What’s in a name?

Aerith from Final Fantasy VII. On a classical music blog. Yep.

“Classical music” is an awful, awful term.  It’s meaningless at best, and downright confusing at worst.  Have you ever tried to explain to someone what classical music is?  Or what specifically defines a piece of music as “classical”?  It’s an impossible task.

I find myself caught up in this quandary whenever I feel the need to establish that something isn’t classical music.  Usually it’s Classic FM who inspire me with this this foolish need to define and distinguish.  I’ve just found out that at the end of last year, Classic FM listeners did their annual purist-baiting trick of voting something not-really-all-that-classical into their Hall of Fame.  This time, following a committed campaign by a video games journalist, the 16th best-loved classic was unveiled as. . .  “Aerith’s Theme from Final Fantasy VII“.

Now, I don’t know about you, but my knee-jerk response to this is to recoil in horror.  Without really stopping to think about it, I transform into Outraged of Tunbridge Wells and saddle my high horse*.  Video game music?  Fifty-one places higher than the Eroica Symphony?  Are you having the proverbial laugh?

Next thing you know, I’ve managed to get myself sucked into one of those arguments that begins, “So smarty pants: if this isn’t classical music, what is?”

And thus one starts trotting** out definitions.  Useless ones.  Classical music is art music.  (So, uh, what exactly is art?)  Classical music is serious.  (As opposed to the irrepressible frippery of all other forms of music?)  Classical music is instrumental.  (Except for when it’s not.)  Classical music is notated and through-composed.  (Most of the time.)  Classical music is, as Paul Morley recently put it, “music of permanent interest”.  (Tell that to the guys at Marco Polo.)

In the end your attempts to define such a nebulous genre go around in circles.  At one point, I thought I’d nailed it with this: “it’s music where a composer is acknowledged as the principal author, rather than the performer”.  But doesn’t that include all singer-songwriters?  Are Noël Coward or Burt Bacharach classical composers?  Are ballet scores denied a place the classical table because a ballet tends to be billed as the work of a choreographer?

It’s a fruitless exercise.  And I hereby officially give up.

But perhaps the more interesting question in all of this is not “what is classical music?” – but rather, “why do we feel the need to ringfence it?”  Where does this protectionist mentality come from?  Why do we feel so irritated by the incursion of a Final Fantasy soundtrack onto our turf?  Why do we so fully reject the Official Classical Charts (full of popular artists like Richard Clayderman, Ludovico Einaudi and André Rieu) that we feel the need to establish a parallel Specialist Classical Chart?

Is it just snobbery, plain and simple?  Or are we genuinely concerned that, by throwing film and video game soundtracks, “alt.classical” tracks, and bikini-clad amateur pianists into the mix, record labels and retailers are sending out the wrong message about what classical music is about?   Is that even so very wrong?  After all, it could well be argued that it is the very likes of the Titanic soundtrack that keep classical labels afloat in the first place (oh the irony!).

Perhaps it’s best not to worry about such things, and just get on with listening to the music we really care about.  In the end, it doesn’t really matter what other people want to listen to, or indeed what they want to call it.  The most important thing is that you know what you like, and you know where to find it.  At Lelio, we’re not planning to stock soundtracks, Katherine Jenkins albums, or André Rieu DVDs (an atrocious business decision, I can tell you), but we will stock the music we love, and hope that you love it too.

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* I assume it’s a horse.  It may be a cow for all I know.
** Another horse reference.  Horses are in everything these days, don’t you know.

2 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. tuxedorevoltblog

    I really enjoyed this post. You have a charming sense of prose, it’s quite witty. I really liked when you said, ” In the end, it doesn’t really matter what other people want to listen to, or indeed what they want to call it. The most important thing is that you know what you like, and you know where to find it. ” I have to agree completely. Let’s abandon those things which make us outdated and embrace that which makes classical music accessible at all levels.

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