ESSENTIALS of Classical Music

What is Classical Music?

Before we tackle that subject, we should consider (if only briefly) the larger question:

What is Music?

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

A lengthy philosophical consideration of what constitutes art is a black hole that can suck up entire careers of aestheticians. Let’s try looking at the question from the other side: What ISN’T music?

For most people, the answer is obvious: Anything they can’t stand isn’t music. What’s the most frequent criticism you hear of, let’s say, rap music? “That isn’t even music!” For people who hate opera, Wagner or Puccini is “just a bunch of screaming!” And many people, if they venture into the depths of atonal 20th-century music, whether it’s played by a symphony orchestra or a digital synthesizer, will throw up their hands in bewilderment at what has become, for them, mere noise.

The fact is, any music you don’t like won’t sound particularly musical to you, no matter how many experts testify to its greatness. Classical music is so vast an arena that no one should feel obligated to like all of it. So cut yourself some slack as you explore this expansive world. It’s perfectly possible to love the music of one composer while having no affinity whatsoever for the music of another. That’s not a shortcoming; that’s personal taste.

The flip side of this is that musical enjoyment exists wherever you find it. There’s a story that George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) once became so entranced by the sounds of a blacksmith hammering on an anvil that he went home and composed the famous “Harmonious Blacksmith” variations for harpsichord. Some composers within the last 50 years have found music in the noise of street traffic or industrial machines, or even in silence. The moral here is that if something gives you musical pleasure, don’t let anyone talk you into thinking it shouldn’t. The pompous title character of the Frasier TV show once recalled the time when he and his brother Niles “still thought the ‘1812’ Overture was great music,” to which Niles retorted, “Were we ever that young?” It’s a cute joke, underlining the snobbish attitudes of Niles and Frasier, but Tchaikovsky’s “1812” Overture, taken in the context of what it was intended to be—a brilliant, celebratory piece that generates a lot of visceral excitement—is great music, as its popularity with millions of music-lovers readily attests.

Listen to Tchaikovsky: “1812” Overture

So to keep things moving, let’s agree on a basic, though by no means incontestable, definition: Music is an ordered sequence of tones through time organized so as to have an overall effect, meaning or shape.

We can narrow that down further for the purposes of this course by returning to our original question: What is classical music?

There may be some confusion in that the word “classical” has two meanings in music. The broader definition refers to that tradition of Western art music that began with Gregorian chant and secular music of the Middle Ages and stretches up to our day with the music of such composers as Philip Glass, Steve Reich and John Corigliano. (When used in this general sense here, it will not be capitalized.) In its narrower sense, it denotes one specific period within that span, roughly the second half of the 18th century (in which usage it will be capitalized).