Making a classic

In the last few weeks, Classic FM has made several big announcements. Celebrating its 25th birthday this year, it reported in early August that listening figures for the station were at around 5.8 million, with a substantial percentage of these being under-35s; and also produced a list of the biggest-selling albums and artists across its quarter-century history. The chart topper list included albums by Russell Watson and Charlotte Church, and James Horner’s score to Titanic.

These news items have been greeted with delight, horror and disgust, depending on the commentator. And a lot of the discussions seem to focus on the question of what ‘classical’ music actually is, because plenty of critics wouldn’t put Russell Watson or Charlotte Church (or indeed James Horner) into their box marked ‘classical’, but rather into something marked variously ‘cheap alternative/watered down version/morally bankrupt sell-out scare quotes “classical”.’ Certainly there isn’t, as far as I and several of the folks I’ve spoken to are aware, a large-scale study that investigates how likely it is that an audience who enjoy the Classic FM top ten might go on to attend Wigmore Hall concerts, or visit Bayreuth, or invest in the new Glenn Gould boxset. But then, is that a problem? Or is the problem to do with the sheer variety of music that falls under the ‘classical’ label?

Classical statue wearing headphones

What the heck does it actually mean anyway? Dictionary definitions vary enormously and tend to point to characteristics like orderliness, formal beauty, complexity, and ‘having permanent rather than ephemeral value.’ On several occasions I’ve asked student classes to give me words that they would associate with whatever they define as classical music, and their terms have included formal, intellectual, serious, and artistic. (Interestingly no one has ever said entertaining, fun, joyous or witty, though when prompted by me about this, they are all baffled that they never thought of that.) Most of my friends would also point to the prioritisation of aesthetic over commercial values in ‘real’ classical music. Because composers are supposed to be poor but noble, aren’t they? Art above business. And so on.

However, history teaches us otherwise. It tells us that attitudes to originality, beauty, intellectualism and moral worth have changed over time – in some cases, changed hugely over time. Similarly, the word ‘classical’ comes from a Latin root, classicus, which meant ‘one who pays taxes’. The implication was high caste, intellectual and indeed financial superiority. Classical music is rich music. Posh music. Music of and for all the best people. And so actually all those who claim it to be elitist are, etymologically speaking, absolutely correct.

As you might have noticed, though, we are no longer living in the Roman Empire. What we now define as being ‘classical’ includes an array of forms and styles that could also be branded as commercial music, dinner party music, throw-away music, musical jokes, and so on. We – or rather, the nineteenth century – constructed the idea of small-c classical. Since then, what it includes has changed a bit more. And generally, whenever that happens (after all, as a species we’re a bit rubbish at change), people complain. It ain’t what it used to be. It’s not proper classical music. And so on. Ask differing denominations of the same religion about who the true believers are, and they’ll pretty much always tell you that their sect is the right one, and the others are just not doing it properly. One can only be thankful that no one has yet launched an actual crusade against what we could loosely call cross-over classical musicians.

I say loosely, because at the end of the day, it’s really not that important. For the current climate, I’d say ‘classical’ has come to have more of a definition around what it isn’t than what it is, a huge and relatively amorphous category that includes all manner of genres, artists, skill sets and levels, instruments and technologies. For some people, ‘classical’ is a label that pretty much equates with ‘relaxing’, however much some of us would disagree. And you might walk past the Charlotte Church albums in the ‘classical’ section of the record store, but if you put them in any of the many other sub-sections that such a shop provides, they will almost certainly fit less well. That’s why her music is often classes as classical. Because the station name Classic FM has made that linguistic link. Because language and meaning change over time, and simultaneously complaining about it and belittling the thousands – nay, millions – of people who listen to it is not (surprise surprise!) going to make the Charlotte Church fans like you any more, or indeed encourage them to listen to ‘proper’ classical music instead.

Those of us who love Brahms, Bach, Ligeti might also love Thomas Newman, the Sherman brothers and Penguin Cafe Orchestra. If it doesn’t make me any less of an acceptable human to be a fan of all those things and many others, then consider the way you next treat someone when you discover that they own a Russell Watson album. You don’t have to like it. They don’t have to like Brahms. But if you can actually start a non-judgemental conversation about it, there’s the option of a broad church and some interesting discussions. Far better, in my humble opinion, than a crusade.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.