Friday, February 3, 2017

Defining Classical

Greg Sandow, a composer and critic who teaches a course on the "future of classical music" at Julliard talks about the problem of defining classical music:
If you look up classical music in the dictionary, you’ll get an idea of why the term is so hard for people to define. Because the dictionaries don’t define it!
First look at the definition of jazz, from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, whose name shouldn’t mislead you. This isn’t a concise book for students and journalists. It’s one of the standard reference works on the English language (British style), a massive two-volume abridgment of the multivolume Oxford English Dictionary, which to the extent possible includes every word ever used in the long history of the language. (Or did, in the days of print.)
Here’s how the Shorter Oxford defines jazz:
A type of music of US black origin, characterized by its use of improvisation, syncopated phrasing, and a regular or forceful rhythm; loosely syncopated dance music.
You can argue with any part of that, if you like, but overall it’s a cogent attempt to concisely say what goes on in this kind of music.
Compare their definition of classical music:
[S]o-called conventional or serious music, as opp. to folk, jazz, pop, rock, etc.
That’s not a definition. It doesn’t tell us what the nature of classical music is. It’s an evaluation — classical music is serious, and folk, jazz, pop, and rock aren’t.
In a second article, Greg lays out the definition that his students came up with. He takes a lot of words to describe what is a rather straightforward definition: Classical music is music in the European tradition that is typically planned out in advance and written down in notation. This is an excellent definition as it does capture the essence of the history and practice of the music without making invidious comparisons with popular music and jazz.

I have struggled a few times trying to capture some of the more elusive elements that we often associate with classical--mainly that it is music that has stood the "test of time" or it is music that aims for a certain kind of aesthetic depth or creative originality. But that attempt always seems to lead you down the rabbit hole so probably best avoided.

You just have to be very, very careful not to notice anything about the social function of music!

While we are pondering that, let's listen to some music. This is Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony, his first symphony, written in 1917 and really the first "neo-classical" composition, well ahead of Stravinsky's efforts in that style:

No comments: