What is Classical Music at WTJU? Part 1

Last post I outlined some of the guidelines the classical department here at WTJU use to ensure consistent programming in our classical music shows. As I mentioned, though, the definition of exactly what is and isn’t classical music is something of a judgment call.

Now trying to define classical music is like trying to pick out orange on a spectrum. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious, but where does orange end and red begin? Or where’s the line between orange and yellow? Classical music has the same kind of problems.

For me, there’s one basic criteria for “obviously” classical music: it was music conceived, composed, arranged, and notated by a single person.

Now most other musical genres are collaborative in nature. Any song currently on the Top 40 may have two or more people credited as the composers. The producer usually adds some instrumentation, the artist adds their own embellishment, and the accompanying musicians often improvise their parts based on the framework provided by the composers. So the final result represents a collective musical expression.

Nothing wrong with that — this general format is used for pop, rock, folk, country, blues, bluegrass and most other musical genres.

But let’s take a look at something like the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. Beethoven came up with the original musical ideas. Beethoven arranged the music and crafted the structure of the work. Beethoven decided what instrument played what notes and when. Beethoven decided what sections should be loud, which soft, when the tempo should slow down and when it should speed up. It’s all the creation of a single mind.

Now that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for many different interpretations (after all, how fast is fast?). But it’s not likely that someone will decide to substitute a saxophone for the oboe solo, or that the flute part will be reassigned to the cellos, or that the middle section of the first movement will be cut to tighten up the music.

No, the variations in performance come from different interpretations of Beethoven’s instructions, not in taking Beethoven’s outline and filling it out in a new way.

Which is why classical music is usually filed by primarily by composer, and why every other musical genre is filed by artist.

And this rule holds me in good stead from the 1300’s all the way up through the present day. Machaut wrote out all his music, as does John Corigliano, even though they’re separated by 700 years.

Which is why I don’t think much of Paul McCartney’s forays into classical. In McCartney’s case, he doesn’t read music so his scores are dictated to transcribers, and orchestrated by others. That’s not the product of a single mind.

It’s also why I don’t play the Browns, or the Canadian Brass. Tchaikovsky didn’t compose his music for brass quintet, and almost none of the composers the Browns perform conceived of their scores for five grand pianos. It may be pleasant to listen to, but to me it dulls the intent of composition — sort of like taking a painting and tweaking the colors in Photoshop. Interesting, yes, but not the same as the original.

Now this rule of a single-person composition is sort of like pointing to the orange part of the spectrum and declaring “this is orange.” True enough. But what happens when the finger moves to the left or right? I’ll talk about exceptions in the next post.

What do you think classical music is? Leave a comment!

Part 2 – Medieval Mystery

Part 3 – Lost in Transcription

Part 4 – Concerto Concerns

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