Tuesday, 25 March 2014

What is classical music? A not-so-easy question

What is classical music? A not-so-easy question


Many times, when I've told people that I enjoy listening to classical music, I have been given a reply along the lines of "classical music? That's so old!".

I usually try to explain to these people that classical music spans over four hundred years of music, but I'm sure that plenty of classical musicians have thought this through to themselves along with many non-musicians: "When did classical music stop and when did everything else begin?".

Well, up to about the beginning of the 20th century most people have it very clear. Jazz hand only just started in New Orleans twenty years before, music in Europe was pretty much the same.

Music genres up to the dawn of the 20th century


Then came Schoenberg. (Brace yourselves) 

After a whole age of exploring tonality that Mahler, Debussy and Strauss had been participants in, the Second Viennese School (Comprised of Schoenberg, Alban Berg and more of his disciples) came to do with it. According to them, art was becoming kitsch and over-indulgent, and didn't reflect the realities of society, which as hard as they were to hear, still needed to be conveyed in new and expressive art forms. They overcame tonality in the midst of what could be considered its dying pains. From here on, classical music stops. There. Simple, right?

Well not really. Firstly, we must take into consideration that other romantic composers were still alive, such as nationalist Jean Sibelius (d. 1957). Surely classical music still existed whilst these composers were still alive?

Also, Stravinsky started writing boundary-defining, tonal music whilst Schoenberg was still on the block. Many people consider The Firebird classical music, whereas Pierrot Lunaire starts to get people thinking. (By the way, I recommend checking out all of the composers and their music that I've written about. They are all great).

Pierrot, the nostalgic clown that is the subject of Schoenberg's song cycle
After expressionism (think Schoenberg) music - which had already branched off into Jazz and popular music - started to slowly evolve into what we now know as contemporary music. Composers such as John Cage, Leon Kirchner and Olivier Messiaen started writing more and more dissonant music, experimenting with household sounds and silence. Does 4'33 count as classical music? Most people would say no. 
Therefore, somewhere between the Second Viennese School and the start of these composers' careers, the concept of classical music just stops in our minds. This period of music is called modernism. The limits of tonality, rhythm and harmony were challenged and re-invented, following German Romanticism and its Wagnerian and luscious extended tonality.

So far so good. Here classical music stops and modernism starts. But what are we to do about composers such as Sibelius, still writing till his death in 1957?
These composers weren't writing in the current genres that were being explored at the time; they were what was left of the older romantic school. The fact that they were alive doesn't mean that their style was alive; fashionable among the young artists, or new...
Or does it? Well that's for you to decide.

Back to modernism. At its end near the 30s, modernism ends and post-modernism starts, with composers such as John Cage shoving screws into pianos and playing with cacti in the 60s to explore the banality of household sounds, and silence. However, by that time the neoclassical composers such as Busoni and Prokofiev had written classical music in reference to older styles, such as Pulcinella by Stravinsky. Jazz influenced artists such as Copland and Gershwin. These were writing till the 50s, with West Side Story written by Bernstein in '57. Surely this is classical music?


John Cage's Branches for amplified cacti and plants
Minimalism starts in the 60s in New York, and sees the rise of Reich and Adams, writing repetitive and hypnotic music comprised of "cells" changing and evolving. By the 70s this form had reached its peak, and classical music "officially" ends with the start of contemporary music.

To conclude this turbulent journey through the 20th century, we can see that romantic music had branched out during the beginnings of the century into various musical forms, some of which evolved further (modernism into contemporary), and others were left behind (neo-classicism). We cannot really decide on a cut-off point for the concept of classical music, although the best guess is that "classical" music might have ended at the Second Viennese School, and with the jazz-inspired writers like Copland and Bernstein. 

To further conclude, let's say it's subjective. That's why I didn't want to call this the "classical music place" originally, or to refer to my tastes as "classical". The murkiness of the term and the rich variety of composers and movements make this such a difficult word or concept do describe. Should we be challenging it?
A lesson that we have learned from this is to use the word sparingly. Let's celebrate that we had composers a hundred years ago making our lives hard today by exploring, demolishing and redefining boundaries and conventions. The complexity of the 20th century in music is rich and full, and we've only just touched upon it here. However, as usual, there is some great music to listen to along the way, and that's what matters.