Brief Synopsis of the History of the term “Classical Music”

"Story of Music" - Episode 6 of Dara O Briain's Science Club on BBC Two
“Story of Music” – Episode 6 of Dara O Briain’s Science Club on BBC Two

Doug Borwick brings up an interesting idea in his post about making the Arts Indispensable:

Everyone who works in the arts industry believes, as an a priori truth, that the arts are indispensable, that there is no need to make them so. And that is true. The arts are indispensable. However, when “the arts” is thought of as synonymous with the organizations that comprise the arts industry as it exists today, it is demonstrably false in any objective sense.

I’ve spent a few posts talking about how we have our own idiosyncratic definition of Classical Music and how that shapes what we believe about the field as a whole (or, indeed, how it shapes what is actually the field as a whole), but I haven’t much talked about how that term has evolved over time.

The Leipzig critic and composer, Johann Gottlieb Wendt, apparently first coined the term in 1836. It was originally used as a term to contrast with contemporary music (i.e. romantic music) and encompassed Baroque (a term that didn’t come into vogue until Heinrich Wölfflin rehabilitated its usage in 1888) masters like Bach and Handel up to the composers we normally consider to be from the “Classical Music Period,” Mozart, Haydn, and Early Beethoven.

By now we sometimes use the term to refer to a vast range of music spanning Church music (e.g. Gregorian Chants) from the middle ages up to contemporary times all while recognizing the Classical Period as a very specific range posed between the Baroque/Rococo and Romantic Eras. While this expansion in denotative range was useful when referencing the totality of the evolution of Classical Music as a specific geotemporally located Art Music it has also been the source of so much confusion and imprecision.  Personally, I prefer to use the phrase “Western Art Music” or “European Art Music” to get away from some of the baggage that comes with the usage of the word “Classical.”

This Geographic border also constitutes a significant boundary of what constitutes classical music. Music History Texts now usually reflect the fact that it is “Western” music or European Classical Music that is the subject of study, but I’m looking at my 1988 edition of the “Concise Oxford History of Music” (originally published in 1979) which spends the first 74 pages (Part I) on “The Rise of West Asian and East Mediterranean Music” before spending the rest of the 800+ pages on Western Art Music (i.e. Classical Music).  The focus reminds me of this strange video describing the “Story of Music”

which briefly mentions ancient bone flutes made from the femurs of bears which segues into a comment about melodic flutes in ancient China then spends the majority of the rest of the narrative speaking about Western Music.

This jump from ancient Greece to Medieval Church music I’ve remarked on quite a bit given we often leave out the evolution of music in the Eastern Roman Empire/Arabic and Ottoman Empires–despite the fact that the fact that all have been a significant part, geographically, of Europe–and how those Empires’ musics and cultures have interacted with the Western Roman Empire and the rest of Europe.

As the border of what we consider to be Europe expanded over the centuries to its modern day equivalent, so has what has constituted “Classical Music” – initiatives to include some musical styles, like Manuel de Falla’s ill fated attempt with Flamenco, into the canon of Classical Music have failed. Neither do we include the art musics of the Ottoman Empire, Eastern Orthodox Churches (at least until Soviet Russian Classical Music became part of the Canon), and the Arabic Empire (including the Andalusian Flamenco style) still remain outside of the central Classical Music canon.

Going back to the whole Classical Music Crisis and Classical Music is Dead discussions, we see a different kind of selective usage of what constitutes Classical Music, usually centered around failing institutions as prototypical examples of the field. I think what is always important to ask is “What do you mean by Classical Music” when these discussions come up, because we can easily show decline or growth if we’re selective enough in our choices. That kind of selectivity doesn’t lend itself well to falsifiability which, as Popper has argued long, should be the hallmark of any good scientific theory. Without falsifiability, you don’t have a theory at all.

In other words, going back to the quote above: when “Classical Music” is thought of as synonymous with the organizations that comprise the Classical Music industry as it exists today, it is demonstrably false in any objective sense–and, when Classical Music is thought of as synonymous with a subset of the organizations that comprise the Classical Music industry as it exists today, it is demonstrably false in any objective sense.


6 thoughts on “Brief Synopsis of the History of the term “Classical Music”

  1. I’m of two minds on the word “classical.” I tend to think of it the way that most people do: “classical” is anything that endures. If we’re still listening to it 200 years after whoever wrote it died, it’s classical. In that vein, “classical music” is an ever-expanding definition inherently. It never dies; it’s only added to as the centuries pass. And it definitely encompasses multiple cultures.

    Maybe I might call it “Western classical music.” “European” would work if it weren’t for all those pesky Russians. 🙂


    1. RIght, and that’s part of the problem with the term–it’s flexibility. I mean, hell, we could Jieshi Diao Youlan–the oldest surviving notated guqin piece (ca 7th century) that’s still played in traditional Chinese music circles, right?

      And even if we just limit ourselves to what we prototypically consider to be classical music, that Russian repertoire is problematic, for sure–once you get to the margins of the Soviet Union we have all manner of “fusions” with Classical Music which incorporate the native art musics of Eastern European and Central Asia. For example, how would Mugham Opera fit into this?

      Or repertoire pieces from the Georgian National Ballet?

      Or Bulgarian Folk Orchestras?

      These geners suffer the same fate as Flamenco and for similar reason even though in some ways these forms actually fit closer to Western models in many ways.

      And this says nothing about more recent fusions–I just discovered the Pan American Orchestra in Washington DC which focuses on repertoire from Latin-America.

      And the Houston Latin American Philharmonic which focuses on South American Symphonic Repertorie.

      Plus all the Arabic/Middle Eastern and Traditional Chinese Orchestras I more often talk about.

      Where do we draw the line?


      1. I’m happy to just say “classical” with the descriptor “Western” amended to the front. Any categorization system will limp ultimately. You can’t even say “stuff that’s mostly written in Western musical modes,” because then what about Debussy and all those serialist dudes? It seems like “classical music” in the minds of a lot of people just means “Can I expect to hear a large traditional orchestra play it while wearing penguin suits?”

        I’m not anxious to draw any line (and I know you’re not) but categories do sort of draw lines, even if they are permeable membranes. Even the stuff I’m doing now is pretty unremarkably Western/European, but I can’t even imagine what cateogry that woudl fall into. What the hell is the appropriate tag for a Baroque opera piece reworked as a tango (South American influence) or a piece of swing or jazz (African influence)? And yet I would use the term “classical music” to denote what I love just because that term feels both accurate and comfortable to me.

        Hell, even the rock remix I did I had to add just a hint of blues to it (African) before I could turn it into rock. You can’t make ANYTHING rock without passing it through the blues filter first.

        And I’ve got to hear that Chinese piece you mention. Anything people are still listening to 1,300 years(!!!) after it was written has GOT to be good.


      2. Yeah, that’s the problem–we’d just have to keep qualifying and qualifying ad nauseum. Which brings us back to the Classical Music Crisis debate–how much implicit qualifying is going on in those involved or invested in the debate? Why and to what end?

        Where do those of on the other side of the debate make our cut-off lines and how do we find data to demonstrate that it’s not really in decline or crisis or dead or whatever?

        I mean, even if we just limit ourselves to those floundering organizations, that small subset of SOBs that aren’t doing well, does that even mean that large scale ensembles are doomed when we have nigh explosive growth in large scale ensembles that seems to be accelerating even today? It can be argued that those ethnic orchestras aren’t “classical” but there’s no denying that they exist precisely because of the influence of the traditional European styled large ensembles and in many cases were intentional fusions or borrowings of the form (and often repertoire and instrumentation).

        I really is almost a useless debate to have, and then we continue to have it, and some folks continue to capitalize on the narrative describing it!

        Oh, here’s a great live video of the guqin piece–you get to see how it’s performed too–I’ve always loved flat pucked zithers but the Chinese guqin and guzhengs tend to be my favorites!


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