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“Classical” Music – what’s in a name?

Jason Stell
Vol 2 No 1 (Mar 2023)

With the Staunton Music Festival’s Springfest coming next month (April 21-23), it seems an appropriate time to address some questions regarding terminology in so-called “classical music.” The focus of these upcoming concerts is Mozart and his contemporaries: the very epitome of “classical” music. All of the music on the Springfest concerts stems from European composers active within a very narrow window of time, between about 1750 and 1820. The concerts will provide a glimpse into the formation and development of a rather consistent approach to form, technique, and musical expression. And whenever patterns emerge, we are always inclined – in hindsight – to apply some kind of label to lump such works together and thereby differentiate them from other works of contrasting eras and styles.

We all know what is meant when we talk about “classical music,” right? For the lay listener, it is a suitably broad term that encompasses the most beloved music of past masters: Beethoven and Bach, for instance, as well as Rachmaninoff and Ravel, Schubert and Chopin, Mozart and Mahler. There are obviously many more names I could list, but at first blush the term “classical music” will neatly gather together pieces like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Bach’s Cello Suites, or a Chopin Nocturne, for examples. When thinking about "classical music" most people won't immediately call to mind music composed outside of these fairly narrow constraints. Instead, I think classical music calls to mind works written mainly in what is called the “common-practice era” from circa 1600 to about 1910. Prior to 1600 and after 1910, well, there be dragons, as the saying goes . . . .

However, as you may already be aware, there is a vibrant and continuous tradition that connects music from 12th-century plainchant through Bach and Brahms all the way to recent compositions by Arvo Pärt and Joan Tower. We would do well to remind ourselves and others that music performed at a “classical” concert could embrace pieces as widely separated in time as a Josquin motet, a Haydn symphony, Ligeti’s Études for solo piano, or a commissioned world premiere by University of Virginia emerita Judith Shatin. In fact, thinking that a “classical” concert would need to be primarily or only populated by Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms may be one of the reasons why such music has struggled to fully engage new, younger audiences, who have been raised on a diet of widely divergent styles (80s pop, rap, techno, jazz, world, even riffs pulled from video games) made even more accessible by streaming services.

With films like Tár helping to fuel a vogue for “classical” music, I think we can benefit from a more nuanced understanding of the historical eras encompassed by that overly broad term. At the same time, we can help situate what music historians would consider the “classic” era of classical music: that generation or two from the death of Bach until the rise of Romanticism.

If It Ain’t Baroque, Don’t Fix It

Some readers may think the current use of “classical music” is fine. Are we, in fact, dealing with a solution in search of a problem? I don’t think so. Part of this effort is to bring the broader concert-going public closer to the understanding of music history and terminology used by professional composers, performers, and music historians, and to be more precise in how we discuss music of the past. Many of these same professionals reject the term “classical music.” Some try to distance themselves from it specifically so as to avoid falling under its fairly narrow connotations, centered on European concert music written by white males in the 18th and 19th centuries. Others prefer to use a designation that more precisely captures the nature of their specialized study and performance practice. Let’s start outside the “common practice era” boundaries, then, to get a bit of context.

In the last century a movement emerged that helped draw a great deal of attention to the simple fact that superlative, deeply meaningful, and masterfully created music did not begin with Bach’s Passions or Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony – as brilliant as these works are. The Early Music movement has been led by performers and scholars who delved into long-forgotten treasures and brought those to the concert hall and recording studio. As put by David McCormick, himself a Baroque violinist and executive director of Early Music America, “The field of early music . . . is really about employing the instruments and aesthetics of the time in order to bring the music to life. For instance, playing a gavotte on a gut-string fiddle while taking into consideration the tempo and affect suggested by the way a gavotte would have been danced at an 18th-century ball transforms a simple dance into something buoyant and exciting. This type of historical performance practice has given modern audiences a new appreciation for ancient music and introduced new masterworks into the classical canon.“

At the other end of the spectrum, many living composers also see themselves as an integral part of the larger music tradition – having studied great works of the past and been inspired by performers, performances, and their composition mentors. Yet the designation as a living “classical” composer can hardly be a perfect fit. Zachary Wadsworth, who has had a dozen works premiered at Staunton Music Festival over the past decade, offers that music described as “classical” is basically “every bit of old music that we want to bother remembering.” As Wadsworth explains, “It does, indeed, feel presumptuous to use that label [classical] for my own music. I can only hope to one day become ‘classical.’ But in the meantime, I do occasionally use that term to describe my music, if only because it is written for ‘classical’ instruments and performed in 'classical' recitals and concerts.”

In Search of the Classic

Very often, music has followed the visual arts and borrowed terminology connected with its sister disciplines. For instance – and at risk of oversimplifying a more involved topic – the Renaissance began in art and literature as a reaction against Medieval and Gothic styles. It represented, in part, the attempt to recapture techniques and aesthetics espoused in ancient Greek and Roman culture, much of which had been lost or marginalized after the 5th century CE. For artists and thinkers of the Renaissance and later periods, plastic art (primarily sculpture) earned the designation as being “classical”: the highwater mark of natural, elegant, technically brilliant artistic creations. This way of thinking crystallized in figures like Winckelmann and Lessing.

Renaissance music generally overlaps with this same period in art history, but it is only in the later stages of that era that music takes its direct cues from reborn antiquity. Without any surviving musical works to examine from the era of Aeschylus or Aristotle, Renaissance humanists could only derive guidance about fairly complex music theory from written discussions found in Plato and others. What the humanists got right and wrong in their reading of antiquity need not concern us, but what is relevant here is that the musical results of their studies – despite a purported connection to ancient Greek and Roman sources – never received the designation as being “classical.” That term eventually fell to another musical era….

During the Romantic cultural movement of the 19th century, music followed literature and poetry in seeking new depths of emotional intensity as it cast aside inherited conventions of musical form and language. The two elements go hand-in-glove: if 18th century music could not fully convey the hyperbolic sentiments of the generations of Goethe, Schiller, and Wagner, then both the musical gestures and the forms of expression would need to be revised or entirely cast aside in the quest for a supposedly deeper and more powerful expressivity. At the same time, some figures began to reference the previous generation as offering a more refined sensibility – something akin to the classicism of Greek sculpture – and thereby adopted the term “classical” to show their admiration for works by Mozart, Cherubini, Haydn, Clementi, Gluck, and others.

Thus we arrive at the situation in which we, today, have a term “classical music” that can refer to both an entire tradition of “art music” extending over hundreds of years, as well as to a specific piece like Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 or Clementi’s Piano Sonata in G, composed within a mere 50-year timepsan. With the weight of usage behind it, there will no getting rid of the former meaning entirely. Millions of people will continue to think of classical music as what you hear when dressed well, in a darkened concert hall, performed by accomplished musicians who have perfected the highest level of skill over many, many years – whether the work performed is Handel’s Messiah, Liszt's Transcendental Etudes, or Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring.

How, then, to refer to the works presented in Staunton Music Festival’s upcoming Springfest, all written by Mozart and his contemporaries? One solution is to watch your capitalization: “classical music” with a lowercase c refers to the general tradition, while “Classical music” with uppercase C is reserved for European music composed around 1770-1810. In that sense, it is completely true that Staunton Music Festival’s Springfest will feature only Classical music. I have occasionally preferred to specify works by Mozart and stylistic brethren as “classic” (not classical) or as being written in the “Classic era”, in order to differentiate it from earlier and later works. However, this level of fastidiousness is easily lost and, in any case, would require strict adherence to become in generally significant.

The First Viennese Triumvirate

Perhaps a more suitable and descriptive approach is to reinforce that Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are the three leading voices in a globally recognized musical style that emerged in central Europe in the latter part of the 18th century. Haydn and Mozart both lived in Vienna for many years. Mozart settled there in 1781 as a newly-liberated freelance musician, having dramatically broken ties with his former employer, Archbishop Colloredo, in Salzburg. Haydn had lived and worked largely at his patron’s estate 100 km from the capital, but he had numerous connections in Vienna and spent time there on many occasions. The two met in 1784 and shared musical ideas quite freely. For his part, Beethoven originally planned to move to Vienna in 1787 to study with Mozart. But death intervened – first, Beethoven’s mother died, which delayed his move; then Mozart himself passed away before Beethoven could extricate himself from his native Bonn. He eventually arrived in 1792 and soon took a few - not always cordial - lessons with Haydn. On the basis of these interpersonal connections, we can speak of a First Viennese School. (And yes, there is a Second Viennese School . . . but that's a topic for another day!)

The musical details of that tradition are, for example, the subject of Charles Rosen’s excellent book The Classical Style (1971) and Leonard Ratner’s Classic Music: Expression, Form, and Style (1980). And it is this musical language that concerns us most when we celebrate Classic era compositions: forms that are consistent, clear, and generally predictable; tonal progressions that are primarily diatonic but which use chromaticism for expressive and narrative purposes; textures built mainly on homophonic foundations (i.e., melody and accompaniment) but which in the most mature works may draw upon polyphony and even fugue; and finally, as wonderfully elaborated by Mr. Ratner, a compositional style that plays throughout with conventional figures, tropes, and gestures (so-called “topics”) ranging from fantasy to pastoral to learned. Indeed, readers seeking a deep understanding of the Classic era in music could hardly do better than come to grips with Rosen and Ratner’s foundational works.

We may not ever get a neat and tidy terminological system in place to suit all persons. And my intent in writing this essay is not to argue for or against specific terms. Rather, it is sufficient at this point for readers to have some of this background in mind to avoid confusions and, more importantly, to understand what should go without saying: not all “classical music” has the lucid form of a Haydn symphony or the topical rhetoric of a Beethoven sonata. Those composers represent one very significant moment in a long tradition of European music – one that draws equally on sacred and secular sources, that touches on everything from folk song to erudite contrapuntal devices already centuries-old in their times. On the other hand, if we need a way to reference those composers in particular, we can opt for various solutions that pay adequate homage to their stature as the creative artists who have lent their genius to make art music a global force.

(c) Jason Stell, 2023

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