In A HISTORY OF WESTERN MUSIC, Donald Jay Grout described the music we have grown used to as “Classical Music,” writing “….its language should be universal, not limited by national boundaries…” Prophetic words.
Grout’s book, first published in 1960, became The Bible of Music History for us young people in Music Conservatories in the 1960s. In the intervening fifty-four years musicians schooled in the European tradition of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms have caused the walls of the concert hall to explode outwardly as they have brought into it the “classical” music of far-away places in Asia and Africa, each with its own tradition and its own sonic language.
In our teens and twenties we first heard the music of India’s Ravi Shankar and we began, if not to understand it, to at least recognize that it was there, along with other musical traditions that go much farther back than ours…back hundreds and even thousands of years, long before Johann Sebastian Bach and Monteverdi and Gesualdo and Josquin ever penned one note of music.
The explorations of cellist Yo-Yo-Ma, Lang Lang, Osvaldo Golijov, Tan Dun, the Kronos Quartet and eighth blackbird have allowed us a taste of music from North Africa to Patagonia. Composers trained in both western and eastern music have written compositions for the opera stage and the symphony orchestra that are now widely sung and played.
Richard Brookens (www.yellowbellmusic.com) a free-lance multi-instrumentalist, producer of his own label, Yellow Bell Music, has embraced a universal language of music making, playing in many of his CD’s Egyptian flute, Bansuri flute, Dizi, Udu, Tablas, Water Drum, Mbira, Brass Bells, Rain Stick, Chimes, even using water as a source of music to accompany sitar, ocarina, bata drums, wah wah bells, berimbau and didgeridoo. We owe him a debt of gratitude for opening up our ears to new sounds.
In any History of Opera class we begin with an introduction to the work of the composers of the Florentine Camerata, especially Giulio Caccini. From there, we move to Monteverdi, author of the first operatic masterpieces, and from there to the masters of Baroque Opera: Lully, Rameau, Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Handel…
But Mozart is the first composer whose operas now form part of the standard repertory of Opera companies worldwide. The adjective “Classical” is applied to Mozart to indicate that he is a composer of concert and operatic music meant for the listening pleasure of those able to understand it.
But, there we find ourselves on shaky ground. Mozart wrote for the Archbishop of Salzburg and his coterie of friends, music to be enjoyed in the high court of his native town. He also wrote The Magic Flute for the theatre of his friend, producer and comedian Emmanuel Schikaneder, whose audience were the working-class 18th century Viennese. Mozart, in short, was writing popular music that today we inaccurately label “classical.”
For whom was Mozart writing?
To complicate matters further, Mr. Grout defines Classical music as that written between the years 1770 and 1800 by many composers whose names today are mere footnotes in Music History books, and by four masters: Haydn, Gluck, Beethoven (the young Beethoven before 1800) and Mozart.
Again, definitions cause us to walk dangerous. Mozart was born in 1756 and he died in 1791, writing between the ages of 4 and 35. In his works, from the get go, Mozart breaks the rules, breaks the mold, breaks away from the tradition in which he had been schooled, and, although Opera was not broken so why try to fix it, fix it he does by taking it kicking and singing away from the places of the nobility down to the people.
Music is as popular as it is classical. Let’s not hang labels on it.