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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 2 October 2010

Classical 101: What is Classical Music?

by Claudio Pinto / October 1, 2010

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Here we launch a series of articles which offers the reader a few trail-markers along the path to reinforcing and developing an appreciation for classical music.

Although we often hear the term “classical music,” its precise definition remains unclear for many people. Let us, then, pose the question: “What is Classical Music?”

By definition, classical music is the collection of so-called scholarly western music that was composed as early as the Renaissance (1400-1600) and continues to be composed today. The term “scholarly” implies music with structure, form, and theoretical aspects that exhibit not only deep artistic and aesthetic care, but also a marked respect for tradition. Whether the music is sacred or secular, instrumental or vocal, baroque or contemporary—serial and electronic music included—these genres all belong to the category of classical music.

The names of a few great masters immediately come to mind, such as Monteverdi, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, and many others, whose works are still studied and interpreted by countless orchestras and musicians around the globe. These composers’ contributions constitute the foundation of classical music. And when does music become so-called “popular” music? As elaborate as popular music can be, it is nonetheless more or less antagonistic towards scholarly music, in the sense that it was not born from a musical tradition that is subject to such rigorous structural and formal organization.

Nonetheless, a great number of popular music artists continue to cite classical music as a source of inspiration for their compositions—the list of these artists is long and merits consideration in its own article—not to mention film composers, whose works are directly and most often influenced by the greatest classical masters.

Classical music has always been a demanding art, as much for the level of mastery it demands from the musician as for the careful and attentive listening it requires of audiences in order to appreciate the music’s wonderful subtleties. As musicologists Jean and Brigitte Massin say, “Of all the artistic worlds, the realm of music is not the most immediately accessible. An abundance of musical knowledge will undoubtedly permit the amateur to affirm his taste and passion for the art form that best expresses the sensitivity and the concerns of the human spirit.”

To whom, then—musician, music-lover, audiophile—shall we dedicate this column? Let’s conclude with the words of Franz Schubert who, when asked the same question upon the premiere of his Trio in E-Flat Major, responded curtly: “To those who will enjoy it.”

[Translation: Alexandra Gorlin-Crenshaw]

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