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Classical 101

The "Other" Classical Music(s)

Max Whittaker
Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

You might remember the pork commercials from the late 80s touting "The other white meat." Apparently, a similar campaign is now being waged in the music world.

What we in the Western world define as Classical music has changed so drastically, it is nearly impossible to accurately describe. The musicologists would call it music written in the period from 1750 to 1820. Others might broaden the definition to things that, to their ears, "sound classical." One site characterized classical music as "art music produced or rooted in the traditions of Western music, including both liturgical (religious) and secular music...from roughly the 11th century to the present day.

No wonder there's so much confusion.

What we often fail to take into account is what constitutes "classical music" in other cultures.

Late last year, Michael Church decided to find out what constitutes classical music in other societies. In Church's 2015 book, The Other Classical Musicshe asked "15 leading authorities each to contribute a chapter celebrating the unique character of his or her classical form, and we included the music of Europe so that the playing-field could be kept level."

I applaud Church's effort, because definitions tend to build walls around music which are exclusionary. Music has never been a static thing. Each era builds upon what comes before. Indigenous music serves as the foundation for so much of what we call classical music, so how can we say that what Bartok, Dvorak, or Vaughan Williams did with folk melodies and idioms is more "authentic" than, say, what Earl Wild did with Stephen Foster's Camptown Races in Variations on an American theme for piano and orchestra, also called the Doodah Variations? I once received a letter taking me to task for playing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star on the radio. I was quickly informed that,"That's not classical music!" Tell that to Mozart, whose 12 Variations on "Ah, vous dirai-je maman" the writer had just dismissed.

Yo Yo Ma is well known for his efforts to break down walls, musical and otherwise. The ongoing Silk Road Project probably his best known endeavor.


That's not classical? It depends upon who you ask.

Bela Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances are standards in the concert hall. The melody used in the first movement is one Bartok first heard being played by two gypsy fiddlers.


No one would say the Romanian Folk Dances have no place in the concert hall.

In my humble opinion, the traditionally narrow definition of classical music does nothing but harm to the future of arts organizations and broadcast stations. It is true that not everyone will like every new piece of music they hear. However, all you have to do is ask around at at any concert hall and you'll find people who love or don't care for just about every composer ever played. In my career, I have had conversations with people who didn't like flutes, violins, guitars, sopranos, and drums, to name a handful. In the realm of composers, I have met Mozart and Beethoven lovers AND haters, Baroque enthusiasts and those not so enthused. There have been some who say we play too much Mahler or Wagner, those who feel we don't play enough, and some who want nothing to do with J.S. Bach before 8:00 in the morning.

I have found that, for me, there is always adventure and discovery in digging through music by all of those composers and others. Just today our Program Director and I were in the music library chatting when she said, "You know, I STILL find little hidden gems in here." This from someone who has spent most of her life around music.

Yes, if you go to a performance where they play unfamiliar things, whether brand new or not, you may hear something that just doesn't do it for you. However, you just might discover an entirely new rabbit hole to head down.

I leave you with Absolute Jest for String Quartet by John Adams from 2011 for your exploring pleasure.