What is Classical Music? Part 2 – Medieval Mystery

In part one I outlined some of the guidelines I personally use to select music to air on “Gamut.” And for the most part, that rule works pretty well. What is classical music? Primarily (IMHO) it’s music conceived, composed, arranged, and notated by a single person.

OK, that’s pretty straightforward if you’re dealing with Beethoven, or Vaughan Williams, or Brahms, or Corelli. But what about music from an earlier time?

The importance of the composer is something that really didn’t come about until the 13oo’s — and even then it was primarily in the field of sacred compositions. It would be another 200 years before composer names were regularly attached to the more popular forms of music.

And there’s the question of notation. Scholars may debate how loud Mozart intended a passage to be played when he marked it double forte. But the notation makes it clear that he wanted a particular combination of instruments to play louder (to some degree) at that spot in the composition.

But musical notation hasn’t always been that exact. Instrumental combinations (or in some cases even voices) weren’t specified in many compositions from the renaissance and earlier. The earliest examples of notation are little more than lines above the text, indicating the general direction the melody should take. They served more as reminders for singers who (presumably) already knew the tune.

And up through the 1400s, secular music wasn’t written down at all. Musicians were expected to just know all the top hits, in the same way that modern professional musicians can play the standards without referring to the music.

What makes music classical when we don’t know who the composer was, or what forces he (and occasionally she) intended? My personal rule for early music is this: if the performance gets as close as possible to the original intent and/or sound of the composition — and is an engaging performance in its own right — then I’ll air it.

There are many different versions of the anonymous “Greensleeves” that I’ll air. Solo lute, lute, and voice, renaissance instrumental ensemble — all those are valid, and represent the music as it would have been heard at the time. An arrangement for brass quintet? Sorry, no.

Ditto for the loosey-goosey scores of the medieval and renaissance sacred composers. We may not know how many voices Machaut intended on each part, but we do know he intended it to be sung. So a small vocal quartet works, as does a large choir. A saxophone quintet? No.

So rule two: if the composer’s exact intentions are unknown, then performances that come as close as possible to what scholarship indicates they might qualify as classical music for me.

But there’s more to the messy world of classical music. I’ll explain in part 3.

Part 1 – What is Classical Music at WTJU?

Part 3 – Lost in Transcription

Part 4 – Concerto Concerns

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