Or, rather, the problems of defining classical music, the subject of my last book riff, and many comments. Including some very passionate ones from a man I greatly respect (hi, Michael), who longs with all his heart for a definition of classical music that’s based on our current classical music culture.
Other commenters have correctly noted ambiguities in the definition I proposed (I specified that classical music is the music of the European tradition, and that it’s written out in advance by a composer). Broadway musicals, for instance. Wouldn’t they be classical music, because they’re written out in advance?
Probably not, I think, because often the composer just writes the songs (melody and harmony), while someone else writes the details of the accompaniment, does the orchestration, and composes the overture and dance music. That doesn’t sound like classical music to me.
Still. Definitions are tricky. And, as I keep saying in response to the comments, leaky. There will always be exceptions.
What’s helpful here, I think, is to look at existing dictionary definitions of other things. Definitions of “dog,” for instance. These vary, as various dictionaries enumerate various physical characteristics of dogs. But no “dog” definition I’ve seen talks about dog culture, how adorable dogs are, how smart, how loyal, how deeply loved, or whatever. (I love dogs myself.)
Or “mammal.” Here every definition I’ve seen says that mammals are viviparous, but notes the exception every child can name. But the definitions also say that mammals have hair or fur, without stopping to note that hairless mammals exist. (There are hairless cats, for instance.)
So here we see the difference between a dictionary definition and an encyclopedia entry. Dictionary definitions (which are what I had in mind when I sketched my own version) are typically concise. They can note major exceptions to what they say, but not rare or subtle ones. And they may not go into what people feel about the thing being defined.
An encyclopedia article works differently. One on classical music might start with an objective definition of what classical music is (see below for my revised attempt). And then it might note exceptions. Some classical works — some contemporary pieces — aren’t fully notated in advance. Broadway musicals live in a limbo zone, resembling classical music in some ways, not resembling it in others.
Much classical music performance today, the entry could go on to say, takes place inside the aura of classical music culture, which could be sympathetically described. But this culture is relatively new historically, the entry could then add, wasn’t in play during the age when many of the great composers lived, and isn’t found in all parts of the classical music world today. (New music, for instance.)
In an encyclopedia entry, we’d have time to stretch, consider nuances, state exceptions, talk about how people feel about classical music, all to our heart’s content. A good entry, I’d love to think, might even note how much people like me dislike the traditional classical music culture, even while we work to save classical music.
But back to the dictionary definition. This, by necessity, has to be concise. Michael, would you care to try writing one that includes classical music culture? “Classical music: Music in the European tradition, adored by its listeners, and typically listened to in rapt silence.” I think many of us might feel embarrassed to read that, knowing that it tells only one part of the story. Michael, maybe you can do better. I’d love to see that.
I want a definition that encompasses all forms of classical music I know. John Cage may not be central to Michael’s classical music experience, but he’s central to mine. And since mine isn’t exactly the view of a vanishingly small minority (even though we surely are a minority), I don’t think a dictionary definition can ignore us, as if we were hairless cats.
More broadly, I want a definition that includes (a) whatever we know about what happened when Perotin’s works were played, more or less 800 years ago (b) a performance of Brahms by the Chicago Symphony today (surrounded by classical music culture) (c) a performance of Cage’s 4’33”, his famous silent piece (no classical music culture in sight), and (d) the world premiere of the Barber of Seville (also with none of today’s classical music culture in evidence).
I might try to write that definition like this. I’ve modeled it on the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary definition of “mammal,” which also packs several things into one long sentence. And I’ll note that dictionaries finesse well-known exceptions with judicious use of words like “typically.”
Music in a long, and originally European, tradition, starting with Gregorian chant and continuing into the present day; typically composed and notated in advance of performance, and taking either traditional forms (such as symphony, sonata, opera, art song, and string quartet) or new ones (including pieces for mixed ensembles, minimal music, serial music, electronic music, music for composer/performers, and pieces in which a composer specifies only a process of performance, instead of notating all every musical detail).
Not claiming that’s perfect. But at least it’s reasonably thorough, finesses a few subtleties, and avoids the value judgments and neglect of new music typical of the existing dictionary definitions I quoted in my book riff.
And maybe Michael could add a clause about classical music culture. But I think that would add some contradictions that can’t be easily finessed, starting with this one: The classical music culture we know now just didn’t exist throughout most of the long tradition this definition refers to.