What Do We Mean By CLASSICAL MUSIC?

May 21, 2009

Music_Classical A question that often comes up in discussions with colleagues involves the term classical music, its inadequacies, and what we might use instead of that designation. Without going into the subject as much as I hope to in future, I note that the online list of the American Musicological Society is entertaining a related question. Jeremy Grimshaw, of the Brigham Young University School of Music, points to the 1879 edition of the Grove Dictionary and its entry on the term, one of the first systematic takes on the usage that is now thrown around so universally, perhaps thoughtlessly, and certainly unmethodically:

CLASSICAL is a term which in music has much the same signification as it has in literature. It is used of works which have held their place in general estimation for a considerable time, and of new works which are generally considered to be of the same type and style. Hence the name has come to be especially applied to works in the forms which were adopted by the great masters of the latter part of the last century, as instrumental works in the sonata form, and operas constructed after the received traditions; and in this sense the term was used as the opposite of ‘romantic,’ in the controversy between the musicians who wished to retain absolutely the old forms, and those, like Schumann, who wished music to be developed in forms which should be more the free inspiration of the composer, and less restricted in their systematic development. See ROMANTIC. –C.H.H.P.
[Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry]

Until, towards the end of that paragraph, we learn that Schumann is not, for Parry, a classical composer, the definition from 140 years ago makes pretty good sense for guidance to our own usage. But times change, and music changes. When will our terminology change to reflect more exact reality?

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2 Responses to “What Do We Mean By CLASSICAL MUSIC?”

  1. […] For some time now, I have been startled to see in that influential paper captions for photos of classical musicians that employ such locutions as “Krystian Zimerman on the piano.” The use of on […]

  2. […] facial demonstrations as an indispensable part of their stock-in-trade. But conventional “classical” instrumental musicians who aspire to be taken seriously (say, the player in most of your […]

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