Friday, April 20, 2018

What should we call classical music?

In March 2018, The Telegraph published an article that had classical music aficionados up in arms. Although it doesn’t take much to agitate this crowd, the headline was indeed provocative:

My initial reaction was similar to that of my music scholar colleagues: “What?! There is so much classical music that isn’t orchestral! What about opera? Solo works? Songs? Chamber music? Choral music?” and so on, naming as many genres of non-orchestral classical music as we could to show just how wrong, wrong, WRONG that idea is.

But when I actually took the time to read the article, I realized that the headline was misleading—likely intentionally so, to stoke those flames of OUTRAGE! that generate page views…

…because that’s not actually what the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s (RPO) managing director James Williams said.

Here’s the quote in the article, emphasis added:
“Gone are the days of classical repertoire standing alone and just being enough. This approach would cater [to] less than half the new audience that wants to learn more about the genre. Classical music for a modern British orchestra has a new name – it’s simply called orchestral music.”
Yes, Williams is criticizing the label “classical,” saying, “There is a perception that classical music is for older people.” Yet he’s not claiming that ALL classical music should be called “orchestral”—he clearly says that classical music for orchestra should be called “orchestral,” which is inoffensive by itself.

So, why does Williams make it a point to inform the press of the earth-shattering news that orchestral music should be called orchestral? One reason may be that he has a concert to promote, a concert that will likely encounter resistance from conservative classical music audiences. A program containing the music of…video games.
a wealthy woman faints dramatically
Admittedly, this is less scandalous than
Kendrick Lamar winning the Pulitzer.
Says Williams,
“Orchestral music is around us all day every day – when one turns on the television, whether it’s a sound track to a programme, the radio, pop and rock songs where there is often a string section, all forms of art and media….We know that millions of young people in the UK play video games and experience orchestral music every day, they are just not aware that it is…

“Beyond community engagement, it is clear from our research that orchestras also need to diversify concert programmes that fully resonate with what new audiences actually want.”
Again, Williams is defending the idea of a weighty orchestral institution (this is the Royal Philharmonic, after all) devoting a concert to a type of music that many existing audience members would consider beneath them. He realizes that attracting a newer, younger audience through a change in repertoire risks alienating the current audience, and this statement attempts to smooth over the differences to make video game music more palatable to people who want to hear the Great Composers.

Williams champions inclusivity, but he paradoxically (and probably unintentionally) reinforces the exclusivity of classical music. Advocating the term “orchestral” as a category that encompasses some movie scores and some video game sound tracks is tantamount to saying that those other types of music cannot be described as “classical.” Williams proposes a term that more accurately describes the RPO’s repertoire by cutting across style divisions—while leaving those divisions intact.

To gauge reaction among a vocal set of classical music lovers, I observed the comments of Classic FM followers on Facebook. As I’ve mentioned before, Classic FM cultivates a particular type of classical music fan: one who likes to be constantly congratulated for superior musical taste and knowledge.

Those who take time to comment on Classic FM’s social media posts are a subset of this audience who reinforce their belief that their opinion matters because they have been primed to believe they are experts—not just consumers of classical music, but connoisseurs. They consider themselves arbiters, not just of what classical music should be called, but of what music should be called classical.

The comments on the “classical vs. orchestral” issue revealed a variety of opinions: some reacted as I did, pointing out types of classical music that aren’t orchestral; others liked the idea of getting away from calling this style “classical” because they think the term should apply only to music from the era of Haydn and Mozart (I dislike this argument because I find these style period labels limiting, as I pointed out in the comments section of this post); still others found this renaming scheme terribly condescending to young listeners. And then there are those who completely agreed with Williams’s proposal and echoed his implicit distinction between classical music and soundtracks:

Facebook comment: "Not all classical music is orchestra;. Not all orchestral music is classical. There are film, epic, and anime soundtracks which are also orchestral."

I find the division between “classical music” and “film music” particularly interesting because some of the Great Composers wrote film scores which have been accepted into the classical music canon. I doubt that the people expressing this opinion would object to calling Sergei Prokofiev’s Lt. Kije Suite or music from Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Gadfly “classical,” yet they were both composed for movies. Again, because classical music culture focuses so much on individual composers, these works are deemed acceptable less because of what they are and more because of who wrote them.

Part of the reason this group of fans is resistant to call movie and video game scores “classical music” is because there is an inherent bias (in the US, at least) toward what musicologists call “absolute music”—that is, instrumental music that is not meant to represent or rely upon anything outside of music (like a storyline) for meaning. Through concerts, radio programming, and music education, we’ve been taught that symphonies and sonatas are great art because they are complete works unto themselves, following purely musical rules rather than narrative ones. In practice, that isn’t completely true, but it’s the ideal we’ve inherited from generations of people pushing the symphonies and sonatas of Austro-Germanic composers as Masterpieces.

Nevertheless, several musicologists have built careers on the study of film music, which has been around now for over a century, creating a subfield with plenty of depth. Not only that, there’s even a growing subfield called ludomusicology, devoted to the study of video game music!

Another reason some Classic FM commenters resist considering film music “classical” is its relative youth:

Facebook comment: "To me classical is what the old composers did. It includes orchestral. However, newer material, for example material from movie just orchestral."

Many composers working today (including those named above) are still writing “classical music,” or are at least widely recognized as doing such. I feel as though this commenter would have said something different in the wake of Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize, as some in the classical music community exhibited territorialism and claimed that the prize should be reserved for classical composers. (As for the other Pulitzer nominees themselves, both active classical composers, they have publicly stated their support for this surprising decision.) Anyway, the consensus is that classical is not just “what the old composers did,” as people are still writing in this style today.

One of the problems with Classic FM relentlessly flattering their listeners for liking the highest form of art music is that they buy into the mythology. This empowers them to confidently proclaim things that are historically untrue:

This Facebook comment is pretty long, so I'll summarize: Composers didn't used to change their way of composing to "seduce audiences," and this move is just commercialism rather than appreciating the "honesty, beauty, and sincerity in art."

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably understand how ridiculous it is to claim that “many composers didn’t try to change their way of composing to seduce audiences.” For hundreds of years, composers produced music for specific patrons, having to tailor their “way of composing” to the people paying them. As the aristocracy lost political and economic power, and composers could support themselves by appealing to the public, you better believe they composed to “seduce audiences”!

Here’s a historical example of a composer describing his latest symphony in 1778:
“I can vouch for the few intelligent French people who may be there; as for the stupid ones – I see no great harm if they don't like it. But I hope that even these idiots will find something in it to like; and I've taken care not to overlook the premier coup d'archet…What a fuss these boors make of this!...

“In the middle of the opening Allegro there was a passage that I knew people would like; the whole audience was carried away by it, and there was tremendous applause. But I knew when I wrote it what sort of an effect it would make, and so I introduced it again at the end, with the result that it was encored.”
Such blatant pandering! Following fads instead of heeding the call of Great Art with its “honesty, beauty, and sincerity.” That’s why the music of the Great Composers endures and no one even remembers hacks like this… *consults source* …Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (These comments come from letters he wrote to his father about his “Paris” Symphony, no. 31.)

Yes, many people commit to a carefully-marketed image of classical music as pure, unsullied by the crassness of commercialism and marketing. It can lead them to make unwittingly ironic comments like this:

Facebook comment: "'Orchestra;' means muzak. Classic FM is called Classic FM for a reason. And it's not because you play video game orchestral music!"

Absolutely, Classic FM would never deign so low to play video game music—says a comment on the link to an article proudly announcing Classic FM as one of sponsors of this video game music concert!

The righteous conviction in these comments are exactly why Williams felt the need to defend the RPO’s decision to play music outside the traditional classical canon—and why the editor of the article in The Telegraph chose to publish an incendiary headline. A significant portion of classical concert-goers feel as though they must constantly defend their territory and police what music should be considered “classical,” and the media knows that such zeal can be exploited.

Thanks to Brooks Kuykendall, Andrew Dell'Antonio, Carl Shaver, William Cheng, Naomi Graber, and Bob Fink for their input on this post!

Like what you’ve read?


"Classical music must ditch its name and refer instead to 'orchestral music', Royal Philharmonic director says" by Camilla Turner, in The Telegraph, 21 Mar 2018

"Classical music should be called ‘orchestral music’ to broaden appeal, says Royal Philharmonic director" by Maddy Shaw Roberts for Classic FM, 26 Mar 2018

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