What is classical music? It may seem like a remedial question, but it is a serious one. Leonard Bernstein took it seriously enough to design an entire program around it. His “Young People’s Concerts” with the New York Philharmonic—broadcast on TV from Carnegie Hall in 1959—began with an admission of how unclear the term’s usage had become in popular culture. “You see,” he told his young audience, “everybody thinks he knows what classical music is… People use this word to describe music that isn’t jazz or popular songs or folk music, just because there isn’t any other word that seems to describe it better.”
Classical music is often thought of in even more nebulous, and perhaps elitist, terms as “art music,” over and above these other forms. Yet Bernstein goes on to define classical music in more precise ways: A classical composer “puts down the exact notes that he wants, the exact instruments or voices that he wants to play or sing those notes—even the exact number of instruments or voices; and he also writes down as many directions as he can think of” about tempo, dynamics, etc. What might sound like a straightjacket for musicians instead offers an interpretive challenge: “No performance can be perfectly exact…. But that’s what makes the performer’s job so exciting–to try and find out from what the composer did write down as exactly as possible what he meant.”
This working definition, while devoid of technical jargon for the sake of Bernstein’s untrained audience, still manages to give us a good sense of the parameters he set for the “classical.” They do not stretch widely enough to include improvisatory modernism (though he had a high regard for jazz as a separate category). But they do include much instrumental and choral European music from the start of the medieval period into the 20th century. The definition could be a much narrower one. “One of the first things you learn when you’re introduced to classical music,” Jay Gabler writes at online radio station Classical MPR, “is that the term ‘classical’ most properly describes music composed from about 1750 to 1820.”
This means Mozart and Haydn, most of Beethoven, but not Bach, Wagner, Debussy, or Copland. And certainly not aleatory experimentalists like John Cage, minimalists like Steve Reich, or atonal oddballs like Arnold Schoenberg. While Bernstein seems to settle the issue with relative ease, “musicologists,” Gabler notes, “can stay up all night talking about the shape and trajectory of classical music, debating questions like the importance of the score, the role of improvisation, and the nature of musical form.” These are the kinds of discussions one might have over the 1200-track Spotify playlist above, “The History of Classical Music–From Gregorian Chant to Górecki.” (If you need Spotify’s software, download it here.)
We begin with the 11th century church music of Leonin and Perotin, two composers associated with Notre Dame who are credited with “the beginning of modern music” for their use of polyphony and various rhythmic modes. (Hear the especially haunting “Viderunt Omnes” by Leonin at the top of the post.) The playlist, created by a curator who goes by Ulysses Classical, then takes us through the late Medieval and Renaissance periods and into the Baroque, exemplified by Handel, Bach, Vivaldi, Pachelbel, Scarlatti, and others. Beethoven and Mozart get their due, but not more so than Dvořák and Tchaikovsky.
By the time we reach the 20th century, we begin to move quite far from the formalism of Bernstein’s definition and into the strange realms of Schoenberg, Messiaen, Ligeti, Reich, and Philip Glass, with whom this history ends. Obviously the strict periodization Gabler mentions cannot contain all of what we mean by classical music, but just how much can the designation encompass atonal experimental modernism and still be a coherent concept? Let the musicologists debate. For those of us who approach this music as a form of pure pleasure, it’s enough just to sit back and listen.