The Problem with Classical Music

A few weeks ago, a conversation popped up on my Facebook feed. Someone had posted on a group named Pretentious Classical Music Elitists, asking how ‘we’ as a community could make relevant to the masses this thing called Classical Music.

When did we start calling it classical music? By the very virtue of its title, it suggests an ancient and outmoded form of art that requires a long and arduous process of education in order to understand it. Whether it’s the study of Classics (the research of things pertaining to classical antiquity - i.e., Ancient Greek and Roman literature, science, philosophy, et. al.); the Neo-Classical movement of the 18th and 19th Centuries (inspired by the ideals of the above, coupled with the Age of Enlightenment, rooted in hierarchical structure, and filtering through architecture, visual arts, and music); classic literature of Lord Byron and Tolstoy etc. - all of the above require at least a semi-decent level of background knowledge and research to begin to understand it.

The etymology of the word classical itself is enough to make even the most self-important regurgitate their quinoa a bit. From the Latin ‘classicus’ (relating to the highest classes of the Roman people, superior to classis), to the French ‘classique’, and adopted into English around early 17th Century, where it has since denoted something of the highest class, approved as a model. Whenever the term ‘classic’ is applied to anything, it is to refer to something as better because it is older or bonafide, seemingly part of the human desire to look backwards and yearn for the ‘good old days’.

The term ‘Classical Music’ was coined for the first time in the Romantic Period (the period of art and music that followed the Neoclassical period, roughly early-mid to late 19th Century) in 1836, when it appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary as a way to distinguish between the music that preceded new artistic directions and developments. Interesting to note that even then, both Baroque and Classical periods were smashed together in this definition in order to allow Romantic musicians (e.g. Schumann, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, to name a few) to distinguish themselves from their predecessors.

Then, in the late-19th Century and early-20th, the field of musicology became a thing, and academics began trying to decipher through the list of musicians and figure out who fits where - which is about as difficult as finding out exactly when Coldplay went to shit. At the tail end of the 19th Century, we suddenly lose track of all the different movements that inspired musicians (or vice versa), and find ourselves dealing with Impressionism, Expressionism, Modernism, Post-Modernism, Minimalism, with everything seemingly a reaction against what came before, or a reaction to the global politics that started devastating Europe in the early 20th Century. Meanwhile, we had a resurgent Russia coming through thanks to the hard work of Rimsky-Korsakov and friends, adding further dimensions to what had for a long time been largely Continental Europe’s word war. In the end, it became easiest to lump this into ‘20th Century Music’, the oft ill-tempered-lovechild-heir-apparent to classical music.

But again, music changed!! The Americans decided slavery was actually a bit of a rubbish thing to do, abolished it, and did their ‘best’ to integrate a community of African-Americans into white society, leading to the proliferation of African rooted rhythm and blues music, which fused with classical harmony to make ragtime, which ruthlessly kept developing into jazz, leading to popular music, leading to blues rock and the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and SOMEHOW we’ve ended up with Ed Sheeran and Nicki Minaj, and really, an apocalypse is probably due soon, as it can’t get much worse.

So classical music became a lazy title slapped on to all music in the end that wasn’t this, even eschewing the burgeoning industry of Film/Game Music (the style of which is heavily influenced by late-Romantic German-Jewish composers who fled the Nazi regime to Los Angeles in the 1920’s and 1930’s); whilst including still all the developments during the 20th and 21st Century which didn’t fit into ‘popular music’, which kind of tends to mean anything that sounds ‘awful' and has no mass appeal, and here we are.

Classical music.
… Kind of reductionist, isn’t it?

And this reductionist, elitist term is killing us. Obviously this article barely scratches the surface of musicology and music history, however the purpose is to show that over the past one hundred years or so, this term which we so lazily adopt has begun to act as a virus against our desires to take music to an audience, whoever or wherever that may be. It limits our ability to connect with audiences not looking to be lectured and purely intellectually stimulated. Music shouldn’t and doesn’t rely on a previous background or education to understand it. It is a visceral and beautiful experience, one that lends itself (similar to visual art) to a completely individual appreciation. There is no such thing as genre - there is only good and bad music.

Whilst it is too late to completely rebrand Classical Music, it is our duty and role as classical musicians to de-stigmatise this term. We must rally around the desire to promote good music - through traditional or entrepreneurial means. We have an incredible job, an incredible gift to give to all who will listen, and we must not let the proliferation of pretentiousness cloud our abilities in fulfilling this gift.

The series of opinion pieces I look forward to writing for Classeek Showroom will be musings on all things classical music - insights from the industry, soliloquies to a sunny utopia, thoughts and recollections of things that I hope you as the reader will enjoy thinking of and responding to. Let the vitriolic fun begin!

Oh, and for the record, my response to the question posed in the Facebook group mentioned at the top of this piece was; ‘Stop being so pretentious and elitist about it would be a start.’