Classical? What Does It Really Mean?

by Francesco Berger

One cannot protest too strongly against the current misuse of the words “classic” and “classical”. So many, even educated, person persist in applying these terms to all the works of a few composers (always dead ones), irrespective of whether the particular work they are discussing deserves or does not deserve such distinction; while, with equal perversity, they ignore the claims of works by other composers (possibly living ones) to their share of classicality. In spite of this conventional habit of proclaiming as “classical” any piece of music which happens to have been composed by one of a very limited number of composers, it remains a fact that not every such work is of equal merit; there are quite a number which are not entitled to the high sounding adjective popularly bestowed upon them. There are musical goats that pass for sheep among “the classics”, and there are sheep among the herds of “non-classical” goats.

If a work of any art is as perfect of its class as it can possibly be – if it be unsurpassed because unsurpassable – then, and only then, is it correct to speak of it as “classical”. Whether the producer be living or dead, whether he hail from the Rhine or the Thames, whether his name sounds Scotch or Chinese, has “nothing to do with the case”, as W. S. Gilbert would have said. And though he may have produced fifty works worthily esteemed “classical”, if the fifty-first falls short of the standard of perfection which he has set up for himself, it has no right to be called “classical”.

Are Strauss Waltzes Classical?

A lady’s brooch or other piece of jewelry of perfect design, or perfect workmanship, or perfect metal, of perfect gems, is every bit as classical a production as the Venus of Milo, or the Parthenon, or a Raffaello cartoon, or a Shakespeare play, or a Heine lyric, or a Beethoven Sonata, or a Chopin Nocturne. And one of Strauss’ best waltzes (I do not say all) is as “classical” of its kind as the Eroica is of another. We do not estimate the quality of a picture by the size of its canvas.

“Classical” means nothing more and nothing different than “perfect” – so perfect as to serve as model for every other production of its kind. That this was the sense in which the word was originally used is shown by its being retained as such in the language which gave it birth. The Italian uses it today, as he did centuries ago, to denote the quality of anything that is superlatively good. He will tell you that his new pair of trousers is “cosa classica” (a classic thing) as readily as he will so describe his dish of risotto. For him the best comic opera is as classical a work as a Bach fugue; and who can say he is wrong?

Classical and Romantic

Music has been divided into “classical” and “romantic” thereby implying a contrast between the two, and assuming that the classical cannot be romantic, and vice versa. The theory I venture to dispute, on the ground that it is opposed to the facts of the case. A so-called “classic” work is, at times, as romantic as you please, and a so-called “romantic” one is, at times, as classical as possible. IF it be necessary to label pieces of music at all, let it be done according to the degree of excellence they reveal, not by the name of the composer.

A great deal, admittedly the larger portion of the music by Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Co., is so unquestionable excellent that it must be styled “classical”. But it should not be so described because composed by those men. Liszt’s performance of one of his transcriptions was quite as classical (because quite as excellent) as when he played a Beethoven Sonata; and Sarasate was as classical (because as excellent) in his rendering of a Chopin Nocturne as when playing the Mendelssohn Concerto. Both were unsurpassable, therefore classical.

We call Mozart’s operas “classical”, and very rightly so. But we should not do so because their composer has produced Symphonies and Quartettes. They are classical because they are incomparably good music from beginning to end, without a weak moment or blemish of any kind. And Wagner would long ago have been acknowledged “classical” if any one of his works were uniformly great throughout. But those portions of his scores which are his best – those in which he soars to the highest possible heights of musical expression – those which transcend all pre-existing works of the kind – will unquestionably be ranked “classic” by future generations.

By all means let us have an abundance of music worthy of being called “classical”, and let composers of our day and of the future gain courage from the knowledge; that IF they produce what is superlatively good, they will no longer languish in obscurity; the laurel wreath of “classciality” will not be withheld from their brow till the mildew of age has dimmed their youthful enthusiasm. They will no longer have to wait till laid in their graves before the result of their life work is admitted into the charmed circle of acknowledged classicality.

It is time that a musical Cromwell arose to order the removal of that bauble “classicality” from out vocabulary: not the article, but the misnomer. — From The Monthly Musical Record