What The Hell Is Classical Music Anyway?

Words by Pascal Wyse, photographs by Lee Kirby

There’s a car advert doing the rounds at the moment, which shows some children being driven to school by their parents. For the finale we see VW’s shiny new offering, cruising in slow motion, driven by a sharp-suited dad who clearly has way too much time to spend trimming his beard. He and his daughter are smugly nodding their heads to Dead Prez’s It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop (and looking at the size of the car, it probably is). The other kids gawp enviously as the car parks itself, leaving dad’s hands free to … well, perhaps trim his beard.

Before that, though, we’ve seen the unfortunates: those who walk the last few streets to school to avoid being spotted getting out of mum’s old banger – or the girl who slides down in the passenger seat rather than be clocked alongside her dad. He has an awful jumper, a boring car and – OH MY GOD NO – some classical music snivelling away on the stereo. A bar or two of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

I thought about this ad the other day, while scoring an animation. One of the notes I got back from the exec was “Needs to be less classical”. I hadn’t aimed for that. I had used pizzicato strings, but it didn’t register to my ears as “classical”, any more than the string section in Radiohead’s Burn the Witch. It’s one of those definitions that seems on one hand to be quite clear, and on another to mean potentially a lot of different things. The VW ad uses an off-the-shelf meaning of “classical” – the one that makes you think of powdered wigs and tights. It counts on us to appreciate how that specific kind of classical music – light, no beat, mid-tempo, widdly violins – can reek of square, lavender-scented tedium to a teenager, however much sex and booze you allege Mozart had. It’s the same reason they pipe Beethoven at subway stations to stop mischievous kids loitering: they don’t want to be around that stuff (unless, perhaps, they’ve seen A Clockwork Orange, which gleefully mixes Beethoven and “ultraviolence”).

But what makes music “classical”? The instruments? Something about the chords or melodies, or structure of the music? The fact that it is written down? The relief that you don’t need a load of mains extensions to play it? The buildings you hear it in? Try to define it as what it isn’t – for example full of improvisation – and someone will remind you that it used to be.

I turned to Tom Service for help. He’s a writer and presenter, predominantly on BBC Radio 3 – hosting shows such as Music Matters and Hear and Now, and more recently the excellent Listening Service, which explores how music works its magic on us. The Listening Service is on the “classical” station of the BBC, but Tom’s just as likely to be playing some Led Zep if it makes his point. Forget defining classical, he says – just drop the label.

“The term classical has come to mean prestige, luxury lifestyles, the kind of thing you have in the lift at Trump tower,” says Tom. “And on the one hand that’s incredibly useful, it’s actually quite a powerful meaning. At the same time, it diminishes the bigger story of classical music. The problem comes when you can only hear it as a style.”

“Hearing it only as a style” is, of course, what organises our iTunes accounts. In order to sell specific kinds of advertising against specific material, newspapers have generally fenced music off, along the lines of Pop and Rock, Jazz and Folk, Classical and World. Think about “World” music as an idea for more than a minute or so and the concept just kind of falls apart in your head. Anyone with curious ears hops over these fences quite happily, but categories can reinforce tribes and ram home surface cliches about genres. For instance, you end up with classical music sometimes being defined as “serious” music – a phrase whose usefulness has always eluded me. What does that make Duke Ellington, David Bowie or Toumani Diabaté?

Tom adds: “Then you have these tortuous contusions such as ‘contemporary classical’ … What the hell does that mean? The whole classical label is terrible. It doesn’t need to be there.”

We may struggle to shove the classical label in the bin entirely, but is there a way of making it mean something more useful? Perhaps it depends on whether you think “classical”, with its institutions such as orchestras and schools of composition, is something to defend, a walled garden to be protected from marauders such as video games and film scores … Or something that can be seen as a connected, living part of music today, with the orchestra as an extraordinary, powerful toolbox that (economics aside, for now) should be opened up with no fear of “crossing the streams”. Tom’s pinning more hopes on the latter:

“If you are an orchestral institution, it is much better to say ‘What can we do with our musicians?’ than insist on playing the same narrow repertoire endlessly to the same audiences. It’s only going to work if it is out there and people find it essential, in their soundscapes and the way they think of expressing emotions, and that’s happening all the time in film music and music for video games. Film score shows sell out. Nobody goes along thinking Morricone is a classical master, but effectively that’s what he is. The things you want to value and keep valuing are the space for creativity and liveness, definitely. Those are things that classical can provide and that has been really enhanced by film and video games, not diminished.”

In 2015, Guitar World – a magazine that is definitely not lavender-scented – ran a piece headlined: “Yngwie Malmsteen Pays Tribute to the World’s First Shredder, Niccolò Paganini”. Rock and metal have happily dipped in to the classical world, especially for its virtuosity, not to mention a side-order of apocalyptic heft. Born in 1782, Paganini was a composer, guitarist and extraordinary violinist – so shreddingly virtuosic that some who saw him play maintained he could only be that good as a result of flogging his soul to the devil. His shows were a spectacle, full of firecracking improvisations that would have the audience gasping, applauding along. If anything needs preserving, says Tom, it is not just the notes, but the spirit of those performances.

“What does it look like now when people perform Paganini? The same music, but it has lost that improvisatory feel. Paganini would have said, ‘Do what you want, make it flashy’. There’s a certain point where the thing becomes ossified, where it is frowned on to clap. Mozart wrote his Paris Symphony knowing that people were going to applaud after the forte. It is written for that clapping participation. So hearing classical music the way we often do now is a kind of parody. It was all just music then. It wasn’t “classical” music until 1850. Nobody knew what that was.”

The VW ad only uses the instrumental opening of the Dead Prez tune. Ironically, when you get to the rap, it’s clear he’s having a go at a shallow view of things – of taking in the style but not the substance. “Shit is real out here,” he says. “Don’t believe these videos”. I picture him saying this, at the harpsichord, in a wig and a pair of tights.