevant meanings:
- The Wikipedia definition of "art music produced or rooted in the traditions of Western music" which is the one that is probably the most widely used
- Music of the Classical period 1750 to 1820
- Music achieving an exemplary standard
I have in a few places in this blog referred to the Beatles, for example, as having created some "classical" music. I say this because I am pretty sure that, unlike most popular music, theirs is likely to be still around a hundred years from now. It is of an "exemplary standard". Some commentators have pushed back on this and they likely have justification, because now I am in the uncomfortable position of wanting to critique Prof. Elliot for doing what I have done: elevate a popular artist that he really likes into the category of "classical". And, of course, I really like Prince as well, so he has my sympathy. But it doesn't quite work, does it? What is the problem?
I think the essence of the difficulty is that the music of Prince is not "rooted or produced in the traditions of Western music." While you might try and make the argument that the music of Beatles is, and the two weighty theoretical volumes by Walter Everett published by Oxford certainly go a long way towards making that argument, I think that trying to tie Prince to that same tradition is a bridge too far.
While I certainly do not know all of Prince's oeuvre, I don't recall having heard anything in it that makes much of a reference to any classical music. He pretty clearly comes out of and is an example of the gospel, jazz, R&B, rock and soul traditions. But I can't think of any places where he has engaged in any crossover to classical music. You can draw a line pretty directly from the intense expression of Robert Johnson to Prince, with a lot added along the way, and those are his roots. No Mozart, no Beethoven and certainly no Bach.
Prince might well be a "classic" artist in the sense of one who represents an exemplary standard, but there is really no trace of a classical tradition in his music. And so what? He hardly needed one!
So this helps me clarify my difficulty: the real element that makes me want to call the Beatles "classical" in some sense is the fact that you can discern elements of the Western music tradition in their music. There are, however distant, some roots underlying what they were doing. But this is less the case with Prince.
For an envoi let's listen to some Prince, though this clip will likely be taken down fairly soon. This is a live performance in 1985 of the song "1999" from the album of the same name.