Is it Time to Retire the Term 'Classical Music?'

Friday, December 10, 2010 - 10:38 AM

"I hate 'classical' music" is how New Yorker music critic Alex Ross begins his most recent book Listen to This. Alex will be my guest on my new program All Ears this Saturday at 10 pm.

Alex and I are going to discuss the term "classical music" and talk about alternative terminology to describe the music. We'll also talk about the legacy of the lament and listen to examples of how that feeling has been expressed in music across time, cultures and genres.

What do you think: Is the term "classical" problematic? What would be better? 



More in:

Comments [25]

Len Goldenson from New York City

Ever since New York Public Radio got this classical station (for very little) it seems to go out of its way to try to make people think it's something else. Classical music will never be young and cool. Deal with it and respect the audience who likes it.

Jul. 06 2011 07:06 PM
Dale C. Sims from Manhattan, New York

I agree with the post that states that we should educate the populace about the term "classical" music. I was taught that classical music fell roughly into five terms: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Contemporary and Modern. (Of course, you can opt for Rococo if you want to) It is so important if you want to enlarge your knowledge of Classical Music, or decide which CDs to buy. I must say, I hate Classical,Classical music. I find it predictable and bombastic. Every now and then, I hear something that is sensitive and lyrical (like Romantic,Schubert's piano music is nice. My favorite composer is Sir Edward Elgar) but I usually stay away. Baroque is beautiful also, with the interesting bass lines. (Bach is no.2), but I would be without words if I couldn't say that I hate Classical, Classical music!

Jan. 02 2011 03:29 PM
art polhmus from n.y.c.

mcknights set tonite is excrushiating. classical i thought was supposed to be enduring. underneath it all i think is just more contempt for whats established. ap

Jan. 01 2011 10:57 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane

Music IS MUSIC !!!! Those familiar with the music offered do not prioritize its nominative description. ALL music was/is at one time modern, just as all furniture was contemporary. Not as the "antique" nomenclature for the best quality old furniture gets awarded that one word valuable cachet. Not a problem, if it fits in with one's current tastes. Picasso, we all know had periods in which his style changed radically and was represented in terms of color periods. Wagnerians dismiss Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi as student studies copying other composers styles. They do not consider them worthy of performance, even as "classical." Modern music often is termed as classical if it follows the formats of sonata, string quartet, symphony, concerto, operetta. oratorio, or concert aria.

Dec. 24 2010 07:01 PM
Jamie from Brooklyn

Personally, I see music as divided in three: there is 'serious' or 'art' music, which includes classical, jazz, and much of what is categorized as new music. There is folk or traditional, in which I include blues and much of what is termed world music. And finally there is pop, which includes rock and roll, hip hop, etc.

Of course there is plenty of music that straddles or eludes these genres, which just points out the ultimate futility of applying written language to a sonic medium. As the old saying goes, writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

Dec. 21 2010 05:40 PM
J. L. from Pgh. PA

I think the problem lies not in the actual terminology used to describe any given style of music, but in the fact that the majority of listeners of 'popular' or 'modern' music are not adequately informed and educated on how terms like 'classical', 'baroque', 'rococo', etc... should be applied to what they are hearing. It's more a matter of the musical lexicon drifting away from the common vernacular speech over 400 or 500 years of gradual change. I sincerely feel it is a matter of bringing back a basis of fundamental musical education, and really listening to 'today's' music (excluding 'modern classical' naturally) shows the utter lack of knowledge of musical structure and form by both performer and audience.

Dec. 21 2010 01:14 PM
David from Flushing, NY

We might be honest with ourselves and replace "Classical Music" with the term, "Ye Olde People's Music." In twenty years or so, the present audiences will have died off leaving no one to fill the halls other than the unemployed musicians that conservatories continue to grind out.

Dec. 19 2010 04:19 PM

There are two distinct meanings of "classical music." First, as other posters have noted, it describes the dominant style in Western music between the Baroque and Romantic periods -- roughly, from Haydn to Mozart to Beethoven.

Second, it describes a type of music, based on the styles, conventions, and repertory that have dominated, for the past 175 years, the concert halls of Europe and America and WQXR's airways. The alternative terms I would suggest are "concert music," "concert hall music," "traditional concert music," or, more judgmentally, "old music."

Concert music now faces a crisis. Anyone who attends a concert in Carnegie Hall's main auditorium or the 92nd Street Y or Philharmonic Hall can easily assume that he or she has wandered into an AARP convention. (As a member of AARP, I know what these living fossils look like!) The audience for a repertory limited to the 18th and 19th centuries is dying out, and resisting efforts to learn about the 20th (let alone the 21st) century.

At the same time, there are lots of talented composers and musicians who are exploring the possibilities that new forms and new media offer. You can hear them at Symphony Space, Merkel Hall, or Carnegie's subterranean Zankel Hall, among many other sites, including your sister web stream, Q2. They draw substantial audiences, including mostly young people. While these performances are usually billed as "new music," the audiences do not rebel if the artists include a more traditional work related to the program.

So can we merge these two audiences for serious music, or do we just wait for one generation to succeed another?

Dec. 16 2010 02:20 AM
Steve from New Jersey

I suggest reading "The Ninth" by Harvey Sachs and "Classical Style : Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven" by Charles Rosen to prove the value of the term Classical. A rose is a rose, but this term has been associated with a form or style that is reasonably well defined (Rosen leaves room here). I would say the term Classical is important to put this style of music in historical context of Monastery, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods and to recognize the (r)evolutionary influences of Haydn, Mozart, and LvB.

Dec. 15 2010 01:20 PM
George Jochnowitz from New York, NY

Changing the name of classical music will be as effective as changing the name of Sixth Avenue to Avenue of the Americas.

Dec. 14 2010 07:30 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

When we can hear Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue", a piece he would never term "classical", and when we can hear a work created with instruments made of scrap metal and call it "classical", I think we had better change our usage of the word.

Dec. 14 2010 10:33 AM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

I've been trying to think of a new word for "classical" music and through that effort trying to get a sense of how it's different from other forms. Say "pop." I see classical as "long form" where most other music that we experience is "short form."

I read somewhere that Bach was famous in his day (besides all the other reasons he was famous) as an extemporaneous live performer. That is, he could play "new" music, for extended lengths, live. My thought at the time was how this was similar to the jazz greats of the '50s, or the Grateful Dead. Take an interesting melody or riff and extend it, with "variations" of small or great complexity, and build a long form of captivating listening enjoyment.

Someone here posted a complaint about Beethoven's Fifth, that it took a simple riff (the Morse code "V") and repeated it ad nauseam. I see that as the key in "classical" music. Not the nausea but the long form.

There's a scene in the movie "Amadeus" where Salieri introduces Mozart to one of his pieces. After some discussion Salieri gets the impression that Mozart doesn't quite understand the complexity of the piece. Mozart, at the piano, then plays the Salieri piece, which he'd only just heard, and stops and says, with some disappointment over the lack of creativity, ".. and then it repeats." But even Mozart, the Shakespeare or Dickens of melody, "repeats." But his repeats enthrall. Never bore.

We live in a time of the quick fix. The finger on the remote control ever searching for the next visual or aural fix. "Attention deficit disorder." It's the rare long form that can overcome the modern, noise saturated, "Times Square" environment.

That's classical music. At its best.

Dec. 14 2010 07:05 AM

Yea Drew, I heard it as "If it sounds good, it is good" from Peter Schickele. But it is so right.

Dec. 13 2010 06:42 PM
Drew Greis from Bergenfield NJ

Duke Ellington once replied when asked to catagorize his musical style; "There are only two kinds of music- good and bad."

Dec. 13 2010 04:48 PM
Michael Meltzer

We're all forgetting the original context of the words "classic" and "classical" in referring to Greek and Roman art and architecture.
"Classic" is used for the Greek originals and has a pretty rigid meaning. "Classical" means "in the manner of 'classic' " and refers to the Roman copies, emulations and spinoffs.
Applying that thinking, we can use "classical" for a broad range of styles and periods, reserving "classic" for Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, and maybe Schubert.

Dec. 13 2010 11:02 AM
Alan Polinsky from Brooklyn

I would keep the term but eliminate many of the pieces currently being written being categorized as 'music' as opposed to 'noise'.

Dec. 13 2010 10:47 AM
Larry Stoler from Stamford, CT.

I believe those who think that changing the name of a particular kind of music will broaden its appeal are living in another world. For example, there are those who refer to oldies or music from the '1960s through the '70s and into the '80s as "classic hits." These people work in radio and don't realize that the average person still calls these songs "oldies" and that term doesn't offend people.

I think this is an interesting question but worrying about how this music is referred to is a waste of time when it comes to getting the average person to listen to or ultimately appreciate it.

Dec. 13 2010 08:37 AM
Phyllis Sharpe from Teaneck, NJ

How does WQXR define "Classical Music"? I think it is more than the composer being 100 yrs old or more, but that helps depending on who plays it and who sings it, and where.
I really hate it when some of the announcers say "classical" as if it were sacred. I was also really ticked when Sam Hall, NYT's newscaster retired a few years ago and when asked what he would like to hear quested Blue Grass music but this request was denied because, WQXR is a "classical music" station.
For Christmas music I would love to hear "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" sung by Marian Anderson. It's an old recording but I think I heard it on WQXR many years ago.

Dec. 12 2010 08:00 PM

A comment a little further into your show...
The "classical" music of today was pretty much the most popular music of one or two hundred years ago... consider the appeal of "classical" opera at the time it was being written, when it was very popular to the "general public," as compared to the pedestal we put it onto today (where it is largely ignored by the general public.)
Shakespeare, who is now on a similar pedestal, was also very popular with the general public in his day.
How about Renaissance music, which you are playing now? This was like the R&B of four centuries ago. (Actually, sounds a little like the R&B of right now....)
I'm really enjoying your first new show.

Dec. 11 2010 10:41 PM

Hi, just 6 minutes now into your new show... good job.

Dec. 11 2010 10:06 PM

I hope the show is archived, I cannot be home to hear it.

Dec. 11 2010 05:43 PM

I have not read the article but I will. In any case, classical is a good term. There is absolutely no need to open a debate about it. Ross must be running short of readers.

Dec. 11 2010 01:20 AM
Gregg from Astoria Queens

It won't be the time to retire that term, until we do something about this horrible modern music.

Dec. 10 2010 08:50 PM

It's okay. I understand why folks like Messrs. Knight and Ross who are in daily touch with all the tectonic shifts taking place in their interplanetary musical universes would find the phrase classical music a pain in their G clefs. But I'd like to ask a favor. I'm quite an old codger who's spent a lifetime listening to and loving classical music. Would you please just let that phrase hang out there for a while longer. I'll be gone, taking all my good things with me under the classical music umbrella without having to adapt to tricky new classifications.


Dec. 10 2010 01:12 PM
Michael Meltzer

"Classical" is only one example of the poverty of language in describing music. Our attempts to qualitatively characterize what we are hearing usually draw on the vocabulary of the visual arts.
But, you can discuss and redesign all you like, nothing will happen, simply because language has a life of its own. It goes where and when it likes. Once in a while, a "wrong word" becomes vocabulary because the President uses it, as Eisenhower did with "finalize." Otherwise, we can explain changes after the fact but can almost never bring them about.

Dec. 10 2010 12:34 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About WQXR Blog

Read WQXR's coverage of classical music news, trends, commentary and more here at the WQXR Blog.