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Classical Mythology 101

11. The Myth of Historic Fads

Classical music was the pop music of centuries past ~ and today's pop is tomorrow's classical.

Popular misconception. Let's put it to bed in a hurry. With the possible exception of Italian opera, classical music was never really the music of the masses. Well, maybe it was the music of liturgical masses ~ requiems, vespers, matins and that sort of thing ~ which lots of line-towing Catholics in the Middle Ages heard celebrated at service. But even then, medieval plainsong and chant that we think of as the first classical music was a commodity under direct control of the Church. Which is just it. So-called classical music has always been an art under the sponsorship of popes, kings, princes, landed gentry, captains of industry and commerce ~ in short, the people at or near the top of the human food chain. Symphonies and string quartets ~ music whose elaborate development and harmonic complexity we associate with classical music ~ weren't what the common folk heard. They preferred folk songs and dances; today, it's pop music (for all practical purposes, a synonym). Folk and popular music could cover a lot of territory to become widely known ~ though not anywhere near the global saturation of pop music in the electronic and mass communication age. Classical composers knew them and sometimes used those songs in their own music, though today the references are so obscure they go over most of our heads. Near the end of his valedictory Goldberg Variations, for instance, J.S. Bach quotes a couple of popular tunes from his day, each dealing in its own way with the subject of absence: (1) "It's so long since I was last with you, come closer, come closer, come closer" and (2) "Cabbage and turnips drove me away, had my mother cooked meat I'd have opted to stay."

Classical music does reel in some populist songs but only if they dated from centuries ago as, for example, ballads of medieval troubadours or Renaissance catches. However, that's a fairly specialized category of Early Music that doesn't appeal to your average classical listener. It more often happens that a classical piece enters the popular realm. Thomas Arne's 1740 hit "Rule Britannia" (roughly contemporary with Bach's Goldberg Variations) has never really gone away. Similarly, you also have examples of exceptional people whose popular tunes enjoy special guest pass privileges owing to their association with classical music ~ Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Leonard Bernstein and so on.

Bottom line: classical music isn't a collection bin for age old popular music. That The Beatles' music will never enter the classical repertory has less to do with the quality of their product than the fact that they didn't write in the "classical style" (Paul McCartney's late choral cantatas don't count). Whatever classical music is, it's written with the conscious intention of being affiliated with an established classical tradition. It's a little like the definition of art: "Classical music is music written by somebody who calls himself a classical composer."

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© David BŁndler, 2000
Last revised: June 6, 2000