What Is "Classical Music"?

The word "Classical", when used to describe a musical style, is used by popular culture to distinguish this kind of music from jazz, rock, or other contemporary styles.  The word "classical", however, actually is a period of time in Western Art Music that describes the music of Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven, as well as other composers who lived at that time.  The general time designations are Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern.  However, the term "Classical Music" has come to be known as a term for a genre of music that spans the course of hundreds of years, including all the music from Palestrina to Stravinsky, to the current day.  Many people are unaware that Classical music is still being composed today, although it is far different than what was created several hundred years ago.

As I embarked upon my journey of bringing classical disciplines into contemporary styles, I began to ask myself the question, "What is Classical music"?  Is it violins and oboes?  Is it going to a concert hall and seeing 80 people sitting on the stage, being directed by a conductor?  Or is it something deeper, something more intrinsic that defies cliché definitions?

Following is a list of components that I believe can (and should be) extended to any style of music, including contemporary pop genres.  After all, didn't Bach use the vogue styles of his day as a template for his greater creativity?  He used Italian, French and German forms and expression in his writing, as well as taking the popular songs that Martin Luther had written for church (and many of these were derived from folk songs sung in the bars).

I don't believe that musical style is so much the issue, but rather what is done 'beneath the surface' of the style.  This is the real 'Classical' music, and it transcends cultural, as well as generational barriers.

1)   An awareness of the ‘big picture’ or over-arching story, whether it be the composition of a two minute song, or a two hour symphony.

2)   Detail.  Detail of compositional structure, performance instructions, and other technical aspects.  Care given to the most seemingly insignificant nuances.

3)   Patience.  In order to create the detailed work, artists were willing to take as long as necessary to create their works.  Some compositions were known to have taken several years before they were brought out to be performed.

4)   A highly organic process of integrated creativity, through ‘motivic development’.  This could also be explained as the process of meditation: taking a seed-thought and expanding it through a number of processes, which becomes a much larger work by simply compiling a number of the ideas that are a reflection, in some form, of the original one. 

5)   Structural integrity and balance utilizing the Pi/Phi ratio, or ‘Golden Section’.  This is a point of climax in the context of the linear timeline of the composition, in which the greatest amount of intensity is felt, somewhere between two-thirds and three-fourths of the way through the piece.  There is also a structural integrity of emotional development, which is discussed later.

6)   Economy of means.  Only using that which is necessary to convey the thought, not being wasteful in the use of anything on which the work is built.  This could also be stated as ‘good stewardship’.  The concept could be analogized to a lean athlete, without fat, no frivolous necessities or meaningless wanderings.  Everything is meant to be there, nothing is without purpose.

7)   Inspiration.  The flow of the creative process, the spark of a new idea, the telling of an ‘unheard’ story, a ‘behind the scenes’ sub-plot, emotional undertones that are felt, not necessarily heard.

8)   The power of the line.  In a Bach chorale, each melodic line of the soprano, alto, tenor and bass were uniquely different.  If they were played by themselves, each one separately, they would be able to stand alone, appreciated for their own intrinsic value.  Each one of these melodies represented to Bach a person, or group of people who would be singing.  Each line, against the other lines, would create a ‘conversation’ or relationship.  As one melodic line would clash against another, then resolve, there would be yet another dissonance created, followed by a resolution.  All of this undulating activity, weaving in and out of conflict and resolution is like the drama of a play, with its actors inter-relating with one another, finally coming to agreement.  When analyzing Bach, one should think more in terms of linear, horizontal structure than in terms of harmonic, vertical structure.  The lines create the harmony, but are not beholden to the harmony.  Lines, in the example above, can be melodic.  They, however, can also be applied to structure, rhythm, patterns of harmony, and even emotional movement.  A line can be defined as the direction of horizontal movement in time.

9)   A sense of community.  As mentioned above, in a Bach Chorale, each part (or melodic line) has its place and relationship to the others.  In a symphony orchestra, each person or section has their unique part to play, fitting into the whole.  When singing or playing in a group, there are moments when the harmonies fit together so perfectly that they resonate to create yet another tone called the ‘resultant tone’.  It reminds me of the Scripture that says, “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst.” (Matt. 18:20) When this happens, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that something wonderful has occurred.  Audience interaction is another aspect of this subject.

10)   Conflict/Resolution.  Again, using the example above, in which melodic lines bump into one another in conflict, and then resolve, it should be understood that not everything in music has to be pretty.  Life is a series of conflict/resolution sequences.  In music, without conflict, or disharmony, there would be no contrast when the resolution came.  A good story has to have a good antagonist.  The stronger the antagonist, the more powerful the resolution, when the hero overcomes him.  This can happen with melodic counterpoint, but it can also happen with emotional structure, where a piece could start darkly, but end triumphantly.

11)   Pushing acceptable boundaries, but not breaking them.  It is good to push against what is expected, but if one goes too far, the connection with the audience is broken.

12)   Tonality, not necessarily only harmonic, but in a soulish sense as well.  A sense of ‘belonging’, a sense of where ‘home’ is, ‘inevitability’, ‘destiny’ or a ‘centered feeling’, a ‘foundation’ upon which you are building, a sense of ‘tonic’.  Even when being far away from this point, by contrast, that place can still be felt.

13)  Expectation of personal and corporate sacrifice.  Many great compositions would expand the boundaries to a point that it required of the players (and listeners) a certain amount of dedication, through personal practice, group practice, and listener attentiveness.  In Mahler’s Symphony #8, lasting for two hours, or a Wagner opera cycle, lasting for several hours through a sequence of days, the audience was expected to give their time and patience in the unveiling of the story line.

14)   Leadership.  The new areas of development took great leadership and organization to bring the people along, not only to accept the new concepts and ideas, but to participate in them, and sacrifice towards their unveiling to a new audience.  This took a great deal of patience and willingness to live through a period of ostricization and misunderstanding, in many cases.   The willingness on the creator’s part to do this is what separates great artists from the mediocre.

15)   Expectation of the created work being given at a certain time, in a certain space: live performance.  The anticipation, both in the performer’s preparation for that moment, as well as the audience’s anticipation of receiving the gift at that moment, created a built-in power of expectation.

16)   Contrast.  People perceive, based on contrast.  What is loud, in one situation, is soft, by comparison, in another situation.  What is ‘dissonant’ in one situation, can seem ‘consonant’ in another context.  Placing ideas in the right context is such a powerful principle, that it alone can cause the success or failure of those ideas.  Contrast, in a composition, can be with fast tempos or slow, loud or soft, high or low pitches, and consecutive, or even simultaneous uses of all of these and other things like them.  The simultaneous uses can be very powerful and emotionally moving.

17)   An illusion of motion.  Dance is built on a musical foundation.  It is a visual expression of what already exists in the music itself.

18)   Built to last, not only for its own purpose, but for the purpose of teaching current and upcoming generations, through example.  We have historically seen modern composers take past models, reinventing them.  Such examples include Neo-Classicism and Neo-Romanticism.  They are built upon a historical foundation, but utilize new creativity.  Much of Bach’s work was designed to teach his upcoming students and working musicians, giving them step by step tutorials to follow in his path.

19)   Emotional balance.  Three emotional pillars found in music are 1) Struggle, 2) Assurance, and 3) Joy.  This correlates to the Scripture in Romans 14:17 “For the Kingdom of God is…righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”  Righteousness correlates to struggle, because Jesus struggled against sin in his righteousness to purchase redemption for us.  Hebrews 12:3,4 says, “For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart.  You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin…” “And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim. 3:12)  Assurance correlates to Peace.  Jesus is the Prince of Peace and brings calm to our minds. “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you.” (Jn. 14:27)  Joy harkens to victory, triumph and success.  “…Who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame…” (Heb. 12:2) “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” (Matt. 28:18) 

These spiritual principles are seen throughout music, and are reflected in the emotions of music.  You say, not all of these great historical composers were Christians.  True, but a great number of them were, and were at least influenced by a predominantly Christian environment.  Bach, the music minister, as well as Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms wrote masses and requiems, and the list goes on.  But even if this weren’t the case, God’s glory can be seen throughout all of His creation, and His attributes of balance are universal, for “in Him we live and move and exist…” (Acts 17:28) 

In composition, the proper balance and relationship of these three emotions: Struggle, Assurance, Joy are crucial to the success of the piece of music (or any other art-form, for that matter).  If there is too much struggle, without the other two elements, it becomes too dark.  If there is too much assurance without the other two, there is no context for the appreciation of peace, and the work becomes ‘sappy’ and overly sweet.  If there is joy only, then again there is no context for that celebration, and it becomes empty and meaningless.  All of these in proper relationship, and even simultaneous interaction, become a reflection of God Himself, a manifestation of His glory, radiance and splendor.

In my opinion, the best definition of 'Classical Music' is music of any genre or style that is birthed from a pure and sincere motivation, empowered not by the energies of one's self, but rather by something greater, which exists beyond time, history or culture.

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