What IS Classical Music? It’s not Andrew Lloyd Webber

As readers of the blog could tell, I was excited about the arrival of the Hottest 100 Classical countdown for the music of the 20th Century – because in many ways, it’s been my favourite century in terms of art music. It’s been the century that has seen composers really play with tone colour, rhythms and structure as well as use percussion much better than any other century. The countdown was going to reflect that diversity.

The countdown, however, has reflected another trait of the 20th Century I don’t like – watering down the definition of “classical” music. Allowing fusion, crossover stuff into the definition. Therefore, they have allowed soundtracks like Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings to be part of the list. There are plenty of people who apply the post-structuralist definition to the categorisation of classical music – that anything that tells a story with orchestral instruments is classical music ; that rap or pop music that uses strings is ok ; that Shostakovich wrote film music ; Beethoven wrote incidental music for theatre and so on. That seems to be what has happened here. It’s not on.

To many, including me, “classical” music is art music composed by people wanting to produce abstract music that communicates something about the world around us.  That means that it not something that is simply designed to go with action on a screen or just merely something that uses instruments that orchestras use.  Sometimes incidental music goes beyond its original purpose and achieves that end – Peer Gynt and the Lieutenant Kije music comes to mind. The problem comes that now with the list produced via the fuzzy definition from ABC Classic that it will feature all sorts of popular music that happens to use instruments associated with classical music. I now expect things like Michael Nyman’s The Piano (which I will instantly switch off – listening to more than 30 seconds of that is the equivalent of waterboarding to me) and the music from Amelie to be on the list.  I also expect musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber to appear – even though they are just recycled pap from whichever rock musician he was listening to at the time (listen to Evita and tell me that isn’t just Meatloaf reused).

It’s disappointing because we know what movie soundtracks and modern musicals are popular and we can hear them everywhere. I was hoping the list would feature music that people haven’t heard as much and is composed by people whose lives were dedicated to communicating emotional outpourings from their soul, rather than to primarily make money and add to the profits of Hollywood. It will also confirm the suspicion I have that most of the listeners of ABC Classic like hearing music that merely recycles the styles and sounds of the 19th Century (eg. Lord of the Rings) rather than provide a fresh perspective from the 20th.

It shouldn’t be surprising, really. ABC Classic has turned into an easy listening station, especially during breakfast and drive. Lots of guitar music and fusion – as well as modern recycling of old forms, such as John Tavener. Middle of the Road stuff. To me, that’s not easy listening – it’s sugar coated, endlessly upbeat choons that avoid the pain and torment that classical composers have revealed about our society, especially in the 20th Century.

In reality, I stopped listening regularly to ABC FM soon after the end of the Just Out program hosted by the irascible Englishman Martin Hibble. He was the music world’s equivalent to David Stratton. The program featured new recordings, played in full, often, on a Saturday afternoon. He had no problem in ripping them to shreds if he felt it warranted or provide effusive praise – providing detailed reasons. It was fantastic. I was shocked when the ABC removed the program and new recordings were given positive, facile reviews late on a Tuesday night.  In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised. The audience don’t seem to like opinions or anything that’s not mawkishly positive. Hence the disappearance of Clive Robertson from Breakfast.

In criticising the changing profile of ABC Classic – I’m not criticising the professionalism and style of the presenters.  For example, Emma Ayres seems lovely – but the music to me lacks the edge and bite of previous years.  And when presenters of the countdown say things like “Andrew Lloyd Webber has been hugely influential” and “Phantom of the Opera is great music”, that confirms to me why exactly what ABC Classic FM has become and what this countdown list will yield. Perhaps we need someone to start an online classical radio station that features the good stuff.

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2 thoughts on “What IS Classical Music? It’s not Andrew Lloyd Webber

  1. Completely agree. I recently wrote to ABC Classic FM asking them why they played a lot of music that was not classical, especially during the main hours that most people can listen (mornings and early evenings), and why the programmes were entitled “Classic …” when it featured much music that was anything but. The reply I received implied that I was the in the minority and that most people like to hear music other than classical as well, such as world music, musicals, fusion etc. I was very disappointed – there are many other radio stations for listeners of other genres, so why should I have to share ABC Classic FM with them? And why call themselves ABC “Classic” FM? Why not ABC “Easy Listening” FM at least and therefore be more accurate in portraying themselves? In Melbourne, there is the option of tuning into 3MBS, but unfortunately they are also exhibiting the same tendencies, and what’s more their signal is poor.

    The same fate is befalling our symphony orchestras. The MSO next year will be performing concerts of, yes, Howard Shore’s LOTR music, a Dr WHO Spectacular, and a concert of video game music. No wonder there is no time to play a Shostakovich symphony. Alas I always feared classical music would die out, but not this soon. I’d better get to Amazon and iTunes before they begin filling their classical section with “classical gas” and their opera section with “The Phantom of the Opera”.

  2. Perhaps should have started your post with a definition of “Classical”? Not much point talking about what you think it is not, without outlining what you thin it is. After all, these terms are used differently in different genres, by different people, in different professions.

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