Classical Music, what is it to be a classic

There's an interesting article on which talks about a classical music program for children developed by Michelle Snyder. That in and of itself isn't so fascinating. However, what I did find interesting about it were the comments about the pieces that affected Snyder's life.. She speaks of seeing The Nutcracker as a child of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Bach, Chopin, Debussy... the list goes on.

Certainly, these are all composers (and their music) that are firmly entrenched into the Classical Music World. A while back (March) the Classical FM radio station in the UK published their top 300 pieces, and surprisingly, many of these same pieces were listed. Classical FM gets raked over the coals for being too "candy coated" in their choice of classical music - and yet... these are the pieces the bulk of society requests to hear. Maybe that's because we're the most familiar with them. Maybe it's because they are great pieces of music (maybe a bit of both).

There are other great pieces of music out there - but it's this return to these few (if 300 can be considered a few) that we seem to gravitate toward - and really - the vast difference between much of the classical music written today verses these "classics."

Why, if these pieces are so good, do we feel the need to write music that so very different? (particularly in terms of tonality and melody)

Part of the answer is to find something new. Beethoven was pushing the bounds of the Classical world (into the Romanic Era) with the music he wrote - particularly his middle period - which is where his Fifth Symphony falls. Debussy was writing something new when he developed his style. Bach may not have been writing in a "new" style (his contemporaries didn't seem to think so), but he was a master at it. Some say the same about Mozart; he didn't necessarily write outside the classical music style, but he wrote it better than any of his peers. And if these masters have already written the best of that style, why attempt to write something which will undoutably be considered less - why flog a dead horse?

Part of the answer is similar to a dog walking past a post or a bush. "Hmmm, smells like another dog has been here. I'd better put my scent on this poll to let other dog's know - It's Mine!"

I was reading an article the other day (sorry, tried to find it again, but lost the link) about a rap artist who was calling his music something other than Urban, giving it a unique name to say, "See, I pissed on this post. It's mine and nobody else's." What a joke! Sorry, but just because he calls his music some new style, doesn't mean it is - and it (IMHO) loses it's connections with the past so (again, IMHO) it actually is less because it doesn't share that connection that gives it validation.

Ok, perhaps I'm talking myself into a hole. I am a composer and I am trying to write something new. I would love to be one day have one of my pieces (one would be amazing, two or three would be, well, greedy - but I'm willing to be greedy too, if the opportunity arises) considered part of the standard pieces - one of the 300, something children should listen to as they grow up. But to do that I feel I need to write something that is connected in someway with these masters who gone before me. Write something that is new, but not so different from the "classics" so my audience can readily hear the connection.

I think there is a lot of amazing music written in the last 50 years and some of it may ever make it into the "standard" range of classical music. Some of it, while being extremely interesting, is just too far out there (IMHO) to ever be mainstream - and for some composers, that's fine.

However, for me, perhaps I'll end up being considered more "neo-romantic", more soft around the edge. But then again, Ralph Vaughn-Williams has been criticised in the same way and he has several pieces that are in the list of "classics". There must be something about that style of music that still resonates with people - and, if nothing else, I want my music to resonate with others.


Rob said…
I suppose if you can't get one of your pieces into the top 300 for the general public a good second best would be to write something which becomes a repertoire classic for players of a certain instrument. I doubt there's much Messaien in the Classic FM top 300, but to organists he's a godlike figure. Again, I doubt whether any of Beethoven's string quartets are in that list, but no quartet player could imagine being without them for a moment.
Chip said…
Interesting take on Messaien.... and it explains so much about someone I know who is one of his fans.

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