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CLASSICAL MUSIC What does that mean?

I wonder how many other musicians who work in the various fields of orchestral music, opera, oratorio, chamber music (and the rest!) are as fed up as I am at being described as classical musicians. Having spent years learning to play and perform a vast range of music and then more years at college studying and learning about an equally wide variety of music I also strongly object to being described as classically trained! Well, what do you understand by classical music? How would you define it? The word classical, when applied to art, sculpture, architecture etc., refers to ancient Greece and Rome. When applied to music it refers specifically to the music of Mozart, Haydn and other composers of the period from around 1760-1810. The term relates to that one particular style of music in which structure, balance, clarity and purity of form are of paramount importance. Unfortunately, the term classical music has now become meaningless, corrupted by misuse and almost impossible to define. For most people, it now seems to be a loose but convenient collective term for any music that is somehow serious or artistic, whatever that means! We can talk about Folk, Jazz, Pop, Rock, Soul, World and a host of other sub-categories of music and most people know what were talking about but the word classical seems to be applied to just about everything else, provided it is out-of-date, difficult to understand, high-brow, elitist, written by dead (usually foreign) people, played on old-fashioned (and, God help us, un-amplified or non-electronic) instruments by people in monkey suits, listened to only by snobs, wrinklies or nerds in stuffy concert halls and churches or, worst of all, on Classic FM! What am I going on about? Classical is just a word. Language evolves and changes all the time. Am I being a linguistic snob? Nobody likes snobs but I think inverted snobbery is far more destructive! Used in this indiscriminate way, the term classical is just an easy way for ignorant inverted snobs to lump into one convenient category (and then, usually, to dismiss) the entire output of all the greatest and most creative musical minds in the last 500 years of western civilisation! A classic case of dumbing down! Nobody would dream of adopting this approach to great art or literature. Can you imagine anyone finding a word that lumps together all the works of every great writer from Homer and Virgil, through Goethe and Shakespeare to Sartre and Shaw, even Tolkien, and then dismissing it all as old-fashioned and irrelevant because their appreciation of drama stops at Eastenders and they only like reading Barbara Cartland or J K Rowling? Can you imagine anyone saying that they have no interest in Michelangelo, da Vinci, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Constable, Turner, Henry Moore because the only art they like is Andy Warhol or Jackson Pollock, Tracy Emin or Damien Hirst? But this happens all the time with music. How many times have I heard people say: Oh, Im not into classical music, I prefer ? Of course, we all have our likes and dislikes (life would be so boring if we all thought the same) but that doesnt mean we have to be dismissive of everything else. Classical music (in the loose sense of the word) encompasses such a vast range and incredible variety of music that any such categorisation is totally meaningless. Using the word classical in this way just displays ignorance and using it dismissively is crass stupidity. I dont know who it was (some say Richard Strauss, others say Duke Ellington) but someone once said There are only two kinds of music good music and bad music. Of course, theres quite a lot that lies somewhere in between but, by and large, this is probably fairly true.

The problem is: how do you decide what is good and what is bad? Is it purely a matter of personal taste, is it simply a matter of what is popular, or are there other, artistic criteria that can be brought to bear? This problem is compounded by the fact that music is a live, performing art, so we also have to consider the quality of the performance alongside the quality of the music being performed. In these politically correct days, it has become frowned upon to describe any piece of music as bad. If somebody likes it, then it must be OK. It has become snobbish or elitist to argue that any type of music is better or worse than any other. This is nonsense! Music is an art, and all music should be judged according to its artistic quality. There is plenty of bad music that I actually enjoy often it is great fun and often it is enjoyable precisely because of its badness! There is also quite a lot of genuinely good music that I dont enjoy and that is a matter of personal preference but I wouldnt dream of suggesting that it is any less good simply because I dont like it. And, just to stress the point, less than one quarter of all the music I ever perform or listen to is classical. Im prepared to bet that, next time you hear the term classical music, it will be used in this improper and meaningless way. The chances are that the person using the term will be musically ignorant as well as linguistically careless. Sadly, the person will probably also be a friend of yours, and will be otherwise highly intelligent and articulate! So, please point out to them the error of their ways, tactfully and sensitively, and suggest to them that they go and listen to a really good, live concert of top quality non-classical music. They might actually enjoy it! Xenophon Kelsey (September 2006)

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